Election Spotlight: Pierce County Executive

Many Pierce County voters would associate Pat McCarthy's name with local elections. Since 2003, McCarthy has served as Pierce County...

Many Pierce County voters would associate Pat McCarthy’s name with local elections. Since 2003, McCarthy has served as Pierce County Auditor, a position charged with a variety of duties — licensing, maintaining public records, collecting excise taxes — but most notable for overseeing county elections.

This year, McCarthy’s name appears in the Voters’ Pamphlet under a different capacity — candidate for Pierce County Executive.

“I have for many years always had a call to lead,” says McCarthy, who joins Tacoma City Councilmember Mike Lonergan, and Pierce County Councilmembers Calvin Goings and Shawn Bunney in the county executive race — a position that will be vacated by term-limited county executive John W. Ladenburg. “I like people, and I like to serve. Really, it is that call to lead, and the encouragement and support from others who also feel I should make this step from going from county auditor to the Pierce County executive’s office.”

If McCarthy is elected to the post, it will be the latest chapter in a career of public service that dates back to 1987, when she was elected to the Tacoma School Board and served as its president.

“I was a mom with four small children,” she recently recalled. “I had three kids in school, and one in preschool. I had some involvement in a little bit of the school district’s more global or corporate issues. But basically, I was just a mom with four kids who was a user of the system, if you will, and wanted to be able to put in two cents from that perspective.”

McCarthy served 12 years (between 1987 and 1999) as school board president, during a period when the board hired four superintendents. At the same time, she enrolled in the University of Washington Tacoma to complete her Bachelor’s Degree in Interdisciplinary Arts & Sciences.

It was a time when the branch campus was still finding its bearings and housed in the Perkins Building downtown — not on the beautiful, historically-renovated downtown campus today. Whether the branch campus would remain downtown or move to the suburbs was a big question at the time.

“The whole relocation of where we’re going to actually put a campus was very controversial at the time,” she recalls. “There was a faction of folks and legislators that wanted to put it at Tacoma Community College. And then there was a group that really wanted to see it in downtown Tacoma. I fell into that group. I was a great salesperson for the campus because I was a student, I understood the program, and I testified in Olympia on behalf of the campus.”

McCarthy earned her degree in 1992, and was hired by the university as an advisor and administrator of the Interdisciplinary Arts & Sciences department.

In 1999, she made the move to county government. Originally, she was hired as the deputy auditor. In 2002, she ran for auditor and won. She was re-elected in 2006.

Whomever is elected Pierce County Executive in November, he or she will face a list of challenges: a projected $7 million revenue shortfall that has left the county government to consider a 1.5 per cent department-wide budget cut this year, and a three per cent cut next year; a criminal justice system that is overworked and overloaded; and a number of regional transportation challenges that touch the county.

McCarthy recently discussed her candidacy, as well as her perspectives on a variety of issues this election year.

ON HER DECISION TO RUN FOR PIERCE COUNTY EXECUTIVE

Two of my opponents were out a whole year running for this position before I made that decision to run for county executive. Really for me, it’s not about who my opponents are. It’s about what I have to bring to the position. For me, it doesn’t matter if God Almighty joins the race. Once you make that decision, you really need to come to terms with, ‘Is this the right thing for you? Are you providing something for folks — that choice? Providing a variety of choices?’ I like choices for folks, and believe I have a certain leadership level and management skills to bring to the table.

ON PIERCE COUNTY’S BUDGET CHALLENGES

We are facing some tremendous budget shortfalls. I can just even look in my own department. The recording division in the auditor’s office [is] a revenue generator, just like the assessor is. I would say we are the coal-miners of the county because we actually generate more revenue than we expend in our own individual budgets. We have to be thoughtful about how we are going to make those budget cuts. If you reduce a division that actually generates revenue, while we’re not out on the streets bringing the money in, we are processing that work. However, having said that, revenue is down and it requires us to be creative in trying to meet those needs in our office. I have had to tighten my budget as well and make those difficult decisions and budget cuts that were appropriated, and I did have to lay off at least one employee. Those are difficult challenges. I think this next county executive should have a profound understanding of what that means and how to handle those kinds of things. You should have an understanding of what the impact of those budget cuts mean across the county. I believe, of all the candidates running for this position, I have a profound understanding because I have to meet my budget, I have to be a part of that system to be able to carry us through this difficult budget time. I think you can do some graduated budget cuts in certain departments. Of course, public safety has to be first and foremost. We need to provide safe communities. Holding them totally harmless or having a way in which we address a reduced number of budget cuts for public safety is something I would look at. But we will be adopting the 2009 budget [this year]. The next county executive will already have that 2009 budget, and will then have to move forward with making, if we have to address it, more budget cuts in 2009. Looking forward to 2010, it does not look like we’re going to see any economic recovery across the country until maybe the third quarter of next year. We have some challenges ahead of us.

ON WHETHER SHE SUPPORTS OF OPPOSES THE SOUND TRANSIT BALLOT MEASURE

I don’t believe there’s enough for Pierce County in the proposal. I don’t think the timing is right, quite frankly. I have a unique perspective since I run elections. I did participate to some degree tangentially when RTID was put on the ballot because we ran the election piece and had to communicate both with King and Snohomish counties on just the operations and implementation of getting that on the ballot. So I have some familiarity with that. I read the report that came from that failed proposition, which basically said it was too big, and not a completed package. I think we need to listen to the voters and make sure that whatever we put back to the voters is something they feel positive about, and really do believe it’s the right step forward. From a Pierce County perspective, we definitely have to have the ability to say to our voters that there is something in it for us. I don’t believe there is. I think we need to make sure that Pierce County citizens have a vested interest in whatever ballot measure goes forward. People are struggling to put gas in their cars, pay their mortgages, and be able to afford their utilities. I really don’t think the timing is right for us this year. Once you put a proposal on the ballot for voters, it’s very difficult for voters to come back and feel positive about an issue. I think you need to be thoughtful, and it needs to be well-constructed, and it needs to be well-researched to know whether that’s something people can put their arms around. Especially when you are asking them to spend their hard-earned tax dollars and be able to see some benefit for them.

ON CHALLENGES FACING PIERCE COUNTY’S CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM

I think it’s twofold. I think it is a legal rendering that says — and I’m not quite sure if it’s the state Legislature or a court action that basically determined that the inmates were able to prevail — that the jail could not be overcrowded. The jail is being compounded by having to release people because of this legal action. But also, I think we have a lack of corrections officers at our jail. The county is doing a huge recruitment program. It’s my understanding the county will hire seven more within the next week or two, and hope to hire another additional seven or nine corrections officers. They have some tremendous challenges in trying to recruit people and retain people in the system. Having said all that, remember we are going to be electing a sheriff here in Pierce County. The dynamic of the county executive overseeing the jail and public safety issues as it relates to that will change to the degree that you are going to have a separately elected [sheriff]. They will need to work in collaboration, of course, with the county executive and the county council. But they will be a separately elected person. So that whole dynamic changes as opposed to the current structure now, where Paul Pastor, who is the current sheriff, does report to John Ladenburg, who is the county executive. That dynamic will change. That will be an interesting new water to navigate, and one that I’m somewhat familiar with. Being a separately elected person who runs a county division, I’m familiar with those dynamics and how to bring people together and work through issues collaboratively. I think that will be the direction this next county executive will have to take. My perspective on the whole criminal justice system is more comprehensive because really it is about providing that kind of support for mental health issues and for drug and alcohol dependency services that we provide for folks. My husband is a judge in Pierce County, and I will tell you, he is doing Drug Court, which is a positive way in which to address some of the issues of people who live in our community who have really hit rock bottom and need that last chance to turn their lives around. We provide the opportunity for reducing recidivism and people within our jail system and making them productive members of our society. It’s a more comprehensive view of how we really need to look at the criminal justice issue. Really looking at, ‘Are we providing that safety net in terms of programs we provide and help people find a way out of a life of crime because of substance abuse or mental health issues?’ Really we need to address those in that kind of fashion.

ON THE COUNTY’S ROLE IN THE FUTURE OF RUSSELL IN TACOMA

Specifically, what the county has done with regard to maintaining that anchor here in Tacoma I’m not familiar with. But I will tell you this — I do think the county has a tremendous role in ensuring that we maintain those businesses that help diversify our tax base here in Pierce County. Look to recruit new businesses coming into the City of Tacoma and Pierce County. Our world view as the county executive, of course, is bigger than the City of Tacoma. But the City of Tacoma is our largest [city]. I think many governmental groups — whether it has been the governor who has made some efforts, as well as the City of Tacoma, and I believe the county has participated as well — [has tried] to ensure that we provide an attractive package to Russell Investment to stay here in Tacoma. Furthermore, are we also providing for Davita or Brown & Haley or some of our other existing anchors here in the City of Tacoma? We want to provide an opportunity for those businesses to stay here, and also recruit new businesses.

"I have for many years always had a call to lead," says Pierce County Auditor Pat McCarthy, who has joined the race for Pierce County Executive. "I like people, and I like to serve. Really, it is that call to lead, and the encouragement and support from others who also feel I should make this step from going from county auditor to the Pierce County executive's office." (PHOTO BY TODD MATTHEWS)

Todd Matthews is editor of the Tacoma Daily Index and recipient of an award for Outstanding Achievement in Media from the Washington State Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation for his work covering historic preservation in Tacoma and Pierce County. He has earned four awards from the Society of Professional Journalists, including third-place honors for his feature article about the University of Washington’s Innocence Project; first-place honors for his feature article about Seattle’s bike messengers; third-place honors for his feature interview with Prison Legal News founder Paul Wright; and second-place honors for his feature article about whistle-blowers in Washington State. His work has also appeared in All About Jazz, City Arts Tacoma, Earshot Jazz, Homeland Security Today, Jazz Steps, Journal of the San Juans, Lynnwood-Mountlake Terrace Enterprise, Prison Legal News, Rain Taxi, Real Change, Seattle Business Monthly, Seattle magazine, Tablet, Washington CEO, Washington Law & Politics, and Washington Free Press. He is a graduate of the University of Washington and holds a bachelor’s degree in communications. His journalism is collected online at wahmee.com.

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