EDITOR’S NOTE: This article is sixth in a series of interviews with candidates running for Tacoma City Council. For earlier interviews with contenders Marty Campbell, John Hathaway, Jonathan Phillips, and David Curry, and incumbent Spiro Manthou, visit the Tacoma Daily Index archives online.
Marilyn Strickland’s connection to Tacoma Public Library spans almost 40 years. It begins as a child who spent countless hours reading books at the library near her girlhood home in South Tacoma. It continues in 1998, when she was appointed to the library’s board of trustees by then-mayor Brian Ebersole. And today, TPL employs Strickland as its development officer. The goal? Fundraising and advocacy for the city’s expansive library system.
“The work really is to help position the library in the minds of the community as a place that is vibrant and interesting, beyond the traditional rows of books,” explains Strickland.
This year, Strickland took on a new role: Tacoma City Council candidate. She will kick off her campaign May 17 at an event hosted by downtown business owner Lea Armstrong. She has received endorsements from Pierce County Executive John W. Ladenburg; Brown & Haley President and CEO Pierson Clair; former Tacoma mayors Harold Moss and Brian Ebersole; and former city manager James L. Walton. Strickland joins a growing group of contenders vying for an at-large seat to be vacated by Councilmember Bill Evans at year’s end. Three others — Marty Campbell, Jonathan Phillips, and David Curry — have filed with the state’s public disclosure commission, formally declaring their intentions to run for the position, too.
Strickland was born in Seoul, Korea, in 1962. Her father, Willie, who passed away 1986, was African American. Her mother, Inmin, is Korean, and lives in the South Tacoma home where her daughter was raised. Her family moved from Seoul to Tacoma in 1967 when Willie, who joined the service as a teenager to support his family in rural Georgia, was stationed at Ft. Lewis. A product of Tacoma’s public school system, Strickland went on to graduate from the University of Washington with a degree in Sociology, and Clark-Atlanta University with a Master’s in Business Administration.
Education, says Strickland, opened the door to the private and non-profit business worlds. In 1987, she moved to Atlanta, where she was direct marketing coordinator for the American Cancer Society. In 1992, she returned to the Pacific Northwest. She was marketing manager for Starbucks Corporate in Seattle; account manager for a dot-com in Portland, Ore.; senior account manager at Tacoma-based JayRay Advertising & Public Relations; and, finally, was hired in her current position at the library.
Spend some time with Strickland, and you will quickly learn that education is the undercurrent of her campaign. It’s an aspect of public service, she says, that spurred her decision to run for a seat on City Council.
“When you tell people you’re running for City Council, you get a lot of different reactions,” she explains. “People just want to know what the motivation is. It is not a glamorous job. It’s a tough gig, it doesn’t pay well, and you are constantly criticized. But I think everyone who takes that job, honestly in their hearts, thinks they are doing the right thing because they want to serve. It’s too much work to not have a true sense of service to do that.”
I met Strickland this week at a coffee shop near her downtown loft to discuss her candidacy.
TACOMA DAILY INDEX: Why are you running for City Council?
MARILYN STRICKLAND: There’s a very personal aspect to this. I have a very strong community responsibility. When I think about my parents, when I think about what I call my elders and the people who mentored me and helped me throughout my career, they had to struggle and stand tall for a lot of things — even for the opportunity for me to stand here and say, ‘I want to run for City Council.’ They had to demand a seat at the table when there were no chairs for people like me. I think there’s a respect for history and really acknowledging that we did come a long way, but there’s still work to do. And I love this town. I’ve been here for a long time. I’ve been lucky enough to go away and return. Sometimes when you live somewhere else, you really appreciate a place. I lived in Atlanta, Portland, and Seattle, and I have been lucky enough to travel to different cities. I’ve been able to see what makes a great American city, and what doesn’t. It has made me appreciate Tacoma as a very, very nice place to live.
INDEX: Describe your experience working at Tacoma Public Library.
STRICKLAND: My relationship with the library goes back a ways. It started with a conversation [I had with Brian Ebersole] while watching a City Council meeting. I said, ‘You know, I don’t see anyone up there who represents me.’ He said, ‘Well, you can get involved if you want to. I think I have an appointment coming up.’ He asked me if I was interested in the library. I had a very special place in my heart for libraries. So I served on the library’s board of trustees. And then I got a job in Portland, went down there for awhile, and then returned. At that time, the library was going through a really major transitional phase. They were looking for more community outreach, advocacy, and fundraising. A position opened and I applied for it.
INDEX: How do you think your experience working for Tacoma Public Library would inform you as a city councilmember?
STRICKLAND: The library is its own separate entity, but it’s a big department. Technically, I work for the City of Tacoma. I understand, when it comes to budgeting and making decisions, the actual impact of a decision, or how a decision may not affect you at all. At the library, we have two unions we work with. I’m one of the few people that does not belong to a union, but I understand the nuances of working with collective bargaining units, and that’s extremely important to know being on City Council. And I think having an insider’s view of a city department just gives you a different perspective. I’ve been able to sit on the board, but I’ve also been an employee of the city. I understand the importance of employees and morale. The city is a very large, complicated business. It interacts with different departments, lines of business, and collective bargaining units. It’s a very complex organization. I think being an employee of that organization has given me a good insider’s view of how city government works.
INDEX: How closely have you followed City Hall in the past couple years?
STRICKLAND: I have been living downtown for over 10 years. Living downtown and being plopped in the middle of all the things that are happening makes you become more civically engaged and involved. Paying attention to who is in office, who is on different boards, you start to pay attention to things that affect you.
INDEX: Because you live downtown, would downtown issues be most important to you as a councilmember?
STRICKLAND: As a resident downtown, yes, of course, I’m concerned about what happens here. But my mother lives in the south end, where I grew up, and I spend a lot of time in that neighborhood. The thing about being from Tacoma is that you have roots with a lot of people. I have friends and close relations with people in every single neighborhood. When you know people in different neighborhoods, you have an emotional interest in all of them. This is an at-large seat. I would represent everyone in every neighborhood. I feel lucky enough to have lived in this town long enough to know a lot of people. I’m 44 years old, and I can say there are people I’ve known for 40 years that I’m still friends with.
INDEX: You’ve lived downtown for awhile. I’m interested in your opinion of the “downtown renaissance.” Is it real? Is it spin?
STRICKLAND: Oh, it’s absolutely real. But then there are times when it could be more. I’ll give you an example. We’re sitting here during the week. It’s bustling because everyone is at work. On Sunday morning, when I walk my dog, there will be no one on the street. The renaissance has definitely happened. Fifteen or 20 years ago, whenever the vision for Tacoma was created, they decided we are going to give Tacoma a boost by revitalizing downtown, historic preservation, and the university. It’s worked well. But there’s still more we can do downtown.
INDEX: If you are elected to City Council, what are the top issues you would address?
STRICKLAND: It comes to the ‘what’s next?’ question for me for Tacoma. We’re on the map now. Developers want to come here. People want to move here. It’s a nice community. It’s affordable. I think the downtown renaissance is really what spurred all the interest in Tacoma. I think the ‘what’s next?’ question has to do with, ‘How do we continue to grow and do it to the point where we are maintaining and protecting our assets, but also welcoming new people?’ To me, it comes down to education. I know education is one of those topics, like healthcare on a national basis, that nobody wants to deal with because it’s messy and involves heavy lifting. I hear a company say, ‘Tacoma doesn’t have a qualified workforce.’ I hear people in the trades or in business say, ‘We can’t find people in Tacoma to do the work. We have to hire people from outside.’ And we have very talented people here. I think you have to make education a priority. Our future depends on it because education is tied to crime, economic development, civic participation — it’s tied to everything that helps a city move forward. Education as a civic priority is not just the school district’s responsibility, because it gets the City off the hook. People have said to me, ‘Maybe you should run for school board instead.’ No, I shouldn’t, because the entire community has to come around to the idea of having an educated city. And it’s not just formal education. It could be an apprenticeship. It could be anything where someone has the opportunity to prosper and make a family-wage living and do well for themselves. Conversations about education happen all the time. We’re really good at talking about what’s wrong. But we’re challenged when it actually comes to doing something. It’s a huge problem to solve. It’s not as though there’s one answer to it. But it’s the convergence of resources, a commitment, and trying to take care of people so they can prosper. Education has opened doors for me personally. I think that’s where Tacoma stands right now as far as where we’re going over the next 10 or 20 years. Is Tacoma going to be one of those cities that’s a magnet because it’s a great place to get an education, you can afford to live there, and find a place to work?
INDEX: You are running for an at-large seat on City Council. It’s a crowded field of candidates. Was that a factor in your decision whether or not to run?
STRICKLAND: Well, some of the people I’m running with have been planning this for a long time. You hear grumbling about who is going to run or not, and you wait for the [Public Disclosure Commission] report to see who is in. Who was in the race didn’t really have a big factor in my decision because it was an open seat, an opportunity, and I have this sense of responsibility to serve. This is a good time for me to do it, and I’m as prepared now as I would be in two years.
If you would like to learn more about Tacoma City Council candidate Marilyn Strickland, she will kick-off her campaign Thurs., May 17 between 5:30pm and 7:30pm, at 747 St. Helens Ave., during an event hosted by downtown merchant Lea Armstrong.
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.