Tacoma attorney, former judge eyes City Council seat

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article is part of a series of interviews with candidates running for Tacoma City Council. For earlier interviews with contenders Marty Campbell, Jonathan Phillips, David Curry, Marilyn Strickland, Harold Moss, and incumbent Spiro Manthou, visit the Index archives online.

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When incumbent Tacoma City Councilmember Tom Stenger announced in April he would not seek re-election, speculation grew over who would step up and vie for the seat. Stenger has represented District 3, which includes Hilltop and East Side neighborhoods, since he was elected to City Council in 2003. The looming vacancy has drawn four candidates: Rev. Ronnie Warren; Fair Housing Center of Washington executive director Lauren Walker; Hilltop activist Jack Pleasant; and Tacoma attorney and pro tem judge Donald Powell.

Powell, 50, admits Stenger’s announcement spurred his decision to run. But he’s quick to add that public service is something he has been interested in for some time.

“I’ve always had in the back of my mind, probably 15 years, [the idea that] I would do well, and serve my community well, by [serving on City Council],” Powell recently explained. “When I got involved with the board of governors on a statewide level, it was a very enriching experience on many levels — everything from the friends I ended up making, to that sense of contribution to the whole state. It was a rewarding thing. The older I get, the more I think, ‘I don’t want to leave this world without making as many positive contributions as I can.'”

Powell moved to Tacoma from Tucson, Ariz., in 1978 to attend law school at the University of Puget Sound. Over the course of his career as an attorney, he has served as a judge pro tem for Pierce County Superior Court, and on the board of governors for the Washington State Bar Association.

He has lived in the district for 16 years, and has spent the last 25 years practicing law in the area.

I met Powell Friday in his office to discuss his candidacy, concerns in his district, and how his experience as an attorney and judge pro tem might inform his work if elected to City Council.

TACOMA DAILY INDEX: Tell me about your decision to run for City Council.

DONALD POWELL: I love Tacoma. I’ve always loved it. I moved up here in 1978 to go to law school at University of Puget Sound. I came from Tucson, Arizona. There’s very little in Tucson that’s pre-World War II. I fell in love with the architecture in Tacoma first. I think people in Tacoma are very caring people. I really like the heartbeat of Tacoma. That’s the fundamental background. I think that where I am in my career, my personal experience, that I would be a good councilmember. While the job can be quite grueling at times, quite honestly, I think my set of skills would serve it well. I feel like I have been blessed, I’ve had a really good life, and this is an opportunity to try and give back. This is not designed to be the great wonderful Don Powell. It’s designed to give a little bit back with the skills I think I can bring to the table.

INDEX: What are those skills?

POWELL: I’ve been a lawyer for 26 years. I have sat on the board of governors for the state bar association. I have been treasurer of the state bar, with an $11 million budget at the time. I think I know how to read things carefully with a discerning eye. I think I know how to listen well. I have been a pro tem judge and court commissioner for 20 years. I think I can take complex issues, study them, and come up with rational decisions. I’m not afraid to make decisions, but I think I’m cautious. I work well with others and I think I understand the system. Not that there wouldn’t be a huge learning curve on a lot of the details of Tacoma city government. But my undergraduate degree was in government, and I’ve always paid attention to what goes on in local government. Tacoma would be a great place to use all those skills and be a solid voice for the citizens, and be a bridge to the staff. I think I would do well at that.

INDEX: What issues in your district would you tackle if elected to City Council?

POWELL: I think our roads need to be prioritized a little bit more. I know there’s a myriad of issues about that. I know it’s very expensive. But city government has to be sure it focuses on infrastructure. I love what Tacoma has done over the last 10 years. We have had a transformation. A renaissance. But maybe our roads are a little bit behind. I want to make sure we have strong and effective police and fire, which I think we have now. There may be some things that need to be adjusted in those areas. I think the whole Brame tragedy made us step back and look outside the box at those things. And I think good things are happening as a result of that whole citizen review process. It kind of got compromised, but there’s something more in place now. I don’t have any driving issues that are leading me to say, ‘I have to get in there and fix this or fix that.’ I’ve lived in the district for a little over 16 years. I’ve worked in this district for over 20 years. I think I know this part of Tacoma. It feels like my hometown. I want to just keep things rolling. The Hilltop has really been one of the bigger areas of transformation. Unfortunately, I think some things have kind of shifted to the East Side. For example, the high-impact alcohol area probably should have been expanded to neighborhoods on the East Side. I would sure like to see progress that has been made in the district — I would like to keep that ball rolling. Hilltop Action Coalition — man, what an awesome job those people have done. The neighborhood council — what a great idea for getting people involved. So many areas of Tacoma are still transforming.

INDEX: You are talking about a lot of the positive things going on in the Hilltop neighborhood, and I have seen a lot of that reporting for the Index. But I keep hearing people associate the Hilltop with some of the bad characteristics of Tacoma. As a councilmember, how would you improve the district’s image and share some of the positives about the neighborhood?

POWELL: There’s a lingering reputation. I think some of the things that are ongoing, like Hilltop Action Coalition, they have a very active neighborhood watch program. There’s going to be redevelopment along Martin Luther King, Jr. Way, that’s already started. I think you just keep doing what you are doing. Anything, with regard to reputation, takes time. In the meantime, we need to make sure the East Side doesn’t generate the same reputation Hilltop had for so long. Just moving the reputation doesn’t do Tacoma any good. We want to be cheerleaders. People on City Council should be cheerleaders for positive change and interacting with people like you in the media to make sure they recognize the good side, and talk about the good side.

INDEX: Tell me about your background as a judge pro tem.

POWELL: I served for 20 years as a judge and court commissioner pro tem for Pierce County Superior Court. I’ve also served other, smaller courts, but just very briefly. Under the code of judicial conduct, you really shouldn’t be involved in partisan politics. Although it’s a non-partisan position, this kind of political activity is something I have stayed away from for fear of in any way being accused of jeopardizing that code of judicial ethics. I’m no longer doing that so that I can feel free to involve myself on this level.

INDEX: How did the opportunity to serve as judge pro tem present itself?

POWELL: When I started, the process was a lot looser than it is now. When I started practicing, the department of assigned counsel did not have the contract to defend people on civil commitment procedures at Western State Hospital. I first applied to be one of the lawyers to do that. I got one of the contracts. That got me hooked into an area of legal practice that very few lawyers practice in. But it is in one of the areas in which court commissioners practice. The judges made the decisions on those contracts. So the judges got to interview me, know me, know who I was, and what my work was. So when the time came for somebody to sit in as a court commissioner, I said, ‘I would like to do that.’

INDEX: What kind of cases did you preside over?

POWELL: I presided over everything a court commissioner could do, and everything that a judge could do — except an adult criminal case. I presided over civil commitments at Western State Hospital; the dependency docket at Raymond Hall, which involves abused or neglected children; the Becca Bill truancy docket at Raymond Hall; the Juvenile Criminal docket at Raymond Hall; the downtown docket included evictions, supplemental proceedings, probates, guardianships, temporary orders in all family law matters, temporary restraining orders or injunctions, some issues regarding foreclosure, and minor settlements in injury cases. Pro tem judges never do any adult criminal work.

INDEX: Do you see any similarities between your work as a judge and work on City Council?

POWELL: Absolutely. Council sits in a quasi-judicial capacity, especially with a lot of land-use issues. But just the process of studying the facts, looking at the applicable law, and looking at the goal you want to reach — that whole process. I think the judicial background is going to be a positive thing I can bring to the table. I know how it is to make difficult decisions with competing interests, and to do that in a way that tries to preserve respect for everybody in the process, try to be civil, and try to explain the reasoning. Honestly, I think my experience as a lawyer, also with my negotiation skills, will make me a good participant in that give-and-take necessary to make difficult decisions.

INDEX: What kind of attorney are you today?

POWELL: I’m a good one [laughing]. I don’t specialize. I’m one of the dying breed of general practitioners. I don’t do any criminal defense work at this stage. But I do just about everything else: personal injury, real estate, small business, family law, guardianships, probates, and wills. I’m not doing any bankruptcies since the law changed a couple years ago. I don’t do labor law. I have several small businesses I represent. I’ve done a fair amount of real estate — everything from foreclosures to transactions. I’m kind of a general practitioner still. It’s pretty rare to have a jack-of-all-trades. But I enjoy it. It keeps things lively. I don’t represent any big companies. I’m an average guy’s lawyer. My dad was a lawyer. My granddad was a lawyer. I’ve had a blessed life. I like to help people, and this is a very rewarding career to do that. I think I can take it to the next level and help the city.