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, and incumbent Spiro Manthou, visit the Tacoma Daily Index archives online.
Right up until the filing deadline two weeks ago, it appeared incumbent Tacoma City Councilmember Spiro Manthou would run unopposed. Elected to City Council in 2003, Councilmember Manthou has represented District 1 — which includes areas of the city’s north and west ends — during a time when the neighborhood has seen its biggest gain in a growing business district.
On the morning of June 8, however, retired politician Harold Moss, 77, picked up an application packet and formally took steps to kick-off his candidacy and challenge Manthou for the seat.
“It was a total shock,” Manthou told the Tacoma Daily Index this week. “I had no idea. I fully expected opposition, but I was totally surprised when it was [Harold Moss].”
The only other person equally surprised?
“I’m still trying to get over the shock myself of what I’ve decided,” said Moss during an interview Monday at Commencement Bay Coffee Company. Dressed comfortably in slacks, a collared shirt, sweater vest, and sporting wide-framed glasses, a springy glaze of snow-white hair, and a smile that appears permanent, Moss couldn’t start our interview without visiting with a longtime friend who witnessed his arrival and called him over to her table (a common scenario for Moss, who’s well-connected and has a long history in Tacoma).
Moss’s political career started in 1969, when he ran unsuccessfully for a seat on City Council. Though he lost the election, he was appointed to City Council in 1970 after a shake-up at City Hall — five city councilmembers were recalled.
In 1971, Moss formally ran for the seat and won the election. During that term, he also worked at the Urban League of Tacoma. According to Moss, Vernon Jordan, national director of the Urban League at the time, was concerned that chapter members who also held public office might jeopardize the organization’s non-profit status. “The city paid 25 dollars per city council meeting,” Moss recalled. “It wasn’t real hard for me with three kids and a mortgage to figure it out. I resigned after the term.”
In 1983, however, Moss ran again — this time against Tom Stenger (who serves today on City Council). “He just outworked me,” said Moss, who lost the election. “He was very good. And we became good friends.”
Undeterred, he was elected to City Council in 1987, and re-elected in 1991. It was during that second term when then-Mayor Jack Hyde, barely two weeks into his term, died of a heart attack; Moss, deputy mayor at the time, was appointed Tacoma’s first African American mayor. “I was still in shock of having lost a really, truly good friend,” he recalls. “You talk about being twisted for months. I hated to be in that position. I truly did.”
He was mayor for two years before running for a seat on Pierce County Council, which he won in 1997. He served as council chair for three consecutive years, between 2002 and 2004, and was also a board member of the Washington Association of Counties for five years, and elected president in 2003.
In the three years since Moss left politics, he has worked closely with Tacoma’s Black Collective.
The Index met Moss this week to discuss his career, his decision to re-enter politics, and goals for his district if elected to City Council.
TACOMA DAILY INDEX: How did you come to the decision to run for City Council?
HAROLD MOSS: The decision really came late, but I guess it has been leading up to this. I have been involved this year in other people’s campaigns and the juices got flowing. I looked and Mr. Manthou’s race was unopposed. By Thursday night, I was pretty well sure that I was going to run. If nobody else would run, I would. By Friday, when I picked up the packet, I knew darn well this is me. This is what I do. It’s something that I enjoy doing. And all you can do is offer yourself up. So I did.
INDEX: You’re 77-years-old, and entering politics at a time when others might be enjoying retirement. When you discuss with Tacomans that you are running for City Council, do they express concern about your age?
MOSS: No. Most people, with my age, they never really see me at that age — 77 years old. I think all of us are coming to grips with the old adage that your seventies are now your sixties, or one way or the other. We’re living longer, stronger. I’ve still got my facilities. I still have that burning passion to serve. The age issue really drops by the wayside in the face of that. Plus, the confidence and values that come from experience — as long as you are able, offer it.
INDEX: If elected to City Council, how much of it would be a new experience for you, and how much of it would be building upon your earlier experience as a mayor and councilmember?
MOSS: You can’t drop your past. But the beauty of it is that there were a lot of things that I didn’t know when I was on City Council. I didn’t know how the county thought about the city. Now I know how cities think about counties, and how counties think about cities. That gives you tremendous advantage. I plan to use myself as the bridge. We have committees for everything, but we don’t have committees that talk about pulling together the port, city, and county to talk about issues that are common to us all. We forget, for instance, that the City of Tacoma is the seat of county government. We’re not an appendage. We’re the biggest dog in the county’s arsenal. But do we interact with county councilmembers? Very little. The last time I was on City Council, I tried to pull together [the city, county, and port, but] there just wasn’t the interest. Part of that is not knowing where the county’s interest is, and where the city interfaces with it, and I suppose there’s some kind of threatening sense: ‘What in the heck is the city trying to do?’ For me, it’s way beyond that. The county folks know me. The city folks know me. When I ask to jointly meet, there’s no threat anymore. I count that as a real opportunity for us.
INDEX: Is that your big platform? To be a bridge on issues between different municipalities?
MOSS: That’s one. The other is representation. People in District 1 need as fine of representation as they can possibly get. I just simply feel that I’m a better fit.
MOSS: Well, number one — age and experience. And all-around experience — not in ‘sit there’ roles, but in leadership roles. I have been chair of Pierce County Council three consecutive times, and it’s never been done before. That indicates a level of confidence in my abilities.
INDEX: You are running against incumbent Councilmember Manthou. Having served as Mayor, Pierce County Councilmember, and City Councilmember, do you feel people know your name, are familiar with your political experience in Tacoma and Pierce County, and those things might help you campaign against an incumbent?
MOSS: Well, the incumbent always has the advantage. The notion is that if you have run in a term-limited capacity, you are entitled to both terms without question. My notion is that every four years, you get a report card. How have you done? You have the benefit of running on your record. The incumbency does carry that. Anyone that wants to challenge that, can. And I think every race ought to be challenged. I’ve run once unopposed, and it doesn’t sharpen you up. It doesn’t give you anything to defend. You are just there. I am really encouraging any open seat to be challenged. I’m going to bring everything I’ve got because I want to serve. I want to serve the district. I want to serve the city. I see a real place in there for me. When I say ‘best fit,’ I think I am. I am going to talk about the things I’ve done, and do everything I can to answer everybody’s questions, and go everyplace I can. I assume he will do the same. In November, folks will make a decision. But look what a better decision it will be than just, ‘I’m here.’
INDEX: Let’s focus on your district. What are the concerns for you in District 1?
MOSS: The concerns for me in the district are the good concerns. We have a very, very strong and operational business community there. It’s a model. We have a strong and operational neighborhood council. They have all taken off around the city, and they do an incredible job. If anything, I would like to see City Council work on the next stages of neighborhood councils, and see what we can do to give them more authority and power. They get $100,000 a year, and they use it very, very well. The expansion of their responsibilities, duties, and opportunities would be one of the things I would be advocating for. Then we made the big promise of really doing much more about our infrastructure. We need to be doing that systematically with the resurfacing of our roads and sidewalks. Those are the improvements that I see could be done, and should be done. It should be systematically done. We need to have a solid plan of approach. I really look at the City of Tacoma and say, ‘We have done remarkably well.’ A whole lot of the dreams, hopes, and aspirations are coming to fruition. But there is that other thing — if you rest, you rust. If we just take it for granted that it’s always going to be a boomtown, that’s not necessarily so. You really have to continue to work at it. That’s where greater collaboration really helps that along.
INDEX: When you look back on recent decisions made by City Council, where do you think it succeeded, and where do you think City decisions have failed?
MOSS: Well, if you’re not in that seat, I don’t think it’s well-served to make a lot of negative comments. But what I have seen is some address to some of our police complaints. We probably have the best top cop we have ever had in Chief Don Ramsdell. I think the guy is very bright. He’s also ‘tough bright.’ He knows what needs to be done, and he has gotten at it without a lot of fanfare, and with a lot of input. I think he’s coming out with what’s going to be the best police force we have had around here. My concerns are not so much that things are going to hell, but that things have gone right in a lot of the ways that we hoped would occur. I have no problem with the accolades where they ought to be. I’m just saying that it’s not time for us to sit down and rest. I think we’re not doing things as cooperatively and as collaborative as we can. My race is really not against Mr. Manthou’s performance. It’s just to be able to offer what I have that I think takes us to the next level.
INDEX: Going back 30 years or more, why did you first decide to get involved in politics?
MOSS: Well, back then it was a different world. Discrimination and segregated society were really just beginning to break loose. We had a lot of laws passed, but we hadn’t really taken them to heart. You had councilmembers during my time who didn’t have a problem trying to pass laws saying that any three black men standing on a corner would constitute a riot. It sounds silly now, but that was the concern. Everyone was nervous. The riots hadn’t simmered down all that much. The push for inclusion was still scary. My conclusion was that we need to stop demonstrating and raising hell at the podium. We need to get in on the other side. Somebody needs to get over there so that we can have laws that at least raise issues that make a transition easier. Well, my first race, I didn’t win — but I was appointed. That did start a real change. I enjoyed it. I thoroughly did. One of the best things was that I was very fortunate not to carry the bitterness that I got up there with. I was angry myself with the way black people were being treated, and not being heard. But what had occurred was the realization that I did represent the black community and that I had an obligation to the opportunity. At the same time, I wanted people to elect me not because I’m black, but because I could do the job. My confidence now comes from being able to have done the job and done it well enough to serve as the mayor and, more than anything, have my colleagues on the council elect me three years in a row to serve as chair. It’s a pleasure to know where you come from because it does help you see where you are going. I bring it. I offer it. I’m hopeful that the people of Tacoma will accept me and put me in a position so that for the next four years I will be able to give them the best report card I can.
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.