Housing, homelessness and police reform: Where do Tacoma mayor candidates stand on top issues?
The race for Tacoma mayor in the Nov. 2 general election pits incumbent Victoria Woodards against political newcomer Steve Haverly. And whomever voters choose will oversee a city in transition. The next four years will include efforts to transform policing and expand housing options citywide.
City leaders are already grappling with calls for police reform after three Tacoma officers were charged with felonies in the killing of Manuel Ellis, an unarmed Black man, in March 2020. It’s the most public scrutiny the department has faced since 2003, when former chief David Brame fatally shot his estranged wife and himself. That was the last time Tacoma hired a new police chief. Mike Ake, an interim chief, is at the helm for now.
The city also is confronting a continued housing affordability crisis and a growing homelessness problem that has been exacerbated by the pandemic. One proposal to address that, the so-called Home in Tacoma plan, would overhaul residential zoning that is heavily weighted toward single-family housing. It would broaden the types of options available in those neighborhoods, known as the “missing middle.”
Woodards and Haverly are both lifelong Tacoma residents. But that’s where their similarities stop.
Woodards has big-name endorsements: Gov. Jay Inslee, U.S. Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, former Tacoma mayor and U.S. Rep. Marilyn Strickland, among others. Haverly’s campaign isn’t attached to any major endorsements.
And Woodards has raised 33 times as much as Haverly, according to the most recent filings from the state Public Disclosure Commission. Some of Haverly’s contributions came from Josh Harris, the man who bailed out the Tacoma officers charged in Ellis’ death. Haverly told KNKX Public Radio that he reluctantly accepted that support, after stressing to Harris that they “do not see eye to eye” in the Ellis case.
Earlier this month, the candidates participated in a debate discussing police reform, housing and other key issues on the minds of Tacoma voters. KNKX South Sound reporter Kari Plog discusses what they had to say with KNKX All Things Considered host Ed Ronco. Listen to their full conversation above. Below is a summary of where they stand on some key issues.
Woodards said she has lived in every neighborhood in the city, even though she grew up poor. She says that’s because her family could find something affordable citywide. Woodards wants that for residents now. She says she supports the concept of Home in Tacoma, but not necessarily all the specifics of the plan. She didn’t elaborate much in the debate about what specifically she would change. But she did stress the need to get community input in an effort to maintain the distinct character of all Tacoma’s neighborhoods.
“We have to have design standards that will decide what these buildings will look like so we don’t just have a hodgepodge of either low-scale development or mid-scale development so that it does reflect the character of the neighborhood it’s being built in,” Woodards said.
Haverly says the Home in Tacoma plan is “too much, too soon for Tacoma.” He worries it would add density to neighborhoods that already struggle with parking, for example. He says he doesn't want Tacoma to resemble West Seattle.
“Along the Sixth Avenue corridor, it’s getting very congested. Proctor is getting very congested. Stadium District is very congested,” he said. “We have to treat different neighborhoods differently because they all have different needs.”
Neither candidate offered much in the way of specifics for improving the proposal.
Homelessness remains one of the top challenges facing leaders in Tacoma and other cities in the South Sound. The pandemic complicated the problem, with more tents popping up along main thoroughfares downtown and elsewhere in the city.
In the debate, Woodards focused on her role in efforts already underway. She said that includes standing up four temporary emergency micro-shelters and searching for sites to stand up more. She also said partnerships with faith communities and governments are key, including one with Pierce County and the City of Lakewood to purchase a hotel in South Tacoma. The plan is to use it for temporary shelter beds that will eventually become permanent supportive housing for people who need support services like medication management, for example.
As for sweeps of unsanctioned encampments, Woodards stressed that the city can’t clear an encampment without having a place for people to go.
“It’s neither good for those who are homeless or for the neighborhoods where the homelessness is occurring on these planting strips. People can’t take care of their basic daily needs there,” she said. “I believe that if we can get people sheltered, or at least get them into a better situation, then we can begin to work on the root cause and be able to get them off of the streets and back to contributing members like they want to be.”
Woodards added that enforcement on encampments must be part of the strategy, but only after the city has provided adequate services.
Haverly talked in generalities about his views on homelessness, focusing mostly on personal responsibility of homeless individuals and enforcement as well as the negative impacts on housed people. He supports a ban on camping in public places.
“It’s turned into a free for all,” he said of encampments in the city. “I’m not trying to say it should be illegal to be homeless. But there needs to be structure, and we need to have more sanctioned encampments.”
He also said the city should use vacant lots for tents to get them out of neighborhoods, but he didn't elaborate on exactly where or how to do that.
Both candidates referenced the community’s fractured relationship with its police department.
Woodards says Tacoma needs to build better relationships between police and civilians. “People have to know their police officers. They have to know they can trust them,” she said.
Woodards added that it’s important to define what public safety means for the city. She said one person’s idea of safety might be entirely different from someone else's.
“For some, it’s a police car driving up and down their street every day,” Woodards said. “For some, it’s streetlights and parks and other amenities in their community.”
She added that she believes that many Tacoma officers want to do the right thing. She says the job must be done with dignity and respect for everyone.
Woodards said she supports increasing police spending if it means adequately reforming the department.
“Transparency and transformation actually cost more money. I understand the calls for defunding the police, and I understand what they mean by that,” she said, “that they want better service than the kind of service we’ve always been getting.”
Woodards also zeroed in on efforts she’s been involved with in the past four years as the city has worked to reform the police department. She referenced 64 recommendations for updating department policies through a partnership with 21st Century Policing, though she didn’t specify how those recommendations are being implemented. She also noted the addition of community participation in the contract negotiations with the police union.
Once more, Haverly didn’t talk about specific policies he would like to see if elected, even after being pressed by the moderator. He stressed that he believes Tacoma has a lot of good police officers and said there is too much division between city leaders and the police department.
He noted that police officers need better training and need to understand the gravity of the job. He said that starts with a new police chief, who will be hired during the next mayoral term. And he says he doesn’t support cutting the police budget, citing vacancies within the current ranks.
Haverly did call out what happened to Ellis and George Floyd, who was murder by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, as “inexcusable.”
“If you’re not touched by both of those stories, then there’s something wrong with you,” he said. “We need to effect change and people need to feel safe in their own community and they need to feel protected by their police officers.”
This isn't the first time Haverly has publicly denounced the killing of Ellis. But recently he has been criticized by some Tacomans for accepting campaign support from the man who bailed out the officers charged in Ellis' death. Haverly’s filings with the state Public Disclosure Commission show in-kind contributions from Josh Harris, the owner of a local construction company who posted the officers’ bail immediately after their arraignment in May.
Haverly told KNKX Public Radio that he reluctantly accepted Harris’ support, after stressing to him that they don't agree on the Ellis case and he "supports Black Lives Matter."
“It took a lot of convincing,” Haverly said. “But I know the guy’s heart is in the right place.”
Haverly said he met with Harris, and they talked about their mutual support for police officers. They did not discuss Ellis or the cops charged with killing him.
Woodards, who called for the firing and prosecution of the officers last year before emphasizing her desire to respect due process, briefly addressed the killing of Ellis during the debate.
“That was a very sad situation,” she said, “for the family and for our community.”