By Andrew Izzo
The future of Tacoma was debated in the Tahoma room on Sept. 26. Mayoral candidates Jim Merritt and Victoria Woodards took to the stage before a crowd predominantly comprised of local citizens, with a few students from both University of Puget Sound and Pacific Lutheran University.
The debate was jointly hosted by the University of Puget Sound Forensics Program and the Pacific Lutheran University Department of Politics and Government.
Also on the stage that night were candidates for several other local government positions. For the Port of Tacoma Position 2, Noah Davis and Dick Marzano; for City Council at Large Position 6, Lillian Hunter and Meredith Neal; for City Council District 2, Philip Cowan and Robert Thoms.
The position of mayor in the city of Tacoma is term-limited, so incumbent mayor Marilyn Strickland cannot run for re-election.
Victoria Woodards formerly held position as Deputy Mayor in 2014, as well as City Council at Large Position 6 from 2009 until she stepped down in 2016 to announce her mayoral run, according to her website.
Jim Merritt is a Tacoma architect and business owner, and he was awarded the “Tacoma Hometown Hero” award by the City Council in 2003, according to his website. He is active in the local community as a member of Tacoma Rotary and as a basketball coach. His daughter attends Pacific Lutheran University.
The debate itself was about 40 minutes long, with roughly four minutes dedicated to each of 10 questions. These questions focused largely on environmental issues and social justice issues. These questions were prepared before the debate by the moderators.
Merritt put a heavy emphasis on local involvement in the government, and spoke out against backroom deals that impact the city of Tacoma.
“I will change the culture of local government,” Merritt said, when asked about what he brought to the table as mayor.
Woodards also made a note of local involvement, and focused on equity for the people of Tacoma.
“I want to be your mayor because Tacoma provides opportunity for every single person,” Woodards said.
The first question focused on the Northwest Detention Center, and the possible expansions to it. Both candidates spoke against the detention center, and both talked about using the enforcement of local codes and laws to halt or limit expansions of the center.
“We can use the voice of the city to stop expansions,” Woodards said.
Another big question of the debate surrounded the Puget Sound Energy Liquid Natural Gas (LNG) plant. The candidates differed on this issue, with Woodards in support of it, and Merritt against it.
The liquid natural gas plant is a new refinery that is currently under construction near the city and port of Tacoma. There have been protests and outcry from members of the community, as well as the nearby Native American Tribes.
Woodards said that she trusts the experts that design and enforce the safety regulations, both for the workers and for the environment. She supported liquid natural gas as a transition fuel, saying, “LNG is the only option for a cleaner-burning fuel.”
“Our future is renewable,” Merritt opposed. He said that a community discussion is necessary to decide on the future of energy plants like this in an area where so many people live.
Both candidates also support a set of interim regulations on new energy plants, but Merritt supports new regulations on existing plans as well. Woodards said she wants to make every voice heard, including the people, the incoming companies, the Native American tribes, and the environmental organizations.
Tacoma Power was also a topic of concern at the debate as it raised its rates in April. Merritt said that Tacoma Power is poorly managed, and that he is not afraid to challenge budgets of institutions, regardless of size.
Woodards agreed that Tacoma Power was in need of better management, saying, “We don’t need to be charging our citizens more than they can afford, or more than we need to.”
Jolie LiBert, a sophomore Politics and Government major at Puget Sound, said that while she is not a full-time resident of Tacoma, she thinks it is important to be aware of the issues of the city she is living in, so she attended the debate.
“There’s a lot of focus on issues of the port and clean energy, and while that is important, it takes away from the complex issues of the community,” Tacoma native Lisa Keating said.
She went on to reference the issues she would have liked to have heard addressed such as homelessness, the needs of the poor and racial inequity. Both Woodards and Merritt touched on racial inequity, though only in the frame of business ownership. A specific question about it was not posed to them by the moderator.
In the primary elections on Aug. 1, Merritt led Woodards 39 percent to 37 percent according to The News Tribune. The future of Tacoma will be decided in the General Election on Nov. 7.