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Q&A: Marilyn Strickland explains her approach to policymaking and how she plans to navigate Congress

Marilyn Strickland is the former two-term Mayor of Tacoma and President of the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce. She is running to fill Congressman Denny Heck’s seat in Washington’s 10th District — one of only seven vacant Democratic House seats in 2020.

Strickland believes in bringing the public and private sectors together to move the ball forward on policy. Against the backdrop of political, economic, and public health turmoil, Strickland recounted her experience as a Mayor in post-recession Tacoma. Having navigated that challenge, Stickland underscored the importance of understanding how the “machine” works. In other words, how to get policy passed in a body with competing interests.

In a recent conversation which has been edited for clarity and length, Strickland discussed expanding the role of the federal government in building affordable housing, workforce development, overlooked issues pertaining to veterans, and which members of Congress she’d like to work with.

Michael Goldberg: I want to first ask about your experience as a Mayor. Having been at the helm of a city government, how that might influence the way you would approach policymaking in Congress?

Marilyn Strickland: Having the lens of local government gives me a very unique perspective going to Congress. The work you do is to help local communities and people who live in local communities be successful and meet their goals. There are approximately 40 members of Congress who are former mayors. Making the transition from mayor to Congress is not all that unusual. 

I think when you’re a mayor of a city and on the ground, you’re just closer to the people you serve. I had the opportunity to serve just coming out of the Great Recession. Like many cities, we were battered. Our general fund was battered, the tax base was down, and this was because of the housing crisis. We had to find a way to come out of that and also consider how we were going to rebuild our economy. We invested in people. We made big investments in infrastructure. We were very intentional about trying to attract private investment, and I think that was really the key to bringing Tacoma out of the recession. 

The difference between local government and the federal government is that we have to balance the budget; we cannot run at a deficit. That requires you to make really hard decisions at the local level. But at the end of the day, we stabilized our finances, our bond rating went up, we built up our reserves, and we were very thoughtful about how we remained able to keep providing essential services. When I think about COVID-19 relief packages for local governments, I think there’s an opportunity here to provide more direct support. We sometimes lose sight of the fact that local government provides essential services; that’s public safety, police and fire, getting your garbage picked up and doing the basics people expect from government. If your general fund is affected, people lose jobs and it can be really hard on the local community.”   

MG: In another interview, you told the story of how you were instructed to get a graduate degree because people would take you more seriously that way. Obviously that was a while ago and there are elements of that story that are unique to your lived experience, but I think it touches on a broader question about how emergent members of a professional workforce are evaluated. Thinking about post-COVID workforce development, is making a post-secondary education more affordable the best way of expanding opportunity, or do you think it’s realistic for there to be an alternative metric of equal importance by which job candidates can be evaluated?

MS: I will tell you that one of the things I think we do poorly as adults when students are in middle school and high school is having them believe that going to a university is the only option, and if you don’t, you’re getting a consolation prize. As we think about the workforce of the future, and what our communities need, we should remember that there’s dignity in all work. How do we help those who want to pursue a four year degree or beyond be successful so that we don’t saddle them with debt once they graduate? But how do we also provide opportunities that include apprenticeships, two-year colleges, or pathways for people who decide they want to do something different? When I think about workforce development in the future, it’s doing a few things. It’s looking at what the actual needs are and the demand when it comes to jobs that we need to have filled and figuring how we help people find their way to those jobs. 

Post-COVID, the economy is going to change. It was already changing to begin with. We know automation has had an impact. Jobs people relied on for a long time are changing and evolving. We need to be thinking about how we’ll prepare young people coming out of high school, college, or technical training for these jobs, as well as some adults who need to make lateral moves and get retrained. I will also say that some of the employers who have the means should be willing to step up and help pay for retraining, because they benefit directly and it’s good for everyone. 

So, we can get more innovative with how we think about workforce development but I think we can start with making sure we have people in high demand professions. Looking at how the nature of work is changing, we should also look at what kind of disparities there are in terms of gender, race, etc, and ensure that we have jobs available on an equitable basis.” 

MG: In Washington State, the intersection of our tax code, affordable housing, and homelessness has animated our politics in recent years. We’ve seen a narrative take shape that pits the Chamber of Commerce on one side against those pushing for a more progressive tax code on the other. Do you think that narrative has validity?

MS: I think that’s a false narrative. When there’s a conflict, people want to pit one side against the other. We’re not going to resolve big issues like housing and homelessness if we cannot all come together. That’s just a fact. When you think about the resources required to build affordable housing for people at the lowest end of the income scale, and even middle income housing and workforce housing, this has to be a partnership between the public sector and the private sector. I say this as a Mayor and with the work I did for the Chamber, because the public sector alone does not have enough resources to build all of the housing we need. The private sector has a role to play. I think it’s incredibly important to have a thoughtful dialogue about this. Coming to the table and solving the problem as partners requires an open mind on everyone’s part.

One thing I’m really proud of is that, when I was at the Seattle Metro Chamber we integrated a program called the Housing Connector. This is a program in the Chamber that matches landlords with vacant rentals with folks coming out of the social service agencies who need housing. When I left the Chamber, they had housed about 500 people and most of them were people of color. So, there are ways to work together. 

As far as the federal government goes when it comes to housing, I believe they have a much more significant role they can and should play. We tend to think of housing as a local issue because so much of it is around land use decisions that can be very controversial when you try to add housing density in local communities. But I also believe the federal government through HUD can make a much bigger investment. They can help fund affordable housing trust funds. HUD can be more flexible with how they let folks use Section 8 vouchers. Even doubling the low income housing tax credit, which is a really important tool that can be used to add more affordable housing. I think my punchline here is solving a big problem like housing is only going to work if we come together. And yes, there is an opportunity here to look at more progressive taxes, but it’s also a combination of land use policy, tools and incentives that are available, and what we make use of together. 

MG: In the both the 2016 and 2018 cycles, we’ve seen a crop of new members enter the Democratic House Caucus. Several of those members have attracted and sustained a lot of attention since. The coalitions that form within the caucus seem to really influence its overall direction. Can you name any current members that you’d be particularly interested in partnering with? 

MS: I think about the amazing diversity evolving as you look at our elected bodies and it’s exciting to see that Congress is starting to be a better reflection of the communities it serves. [Washington State] has a really smart, thoughtful delegation that we work with right now, and I have relationships with just about all of them from my time as Mayor. But there are also people I’ve gotten to know just through the course of the campaign. 

Andy Kim is a congressman from New Jersey, and he and I have gotten to know each other. I like the fact that he has experience with the Obama Administration. He is on the task force to look at our COVID response. I love the fact that he is the first Korean American elected to congress and I hope to become the first Korean American woman elected to congress. There are folks that I’ve read about and seen on television as well. I really admire Ayana Pressley. I think she’s smart and progressive but also understands how the machine works and how you get things done. I had a chance to meet Maxine Waters when she was here in Seattle about 2-3 years ago stumping for the Democrats. 

So, I think there are folks that you know have solid reputations and who have done the work. Some have been there for a long time and some have just arrived, but I think it’s an interesting group of people we have there right now.” 

MG: There are a lot of military families and veterans in the 10th CD. Can you talk about issues pertaining to JBLM?

MS: I grew up in a military family and like a lot of people who live in South Tacoma, Lakewood, or the Lacy area, a lot of us are here because of the military. There are a couple of big projects which require federal assistance. Transportation is at the top of the list because we know there are some challenges with traffic; dealing with critical infrastructure along I-5; how we need to deal with interchanges in Lakewood where we have a lot of rail transportation; and issues that affect people off base. I think people sometimes assume that every military family lives on post and that’s not true. A lot of military families like mine lived outside of the base. 

I also want to make sure when we talk about housing, we understand that housing has to be of high quality everywhere. That includes on JBLM as well. We also need to look at schools on military bases. Are the buildings new? Are they meeting our standards? 

Something else I think we overlook sometimes is that a lot of our military folks are transitioning out of the military. How do we smooth that transition? When I was Mayor, we had a program that would recruit members of the military to do a paid internship that would turn into a full time job. One of the things we learned is that, the resume you have doesn’t always easily translate to someone working in a civilian HR role. There are these very skilled, talented people who’s resumes might not translate well, so we need to think about how to bridge that gap. Sometimes their spouses might also have a difficult time finding employment because employers believe they might move. We need to provide military spouses with the support they need as well. 

Finally, there was a time when if you left the service you would return to where you were from. At JBLM, people are choosing to stay in the area. So we have a very large veteran population because this is a nice place to retire. Making sure we’re taking care of the aging veteran population is also a priority. 

MG: Congress has already enacted some big pieces of legislation in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, though there are also conversations taking place around what evolving stimulus bills don’t include. You’ve referenced understanding how the “machine” works and how it does not allow every single priority one might have to be taken up in the legislative process. Thinking about how Congress functions and the way it forces members to prioritize, what would you focus on first?

MS: That’s a really good question and I think you pointed something out that is very true. When you run for office, slogans and bumper stickers may help you get elected, but then there’s the real work of governing and trying to get policy passed in a large body of people who represent different parts of the country and have different priorities.

COVID has amplified the inequities that exist in our society, that existed before COVID. As we think about this recovery, there are a few things I believe should be bipartisan. Public health and safety; people are not checking your party affiliation when you show up at the ER. We need to have enough testing, we need to have a national public health system that is fully funded and willing to invest in research and development. We need to make sure that everyone on the front lines – from our health care professionals to our first responders to the people who make our food and help us get groceries – has all the equipment they need to stay safe. So, it’s the prioritization of public health and worker safety. 

In the 10th District, this is also an opportunity to have a manufacturing base where we manufacture medical supplies, health care equipment, and things that aren’t normally considered. How do we leverage our assets here? We have ports, we have rail, we have talent, we have usable land, and we have low cost utilities. Maybe we use this as an opportunity to manufacture important health care equipment and supplies we know we’re going to need. 

I think this is also a chance to have the political will to do a few things we should have done a long time ago. Paid family leave should be a no brainer and a national policy. We have families struggling with hunger. Instead of taking away programs like SNAP, we need to double and triple down on them to make sure people have access to them. I also want to come back to housing. Housing is foundation of what everyone needs to have a chance to succeed. We talk about Medicare for All, but I really like the idea of housing for all. That’s going to be a big, audacious long-term goal, but I think it’s incredibly important.

Looking at the health care system, I think this is where we talk about what your definition for universal care is. But I’m more focussed on the outcome. The desired outcome is that every person who is a resident of the United States gets access to affordable health care that is equitable and transparent. I’m not going to get caught up in what you call it, I’m focused on what the outcomes are and how we get there. To move in that direction, I think we can lower the eligibility age for Medicare, raise the age for children to stay on their parent’s policies, and really look at how Medicare or Medicaid can help negotiate pharmaceutical prices to drive down the cost of medication.

Finally, I’d say supporting our local small businesses and economy. When we look at the 10th District, and see the universities, government entities and JBLM, there’s an assumption sometimes that it’s just a government type of district. In reality, small businesses employ more workers in this district than any other entities. We need to support them and get them back on their feet. We can do that making sure this relief money is going directly to small businesses, not large chains and publicly traded companies that probably have enough reserves and can handle it themselves.”  

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