Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland: Politics is ‘a team sport’

"Democracy can be hard and tough and combative," says Strickland, '84, "but we can’t lose sight of why we care and what we’re trying to accomplish."


I was vice president of my middle school, but didn’t have a burning desire to pursue public office even a year before I won my first city council election. I’m now in my seventh year as mayor of Tacoma. What inspired me is that I love Tacoma. I wanted to help improve the quality of life for the people of my hometown.

I grew up in South Tacoma in an area that wasn’t considered affluent, but had a strong sense of community. The park wading pool was crowded during the summer, and there were lots of young families. I still spend Thanksgiving in the house I grew up in. It reminds me of the diverse constituency I represent.

As a UW student, I viewed myself as a customer buying a product. I’m a first-generation college graduate, and I was all about taking care of business and earning that degree. I studied and worked part time as a prep cook. I was very disciplined, and those skills helped me later in life.

Every mayor should be their city’s most vocal advocate for education. We can bring resources to families and students before they even arrive in the classroom. Tacoma’s graduation rate went from 55 percent to 82 percent since I took office. When the entire community comes together, that’s when we accomplish all of our goals.

Marilyn Strickland, Tacoma Mayor and UW graduate.

Education is not just about test scores. It’s about being well-rounded, intellectually curious and one who challenges assumptions. I read a lot as a child and still remember getting lost in “Little House on the Prairie” and “Ramona the Pest” by Beverly Cleary, ’39. Those books captured my imagination.

My most important UW experience was studying abroad in London. My roommate was a young woman of privilege from Kentucky. We had the opportunity to talk and discover that we were both just 20-year-olds wanting to explore and learn.

I am Korean and African American. It’s important that every college student benefits from a diverse campus. It’s not just diversity by race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation. It’s diversity of experience.

UW Tacoma is deeply embedded in this community. I do a lot of work promoting it to high school students and especially as an option for those who are place-bound. The university plays an integral part in my job as mayor.

I think about the strength of my mother coming to this country as an immigrant, and I want to emulate her resiliency, patience and toughness. Women make up over 50 percent of the voting population, but less than 20 percent of elected officials. Whenever I think things are too hard for me, I think about the sacrifices she made so I could do this job.

Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Tacoma in September 2015. We made the case for him to visit Tacoma’s Lincoln High School. During his visit, he invited 100 students to visit China. They just returned from their trip in October and were treated like rock stars! My hope is the next generation knows more about the world than my generation did. We are all connected.

Politics is seen as a contact sport. At the end of the day, though, it’s a team sport. Democracy can be hard and tough and combative, but we can’t lose sight of why we care and what we’re trying to accomplish. Please be informed. We live in an age of social media, where information is distributed with such immediacy, but a lot of it is flat-out wrong. Take time to get the facts.