How Tacoma mayoral candidates compare on the issues

Victoria Woodards, the incumbent, faces a challenge from Steve Haverly, a political newcomer with a background in construction management.

Steve Haverly in blue suit and tie at left, Victoria Woodards in black suit jacket over yellowish green blouse at right

Candidates for Tacoma mayor, Steve Haverly and Victoria Woodards. (Courtesy photos)

Tacoma’s next mayor faces at least two major challenges — responding to an affordable housing crisis in a city that has become one of the country's most competitive real estate markets, and reforming a police department that still employs three officers charged with killing an unarmed Black man.

The way the two candidates for the position talk about those topics is quite different, as are their views on addressing homelessness and the economic fallout from COVID-19.

While incumbent Mayor Victoria Woodards says she is focused on transforming the Tacoma Police Department and increasing housing density throughout the city, her opponent, political newcomer Steve Haverly, talks more about reviving downtown Tacoma and retaining neighborhood character.

Woodards and Haverly will debate at 7 p.m. Wednesday. Crosscut will be moderating the debate, which will be livestreamed on our site.

Woodards, a longtime Tacoma politician who previously served on the city council, says she’s running for a second term not just to lead the city out of the pandemic, but also to try closing the racial wealth gap and address other racial disparities she sees throughout the city.

“We can’t become anti-racist by just fixing policing,” said Woodards, 56. “If we really are going to fix systemic racism, we have to look at every system that produces barriers.”

Haverly, 52, works in construction management and has owned a video production company, but has never held public office. 

When Haverly talks about his reasons for running for Tacoma mayor, much of his focus is on the city’s downtown and how it has suffered during the COVID-19 pandemic. He often laments the number of restaurants that have closed and thinks city officials could have done more to help the city rebound faster.

While Haverly has described himself on the campaign trail as an anti-racist, he sometimes focuses more on the issue of police brutality when discussing how to combat racism. 

“If George Floyd’s death didn’t change your life, then there’s something wrong with you,” Haverly told a local podcast, Citizen Tacoma, earlier this year. “That should be a catalyst for change.”

Here’s a closer look at how the candidates compare on some of the biggest issues facing Washington state’s third-largest city.

Housing density

One of the greatest areas of contrast between the candidates is how they think Tacoma should grow, and where they think housing density should be concentrated.

Woodards, the incumbent, has spoken favorably about a plan called Home in Tacoma, which would allow more duplexes, triplexes and other types of multifamily housing throughout the city. She wants to tweak the proposal some — she said she doesn’t want to completely eliminate single-family zoning — but she does want to allow more housing types in more places to help ease the city’s housing crunch. 

Haverly is critical of the Home in Tacoma plan, which consists of several recommendations from the city Planning Commission. He’s not a fan of allowing duplexes and cottage housing in single-family neighborhoods, he said. Already, it’s become difficult for people to park in front of their houses in some areas, including Proctor in the city’s north end, he said.

He’d rather focus development in downtown Tacoma and in the Hilltop neighborhood, where a new light rail line is being built, without adding more development to the Proctor and Stadium districts, two of the city’s wealthier neighborhoods. He thinks a pair of multistory commercial-residential developments built in Proctor have taken away from the neighborhood’s character.

“There’s a lot of room to grow in Tacoma, and it doesn’t have to be in already successful neighborhoods,” Haverly said. 

Woodards, meanwhile, would like to see more of the city’s business districts develop in the way Proctor has. 

“You move into one of those apartment complexes in Proctor, you can get to the grocery store, you can get to the dry cleaner, you can get to the bank,” Woodards said. “You can get out of your car and have a life.”

She thinks having people live where they can easily walk to nearby businesses is important for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from transportation. That should be the norm in more areas of the city, including along South Tacoma Way and parts of Pacific Avenue, she said.

Police accountability 

Neither candidate favors cutting the police budget. Both want to see about 40 vacant police positions filled, and both would like to see social workers or other service providers responding to some of the calls currently handled by police.

Still, Woodards has been more vocal about the need to dramatically transform the city’s Police Department — not just reform it. 

The conversation takes place as the state attorney general prosecutes three Tacoma police officers in the killing of Manuel Ellis, a 33-year-old Black man. Two of the officers have been charged with second-degree murder and first-degree manslaughter; the other has been charged only with first-degree manslaughter. Prosecutors say Ellis was unarmed and not fighting back when the officers tackled and restrained him, restricting Ellis’ oxygen supply and causing him to cry out, “Can’t breathe, sir.”

Last year, Woodards called for the officers involved in Ellis’ death to be fired. While she didn’t have the authority to make that happen — Tacoma is a city where hiring and firing power rests mostly with the city manager, not the mayor — she said she stands by her statement that the officers who killed Ellis deserve to lose their jobs.

Woodards said the police union contract often gets in the way of Tacoma overhauling its department in the way she would like to see.  

Right now, the officers who have been criminally charged in Ellis’ death are on leave, but still on the city’s payroll as the city conducts its own disciplinary investigation. Woodards would like to shorten the timeline for those investigations, so that officers who are criminally charged with using excessive force don’t remain on the payroll for months or years as an administrative review drags on, she said.

Woodards also said she wants to implement 64 recommendations made by a consulting firm, 21CP Solutions. Those include updating disciplinary protocols, improving police training and clarifying use of force policies.

Haverly agreed that better police training is needed. Beyond that, he didn’t have many specifics for what policies he would like to see change at the Tacoma Police Department. 

“I think it’s all about setting expectations, and training,” he said. That doesn’t necessarily mean changing disciplinary practices, he said, but it does mean the mayor needs to lead by example to help change the culture of the department.

“It starts at the top,” he said.

Climate change and fossil fuels

Woodards supports banning the expansion of fossil fuel facilities in the city’s industrial areas. Such a ban would mean no new fossil fuel operations, as well as no expansion of existing facilities — although she would make an exception for facilities that work with renewable energy sources, such as biofuels or renewable natural gas.

Haverly agreed that fossil fuel operations, such as oil refining and coal shipping, shouldn’t expand in the city. But he wouldn’t go as far as saying he would support a ban to prevent that from happening.

Instead, Haverly talked about the need "to change our mentality" surrounding green energy. As one way of doing that, he said the city should put solar panels on the Tacoma Dome, which he said would send a message about the importance of renewable energy.

“I just think in order for us to change our mentality about global warming and our fossil fuel dependencies, we need to start showing there is a better way,” Haverly said.

When it comes to reducing car trips, Haverly thinks development should be focused downtown and the nearby Hilltop neighborhood to encourage walkability in a more concentrated area, taking advantage of transit already built or planned there. Woodards thinks transit should be expanded in more areas throughout the city, so that people in more neighborhoods can choose not to drive.

Economy and homelessness

Haverly said he decided to run for mayor partly because he is frustrated with the closure of downtown Tacoma businesses, which he said has made the city feel “like a ghost town.”

He said he didn’t see the same thing happen during the pandemic in Seattle, where he commuted often as part of his job overseeing construction projects.

“Seattle was not a ghost town. Redmond was not a ghost town,” Haverly said. “There’s all these other cities around here that were not as desolate as Tacoma was — so I don’t think that we can use COVID as an excuse anymore.”

Woodards strongly disagrees with Haverly’s assessment.

“All of that has happened because of COVID,” Woodards said. “We did lose some businesses to COVID, and I am very disappointed about some of the businesses we lost. But we also provided a lot of support.”

Woodards said that support included loans and grants that helped keep many businesses afloat.

Haverly said he decided to run also because of an increase in visible homeless encampments, which he said have made people in Tacoma feel less safe.

Both he and Woodards ultimately want to ban encampments. Woodards, however, said the city can’t do so until it builds more permanent supportive housing and provides more low-barrier options for shelter. That’s partly because of recent court rulings, but also because it’s the right thing to do, she said.

She said the city is working to spend almost a third of the money it has received from the federal American Rescue Plan Act on affordable housing and combating homelessness — and those efforts are starting to make a difference. More people will get the help they need as additional relief dollars are rolled out in the coming weeks and months, Woodards said.

Ballots for the Nov. 2 general election are scheduled to be mailed to Tacoma voters by Oct. 15. Voters must drop their ballots in a dropbox by 8 p.m. on Election Day, or, if they choose to mail them, ensure they are postmarked by Nov. 2.

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About the Authors & Contributors

Melissa Santos

Melissa Santos

Melissa Santos is formerly a Crosscut staff reporter who covered state politics and the Legislature.