Chris Beale, left, and Brian Arnold are running to represent District 5 on the Tacoma City Council. Courtesy
Chris Beale, left, and Brian Arnold are running to represent District 5 on the Tacoma City Council. Courtesy

Matt Driscoll

Tacoma's at a political crossroads. Look no further than the District 5 race for proof.

September 28, 2017 08:00 AM

Voters in Tacoma have plenty of races to pay close attention to this November.

There’s what promises to be a hotly contested mayoral face-off between Jim Merritt and Victoria Woodards, as well as an important at-large contest between Lillian Hunter and Meredith Neal.

While the District 5 contest in South Tacoma between Chris Beale and Brian Arnold might not pack the obvious sizzle of other races, however, it perhaps best exemplifies the simmering questions of identity Tacoma increasingly finds itself grappling with.

What will Tacoma’s political future look like, and just how progressive is the city comfortable with becoming?

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With the historically hardscrabble South Tacoma as the backdrop, the final results in in the District 5 race could provide a sort of litmus test for how the City Council’s push to the left is playing in the outer reaches. Let us not forget, this is a district where citizens decisively rejected Sound Transit 3.

Given everything that’s transpired over the last four years, from an increase to the minimum wage, to the ongoing debate over the place of fossil fuels at the port, to the new plastic bag ban, taking the political temperature in South Tacoma might prove either encouraging or unsettling, depending on where you sit on the political spectrum.

So, the candidates …

Beale is the former chairman of the Tacoma planning commission. He’s being backed by young progressives on the City Council like Ryan Mello, Anders Ibsen and Keith Blocker, and is, in many ways, cut from a similar cloth as those lining up behind him.

Beale is unquestionably bright and brings a wealth of community-planning and urban-studies experience to the table. Whether the topic is density, transportation or safe walking routes to school, Beale has displayed a firm grasp of both the challenges facing his district and the under-appreciated policy work that needs to be done.

In other words, he’s qualified.

Getting the messaging right — and addressing the actual needs of the district — I think it’s received really well.

Chris Beale, on the reception to his campaign among South Tacomans

Arnold, on the other hand, lacks the experience Beale offers. But he counters with an old-school political approach. A longtime insurance agent and small business owner in the district, Arnold also has a number of well-established Tacoma names in his corner, like Mike and Joe Lonergan, Conor McCarthy, and state Rep. Steve Kirby, a Democrat who represents the 29th District.

Most indicative of the stark differences between candidates, Arnold has stuck to bread-and-butter issues, dismissive of “the latest fad or initiative coming out of Seattle.” That’s a jab at the current City Council, for certain, and perhaps even his opponent in this race.

Arnold maintains an unapologetic and singular focus on delivering core city services — tying his political aspirations to time-tested issues like police staffing, neighborhood safety and filling the potholes and vacant store fronts in his district.

To say Beale’s strengths are in community planning and urban studies is not to suggest he’s oblivious or unwilling to take on small neighborhood issues like potholes or important public safety issues like policing. He’s more than an avatar for progressive politics in Tacoma.

The same goes for Arnold. While his campaign, thus far, has lacked clarity and a big-picture vision, that’s not to say he is incapable of crafting one. It would be equally unfair to characterize Arnold as a stereotype or caricature of anything beyond what he’s attempting to bring to the table.

Beale says he’s knocked on some 8,000 doors over the course of his campaign. Now on this third time through the district, he’s concentrating on field work as a path to victory in November.

How does he think his campaign is being received?

“What I tried to do in that first round (of doorbelling) was to try to listen to where some of the problem areas are and try to just understand what’s going on,” Beale said. “From there on, I tried to take what I heard and craft it into a solid campaign message.”

Beale believes one keys to being a successful council member is an ability to understand and work to address the block-by-block issues facing your district while also being able to pull back and “think high-level.”

“Getting the messaging right — and addressing the actual needs of the district — I think it’s received really well,” he added.

I do not believe this a fight about age, being progressive or political leanings. I do not think it is about labels assigned to people running for office or currently serving. It is about representing our residents.

Brian Arnold

Arnold, meanwhile, pushed back on the notion that the outcome of this race would be indicative of anything more than which candidate South Tacoma residents want to represent them for the next four years.

“I do not believe this a fight about age, being progressive or political leanings,” he said. “Each and every race is important. I do not think it is about labels assigned to people running for office or currently serving. It is about representing our residents.”

He might be right.

Still, public perception matters, especially in elections. And how the approach, experience and strengths of these two very different candidate resonates in District 5, at this moment in the city’s history, promises to be telling.