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Shining a light on missing details in Tacoma mayoral race

(File)

There’s a controversy brewing in the Tacoma mayoral race, but it’s taken a while for the local media to pay any attention.

It’s the kind of thing you’ll probably only hear about from your friends on social media — a certain subset of politically-minded Tacomans.

To understand this story, we have to go back to 2005.

Victoria R. Woodards was running to be a commissioner for the Metropolitan Park District of Tacoma. In the voters’ guide, Woodards provided some information about herself, as candidates do. She talked about her passion for managing parks, her long history of community involvement, and her dog Luke.

She also talked about her education. This was the entire entry:

Education: Lincoln High School Graduate; City University, June 2006, B S Degree in
Marketing & Public Relations

Just a reminder, the year was 2005. Woodards isn’t a time traveler; it seems obviously implicit that she’s talking about a degree she expects to complete at a later date.

Here’s the root of all the controversy: Woodards didn’t end up completing that degree, a fact she was open about to the Tacoma News Tribune. Earlier in her filing for candidacy, she also apparently claimed to have an associate’s degree from Pierce College, again, she admitted this was a mistake to the Tacoma News Tribune.

Woodards ran for public office several more times, and now she’s running for Mayor of Tacoma. None of the subsequent voters’ pamphlets, including the most recent one, mention degrees from either institution.

Here’s the entire education entry from this year’s voter’s pamphlet:

Education: Lincoln High School; Completed courses at Pierce College & City University

Woodards doesn’t claim to have finished a degree at either institution, and it doesn’t appear that she has since 2005.

That hasn’t stopped Woodards’ critics from making hay out of this on social media. They argue Woodards shouldn’t have even been on the ballot in 2005 because of the falsification, as they describe it.

What really frustrated critics, though, was the complete lack of media coverage, some even call it a politically motivated cover-up. Tacoma Weekly didn’t acknowledge the controversy until late October, and then a day later Dale Phelps, the editor of the Tacoma News Tribune, published an editorial explaining why they hadn’t brought it up either.

Phelps noted Woodards wasn’t actively claiming to have degrees she didn’t and ultimately her education wasn’t a significant enough detail to merit its own story.

Woodards critics like to bring up the case of Cathy Pearsall-Stipek, a Pierce County Auditor in the 90s who ended up resigning after admitting she’d lied for years about receiving a degree from the University of Washington. Phelps contends Woodards’ situation is different both because she stopped claiming the degrees long ago and because it isn’t clear Woodards ever made an intentionally false statement. Ultimately, Phelps felt there were more important issues to the Tacoma mayoral race than this one.

It’s worth noting, though, this brand of controversy isn’t specific to Tacoma. The Seattle Times reports a candidate for Mercer Island City Council is working to prove she actually earned a degree from Cornell even though there seems to be no record of this. Meanwhile, in Gig Harbor there are calls for the resignation of a PenMet Parks Board member because she’s having difficulty confirming she completed her degree at Central Washington University.

People will draw their own conclusions about these races and vote accordingly. Personally, as an outsider looking in, I’m at least sympathetic to the position outlets like the Tacoma News Tribune are put in, and I respect editor Dale Phelps’ eventual transparency.

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