Vialle never sent me a picture, so I borrowed this campaign one from the internet.
Karen Vialle was introduced to me as a “bulldog,” her supporters have called her efficient and tough, and the TNT endorsed here whole-heartedly as a “a force of nature. Her qualifications are almost over the top.” There’s no denying she is experienced in policy and budget issues (if you doubt me I’ll send you her 20 minute answer to “Tell me about yourself”), and she’s familiar with Tacoma schools because she has taught as a substitute teacher in them for 9 years. Heck, she’s taught every grade level. And on top of it all, she’s the only candidate raising money in her race, allowing her to print doorbell cards and send out mailers to voters.
Now, don’t get confused, this is not an endorsement or intended as support. This is just my way of explaining Vialle having conquered 53% of the vote in a four way primary.
However, when I interviewed Vialle the primary election hadn’t happened yet. At the time I knew very little about her other than the fact that she had once been mayor and had recently been compared to a bulldog.
I don’t really have a mental image of a bulldog floating in my head (having no real experience with them), so I let Wikipedia do the talking. There I learned that according to the American Kennel Club (AKC) a Bulldog’s, “disposition should be equable and kind, resolute and courageous (not vicious or aggressive), and demeanor should be pacific and dignified.”
Vialle met me at Cutter’s Point on 6th and Orchard. I’m not sure if she exemplifies all of the adjectives above, but she was definitely friendly, and after ordering coffee we sat down to chat. Another adjective that strikes me when I think of Vialle is practical. I never remember exactly what she wears (I’ve seen her in everything from a suit to doorbelling clothes) but it has always seems to be pants, a jacket, her shirt tucked in, and comfortable shoes. These first impressions did not answer the bulldog question, but throughout the interview I kept it in mind.
The first part of the answer to this mystery came when I asked her when the first time she knew she was different. There was hardly a pause at all before Vialle said, “Probably when I was a social justice enforcer in my fourth grade class.” I think I laughed, because the image that came to my head was a lot more like what you’d see on TV than in real life, and it all seemed much too serious for a fourth grader. Vialle explained the situation:
“I guess that’s the best way I can put it… I never grew up with any kind of racial prejudice, thank god, on the part of both sides of my family… And we had an African American family move into our neighborhood, and there was a lot of, I’d call them rednecks now, even though ‘they shoudda known better,’ as my dad said. So when school started (they moved in in the summer) my dad told me, ‘If there’s any trouble, you take care of it.’ Well, sure enough there was. One of these kids—and she was a bully! She was a big girl, a lot bigger than me. And she probably still remembers what happened–she called, you know, used the inappropriate word, and made Jolene cry. And I said, ‘Take it back,’ and she said, ‘I don’t have to,’ and I said ‘Take it back or I’m going to hit you.’ And she didn’t believe me, so she wound up with a bloody nose and a split lip.
“And I, of course, got sent to the office, because it was an inappropriate response, but I still remember my mom coming up to school, and laying into our principal, who she had gone to school with. His first name was Clarence, and all I could hear was ‘Yes, Clarence, Karen needs to be punished, but more than that, our society is changing, and people need to be treated equal and children don’t need to come to school and listen to that. Now I expect you to take care of it.’ And that was my mother. I mean, she did that. And so that’s when I first really realized that I did the right thing. I mean, I got in trouble for hitting, you know, but I mean my mom and dad both said that you did the right thing.”
And then, offhand, she added:
“Also, I was good in math, and girls weren’t supposed to be.”
In retrospect, the first story is an amusing anecdote not just because it represents Vialle’s first experience as an activist, but also because it shows her perspective now as a teacher looking back on her time as a student. There were several instances later in the interview when she grew passionate and used a “bad word” like “sucks,” and it was always followed “I hate that term, I tell the kids at school ‘don’t say that!’” and I found it to be an enduring view of vocabulary reserved for elementary school teachers (which Vialle primarily is). In a similar vein, hearing her using words like “inappropriate response” and “diversity” and “prejudice” sound very adult in a story about an elementary school squabble. Vialle’s conversation consistently juxtaposed complex policy terms and a child’s world where saying “sucks” gets you yelled at.
To be honest, though, Vialle’s offhand comment about being the only girl good at math was a much more honest moment. The first story could have been part of her campaign, that one moment revealed a struggle she had lived through, and a lot of the activism she would take on later.
But to continue with the story: the fact that Vialle was good at math and had conviction for standing up for what she thought was right, created a powerhouse combination that set her on her career path. Her 20 minute answer to “Tell me about yourself” was pretty much a long-form resume, and while I don’t want to repeat it step for step there are interesting points along the way.
After graduate school she returned to her undergrad Alma matter and taught political science at the University of Puget Sound. This was one of her first experiences as an adult, dealing with being a non-traditional women. “When I went to UPS I was one of the first women to teach there in the non—what they called non-female, you know, it wasn’t a foreign language and they had home-economics then and English—to teach outside of that box.”
Soon after that Vialle was the first women hired by the state budget office to work as a program analyst at OFM. She started in ‘72, and was promoted to assistant director in February of 73. Her explanation of what that experience was:
“The legislature was considering a bill upstairs and it was really important and our legislative person had not been doing what he was supposed to… [Someone she knew] called ‘get over here, I want this bill out of here and it’s about to not!’ So I went up and I testified and thought ‘oh, man I’m going to be in trouble,’ and when I came down and Wally said, ‘Oh, man from now on as of right now you’re handling all of our legislative stuff.’ And then about a month later we got all these bills out, it was amazing.”
Vialle took on a tough role at OFM, dealing with a tight budget and budget cuts, and took the job and responsibility of helping to balance the budget very seriously. “We were a real budget and management agency under Dan Evans. You saw us show us you knew your job might be in jeopardy, including department heads. I’d tell ‘em, I’d say ‘You know If I were you I’d get my stuff cleaned up or you’re going to be over there—and the Governor said to tell you—peddling your resume at 5 o’clock in the afternoon down on 11th and capitol. Now, you can either talk to me and get it together or you can talk to [the Governor}.’”
From there she did a lot of budget work and made connections to powerful folk in state government who helped her get other positions where she was able to further expand her knowledge of budgets and policy. To sum up the rest:
"And then we adopted our first child, so I went home. Then I went back to teaching part time at UPS and got involved in community activities, I was on Urban Policy Committee and when my kids got old enough we adopted another child a year and a half later, so you know I got into the PTA, preschool and all of that, and then in 1987 there was a city council seat on the west side of Tacoma and a lot of people in the community convinced me that I needed to run, and so I did and got into that, and then got elected mayor.”
This is a different moment in her life where two seemingly different worlds are brought together. Vialle had returned home to be a mother, but instead of falling back into the traditional role of managing the household she once again resorted to her passion for politics and policy.
I asked Vialle about what it was like to be a woman mayor who was willing to be different, do a lot of things first, and be good at math. The traits that Vialle had that helped her get that far—being tough, efficient, and determined—made her time as mayor interesting:
“When I was mayor it was harder because I got picked on much more by people who were looking for you to stub your toe… and if you were strong you were regarded as being kind of a witch [this was clearly a euphemism, Vialle says euphemisms fantastically], you know, and if you’d been a male you would have received accolades.”
“It was an acceptance that you had to do better, and prove yourself, and I was willing to do that and show them, ‘Hey, I’m just as good as you are.’ If I have to work harder, and if I did that and show that I’m just as good as them, then it was going to make it easier for somebody else who came behind me… I kinda look back and think, ‘Hey, it was worth all that, to be a part of opening doors.’”
While she served as mayor from 1990-1994, Vialle lost her re- lection campaign. I don’t know what the political issues of the time were, but she was the only person I interviewed this year who had run for election before, and it was interesting to get her perspective on what it’s like to experience having lost (which is an experience most candidates share).
“I think what it is, when you run for office—If you’re a bit of a control freak, and I tend to be a tad bit—is that it’s something you can’t control. But I came to grips with this when I lost… I look back on that… I’ve done that my whole life, and if I have done my absolute best, and this was my dad, if you have done your best… then don’t look back.”
“When I lost that election—really truly, I’m my toughest critic, my husband will tell you that—I looked back and I thought I did everything that I could do and the results were out of my hands.”
“It didn’t mean it didn’t hurt, it hurt for a long time. Losing, as somebody said, sucks. It does. I hate that term, I tell the kids at school don’t say that!’… But on the other hand, I walked away knowing that I made a tremendous difference…And people have aid later ‘you should run for mayor again,’ and my philosophy on that is that if you’ve already done something, you can’t go back. Things have changed, the dynamics, and it’s time for someone else to do it. I was proud of being mayor of this city, I love this city.”
Now she’s up for election again. It doesn’t seem like a step down, or a step backwards, but rather a continuation of her story in life.
“You know it wasn’t a real easy decision to do that. I’d thought about it, intellectually it was, but then you go back and think… you know, campaigning is hard. It’s a strain on everybody, your family and it’s a big commitment. But every time I thought, you know, I make the decision all through the fall, and I see these kids struggling at school, at you know, lack of support from the board, and them being in total denial about what’s going on within the schools. I thought, you know, I’ve got one more shot at making a big difference, and that’s always driven me in my whole life.”
I have a lot of quotations from Vialle about making a difference driving her. She grew up in the civil rights area and was inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and J.F.K. She protested against the Vietnamese war, and is incredibly passionate about supporting soldiers and veterans rights. She taught her children to be accepting of others, and they have in turn become “social justice enforcers” at their own schools, making sure that kids aren’t being bullied or put down because they’re different. She works hard subbing in elementary schools and doing her darndest to prepare young children for the future.
I’ll let you decide for yourself what sort of dog is the best comparison for Karen Vialle (you know, if you insist on not mixing metaphors). I certainly haven’t made up my mind yet on what sort of person (or canine) she is. Looking back, it’s amusing that at the time I interviewed her she said things like “Right now I’m about ready to jump out of my skin. Tuesday can’t get here soon enough!” but having looked over everything she said, I don’t want to end this on a political note (even though there’s a pretty good political monologue I have hanging about). I don’t think politics is the end all be all for this former mayor. I think she’s really doing it for the kids.
“You feel empowered every time you go into a class room and teach kids. Last time I felt empowered, oh my gosh… I guess I’ve always in my life felt empowered in the sense that you can make a difference. You don’t have to hold public office, you don’t have to be walking around with everyone walking around saying ‘Mayor’ and ‘your honor.’ …. For me I feel empowered when I am able to help someone, or I can speak out for something, or I can help a family find help at one of my schools, or when the kids will come up to you and say thank. I think to me empowerment is a state of mind.”
At the meeting she drank: A tall not-fat latte
Vialle is Ambidextrous – she writes with her right hand, but does a lot of things with her left
Her first job: baby sitting
Her favorite sport: golf
Her favorite subject in school: civics and math
Her favorite subject to teach: cost benefit analysis (MBA program at UPS)
Her neighborhood: Lives in the West end, at what’s called west slope
She has: a dog named Ruby that’s a mixed German shepard, a black cat named Dinkie
If she could be any fictional character it would be: Robinson Caruso
Most exciting place you ever traveled to: Vladistok – sister city in Russia “it was exciting in the sense of being in a place no Americans had been since 1921, and people were so excited for us to be there… it’s the main sea port for the Russian Navy in the pacific, and it was a closed city for many, many years… and we were the first Americans there since the revolution.”
First movie that ever scared her: Can’t think of any “I don’t scare easily” it might have been The Thing a little bit, but not much.
If she could give to just one charity it would be: Children’s Home Society of Washington.
Fun facts about Karen Vialle: