Every so often, when business or happenstance brings Tim Thompson to downtown Tacoma’s historic Union Station — a former train stop that, today, serves as a U.S. courthouse — he walks through the building, his steps echoing around the massive main room. Then he pauses in the center.
As he tilts his head up, he marvels at the building’s majestic rotunda, with its lighted walls and skylight at its apex. He might have a smile on his face, as he is in full appreciation of the fact that it could not exist today if not for the efforts of his mentor, former Congressman Norm Dicks; the City of Tacoma; some passionate members of the Tacoma community; and a lot of hard work.
“(I look at) the dome, and I remind myself that if you don’t fight for what you think is right, it won’t happen,” Thompson said of the Tacoma project that he “cut his teeth on” while working as a district director for Dicks. “That beautiful rotunda was going to go by the wayside, and the building was going to be destroyed.”
That project came together more than three decades ago, and was followed by many other projects that Dicks, Thompson, and others left their mark on, which changed Tacoma impermeably and forever. These included the restoration projects of Point Ruston and the Thea Foss Waterway and the land-claims settlement between the Puyallup Tribe and local commercial, private, and governmental interests. To name a few.
Today, Thompson is technically out of the political arena, but in running his own consulting company, the Thompson Consulting Group, he partners with governments and private enterprises to come to agreements on some often-polarizing local issues concerning natural resources, the environment, transportation, and economic development.
“Rather than waiting for the government to lead, we try to partner with government and the private sector to lead as a community; my philosophy is about getting to ‘yes,’” he said. “(It’s about) getting something accomplished as opposed to everyone sitting around talking about it or arguing about it.”
Successful negotiations include the West Coast Salmon Recovery Fund, the Port of Tacoma’s Evergreen Shipping Line expansion, the Centralia Power Plant cleanup, and the package to complete SR-167 and SR-509.
We recently spoke with Thompson and chatted with him about his early career, the mentor who shaped him, the keystone projects that stuck with him, and the lessons he learned over time that are just as relevant today.
Tell us about your tenure working as a legislative assistant, and later district director for Congressman Dicks. How did that start?
Norm Dicks made a big mistake in hiring me at the ripe age of 22 years old, and I always tease him that I don’t know that I would have hired me — in fact, I wouldn’t have. But he did. I was fresh out of Gonzaga University; I had grown up in Spokane, and I had attended Gonzaga on a debate scholarship, and I was always interested in politics. I had done some volunteer work for people like Tom Foley — who eventually was (U.S. House of Representatives) Speaker — and I did some volunteer work and internships with people like (Sen.) Warren Magnuson. And I was toying around with going to law school, but I decided to take a year off and I came to (Tacoma) and ran Steve Kirby’s City Council race. I didn’t know what else to do than to just work hard, work a lot of hours, and luckily that campaign was successful. So, (when) I interviewed with Norm, he hired me to run his campaign.
Sounds like you had some experience under your belt. Why wouldn’t you have hired yourself?
I’d had campaign experience, but I’d never had experience running a congressional campaign, which is much bigger. And at the time, Norm was facing his first (hard battle). He got elected in 1976 with 72, 74, or 76 percent of the vote — I can’t remember — and so that was in ’76. In ’78, he dropped to 69 or 70 percent, and then in 1980 — with the Reagan Revolution as a Democrat — he got 52 percent, which was a precipitous drop. If you went with the curve, he was on the way down. And then, Ted Haley of the (Brown & Haley) candy company was a state senator, an elected senator in the 28th Legislative District. He had, for the first time, a campaign with money against him, and he had a campaign with a well-known name. We managed to do very well; we reduced the curve and came up from 52 to the mid-60s, and it was a successful effort against an opponent that was viable.
To what do you attribute your success in that campaign?
My interest in high school and college debate; it was always around the issues and having the opportunity to be around both sides of an issue. In debate, you learn that one time you’re for gun control and the other round you’re against gun control. You’re taught to research all sides of the issue and examine all the data. I loved the issues and I wanted to be a lawyer at the time, so I was like a kid in a candy store.
After that, Dicks hired you to be one of his legislative assistants. How did that change your career trajectory? After all, you worked with him for nearly a decade.
That job was, in my judgment, a gift. I made the decision not to go to law school largely because most of my friends were going in. They said, “Why would you go to law school? You’re doing things that we’re envious of.” I thought about that and I said, “This is what I want to do.”
What were your greatest takeaways from the work you did with Dicks?
The things he instilled were three really core values that he took very seriously. (The first was) that he represented everybody in the district. When the elections were over, you represented the Republicans, the independents, the people who voted for you, and the people who voted against you. And his mission was to literally do his job to the best of his ability and let the politics sort themselves out after that. Second, he was a believer in getting things done. People come to us with a problem and we’re going to try to help. His rules were: Don’t be stupid and render good judgments, but if you have to err on a side, err on the side of advocating for the government to respond to legitimate problems that are coming up … The third piece he really believed in was the idea that we needed to help fix things and we needed to care about the communities. He wanted an agenda and he wanted to do it with the local community, so he relied on people in the community to inform what they wanted to do and then he was determined to go make it work.
He also was willing to risk political capital. That was his greatest leadership quality. If he felt something needed to happen, he was ready to take the political hit to make it happen.
Have you thought about walking in Dicks’ footsteps, running for office?
I used to represent Norm in the district, and I’d come out when he wasn’t there and make speeches, attend events, and do these things. And for a good 15 years of my life, everybody thought I was running for some position. They assumed that I was going to run for Congress when Norm was done — well, that would have been a long wait — or I’d run for state office, or I’d run for local office. I have a profound respect for elected officials. I have found for myself that I am more effective not being an elected official. And not being an elected official has never changed my ability to get things done based on the things I wanted to get done, and it was because I believe in having government be responsive, but most importantly respected.
But the thing that unites community, in my judgment, is tackling these issues and talking about them and challenging them. But it also goes to the function that it’s got to work for everyone; it can’t work for just one. So, when I look back on my career, I hope I continue to find opportunities to do that.
What are the projects you have been most passionate about?
(Three projects) I’m most proud of are Union Station, the Puyallup Land Claims Settlement, and the redevelopment of Point Ruston. What is in common with them is they took years and years of my life. They demonstrate the difficulty and complexity in a lot of bad days. There were mistakes, trials and tribulations, and, ultimately, the issue of seeing something come together.
Let’s break that down: What was it about saving Union Station that meant so much to you?
I lived that project, where we had to literally come in and peel plywood off of Union Station and convince the courts to get it done. … They needed a new courthouse; why not do it in Union Station? Why not restore that historically significant building? At the time I was criticized, Norm was criticized, for being a big spender — back to politics. Would anyone question the investment in Union Station today? No.
What did that opposition of the Union Station revitalization look like?
We had people openly opposing what we were doing with Union Station; they said it was a waste of money. We had to fight this battle inside Norm’s staff, too. One of the staff people that I still care about called it the ugliest building she had ever seen.
We went over to an afternoon meeting (one day) … and we presented the plans. The General Services Administration said, “This is way over budget.” They totally caught us by surprise. It was a sandbag event. And they said, “This is a Taj Mahal.” Luckily, I leaned over to Norm in this meeting, because we knew it was going down the toilet, and it was over. So, we said, “Let us come back and give you a redesign around some of the issues, but work with us, we’ll get this done.” … And we did.
Tell us a bit about the Puyallup Land Claims Settlement and why that stood out to you.
We had to pass the bill through the United States Congress and the Washington State Legislature to come up with money (for the settlement) in the private community, and what was significant about that was that the tribe had clout on all of the titles associated with the community, including the riverbed, which they had established in their court cases. And, to be blunt, people ignored data, they ignored facts, they ignored the law. And the community came together in an incredible effort to turn that around.
You think about the systemic racism that the tribe faced in the community. It was prior generations, but nonetheless, there was outright bigotry on the part of a number of elected officials and governments that refused to treat the tribe as a sovereign government and recognize their treaty. And I witnessed their struggles day to day; it was a deeply troubled group of people that were not recognized.
And the Point Ruston effort — what stood out about that?
The conversion (at Point Ruston) is just remarkable. And I was involved in the original pieces of getting the property cleaned up. I was involved in reemploying these workers that lost their jobs because the Asarco plant was shut down. And (Asarco) left an environmental legacy that was just awful.
What was the common theme across all three of these projects?
What they all have in common is the community. (Throughout the process), they were ahead of all of the negative people associated with it. They remembered Union Station and how it affected their lives. I’d get letters saying, “I sent my son off to war,” and, “My daughter returned there.” The (community) connection to Union Station was the rally point for the redevelopment of downtown Tacoma. … It was the first thing that happened, and then University of Washington Tacoma came along.
You founded the Thompson Consulting Group in 2001 to unite different groups around a central issue. Can you describe that process?
I think the methods that we use try to bring together people to literally begin the process of establishing community perspectives that are about saying “yes.” They are about moving communities forward and urging people to assume legitimate risks and make investments in systemic problems … whether it is about completing a vital project that has got hundreds of millions of dollars of economic impact associated with the SR-167 (completion) or building a soccer stadium.
How do you know whether something is going to be a cause worth fighting for?
Does it have good data and facts? Yes. Is it sustainable from a business perspective? Yes; check the box. Is it good for the community, and is it a good investment or good involvement for the public interest? If that box is checked, then let’s do it.
Let’s talk about the proposed soccer stadium complex. Why do you feel this would be a win for Tacoma?
You’re not going to just find anything quite like the Tacoma Rainiers anywhere in the country. It’s been a huge success; it’s all about community. … It is going to become a rallying point in an economic development project as well as attracting two additional teams to the city of Tacoma and having that become an extraordinary best-in-class facility that would rival any investment by any community across the country.
Obviously, COVID-19 has played a role in the development of that new stadium complex. Where are we with that project now?
I think it’s safe to say that the most accurate thing is that we are on hold. And we’re on hold for a couple of reasons. No. 1: We have to be very respectful of the priorities of the community during the most unprecedented crisis we’ve faced with the pandemic. … The second thing is, we have to be respectful of the city’s priorities, in particular because they are the ones who do the social services, and we have to be respectful of what Metro Parks’ priorities would be, because the parks have been shut down and they don’t have revenue being created. We need to be cognizant of that; we need to be understanding of that. We also need to be aware of the fact that the Tacoma Rainiers, Tacoma Defiance, and the Reign, they are hurting, too. The minor league baseball season has been radically impacted, if not canceled. The amount of games that the Sounders can play has been impacted. The Defiance has been impacted.
What advice do you have for folks in the community who want to make an impact?
Servant leadership matters, and it matters a lot. When you get that kind of leadership in our community … you invest so much of your heart and soul, but you’ve also got to be tough as nails, because there are good days and bad days. I’m afraid that (the current) climate is that if it doesn’t fit into a press release, or if it doesn’t move a poll number … and if there’s a slight resistance to it, it doesn’t happen. We had opposition to each and every one of those initiatives.