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Take Five: Marilyn Strickland

Washington Democrat and former Starbucks-er talks drip coffee, her first year in Congress

Washington Rep. Marilyn Strickland is no stranger to blazing trails.
Washington Rep. Marilyn Strickland is no stranger to blazing trails. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

It’s fitting that Marilyn Strickland is Heard on the Hill’s first Take Five interview for 2022. After all, the Washington Democrat is someone well accustomed to going first: She was the first Black woman to be mayor of Tacoma, her state’s first Black member of Congress, and one of the first Korean American women in Congress too. 

Speaking in her office late last year, Strickland talked about those firsts, as well as her strange first year in Congress and how the former Starbucks executive first started drinking coffee.

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

Q: Before you got started in politics, you were in the Starbucks corporate office. What’s your relationship to coffee? Are you a coffee snob? 

A: Being from the Pacific Northwest, it is inherent for me to be a coffee snob. That said, I will enjoy just a plain old cup of drip coffee when I need to have it, whatever form it comes in. When I started working at Starbucks — this is true — I was not a coffee drinker. But given the schedule that I keep now, I definitely have coffee in the morning. I usually just get a regular cup of drip coffee with a little bit of cream and a little bit of sugar. 

Q: You were Tacoma’s mayor before you came to Congress. What’s the best job: mayor or member of the House? 

A: When I left the mayor’s office, I remember saying that mayor is the best job in politics. But given what’s happening right now across America, I would say it’s the toughest job in politics. 

I’m not going to choose one or the other. I still do believe mayor can be the best job in politics, but, man, it’s challenging right now because you see a lot of mayors choosing not to run for reelection. We’re just in challenging times with a pandemic, with homelessness, with a lot of national and international issues that are becoming hyperlocalized.

Q: You’re the daughter of a Black father and a Korean mother, and you’ve been a lot of firsts, or at least co-firsts, in your career. What’s that like? 

A: When you’re a first, you always remember that you never want to be the last. I was the first Asian American mayor of Tacoma, I was the first woman of color to be mayor of Tacoma. Now I’m the first African American to represent the Pacific Northwest in Congress, and obviously, one of the first three Korean American women. 

I fully understand that even though I represent a specific congressional district, a lot of people outside my district depend on me when it comes to policies, representation. I tell folks that I represent the entire 10th District in Washington state, every person who lives in it, but at the same time, I know there’s a special duty I have in my communities — the African American community and the Asian American, and specifically Korean American, community. 

Q: It’s your one-year anniversary on the Hill. What’s surprised you most about Congress? 

A: It’s not a surprise, but it’s different when you live it in real time. When you come from a specific state or region, you tend to live in a bubble of the politics of that place, and then when you get to Congress, you realize there’s an entire nation of people who have very different views than you do. It really drives home how hard it can be to find consensus to get bills passed.

I’ve talked to some of my colleagues who’ve been here on the Hill for five or more years, and the climate here is very divisive right now. It’s absurd to me that people will vote against policies, and then go home and take photo ops and take victory laps as if they supported it.

Q: Your job right before this was at the Seattle Chamber of Commerce. I think it’s safe to say that you’re a pro-business Democrat, but that’s not really a label that sticks to members of your party these days. Is there anything the party can do to change that? 

A: It’s interesting because when Democrats are in charge, the economy is stronger, wages go up and unemployment goes down. And so as a party, I think it’s important for us to communicate a few things. The Democratic Party is business friendly, and being business friendly is not the opposite of being worker friendly. When you stand up for workers, businesses benefit, and so for me, it’s really a matter of us Democrats claiming and owning that fact.

Quick hits

Last book you read? “Asian Waters,” a deep dive into the challenges we’re having in the South China Sea and the Indo-Pacific region. It talks about the geopolitical situation and the history of trade, and as a member of the House Armed Services Committee, it’s a very important book for me to read.

In politics, can the ends justify the means? It can, but of course, along the way, you don’t want to hurt anyone. 

Least popular opinion? I believe that congressional staffers are grossly underpaid and deserve a raise.

If you could do any other job, what would it be? I would be a TV or radio talk show host. I love interviewing people, delving into what motivates them. 

Closest friends across the aisle? I came here as a freshman during a pandemic, and we just didn’t get the benefit of a typical orientation, where people get together on both sides, your families get to know each other. But I’m working with some folks on bipartisan legislation. Don Young of Alaska and I have done some things together on Veterans’ Affairs. And then the two other Korean American women, Young Kim and Michelle Steel, we have co-introduced some issues around trying to reunite families that were separated when the [Korean] Peninsula separated.

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