The changing face of Federal Way | Inside Politics

From our names — Stone’s Landing, Redondo and Federal Way — to our population and our governmental structures, we have come a long way since the 1860s.

In some ways, such as our relatively recent adoption of city status and then our more recent change to a strong mayor form of government, we are still a toddler.

A city unlike our neighbors, which are more than 100 years old and grew as traditional main street centers with the arrival of the train, we are still struggling to see what we want to be when we grow up. People complain about our “downtown,” but we never planned a traditional downtown, so it isn’t surprising we don’t have one.

Our maturation process has been slow in some ways, as we grew from convenience as a truck stop nicely situated on a newfederal highway between Seattle and Tacoma. From a place to fill our gas tank and grab a lunch or dinner at Rosie’s, we grew into other commercial offerings. As Chamber of Commerce CEO Becca Martin is fond of saying “When in doubt, take the Federal Way!”

And while she means to get business moving, she has become part of a vanguard of newcomers who are changing Federal Way into what it will be in the future.

In the early days, Federal Way’s identity was shaped by white male loggers and business leaders. But that has been changing.

Prior to incorporation, many viewed Fire Chief Al Church as the de facto mayor, while the Chamber of Commerce served as an informal government substitute, and the Black Bear Diner acted as a city hall of sorts for meetings.

After incorporation in a council-manager form of government, our first elected City Council included seven Caucasians, two of whom were female, and one was our first mayor, Debbie Ertel. But we had a strong conservative fiscal streak over the years, which resulted in several school levies failing.

For the last 40 years, the Federal Way 400 ruled city politics. They were a group of financially well off, mostly Republican, predominately white, longtime residents who were politically and socially bonded and held most of the community leadership positions.

But subtle changes have occurred over time.

Just a few years ago, some stores started printing information in Korean, Vietnamese, Russian and Ukrainian.

Many of the 400 have retired, passed on or moved to warmer climates. For some of those that remain, the loss of power has been considered as a lack of appreciation for their accomplishments. But they deserve much of the credit for our growth and development.

The change is really more about balancing our interests as changing faces and cultures have been woven into the city fabric, bringing about a new, more vibrant community. We can still be pretty conservative, as we opposed the county-wide arts initiative, but we have become a political swing district.

Our legislators reflect our demographics, and our state representatives are part of our transition. Our state senator is a white male Republican. One of our two state representatives is a white male and the other is an African-American female. Both are Democrats.

Women and people of color have taken on more visible roles as our city has changed. Korean leaders such as Mike Park, who served on the City Council and as Mayor, have maintained their own culture while contributing to the emergence of a new and different Federal Way. County Councilman Pete von Reichbauer continues to run unopposed, but Federal Way Deputy Mayor Jeanne Burbidge will step down at the end of the year after serving for 20 years on the City Council in various roles.

Our City Council remains conservative but currently has four females and one person of color. This could change, however, as council candidates running for election include two African-Americans (one as a write-in) and one who is Vietnamese who came here as a youth on a boat.

Our school district is one of the most diverse in the state, with 112 different languages spoken by our students and their families.

To walk the halls of any local school is invigorating and feels like an international gathering with students merging like teenagers anywhere and easily switching between their native languages and English.

The School Board is a more progressive body with new Superintendent Dr. Tammy Campbell, who is African-American, and a restored focus on academics, which was temporarily lost. Their message of equality does not come at the expense of some students, but is promoted to include all students.

The Chamber of Commerce board of directors, once dominated by white males, has had several female leaders and a cultural mixture that reflects the changing business atmosphere. Next year’s chair is from India.

The face of Federal Way is changing, but the future is yet to be told as we are still in transition. The older community leaders retained the clout to push through the new Performing Arts and Event Center, but to sustain it, they will need to develop a significant following with a younger and newer generation representing a multitude of different cultures. But with the addition of the PAEC and Sound Transit’s Light Rail, it may be time for a true downtown plan that makes apartment living within walking distance of the transit hub desirable.

If we recruit businesses that reflect our cultural diversity, we may find a niche that contributes to a more vibrant downtown.

The times and faces of Federal Way are changing, and that is a good thing.

Federal Way resident Bob Roegner is a former mayor of Auburn and retired public official. He can be reached at

Editor’s note: Last week’s column stated state Sen. Mark Miloscia wants to repeal the moratorium on the death penalty. Miloscia actually wants to repeal the death penalty, for which Gov. Jay Inslee imposed a moratorium in 2014.