By Matt Nagle
In 1932, America was embroiled in World War II, congressional Democrats’ power soared with President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s sound defeat over Herbert Hoover, and the Great Depression was in full swing. It was a seminal era for our country, and an atmosphere into which Cathy Pearsall-Stipek was born in Tacoma.
No one could know then that she would go on to make history herself in local and state government, but that’s just what she did. Today at 88 years old, she holds dear memories of her achievements and the people she worked with during her more than 40 years of public service.
“I loved working for the public. I miss it daily – I really do,” she said from her beautiful South Tacoma home that she has lived in since 1957. “I have a wonderful life. No regrets. I’m just fortunate that I’m still active and can do things.”
Pearsall-Stipek is perhaps best known for representing the 29thdistrict of southeast Pierce County in the House of Representatives (1976-1978) and from her years as Pierce County Auditor (1993-2002). She was also a member of the Tacoma School Board (1983-1989) and the Pierce County Council (1989-1993), among her lengthy career. More recently, she just completed her stint on the Bates Technical College Board of Trustees, appointed by Gov. Jay Inslee.
An only child, Pearsall-Stipek’s mom Cathleen worked for Pacific Bell and dad Wendell owned his own car lot. Avid boaters, Wendell built a 50-foot cruiser in the family backyard and his daughter lived on that boat at the Tacoma Yacht Club from middle school through college. Her early schooling was at Jefferson Elementary School, Edison and Mason middle schools, and Stadium High School from which she graduated. From there, she attended the University of Washington’s School of Education and School of Business Administration. An alumnus of Bates Technical College, she earned a certificate in Registered Parliamentarian in 1962.
After marrying her first husband, Ralph Pearsall, the couple purchased land in South Tacoma and built the house that she still lives in today. A lieutenant firefighter with the Tacoma Fire Department, Ralph and Cathy had two sons before he developed multiple sclerosis and was wheelchair-bound for 11 years.
Their first-born son came into the world with less than 30 percent hearing in both ears, and this led his mother to not let him be segregated into a school for deaf children.
“I fought it and was able to get him into our neighborhood school,” Pearsall-Stipek said. “I went from a stay-at-home mother to a fighter almost overnight. I decided that I was going to change things – change the world – so I started my journey.”
She was already involved in the preschool PTA when her son was in kindergarten, and moved on to the full PTA to became president of the council and its Pierce County representative.
Years later, she ran for state representative twice and won the election in 1976 for a two-year term.
Turning course, Pearsall-Stipek went into business and opened Cathy’s Custom Décor and Custom Drapery Shop. She didn’t stay away from public service for very long. A seat soon opened on the Tacoma School Board and she served a six-year term. Then she turned her attention to the Pierce County Council. She ran for an appointed seat and didn’t make it, but the following year she ran again and won.
From there, she was appointed Pierce County Auditor by the County Council upon former auditor Brian Sonntag’s departure for the state auditor’s office. She kept her position in the next two election cycles, 10 years total.
While auditor, the state legislature changed the voting law so that anyone could be an absentee voter and stay on the rolls continually. Before this, voting by mail was allowed only for those out of state or with a sound reason why they couldn’t get to the polls.
“It was brand new and very few people took to it,” she said, and this lack of participation showed up mostly for smaller elections. When a vote to fund schools failed due to a Republican led effort to rally “no” votes, Pearsall-Stipek began an ambitious campaign to get more voters to vote absentee. Every Wednesday she would sit in front of grocery stores registering people.
With more people voting by mail, fewer were going to the polls so Pearsall-Stipek began closing polling places.
“Of course, you can imagine the wrath of God came down on me,” she said. “I went through so much adversity of people wanting to take me down, but I was determined. I kept going because it was the right thing to do.”
She worked with the postal system to get less postage required for mail-in ballots and was invited to serve on the Postmaster General’s executive committee, working to get free postage for mail ballots. During that time, she grew active in the national county auditor’s association and became its president, the first one from the West Coast.
Pearsall-Stipek didn’t stop there. She led the charge to get a Pierce County voter’s pamphlet established and available to every county voter. This was a struggle too, but she saw it through and prevailed.
“Once the people got the pamphlet, you couldn’t take it away from them – they wanted it. It was expensive, but we were trying to get people to participate.”
In 2002, term limits prevented her from running for county auditor again, but by then she had almost all of Pierce County voting by mail.
State auditor Pat McCarthy was her deputy in the auditor’s office.
“She was an activist before the term was really coined,” McCarthy said, “and she is no bureaucrat. Grass does not grow under her feet. She is constantly moving and wanting to make a difference. She is part of that generation of women who really had to fight for a lot and paved the way for many of us women who came after. I learned a lot from Cathy and hope I brought something to her as well.”
Pearsall-Stipek then spent 12 years working with Pitney Bowes, traveling all over the country working with county auditors on voting by mail.
After Pearsall-Stipek’s beloved husband Ralph passed away, she married Dave Stipek, a business agent for the Teamsters dairy union, Local #66, and a lobbyist in Olympia for the Teamsters Joint Council 28. He also served as president of the State Personnel Board and was a member of the Civil Service Board for the City of Tacoma. He passed away three years ago.
Now fully retired, Pearsall-Stipek is working on a tell-all book about her life that she hopes to have finished in the coming year. Titled “Babe and the Big Boys,” “Babe” was her dad’s pet name for her, and the “big boys” represent all the men that she had to deal with during her political life.
As Pearsall-Stipek teased, “Have I got some stories to tell!”