Tacoma women’s right activist Judie Fortier has died

Judie Fortier was Tacoma born and raised, a fierce woman with an infectious laugh. She was kind and open-hearted but never afraid to tell you what she thought.

Above all, she was a champion for human rights and women’s rights, a liberal Democrat with a passion for people that extended past her long-held job as the city of Tacoma’s women’s rights coordinator and into a life full of activism.

That’s how close friends remembered Fortier, who died Jan. 5 of pancreatic cancer at age 69.

As an activist, she was straightforward and fearless in fighting for issues she was passionate about.

And she was known for mentoring and helping to grow the young leaders around her, said state Rep. Laurie Jinkins a Democrat from Tacoma.

“You’d have a hard time finding a woman elected official in Pierce County who’s been there for any amount of time who wouldn’t say that Judie Fortier was one of the people that advised her and helped her get a political career going,” Jinkins said.

In her role at the city, she was a warrior for programs that supported victims of domestic violence.

Fortier frequently attended City Council meetings to remind members of the importance of their support for policies and programs that helped women in need, said former Councilwoman Sharon McGavick. Around budget time, she was at every meeting, pitching for the programs she believed in.

She offered a necessary reminder during times when the financial demands of big departments like police, fire and public works could make it easy to lose sight of other needs, McGavick said.

“If she hadn’t been there, we maybe wouldn’t have put so much into those programs, because she was always an advocate and speaking up for those. If there’s no voice to speak for those programs, they’re sometimes forgotten,” McGavick said.

“She was just the face of female Tacoma in my mind.”

Fortier grew up in South Tacoma. She was a third grader at Arlington Elementary School in Tacoma when she met Margarita Mendoza de Sugiyama, her closest friend, who was by her side the day she passed.

From an early age, Fortier always spoke out for what she thought was right, her friend said.

“She was indomitable, her spirit. She refused silence from a very early age. In fact, that’s probably what we had in common — if we thought it was unfair and not right, we had to talk about it, which got us in trouble with our dads,” Mendoza de Sugiyama joked.

“She was open and loving but fierce, just a fierce woman. She was out there very publicly speaking against injustice.”

Fortier graduated from Mount Tahoma High School and went onto Washington State University, where she studied political science.

She was a longtime member of the feminist group, the National Organization for Women, and led her own feminist movements from Tacoma.

While she never ran for office, she was active in political campaigns across the state.

Former Democrat state Rep. Art Wang said Fortier was instrumental in his very first campaign in the early 1980s, and they remained friends.

“She was a real character. She could be very brash and outspoken as an advocate for women in particular, and she had a lot of passion in what she did and was just a steady, stalwart defender,” Wang said.

Abortion rights and defending victims of domestic violence were among her top priorities. She regularly told local politicians that just because they were running for a City Council seat didn’t mean they wouldn’t be asked to take a stance on national issues, even if they seemed out of their purview.

“The first thing she wanted to know from me as a new candidate out there in the field was where I stood on these things, which I really appreciated,” former City Councilman Marty Campbell said.

“When it comes to women’s rights and domestic violence, don’t ever pretend to sidestep it because it’s just too important of an issue – even if this doesn’t seem like it’s within the scope of the office or even the leadership that you hold in our community, leaders always need to have these issues out front, and that’s what she pushed for.”

After Fortier retired in 2004, McGavick said the two of them and a few other women would gather for a monthly coffee date to talk about Tacoma and politics. The coffee dates ran for years; they were both personal and professional.

Fortier stayed active in local politics after her retirement.

After McGavick moved out of Tacoma, she’d ask Fortier’s opinion on candidates for office in Tacoma. Most recently, she had asked Fortier what she thought about the slate of candidates running for mayor and City Council in 2017. She supported new Mayor Victoria Woodards and new Councilwoman Lillian Hunter, McGavick said.

Woodards said she counts herself among the women who were supported and encouraged by Fortier over her lifetime, especially as she began to run for office, first as a councilwoman and then in her run for mayor.

“She was just one of those women, she didn’t bite her tongue — she told you exactly what you needed to hear, exactly how you needed to hear it,” Woodards said. “Tacoma will miss her, and we’ll miss everything she stood for, and I hope we won’t miss everything she fought for, because there are those of us who are going to have to pick up the mantle in her absence.”

Remembering Judie Fortier

A memorial service for Judie Fortier will be held Jan. 28 at the Asia Pacific Cultural Center, 4851 South Tacoma Way, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.