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Originally published August 7, 2011 at 6:14 PM | Page modified August 7, 2011 at 9:08 PM

Arlington's diplomatic 'Mayor Margaret' to soon exit City Hall

Margaret Larson, or "Mayor Margaret," has long been Arlington's doyenne of diplomacy, but she is wrapping up her City Hall career.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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ARLINGTON — Just call her Mayor Margaret. No last name necessary.

Around the town she was born in 73 years ago, Margaret Larson is everyone's mom, the no-nonsense, Norwegian-speaking woman, who followed her late husband, John, in serving as mayor. The two were mayor for nearly 19 years.

This year, faced with poor health and a desire for change, Arlington's doyenne of diplomacy isn't running for a third term. Instead, six candidates, most well known to Arlington, are running in the Aug. 16 primary election for the part-time job that pays $1,500 a month.

One of them is Seattle firefighter Craig Christianson, whose father, Howard, now 89, was mayor from 1972-1979.

The others running are: Debora Nelson, owner of a photography studio and active in the Downtown Merchants Association; Barbara Tolbert, the director of the Arlington Fly-In event and a mainstay of a number of community groups; City Councilman Steve Baker; Kari Ilonummi, who ran for council but lost in the 2009 election; and Parks, Arts and Recreation Commissioner Carsten Mullin. When six candidates signed up to run for mayor in the primary, Larson was surprised but pleased.

Community interest and involvement is something she has always advocated.

"When you're in the people business, if everybody isn't part of the puzzle, it isn't going to work," she said last week as she sat at the conference table in City Hall.

On the wall was a map of Arlington covered with stickers — yellow ones for projects in the works and green ones for those that are finished. "We've accomplished a lot," Larson said. "If you love the people and work together, it's amazing what happens."

The recent $4 million Olympic Avenue redevelopment widened the streets and gave the city new light posts, planters of flowers and a parking lot by City Hall.

City officials told the downtown merchants that if they spruced up their storefronts, the city would bear the cost of the redevelopment instead of taxing them through a local improvement district, Larson said.

She favors public-private partnerships as a cost-effective way to get things done. She also "takes the I's out"' of her civic accomplishments, preferring instead to credit everyone involved.

"This is how we work. There are wonderful, wonderful people here," she said.

Margaret Halverson and John Larson met at Arlington High School. He was a football hero. They married after graduation.

She became a school-district secretary and eventually became the district's finance director. He worked for the Public Utilities District. They had two children and eventually four grandchildren.

And their lives, including stopping by the Bluebird Cafe for chicken-fried steak or attending a Little League game, were intricately involved with Arlington.

"He was always dedicated to the community,'" she said of her husband. "He'd do anything for people."

In 1980, John Larson became mayor. He was in the last year of his third term when he became ill and had to resign. Bob Kraski was mayor from 1990 to 2003.

When Kraski's term was up and Margaret had been widowed and retired from the school district three years, friends urged her to run for mayor.

"It took a lot of talking to get me to do it," she said.

Arlington, which has a strong council-city manager form of government, had grown from the sleepy town of 3,500 when her husband was first elected and was approaching what it is today — about 17,500 — when Larson challenged a councilman and the incumbent.

She hit the streets door-belling and listening to residents' concerns.

The incumbent never made it out of the primary. Larson won by 55 percent of the vote.

She "brought heart back to the town by being involved herself," Nelson said. She became the persona of Arlington as it moved from being a dusty "old town" into one with a future.

"Mayor Margaret is a leader who takes part. You see her at the events, at the coffee shops. She's never separate. She's engaged in the community."

During her two terms in office, she could point to many things as accomplishments — the purchase of the former Country Charm Dairy along the Stillaguamish River for eventual use as a city park, or successful passage of an emergency-medical-service levy, making advanced life-support possible in the valley; construction of Fire Station 48 and a police station and council chambers behind City Hall and expansion of the city baseball fields.

But what she's most proud of is the Olympic Avenue redevelopment and rallying Arlington citizens to volunteer in their community.

"It takes everyone to make a community," she said. "I've been blessed."

Nancy Bartley: 206-464-8522 or nbartley@seattletimes.com

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