Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels. (City of Seattle)
When I read about
Mayor Greg Nickels' adult son, Jacob, being indicted on federal charges related to a multi-state scam to cheat casinos, I had two distinctly opposite reactions.
The first was instant sympathy. As the parent of two 25-year-olds, I could identify with the pain and difficulty the Nickelses must be experiencing over the troubles of their son. As a parent, you feel an automatic empathy when tragedy strikes families with children the same age as your own. If a two-year-old drowns, you seem to feel it more acutely if you have a two-year old.
One of the most difficult parts of the later stages of parenting is that you feel forever responsible for your kids, but as they grow older, you gradually lose any real control. That's not much fun when the kids go through difficult times or screw up.
My second reaction was at the opposite end of the spectrum. I immediately remembered that this was the mayor who a year ago, as part of his anti-strip-club campaign, went out of his way on a TV show to say that the Frank Colacurcio family-owned strip club in the Lake City neighborhood, Rick's, was involved in "organized crime."
The Colacurcios denied
the charge, and the mayor pointed to the 2003 Strippergate campaign scandal
as evidence to support his allegation. The Colacurcios offered to open up their club's books
for the mayor's review, but he declined the invitation.
Of course, Frank Colacrucio Sr.'s history
, which includes federal racketeering convictions, made the mayor's charge seem not particularly outrageous, except for eyebrow-raising implication, unproven, that the Colacurcios are mobbed up. As far as I know, no one sued for slander.
But painful as it might be to point out, it turns out that while the mayor has been battling Rick's and the strip clubs, his own son was working in the morally dubious world of casino gambling and is now the one who stands accused of participating in a multi-state crime ring. The Colacurcios – Franks senior and junior – are neither of them saints or strangers to federal charges, but they must be smirking at the irony and at the mayor's sudden loss of moral leverage over them.
This brings us
to the nexus of the personal and political. Some observers of Seattle politics expressed surprise over the Jacob Nickels indictment because they had no idea Greg Nickels even had a son. The mayor has done a pretty good job of keeping his personal life personal. He's almost Ronald Reaganesque in maintaining a kind of distance from those who'd like to know what makes him really tick.
That could be a secret to sanity. It also reflects an aspect of the Seattle Way in local politics. Here, public figures are allowed to keep at least some divide between their personal and public lives. Local politicians expect to be able to go home and enjoy a zone of privacy and normalcy.
When you think about it, it's amazing what we don't know and don't care to know about Greg Nickels and his family. Would other big-city mayors be afforded this kind of indifference? Certainly the private lives of San Francisco's Gavin Newsom
and former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani
have been media and gossip fodder.
Of course, other scandals are tied specifically to mayoral behavior, not so much that of family members, but I have to think that in cities like Chicago, New York, Boston, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco, where politics is both a contact and a spectator sport, the Jacob Nickels scandal would be getting a lot more media play.
In Guiliani's case
, family relations have become an issue in his presidential campaign. One reason is the double-edged risk of using your children for political purposes. Giuliani's kids were once very visible political props. The fact that his son will have little to do with him now has suddenly highlighted issues that reflect on the mayor's character and parenting ability. Must a president be a perfect parent too?
Depends on whether or not you put your kids in play, politically speaking, as John Dickerson writes in Slate
. If a politician plays the kid card, the media and his opponents will feel free to make use of it. Live by the kids, die by the kids – and you can't have it both ways.
Jacob Nickels is now "in play" not because the media or political enemies of his father put him there but because he put himself there. His story rightly deserves coverage and attention. At the same time, though, I can still respect the fact that a public figure like Greg Nickels deserves to have his privacy respected and his family unexploited. And Nickels, I hope, can be pleased that his "world class" city isn't quite so grown up when it comes to reveling in the private difficulties of public families.