Nickelsism without Nickels

Mayor Nickels forged a grand political alliance, now headless. Will it persist, will the city go back to its familiar feuding ways, or will we move on?
Mayor Nickels bolted together a powerful political and financial coalition.

Mayor Nickels bolted together a powerful political and financial coalition. Josh Trujillo, seattlepi.com

Seattle politics is at a fascinating, generational inflection point. Looked at one way, the body politic has achieved a kind of detente, with formerly feuding interest groups manacled together by Mayor Greg Nickels' muscular and artful fusionism. The disarray after the bruising Commons wars and the fall of Mayor Paul Schell's shaky alliances has been replaced by a coalition of the powerful. It was painfully forged in the Viaduct Wars and now plans to march forward together in a Save-Boeing Crusade. The Alliance hopes to have Nickelsism without Nickels.

But looked at another way, the new center probably cannot hold, in part because of the unexpected toppling of Mayor Nickels in the recent primary. The new political coalition (labor, greens, developers, business, government) failed to do any succession planning for the Mayor's office (or for King County Executive), so we'll have risky rookie governance.

The sagging economy has taken away the surplus funds for buying off dissidents, hiring consultants, and trying new things. A lot of bubbles created by our past two booms (high-tech and real estate) are close to popping: media, the University of Washington, arts, downtown living, big government bureaucracies, union protectionism. It will get ugly, proving that the Nickels Coalition was a kind of phony peace. The old Seattle normal — endless feuding with a smiling face — will return. A revived shoot-out over the Viaduct will serve as the next Fort Sumter, leading to a wider war.

A third scenario: A new consensus will form fairly rapidly, creating a new normal. An outsider such as Mike McGinn, pushing leftward on the urban density consensus, will mobilize a younger generation of impatient idealists, put forth a kind of edgy, new-urbanist agenda (rather like Portland's), turn the older establishment into red-faced foils, and then advance from this new beachhead to form a different kind of ruling alliance with issues that no longer revolve around real estate (the driving force and financial grease of the Nickels Alliance). That evolution might, refreshingly, bring some new members (neighborhoods, new-economy libertarians, non-labor liberals, off-Broadway arts groups, Hispanics, etc.), into this more diverse, modernized, and durable agenda. Call this one Un-Nickelsism without Nickels.

The first thing to examine in handicapping these three possibilities is: How durable is the Nickels Coalition? What Nickels and his allies put together is a considerable achievement, given the cranky independence of Seattle politics. There is an emerging Density Detente, for starters. Its Six Commandments might be put this way: You focus growth near transit stations. You build fast and high in some old "downtowns" like Ballard and Fremont. You get the urban greens and their media allies pushing hard for compact urban living. You stimulate the new economy with its young, pre-children workforce that likes street life and scorns yards. You throw in some big construction projects like the tunnel to get unions on board. And you explode downtown Seattle's growth to the northeast (the Denny Triangle and South Lake Union) to get the developers and contractors (and their law firms) in the tent. And then you hope this transformative change survives the real estate bust, anger over high prices, a general disappointment with the max-out architecture, and the absence (so far) of promised amenities such as new parks.

Another component of the Grand Alliance is its economic consensus. The new Seattle economy rests on four pillars of the Knowledge Economy: bio-tech (faltering), higher education and the University of Washington (financially jeopardized by the Legislature), global philanthropy (booming), and high tech (increasingly moving to urban campuses and away from lonely suburban encampments). As long as the Boeing economy remains to sustain the blue collar side of town in jobs, this formula has worked. But Boeing is probably going to shed (and move) a lot of jobs soon. Similarly, the trade sector is facing more competition and less Port traffic.

The shakiness of this economic formula will be a critical factor, going forward. Seattle no longer has a near-monopoly on its kind of high-growth, new-economy urban recipe. Many other cities have figured out, some better than Seattle, how to create this kind of brand (a moderate-sized city, close to outdoor recreation, with lots of exciting, world-expanded companies to work for, and a youthful, brainy, alternative-culture buzz). So the competition for the next round of world-beating companies will be stiffer. And backlash is growing against this go-go Seattle recipe, which one neighborhood-hugger calls: "No cars, no jobs, no yards."


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Comments:

Posted Wed, Sep 16, 7:57 a.m. Inappropriate

Did you catch Nickels on C-SPAN this morning back in D.C.? Sounds like a Green Czar interview.

Cameron

Posted Wed, Sep 16, 10:07 a.m. Inappropriate

The leader of the Grand Alliance decapitated?

You are onto something David, but a little off in your historical analogy. The "Grand Alliance" suggests that Nickels was a Louis XIV figure, but I think a far better prototype is Louis XVI, who was indeed decapitated by the unwashed masses of Paris. Most historians attribute this to the move of the French royalty into the isolated and incestuous world of Versailles. Greg Nickels, in forging his alliance of business, labor and environmental courtiers lost his connection to the citizens of Seattle. He moved into his proverbial Versailles, and his imperial court was too afraid to tell the emperor that he had no clothes.

If there is a lesson to be learned in Nickels fall, it is that we want bread - not cake - from our next Mayor.

unter

Posted Wed, Sep 16, 12:58 p.m. Inappropriate

Rest easy Brewster: Vulcan and the Seattle Times and the DSA and chamber of commerce are working hard on this issue right now.

Posted Wed, Sep 16, 6:07 p.m. Inappropriate

David, you have a "third scenario" but no scenario one or two. Or is this part two of a two part article? what did I miss?

Chas Royer turned out to be a good mayor with little or no executive experience. Correct me if I am wrong but I think his resume resembled Susan Hutchinson's, except, of course he had retained friendly ties to his former employer. I don't think we will be that lucky again. The best mayors we have had were seasoned politicians, Greg Nickels and Dorm Braman.

kieth

Posted Wed, Sep 16, 8:36 p.m. Inappropriate

David,
You must have been thinking about this for weeks because it is so much better than the other you posted this date. Your looking ahead is even more facile than your usual, your reasoning back, full of intrigue though not quite there yet. All the latter needs is continued thinking. Your word pictures—over the top!

One quibble: the "quality growth coalition "(lower case) is from the late 1980s, or at least the "growth coalition" is--I remember reading about it at length in at least one ultra-liberal text--how times have changed.

Today it's the Quality Growth Alliance (upper case)--motto "we have your backs" Obviously, you have yet to join, which is good for Seattle, good for Crosscut readers. Keep up the good work.

afreeman

Posted Wed, Sep 16, 9:45 p.m. Inappropriate

David
I agree with you that we need to be careful about over extending the budget on showcase capital projects. The real challenge for the next generation of leaders will be on how to handle the day-to-day infrastructure challenges that the city faces, such as street repair and renovating park infrastructure (pools, Sandpoint/Magnuson).

We really should be glad that we didn't commit precious capital dollars to the monorail extension. Similarly we should look long and hard at capital projects that expand the Convention Center, renovate Key Arena/Seattle Center, fix the seawall, re-route Mercer, or extend the Lake Union trolley lines. The economic boom of the last decade which permitted us to make major capital expenditures such as Safeco and Qwest field was transitory.

Posted Sat, Sep 19, 8:11 a.m. Inappropriate

David--
I agree. Nickels' achievement is considerable, even though I feel like one of those Seattlelites living on the outside of his agenda. His ability, along with Ceis, to consolidate and use power to push through an agenda and stymy others is not one we're going to see soon, unless McGinn shocks us all. (Yes, I'm discounting Mallahan.) The next mayor will vie with Conlin and Burgess and perhaps Constantine for leadership. Neighborhoods power will increase as McGinn tries to cater to his base and as the downtown interests lose their driver (Nickels). Mallahan whose leadership skills are still on leave and whose agenda is AWOL is not likely to make a mark but simply keep the seat warm as Schell did. Yes. We're returning to Seattle's fractured politics. Maybe some long promised investment in the city outside the downtown area might actually be possible.

Mikos

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