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Nickelsism without Nickels

Greg Nickels and Jan Drago, lookalike political allies Credit: Sue Frause

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 The disarray after the bruising Commons wars and the fall of Mayor Paul Schell’s shaky alliances has been replaced by a coalition of the powerful.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.”

Then, too, all this Seattle prosperity has been fueled by a gusher of money and taxes from real estate. (While they lasted, real estate transaction taxes were the venture capital for the Schell and Nickels administrations.) Some cities, such as Las Vegas and Phoenix, got way too dependent on the real estate and construction sectors. Seattle (23.4 percent of private sector output in this sector in 2006, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis) is above the U.S. metro average of 20.5 percent. (Bend, really going through the bends, was at 37.8 percent.) Now comes the deflation of this bubble. Take away the surplus capital and the grand consensus can turn into a family feud.

The potency, and the fragility, of this Grand Alliance make the current Mayor’s race unusually fraught. Candidate McGinn, former head of the local Sierra Club chapter and a classic outsider-activist, rode into the final astride an issue bound to spur a showdown — opposing the tunnel solution for the waterfront and the Viaduct. It took eight years to get to this resolution, and even though the deep-bored tunnel wasn’t the Mayor’s preferred idea (unless he was playing a superb game of bluff poker), his coalition rallied around it and greatly fears that its disintegration would lead to the collapse of the peace treaty.

Moreover, if McGinn were to get elected and try to undo the deal, he would infuriate Gov. Gregoire, Sen. Patty Murray, and the Boeing Co. — thus jeopardizing the economic coalition and its plans to nurse the area back to prosperity. Muses Sally Clark of the Seattle City Council: “At the most, McGinn would only have two votes of nine on the City Council for his waterfront solution.” (That would be Mike O’Brien, if he wins, and Nick Licata.) I asked a leader of the Chamber of Commerce what would be the result of a McGinn victory? “Vietnam.”

It’s more complicated than that, however. McGinn, until recently, was a happy member of the Density Detente, praising Nickels for his transportation initiatives. McGinn’s organization, the Great City Initiative, is funded by a key organization in the quality-growth coalition, the Cascade Agenda of the Cascade Land Conservancy. Like most urban greens, McGinn green-lights urban development and densification. But he’s part of the left wing of the Detente, unwilling to fund highways and other auto-favoring projects that are part of the non-aggression pact. He’s not a coalitionist so much as a conviction politician, unlike Nickels. As such, he might lead an exodus of the deeper-green voters and organizations from the Alliance. There goes the Detente.

It gets worse. In saying there isn’t money enough for the $4 billion tunnel project, particularly the city’s near-$1 billion share, McGinn exposes another fissure in the Nickels Grand Alliance — the suddenly shaky balance sheets of big-dollar liberalism. Mayor Nickels has always been rosy-spectacled about big capital projects, figuring the money would show up somehow. The big issue in his 2001 race was how he, as inattentive finance chair of Sound Transit, let it nearly run off the budgetary rails. He signed on early and enthusiastically for the Monorail (another exploding fiscal cigar). His projects in South Lake Union, such as the Mercer Plan and refurbishing Seattle Center, may also run out of money, particularly given the severe pinch on municipal revenues.

The last problem for Nickelsism without Nickels is that there are no seasoned pilots around who can bring this flak-riddled airplane in for a soft landing. Joe Mallahan would seem to have that in mind, and the components of the Nickels Alliance will largely gather round him, showering his campaign with advice and independent expenditures. Too bad he’s never been in the cockpit.

But wait! The deus ex machina for Nickelsism, ironically, could turn out to be the Seattle City Council. The 2007 election was notable for the maturity and centrism of legislators it elected: at the Port, the School Board, and the City Council. The City Council never liked being manhandled by Mayor Nickels, but it grudgingly bought into the politics and the vision he forged. Whichever rookie gets elected, councilmembers are going to have a lot of big and important friends, at least for the next two years. They’ll like that.

Say what you will about Greg Nickels and his shrewd political architect, Deputy Mayor Tim Ceis, but they knew how to find the sweet center of Seattle business and politics for these past eight years. They followed the money. But they did a poor job of making the public understand and like these new agendas, and so fell out of public favor (though not out of favor among the powerful interests). The Nickels agenda never was strong on the social-justice side of the ledger. It was impatient with neighborhood small-mindedness. It didn’t produce notable monuments (like a Millennium Park in Chicago) that would dramatize the Alliance’s public benefits. Finally, it may have run out of gas, just as Mayor Nickels himself did in his truly listless reelection campaign.

But politics is weird. The best chance for Nickelsism to persist may have come about precisely because its leader was decapitated.

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