City of Seattle
It was refreshing to see Ron Sims in the Crosscut offices last week. He's back from Washington, DC, slimmer than you remember, good humored, passionate, frank: a man clearly enjoying his sabbatical from heavy responsibilities and the circus of public life. Deputy Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development wasn't a fit; a new appointment to the Puget Sound Partnership Leadership Council is. But HUD was a great place for Sims to learn about rejuvenating cities.
In the final years of Sims' tenure as King County Executive, he seemed less interested in governing than in innovating. He began to view his office less as a bully pulpit than a think tank full of fresh young fellows, a place to try new ideas, such as revamping the county's approach to healthcare, one experiment that appears to have worked. David Brewster once called him a "true geyser" of visionary ideas.
One of the things on Sims mind these days is regional leadership. The short version is this: what Sims has learned traveling to urban areas around the U.S. with the power of federal HUD grants behind him, is that even in the age of cities, no particular city is guaranteed success (see Detroit, Philadelphia, St. Louis). It is possible to get to the top of the heap and slide into decline.
Another lesson: that one thing all successful cities have is regional cooperation. In other words, there is buy-in to a regional vision. A city is bound to its satellites, suburbs, exurbs. Everyone has to get on the same page to deal with problems that jump jurisdictions, like water, air quality, transportation, economic development. No city is an island.
Sims says that urban success transcends ideology: that Democratic and Republican cities can be very effective and successful if they have their act together. He cites Tampa and San Diego as GOP cities that have their act together as well as regional cohesiveness. Seattle he assesses as troubled, in part because regional leadership and consensus is lacking. "If there isn't coherence, there is failure," he observes. Sims spent much of his DC tenure in the field at his agency's some 70 offices (only 30 percent of HUD's workforce is in DC). Here in Pugetopolis, he says, we're a little "chaotic."
Sims would like to see Seattle get its act together by creating what he calls a "viral" civic culture that will help us be more globally competitive. It's a matter of attitude; it's a hope for a regional leader to emerge. Sims himself is reluctant to position himself as that leader. For the moment he's enjoying sabbatical status, plus he carries some baggage in that area as well (he became a Sound Transit apostate). He says the leadership characteristics needed are "backbone, stomach, courage, and attitude."
Waiting for a single civic leader will be a long wait. The issues are complex enough, the talent pool broad enough, the region diverse enough, that it is best and more realistic to expect to have more leaders than a single catalyst. Before you can have a viral civic culture, having a viral leadership culture would help. And something to hang it on.
Looking back to the 1950s and '60s, Seattle saw the emergence of new leaders in Eddie Carlson, the Western Hotels (now Westin) executive who took Century 21 from a barroom idea to a transformative event. His emergence coincided with the rise of Jim Ellis, the attorney who hatched the idea of regional coordination and improvement through Metro and later pushed Forward Thrust. The two efforts were complementary and helped transform the region's infrastructure, from transportation and wastewater treatment to the creation of Seattle Center. They also less successfully pushed for mass transit, though they planted the seeds that resulted in regional rail.
Both leaders were relatively young men when they took the reins of their respective projects: Carlson was an up-and-coming vice president of 44 when he took on the highly improbable task of putting on a world's fair in the mid 1950s. Ellis was only 32 when he first proposed Metro in '53. They weren't tied to elective office so they could operate more freely; they worked largely on a volunteer basis; they were persuasive, stubborn, charming, and in it for the long haul. Both also knew how to make allies and think big.
That isn't to say that electeds and bureaucrats had no influence: a culture of leadership involves people willing to act in the civic interest, not simply in their own. There is greater chance of success on big endeavors if there is bipartisan cooperation. The world's fair, for example, was initiated by a Republican governor (Art Langlie), funded by the signature of a Republican president (Dwight Eisenhower), and carried off by a Democratic governor (Al Rosellini) and a Democratic president (John Kennedy). Notably, Rosellini left Carlson, a Republican, in charge instead of replacing him with a patronage appointment of his own when Rosellini became governor in 1957. There was also the advantage of having the Magnuson-Jackson money machine fueling business- and labor-friendly projects that please blue collar Democrats as well as white collar CEOs.
Age was not an issue: these young leaders could motivate the old guard as well. Ellis and Carlson were not yet establishment movers and shakers, but working their way up the power ladder. Carlson, former manager of the Rainier Club, knew who was who, and how to get things done. Their projects required the buy-in of all generations, and that included private sector philanthropists who represented old-money Seattle, like Weyerhaeuser heir Norton Clapp, or the efforts of old-school downtown real estate man Henry Broderick who had helped put on the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition. They had a knack for getting powerful interests on board, getting them to invest or donate, take a risk.
Ellis was able to get the city and King County to put together a Metropolitan Problems Advisory Committee to help come up with a regional governance solution. Us-and-them activism often works as a defensive measure, but is not a formula for establishment success which tends to be a combination of high-minded do-gooderism and backroom deal-making.
Leadership must also have the capacity to sell. Ellis had to sell the idea of regional governance in the suspicious environment of cities competing with the monster Seattle; during Metro and Forward Thrust, he had to sell a whole slate of reforms. One powerfully effective image was of the children of civic leader Robert Block lined up on the shore, unable to swim in the toxic stew of Lake Washington.
The world's fair was another enormous exercise in salesmanship: Eddie Carlson's grounding in the hospitality industry, and his true enjoyment of people, really helped him schmooze, cajole, and convince folks to go along. Plus effective salesmen were hired to ensure the fair's success, notably Joe Gandy, a Ford Dealer who was also a terrific diplomat, and Jay Rockey, a hotshot pr man.
Leaders must also have a plan, an organizing idea or principle to latch onto. It must transcend self interest, but also have something in it for everyone, from corporate boardrooms to union halls to the woman in the street. It must appeal to the culture of civic good and must push people to the next level of achievement. It has to be worth years of early-morning meetings, arm-twisting lunches, and endless banquets rewarding the participants. Self-congratulation is a useful tool.
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