Greg Nickels' rebel yell

Seattle's mayor waves the flag of secession. In so doing, he may have waved goodbye to a future in state politics.
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Then-Mayor Greg Nickels at a CityClub forum. (Seattle Channel)

Seattle's mayor waves the flag of secession. In so doing, he may have waved goodbye to a future in state politics.

It's not just the Rev. Jeramiah Wright who speaks in the "prophetic voice." When the region's politicians get frustrated, they use provocative language to declare they are going to save the people by leading them on a journey to the promised land.

When Eastern Washington legislators tire of being bullied in Olympia by big-city know-nothings, they rattle the sabers of secession and assert their right to split the state in two. When property rights activists get frustrated at the Growth Management Act, they seek to carve new counties from old, such as the sometime Cedar County rebellion of east King County. When greens freak out over environmental degradation, they point to that eco-Eden on the hill, Ecotopia, a fantasy land that takes more tangible form in the idea of a new nation named Cascadia made up of Washington, Oregon and British Columbia. Like a squabbling family, sometimes the only solution is getting away from each other.

The proposals are sometimes serious (here's a rundown). Commonly, however, they're overstatements that get at a prickly political conundrum. Usually, they are made by people who feel oppressed – a David struggling against a Goliath. But recently, we had the unusual spectacle of Washington's Goliath whining.

A couple of weeks ago, Seattle mayor Greg Nickels let loose at a panel of mayors speaking at CityClub. "Venting Nickels Suggests Secession" was the headline in The Seattle Times. Nickels criticized the Legislature and regional governance. He said he was tired of rural legislators weighing in on issues like the Alaskan Way Viaduct and gun control. He was frustrated that Seattle was being held back by the rest of the state and said that it was time to consider secession. According to the Times:

The Puget Sound regional economy makes up 67 percent of the state's economic activity, [Nickels] said. "If we were a country, [our economy] would be just a little smaller than Thailand. We would be larger than Colombia, Venezuela. We are held back because our state and federal government[s] still believe our economies are driven by wheat farms and timber logging."

Part of Nickels' frustration is local governance. The Puget Sound Regional Council, which guides planning and development in Pugetopolis, is both too weak and unwieldy, Nickels says. It needs fewer members and more power to get things done. Seattle is held back not only by rural rubes but by too much process and too much – what would you call it, democracy? – in its own backyard.

During the CityClub panel's Q&A session (you can see the event here), the mayor allowed as how he was born in Chicago, and that just may have influenced how he looks at effective governance. Which is no surprise to Nickels-watchers. His love of the strongman is well known and felt. And it's not lost on people in other parts of the state, either. In response to Nickels' comments, the conservative Palousitics blog in Eastern Washington saw a connection when Nickels cited Venezuela: If Nickels can't run the city, why not get a real socialist strongman to manage things – Hugo Chavez, perhaps?

If Nickels' neo-Confederate howl made headlines in Seattle, it was heard even more loudly all around the state. Newspaper editorial pages weighed in and the reviews haven't been flattering. Nickels hadn't exactly called on God to damn Eastern Washington, but he singlehandedly confirmed their worst fears about the arrogant "bittergate" wetsiders.

The Tri-City Herald wondered what the heck Nickels was complaining about, since his fellow Democrats run the state. "You don't need to be a political analyst to figure out Republicans aren't calling the shots," they wrote.

The Yakima Herald-Republic called Nickels' secession call "absurd" and wondered where Seattle would get its food if it lopped off its agricultural arm. Looking on the bright side, they opined that at least "we'll get out of our share of the billions needed to fix Puget Sound's traffic problems."

The Walla Walla Union-Bulletin defended agriculture – including its vital grape crop – by reminding Seattle of what's important: "What's grown in Eastern Washington drives the state's economy far more than the arrogance that's cultivated in the Seattle area." Becoming unbearably arrogant is thirsty business, and our thirst is often slaked by the juice of Walla Walla grapes.

And the Spokane Spokesman-Review embarrassed the mayor by reminding him of his own previous words:

Over the years, frustrated residents of Eastern Washington and North Idaho have sometimes called for secession, and we've tried to point out what a dumb idea that would be. We never expected it would be necessary to say the same to the statesman who wrote, six years ago: "We can eradicate the 'Cascade divide' and nurture instead 'One Washington.'"

The Seattle mayor and his friends maintain he was simply speaking for effect. Nickels' then-spokesperson, Marty McOmber, told the Times that hizzoner was speaking "tongue in cheek," even when he said, "I am serious when I say we ought to talk about independence." Seattle City Council member Sally Clark defended Nickels' comments in the Daily Journal of Commerce:

"I think by being provocative he is trying to get people thinking and surely we have all been thinking of regional governments and where that makes sense," Clark said. "I think he highlighted that we, as a region, often feel very separate from the rest of the state."

The mayor's new spokesperson, Alex Fryer, responded by e-mail last week and put this spin on his boss' comments:

The mayor was making the point that Seattle and the central Puget Sound region are economically vital to the state, and there have been times when the city's relationship with the Legislature has not reflected this reality. The Puget Sound region contains 51 percent of the total statewide population and 60 percent of the state's total employment. Its retail sales tax activity accounts for 60 percent of total state sales tax revenue. The statement about [secession] was simply intended to reflect the city's frustration and desire to better partner with the Legislature.

In other words, the real target of Nickels' ire wasn't his fellows in the region or the rural farmers or loggers of the Evergreen State, it was the really bad folks in Olympia. We can all agree to hate them, right?

Nice try, but the mayor's secession schtick, while undoubtedly purposely outrageous, was still embarrassingly revealing of Seattle's obsessive self-regard.

No one outside Seattle needs reminding of the metro area's economic power and clout. They know it, live with it, and sometimes resent it. The only possible audience for that message is to serve as a rallying cry for the power elite of Pugetopolis to flex their muscle and use their leverage to do a better job of getting their way. In that sense, a psychic secession has already occurred. Nickels is used to getting his way in Seattle, and Seattle is used to getting its way in the region, and for everyone else, the message is get out of the way, big city's comin' through.

The comments also reveal that if there was a WASL test about Washington, Seattle would flunk it. Our "prosperity" is offered up as if it exists in a vacuum, with no connection to anywhere outside of Puget Sound. How would we answer questions like: Where does the wood for our homes come from? Where do our salmon spawn? Where are our apples grown? How about all that cheap Columbia River power? In Nickels' world, it isn't rural America that's bitter, but Seattle, city of wealth and privilege. The rest of the state is crippling us, keeping us from our destiny, maybe even sucking us dry. Who needs 'em?

If Seattle, with all the advantages (save the ball and chain of rural Washington), can't make itself happy, why is that? With Democrats in full control of the city, much of Pugetopolis, both houses of the Legislature, most statewide elected offices, the governor's mansion, six of nine congressional seats, and both U.S. Senate seats, why are Seattle and Puget Sound having so much trouble? Are urban problems really so intractable that they defy every level of state and local political leadership? Is it really an issue of government structure? Are the problems of Pugetopolis the fault of wheat ranchers and whistlepunks? Or, just maybe, is our leadership problem a problem with our actual leaders?

One thing we can be certain of: Greg Nickels' ambitions do not include running for governor. Being Seattle mayor has long been a dubious Olympia springboard. But Nickels appears to have used it dive into the shallow end of an empty pool. The sound of his splat has resounded far beyond Puget Sound.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.