How will history judge Mayor Nickels?

Greg Nickels passed the real test for a mayor: leaving behind some enduring civic goods.
Crosscut archive image.

Norm Rice, Greg Nickels, Charles Royer

Greg Nickels passed the real test for a mayor: leaving behind some enduring civic goods.

If the beating on Mayor Greg Nickels'ꀙ political corpse is over, perhaps we can devote some attention to a more balanced understanding of his service at the head of Seattle's government. The starting point ought to be a more reasoned look at Mayor Nickels' largely productive time in office.

That record will hold up in history, long after the rather superficial charges during the past campaign, where the Mayor finished an embarrassing third. With rare exception this past year, we were told that Nickels was a 'ꀜbully.'ꀝ Worse was the crime of his being in politics all his professional life. Still worse, his transportation department could not clear many streets after a severe snow storm and deep freeze. The list of alleged sins committed by the mayor includes the fact that his good friend, Tim Ceis, was a tough (however effective) deputy mayor who could step on the toes of people who would squeal at the hurt. That, mind you, in polite Seattle.

I remember a fairly typical incident involving Ceis, one that got Councilmember Jean Godden'ꀙs nose out of joint. The Mayor had taken the chairman of a City Light citizens review committee to visit with Seattle Times editorial writers. The chairman had made notifying the City Council a condition of his going along to the editorial board, and Ceis said he'ꀙd do the notifying. Fair enough. Good protocol. Good Politics. Trouble was Ceis forgot to do it. Godden heard about the visit after the fact and, rightly, was offended.

Okay: Tim Ceis should have made the phone call to Godden. So the mayor'ꀙs office did not always observe proper political protocol, which may make for poor relations with council members (a fairly chronic condition in Seattle). And there may be some political hardball in that. But episodes like that do not substantiate the bullying charge — one often alleged, certainly, but not substantiated.

Next, let's look at the criticism that Nickels only knew politics. A short look at his career: manager of City Council candidate Norm Rice'ꀙs successful campaign in 1978; hard work and schooling as Councilman Rice'ꀙs legislative assistant during his mentor'ꀙs distinguished service on the City Council, including the years when Rice chaired the Finance Committee; then Nickels ran successfully for the King County Council, where he earned good marks for his industry and constituent service; a failed race for County Executive and for Mayor; finally, he won a close race for Mayor over City Attorney Mark Sidran in 2001, succeeding the troubled Paul Schell.

All politics since age 17? Yes, but some pretty good training and mentors. All Nickels'ꀙ working life in politics? But for what purpose? To line his pockets? No. To run for governor? Likely not. To build a modern rapid transit system? Yes. To enrich and beautify the city by redeveloping its waterfront for all to enjoy? Indeed. To take political risks in the bargain? Of course, as the record shows: Nickels'ꀙ push for a more sensible approach to caring for our environment, for 'ꀜsustainable'ꀝ policies (recycling, composting), a more effective and accountable police department, prudent stewardship of scarce city resources.

As for Nickels' forceful political style: some of that is due to the politicized, partisan environment of the King County Council, and some of it comes from the nature of the Mayor'ꀙs office which is, by charter, a strong one. So is the City Council a strong legislative body. Therefore, by design, serious tension is built into the city'ꀙs governing process.

Mayor Schell had weakened the executive prerogatives of the Mayor to the point that Council members boasted openly they were filling the gap — legislators acting as executives, and getting away with it. Nickels came in determined to reclaim the authority of the office, and rightly so. He needed an enforcer and Ceis was the guy.

Hardly new. Norm Rice (Mayor Nice) had the strong and diplomatic Bob Watt. Wes Uhlman deployed the smart and shrewd Bob Gogerty and, later, witty and razor-sharp Ed Wood. None of these deputies were yes men. Each got in his boss'ꀙs face, and other faces, when the need arose. But, people loved Bob Watt, and disliked (some intensely) Tim Ceis. So Nickels became known as a bully — at best a venial sin.

The City Council, since it is constitutionally strong, believes it really can do a better job than the sitting mayor. But voters have not seen it that way. Only once since Dorm Braman in the mid-1960s have voters chosen a councilmember to be mayor, the estimable Norm Rice.

Nevertheless, Nickels did not clear the snow and ice off the streets. For a few days, over the course of eight years, he failed to do that. And people got mad — dog mad.

So now we'ꀙll have a new mayor who has not been in politics all his life. Sort of like hiring a plumber to fix a short in your electrical circuitry. Most people would call an experienced electrician.

Granted, the city bungled the snow-storm mess. But, again, how about some historic context? Mayor Wes Uhlman certainly enjoyed his share of controversy in the 'ꀘ70s. But his leadership gave us a revitalized Pioneer Square, Magnuson Park instead of a general aviation airport, city services for seniors, and the Citizen Service Bureau. Mayor Charles Royer withstood the tempests in the 'ꀘ80s over his 'ꀜscattered-site'ꀝ approach to public housing and pushed through the bus tunnel that now holds light rail. Mayor Norm Rice in the 'ꀘ90s presided over the saving of downtown and delivered substantive municipal support for our public schools via the Families and Education levy.

Lasting achievements these, civic benefits with controversy in the moment but that live on to our collective benefit.

The point is not that these were perfect or particularly heroic mayors. None of them even pretended to be. That goes for Nickels too. But perfection, always making the right decision, is the wrong measure. The valid measure is whether these public servants left behind a positive civic record, and some enduring civic goods that enrich our community. All pass that test. Greg Nickels belongs in that pantheon.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors

Sam R. Sperry

Sam R. Sperry

Sam Sperry is the former Associate Editor of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer editorial page, and a lifelong resident of Seattle.