Seattle Mayor: a bad career move

In some cities, the City Hall melodrama is the great show, with outsized characters and juicy stories. Here, it's a dull, dead-end job.
Crosscut archive image.

Then-Mayor Greg Nickels at a CityClub forum. (Seattle Channel)

In some cities, the City Hall melodrama is the great show, with outsized characters and juicy stories. Here, it's a dull, dead-end job.

In some cities, usually big cities, politics is a spectator sport. City Hall is often a prime beat, and columnists and bloggers pick over every insider tidbit, boondoggle, affair, and public poll. In Boston, New York, Chicago, and San Francisco, citizens keep scorecards of who'ꀙs up, who'ꀙs down and who'ꀙs going to jail.

It'ꀙs different in Seattle. If politics here were a spectator sport, it would be like watching the 1980s Mariners in the Kingdome: a lot of mediocrity in a hollow shell that'ꀙs supposed to be 'ꀜworld class.'ꀝ

Big-city bosses make great story characters, and political wards and machines are fodder for entertaining narratives. It'ꀙs civic soap opera, and you want your daily fix. But here, we tend to look down on politics. It'ꀙs too showy, too ego driven, too money obsessed. Larger-than-life personalities are suspect, pols who stand out seem pushy. Our inner Scando-Asian Calvinism sees political posturing as a sin of pride. Politics is supposed to be about bland, colorless public service, not showboating. Too, we value consensus and process, which can produce a potluck where vegans and the lactose intolerant can find something to eat, but it won'ꀙt be a gourmet civic feast. The best we can do is complain about slow-motion gridlock or argue about whether to tax grocery bags or legalize miniature goats.

One result is that our scandals are rare and usually penny ante. Did the mayor jump to the head of the line in getting his West Seattle street snowplowed? In some cities, the real scandal would be if a mayor was so weak he couldn'ꀙt get dug out first.

But the downside of our dullness is mediocrity. Nothing demonstrates that better than our mayoral elections. Let'ꀙs face it, mayoral politics does not attract rising stars. When was the last time a Seattle mayor successfully won a bid for higher office? It was 1941, when Republican Arthur Langlie was elected governor. You have to be at least 70 years old to remember that election, and almost that old to remember when Seattle had Republicans.

Being mayor of Seattle is a dead-end, not a launch pad. The ambitious go elsewhere (such as to the position of King County executive, which has produced two governors in John Spellman and Gary Locke, and a deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in Ron Sims). A few mayors have tried for higher office, including Norm Rice, Charles Royer, and Wes Uhlman, but politically, there'ꀙs just no juice. Seattle has long been reluctant about giving the office much respect.

It'ꀙs been that way since the 1860s, when mayors were elected to one-year terms, later stretched to two years, still much later (1948) to four. We elected one early mayor who only served three weeks before he quit (Frank Black in 1896), and his successor (W.D. Wood) served just over a year before he abandoned his post so he could join the gold rush in the Yukon. Those who kept the job have been good, bad (two were recalled), but mostly forgettable. The message is that prominent, civically engaged Seattleites usually have better things to do than lord it over City Hall.

This year, we enter the mayoral race with an incumbent, Greg Nickels, who, if re-elected, would be our first three-termer since Royer'ꀙs re-election in 1985. Nickels is politically strong and well funded, but about as popular as those 'ꀙ80s Mariners, who couldn'ꀙt win even half their games during the Royer years. An opinion poll in April had Nickels'ꀙ approval rating at 34 percent and his disapproval rating at 58 percent. That'ꀙs not lackluster, that'ꀙs awful. Yet only in Seattle would the headline over those numbers ask, 'ꀜ'ꀦis he beatable?'ꀝ

Instead of chomping at the bit, prospective opponents were cautious to take him on —like former council member Peter Steinbrueck, who decided that a one-year fellowship at Harvard beat running for mayor. He leaves for Cambridge before the election.

Good career move.

This essay first appeared in the July issue of 'Seattle' magazine.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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