Seattle Mayors come in four flavors

Our close Mayor's race reflects the four distinct approaches of recent city leaders. Here's a mix-and-match exercise to help you last-second voters.
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Norm Rice, Greg Nickels, Charles Royer

Our close Mayor's race reflects the four distinct approaches of recent city leaders. Here's a mix-and-match exercise to help you last-second voters.

Trying to figure out who to vote for in the Seattle Mayor's race (no easy task), I came up with this possibly helpful way of thinking about the race and our recent civic history. Each of the four main contenders exemplifies four styles from the mayors before Greg Nickels.

To go in reverse order, let's start with Paul Schell (1997-2001). Schell was our designer mayor, coming out of the architectural and planning traditions of Seattle. He was a developer of stylish projects who served a while as Dean of the U.W. College of Architecture, and he cut his public teeth as head of community development under Mayor Wes Uhlman, rehabbing the Market and reviving Pioneer Square. His wife, Pam, was a leading figure in Seattle arts. Schell had high design standards for the city, which was just then feeling it deserved a place among the leading world cities. He was our John Lindsay, our Bill Bradley, a figure who tried to operate above politics, working for an abstract public good. (Seattle craves this kind of thing, but actually has limited patience with it.)

The clearest counterpart is Mike McGinn who, like Schell, can talk passionately and expertly about how to save an urban street or how to revive a commercial neighborhood like Greenwood. McGinn gives this a climate-saving urgency, of course; and he's much more opposed to a big expensive downtown project (the deep tunnel for SR-99) than Schell ever would be. Both have healthy egos and unending flows of eloquence; both are lawyers; both come into the job with not much managerial expertise; both have somewhat limited political bases, though plenty of support in the media.

Before Schell was Norm Rice (1989-97), who was our Obama — a peacemaker in a time of racial tension over school busing (which Rice put an end to), a coalition builder with the City Council, downtown, and the Black community, and a person impossible to dislike. Rice had served for several terms on the City Council, and he knew government and its ways quite well. He delegated well and appointed strong department heads (as did Schell). His big task was to get beyond busing, try to fix schools, and turn around downtown after its big scare when Frederick & Nelson closed. He was a careful realist.

Rice's counterpart is Jan Drago, who often says how she would want to model her mayoralty on Rice's, particularly the harmony with the City Council. Drago recalls how Rice asked her to "save" downtown, which she played a big role in doing, giving her a lot of freedom in how to do it. Drago also resembles in Rice in having hundreds of friends, enjoying the political scene and its parties and banter. Both govern with a human touch, and both are cautious incrementalists.

Charles Royer was Mayor from 1977 to 1989, defeating Paul Schell (now his good friend) in the Watergate-influenced election of 1977, when outsiders were favored. Royer has become much more moderate, but at the time he articulated the 1960s social activism, social-justice politics that is a deep, radical current in Seattle politics. He rode into office on a freeway issue (how many lanes should I-90 have?) and surprised the middle-class reformers rallying around Schell by attacking from the left while they all feared a counter-revolution from the law and order, race-anxious right. Royer took Schell's planning agency and gave it a new agenda: racial and social justice. He took chances on some European-style ideas for activating the bureaucracy (and took some lumps in his first term, particularly with City Light). Eventually he learned the ropes and moved to the center, but he always remained an improviser and fancy-dancer.

Joe Mallahan is the Royer example in today's race — a true outsider preaching an undefined "change" and with very limited civic experience but a dashing way (Royer had been a KING-5 commentator). Mallahan made progress early in this election by downplaying his business career and signing up a lot of Democratic Party activists to pass the word about his early days as a community organizer, Obama-style, in Chicago. He appeals to the social-justice side of the party and the neighborhood populists by not being enamored of density and elite environmentalism. Whether he'd stay in this camp, if elected, is unclear since, like Royer, he'd be very much a work-in-progress in office.

That leaves Wes Uhlman (1969-77), the first modern mayor of Seattle and in many ways still the most successful. Uhlman, like Greg Nickels, was a purely political animal, coming out of the Legislature, toppling the Republican-moderate business establishment which liked small government and low taxes, and establishing a smart, elbows-out, politically savvy administration. You would call the Mayor's office and shrewd operators like Bob Gogerty (today a public affairs adviser to large business interests) or Lee Pasquarella would get it done. Also like Nickels, Uhlman was not a vision guy or one with a strong ideology. The day after the Market referendum embarrassed the Mayor, who favored the demolition of the Market, Uhlman pivoted on his round heel and became the savior of the Market.

He put together the ruling coalition that Nickels now bestrides: labor, city workers (after the firefighters almost recalled him), downtown property owners and developers, and greens. In those days, Uhlman faced a very powerful City Council, so he had to run a coalition government. Nickels, by contrast, steamrollered the council, though it is now reviving somewhat.

One final thought. The winning Mayor, in each instance, came from outside the City Hall mindset. (Rice is a partial exception, but as an African American he was definitely working his way in from outside.) And each appealed to Seattle's civic idealism, seeming to be something new and improved. Uhlman perceived the possibilities for a far more active government, fueled by federal money. Royer was full of fresh ideas and bravado. Rice offered a transcendence of race. Schell was our high-minded, high-toned visionary. The exception is the Nickels' victory in 2001, though paradoxically Nickels turned out to be, like Uhlman, very effective at several very big things.

And 2009? We'll soon know.


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