Best of 2009: Greg Nickels: giving toughness a bad name

Real leaders are tough and use fear as a technique. The problem with Mayor Nickels is that he uses intimidation when it serves no purpose, and confuses disagreement with disloyalty. Here are some lessons from LBJ.
Crosscut archive image.

Mayor Nickels bolted together a powerful political and financial coalition.

Real leaders are tough and use fear as a technique. The problem with Mayor Nickels is that he uses intimidation when it serves no purpose, and confuses disagreement with disloyalty. Here are some lessons from LBJ.

Editor's note: This article, taken from the June 17, 2009 edition, is part of our Best Crosscuts of 2009 series.

Former Seattle City Council President Peter Steinbrueck last weekend indicted Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels for what he termed a "Gestapo-like regime" which operated in "a threatening, punitive" fashion and with "a punishment/reward mentality — mostly punishment." Was that fair?

Many City Council members, senior city employees, public-interest and neighborhood advocates tell a story of a regime that gratuitously attempts to intimidate, even when intimidation serves no purpose. One city appointee, favorably disposed toward both Nickels and Deputy Mayor Tim Ceis, puts it this way: "I don't get it. They threaten and treat rudely people who ought to be on their side."

What happened to the Greg Nickels of eight years ago, the amiable homeboy from West Seattle who was expected to look after neighborhood interests? Some say Ceis is the heavy, that Nickels is the puppet and Ceis is the puppet master. ("Greg Nickels is the guy to see to see Tim Ceis," the gag goes). But I have yet to see a deputy who was not acting exactly as his boss wanted him to act.

No, I think these guys have simply seen too many movies, and read too many novels, about big-city bosses and think that is the way to act. They might be surprised to learn that real leaders don't act that way — even the toughest ones.

President Lyndon Johnson once told a meeting of White House staff that "a real leader is someone you would not cross, because you know something bad would happen to you if you did." All effective public and private-sector leaders must be able to generate at least a bit of fear as well as generating respect and loyalty. But when LBJ talked about "crossing" a leader he did not define "crossing" as disagreeing with his policies. He respected his critics in the Congress and private sector, and encouraged his Cabinet and staff to speak frankly to him. But he had no patience whatever with those who talked one way and acted another — for example, a Senator or Congressman who pledged his vote on a legislative issue and then broke his word and voted the other way.

His Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, argued strongly in White House meetings for escalations and increased troop levels in Vietnam. Yet, at Georgetown dinner parties, he painted himself as a dissenter trying to restrain LBJ. Johnson called McNamara into his office, told him he was done as Defense Secretary, and informed him he had been nominated as president of the World Bank.

No President in modern history, except for Richard Nixon, has set out from the beginning to attempt intimidation of the Congress, those with a policy disagreement, or his own appointees. Nixon's paranoia led him to the Watergate break-in, illegal wiretaps, and other excesses directed toward his imagined enemies. But he was too professional to treat everyone that way. As most professional politicians, he subscribed to the old rule that it was better to "make friends, not enemies."

The Seattle City Council has invited its own intimidation. It has the power of the purse. It can stop or revise any budget or other proposal coming from the mayor. If it finds that the mayor, as Nickels has done, has ordered city department heads to withhold information from the Council, it can bring his agenda to a dead stop until the information is supplied. Yet if the Nickels administration is the most clumsy, bullying administration I have observed at any level of government, the City Council is the most supine and ineffectual.

Only Council member Nick Licata, a frequent Nickels critic, and outgoing Coucil member Jan Drago, Nickels' prime Council ally, have demonstrated any consistent attempt at leadership. Other Council members have for the most part been well meaning but, mainly, weak followers. Nickels has exhibited consistent contempt for the Council; the Council, in turn, has earned it.

A Council presentation several months ago (billed as its exposition of priorities for the year ahead) was an empty show-and-tell in which each committee chair briefly mentioned one or two matters expected to be on that committee's agenda. No substantive opinions were expressed. I expected President Richard Conlin to sum things up by listing the Council's overall one-two-three priorities for the year. Nope, that was all there was.

After Nickels presented a several-hundred-million dollar Mercer Project proposal, the Council adopted Licata's proposal that no go-ahead be given until reliable cost estimates were submitted by a calendar deadline. When the deadline passed, and no estimates had been submitted, Drago proposed that a green light be given anyway. Except for Licata, Council members shifted and went with Nickels/Drago. Afterward a Council member, known to be critical of the project, said: "I would have voted no but I did not want to be in the minority." Pathetic.

Nickels' advocates argue that he might use tough tactics but has gotten things done. The things he has gotten done, however, seem to me to have been dumb, hugely expensive, and largely in the interests of Nickels' principal financial and political backers.

Lyndon Johnson, by contrast, got important and historic things done, including the passage of Medicare, Medicaid, aid to federal education, Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, and a war on poverty. He did so not with intimidation. His appeal: "Let us reason together." He consulted with and drew in people who both agreed and disagreed with him. His method: Developing "consensus" behind ideas he thought were important. Johnson was a truly tough guy. He would have scorned our local government as "dumb kids trying to play grownup."

Steinbrueck was rough on Nickels, but the Mayor has it coming. I understand (but regret) Steinbrueck's decision to take a fellowship at Harvard rather than run a race against Nickels he almost certainly would win. Meanwhile, it is hard to imagine another four years like the past eight years of the Greg Nickels regime

It is also demoralizing to imagine a Nickels-Drago contest in November. The remaining, less well known mayoral candidates would do worse, between now and August 18 (the date of the primary), than to pursue the same themes Steinbrueck laid out to the Seattle Neighborhood Coalition last Saturday. We need a new Mayor; we also need the election of intelligent, savvy new Council members.

Let us pray. Better yet, let us vote.


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

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk has been active in national policy and politics since 1961, serving in the White House and State Department and as policy director of several Democratic presidential campaigns. He is author of Heroes, Hacks and Fools and numerous essays in national publications. You can reach him in care of