Constance Rice Pursues Her Own Agenda -- Reaching For Possibilities

FIRST IMPRESSION'S A BLUR, a rush. Of arms reaching, pulling close old friends and recent strangers, her smooth brown cheek brushing their faces. Now her head is thrown back, mouth wide and laughing. Everyone laughing, including some startled by her embrace.

The world is getting smaller. But hardly small enough for Constance Rice, who wants to put her arms around it, surround it.

"Look it in the eyes," she says.

"There's so little time and so many people, so many circles. I want them all to touch, to merge, even collide," she says, studying other patrons of Still Life in Fremont Coffeehouse, a place she frequents. "I want to see new centers of influence and authority created."

Names spill from her memory, rattling off her tongue like whole coffee beans from a bin. She sips a latte. Takes a bite of bread and asks a waitress's name.

This is how Constance Rice involves herself. With gusto. With bold strokes she invites herself into other people's circles and speaks her mind.

"Above all, we must expect excellence regardless of who we are, how much money we make or what job title we hold," she says.

Her title, these days, is civic volunteer. It describes the role she assumed when her husband, Norm Rice, became Seattle's mayor in 1990. To avoid any appearances of conflict of interest, Constance Rice closed the public- relations business she'd founded in 1984.

She is a fulltime volunteer, donating her time and expertise to numerous boards and commissions representing organizations as disparate as the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, US West Corporation, and The Evergreen State College.

That much may have been expected. What surprises is that she is a catalyst of real change. Igniting community projects, such as the elementary school-based Health and Nutrition Project, which not only feeds roughly 600 families, but nourishes their self-esteem - a thing credited with improved student performance. The project has been called a model for the nation by ranking Bush administration officials.

But still it rankles, sometimes, giving up the business. She has always earned her way, done well for herself. The first African-American woman to receive a Ph.D. from the University of Washington College of Education, she has worked as manager of Metro's communications division, supervisor of Women's Studies at Shoreline Community College, developed an urban-studies program for Western Washington State University's Seattle campus, founded 101 Black Women to help African-American professional women network.

But listing her credentials - mayor's wife, civic volunteer, businesswoman, educator, women's advocate - says very little about who Constance Rice really is.

Constance Williams Rice is a discipline problem. A woman of energy, vibrancy and laughter who resents demands she conform, behave or recede. "I don't want to be like everybody else. I don't want to live up to somebody else's expectations. I'd rather play the devil's advocate, test the system than go along," she says. "If people want to criticize, fine."

So long as they don't discount her, exclude her out of hand.

"Nothing makes me angrier than exclusion," she says, voice rising and smile disappearing briefly. "The worst thing one person can do is to arbitrarily shut another out. Opportunity is lost, equality is derided. It's a terrible thing and we have to fight it."

It's unlikely Constance Rice will ever go unnoticed.

FISTS FLY, KNEES SCRAPE on gravel and blood trickles from small noses. A young Constance dares other kids to come on, put 'em up, fight. Fight on the dusty playground of Public School 144 in Brooklyn or stop shouting she doesn't belong.

"When I was growing up, the school was maybe 80-percent black and Puerto Rican but I was one of only two African-American children in the honors program. White kids said I had no right to be in their class, black kids said I was acting uppity. So I was always fighting," she recalls. "Always using my fists to prove I belonged; father was so upset."

Born in 1945 to Elliott and Beulah Williams, Constance grew up in Brownsville, a neighborhood in Brooklyn. It was the kind of neighborhood where kids played stick ball and danced in the spray of fire hydrants. Parents would sit on the their front stoops, visiting and disciplining one another's children. Nobody had any money, but most had aspirations of becoming somebody great.

For a while, their ambitions were fueled by the work of the reigning greats, such as composer Leonard Bernstein and actors Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis.

"Bernstein and the others adopted my high school, became mentors. They provided tickets to plays and concerts, encouraged us to strive for a leading part in life. So I tried out for all-city band and was made first clarinet; it was wonderful," Constance says.

"It was a time when everything was possible."

Even probable. A revolution had begun. Civil-rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was marching toward Washington, D.C., and a young activist named Stokely Carmichael was getting serious at parties in the Bronx. The politics of prejudice was being challenged at every turn and a young Constance was taking it all in, gravitating toward circles of critical change.

"It was a heady experience, growing up in the '60s. So much was happening it was sometimes difficult to follow the action, and I wanted to be more than a spectator ... But my parents were very strict. I mean, I was a senior in high school before I was allowed to date."

Constance laughs softly. "I was one serious kid - and well chaperoned. My first date was a meeting of CORE - the Congress of Racial Equality - and my father went along."

She pauses, replaying that first date in her head. "Father sure was something," she says, smiling pensively.

Understand she always smiles, only the amount of teeth and gums showing changes. It is a disarming characteristic.

"Anyway," she says abruptly. "Later I started going to parties, on my own, in New York where Stokely Carmichael was talking about struggle and sacrifice. Father would have died, he wanted me strictly focused on studies."

Elliott Williams was a motorman with the New York subway system - and his daughter's hero.

He had only a fourth-grade education but he firmly believed knowledge opened doors. His daughter was extremely bright - that much was obvious early on - and Williams was determined Constance would have the best teachers possible.

"One of his Masonic Lodge brothers had moved to Flatbush, N.Y. - one of the first blacks to do so - and father talked him into sort of `adopting' me so I could attend the high school there, considered one of the best in the state.

"It was a long ride to and from school every day but father said I shouldn't care, I was getting ahead. When I left for Howard University at age 16, I knew he'd been right."

He was often right, knowing his daughter better than she knew herself.

"He listened well and had great compassion. He'd bring total strangers home if they needed a meal or a place to sleep," she says.

"I remember one young kid, father found him on the train - nowhere to go, nothing in his pockets. Father brought him home, opened the door and said, `You're welcome.' A friendship formed and years later that `kid' was still coming around to see dad, make sure he was all right. Father would say, `See how important it is to open doors for others? You've got to open doors.' "

THE FRONT DOOR IS wide open at the Rice home, a modest house on upscale Lake Washington Drive in the Mount Baker neighborhood. Perfume, soft voices, slim leather briefcases, a baby and six young women crowd the entryway. More voices are on the steps, others heard on the street below. Constance Rice is on the landing, arms outstretched.

She is wearing yellow. Usually, she wears black: black slacks, black blazer. Basic black because - for all her ebullience - she is not an extravagant women. But later she must attend a wedding and so is wearing a bright, sunflower-yellow blazer, tank top and skirt. All the bride's closest friends have been asked to wear yellow.

"Look everyone! Only $54 for the whole outfit," she announces, with a swish of gauzy skirt. "Such a deal, isn't it wonderful? And I hate yellow."

The other women stare, then burst into laughter.

Constance is a tease, a clown. But she is also very serious, like the young women now seated in her living room.

There are 10 of them, all professionals under 35 and members of the African American Young Women's Brain Trust that Constance co-founded six months ago. The group's purpose is to provide fellowship and contacts for tomorrow's women leaders.

"The biggest struggle is still for young women; there are a lot of conflicting judgments made about whatever efforts women make," she says, explaining why now, why younger women. "Even if you're qualified it can be hard getting in the door. What I'm trying to do here is help get the door open."

Most of what Constance does centers on women. She is one of the new faces of feminism, appearing less strident than the leaders of the '60s rebellion but equally determined.

"I think the whole issue of sexual harassment has come to the fore, really brought women together, in terms of politics and color," Constance says, referring to Anita Hill's nationally-televised testimony against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas.

"That's a huge positive, that African-American, Asian, Hispanic and Anglo women are coming together to work on social problems, human-race problems."

Constance's style is closer to that of advocate or mentor, rather than activist. Still, she has the strong support of some of the state's top leaders in the feminist movement.

"It's been a struggle for the feminist movement to evolve, but it is becoming multi-ethic, multi-issue. And it's women such as Constance who are bringing the movement into the 1990s, bringing people of color into the circle," says Norleen Koponen, president of Washington State National Organization for Women.

"Constance is incredibly dynamic. And if she ever decides to run for office, she's got my vote. In fact, I'll ring doorbells and lick stamps if that's what it takes to get her elected."

THERE WAS TALK THIS year, at least briefly, of drafting Constance Rice to run for the U.S. Senate. Shortly after Seattle Democrat Brock Adams announced he would not seek re-election, Constance was contacted by a small but enthusiastic group of ready backers. She has no experience as an elected official but her supporters found that a strength rather than weakness. This is, after all, The Year of the Political Outsider.

At the same time, her husband was also being urged to jump into the race. It was, for a moment, rather uncomfortable. Then both Constance and Norm Rice decided the timing was off. "It was flattering. We were both tempted," she says. "I mean, I think I have a great deal of latent political talent and Norman's interest and ability is obvious."

For now, Constance is content with finding other ways to alter the political structure. Starting with the empowerment of people of color, women in particular. The first foreign woman to address the Japanese Keidranen, a group similar to the Washington Roundtable, Constance is now working on plans to hold an international women's conference in Seattle, in 1995.

"If we really want to eliminate the barriers of color, we have to spread our hands and reach to all women. Bring them into the circle."

Constance reaches - constantly. Stretching herself and sometimes the limits of polite behavior. She demands introduction, and more. Within minutes of a handshake (or more likely a hug) she is probing for personal insights.

"I don't know if it's magnetism, but Constance draws people. And she has this ability to make people reveal themselves," says June Kubo, a human-resource specialist with the law firm Davis, Grim and Payne.

Kubo has known Constance Rice for 10 years, as business associate and friend. And despite long work days, Kubo is now working with Constance on the Health and Nutrition Project.

"Once she finds out what you're about, Constance is not at all reluctant to try and channel your energy and desire into a community project. She really believes each and every one of us has to give something back," Kubo says. "I don't know how she does it, but I'm living proof she can convince people who put 12 hours in at the job, giving another two can't hurt."

An intimidating extrovert, Constance is unusually introspective. With an academic's volubility, she doesn't answer questions as much as she expounds on the state of the human race and its future. "Well, I think leadership in the 24th century is going to have to be coalitional," she says, when asked about personal goals. "Take homelessness ... solving the problems is going to require more than affordable housing. It's going to take better mental-health care, more entry-level jobs, quality education for all.

"I think seating more power with women is one way of creating better solutions, a better world ..."

Make no mistake, Constance knows full well that women are also guilty of racism and sexism. But she says the change must begin with women because they are more often the primary caretakers of our children. Our future.

"We need more women in Congress, more women running universities and major foundations, more women in boardrooms."

THE BOARDROOM IS dim and very cool, high on the 45th floor of the AT&T building in downtown Seattle. At least 20 people could sit at the table.

Constance Rice is pulling up a chair. Next to her is Michael deMaar, a partner with DeLoitte & Touche. And then there is Terry Johnson of Battelle, and Jane Reese with the University of Washington's Division of Adolescent Medicine.

They are together to discuss methods of evaluating the Health and Nutrition Project, Constance's priority of the moment.

The project provides the most basic of services: a family meal. A pilot program, it is founded on the notion that when sharing a meal, families share experiences and values. Parents and children stay in touch. They learn from one another. Participating families are required to attend the Friday-evening meals as a unit, and they must stay for an after-dinner talk on nutrition.

Privately funded, the program is offered in three Seattle elementary schools, High Point in West Seattle, T.T. Minor in the Central Area and B.F. Day in Fremont.

Carole Williams, principal at B.F. Day, says the weekly program has given families a "a sense of belonging" to a community.

"That's a powerful feeling," she says. "People are so isolated today, from their neighbors and their church and their children's school. They hardly talk to each other, have no confidence dealing with each other. This program, it brings people together where they find strength."

Although the Health and Nutrition Project is Constance's brainchild, she's not running the meeting. Instead, she is listening. Thinking. Pushing on her nose with an index finger, thinking harder. She asks tough questions.

"She's a natural leader," deMaar says later. "Projects succeed when there is a collaborative approach. Many people in her position try to call all the shots, become dictatorial, but Constance knows how to build ownership. It's clear to me that without her there would be no Health and Nutrition Project. She literally radiates energy, definitely keeps us on track."

It's two hours into the meeting, and Constance is getting her datebook out. "OK guys, let's put a deadline on all this talk. We're all busy and about to get busier ... only hope this book holds up."

"Wait a minute, what am I talking about?" she laughs, holding her head. "I better hope I hold up."

HER DATEBOOK IS open but ignored, temporarily discarded on the living-room couch. The gilt-edged pages worn from frequent thumbing, scribbles smeared in the margins. Meetings, speeches. Hardly time for herself, for home and family.

Making this a rare day. Because she is home and son Mian is home and Norm is on his way.

"We're really all here," she says, stretched out in a chair on the front lawn. "I can hardly believe it, twice this month!"

Public life has meant fewer private moments for Constance and Norm Rice; college has meant seeing less of Mian. The demands placed on them by the community - and themselves - required that time together be scheduled. As with many working couples, secretaries, answering machines and electronic mail are vital partners in their marriage.

"Never did I imagine having to block out dinners with my husband on a calendar," Constance says.

Norm Rice might have expected having to make just such an arrangement with his wife. She has been racing against the clock all her life.

"She just has to be active, she doesn't have a choice," says best friend Jacqueline Mullins, who now lives in Pittsburgh. "She is the most incredible woman I know and I love her dearly but Constance was born pushing. She pushes herself, she pushes other people to achieve more than should be possible.

"I know. From the first moment we met, she was right behind me urging me to do this, do that, drive her there. Constance didn't know a brake pedal from a gas pedal when she arrived in Seattle."

ON JAN. 21, 1967, Constance Williams got married (over her parents' objections), got on a plane, and came to Seattle with her first husband. They found rain, housing discrimination and a terrible truth: They were wrong for each other. Theirs was a miserable union. With the exception of son Mian, it produced nothing but heartache.

"I cried nearly four years and then happily he left," she says. "Looking back, it's amazing to me I am so incredibly happy now. But then I never expected to marry someone as wonderful as Norman."

They have been married 17 years; for both it is a second marriage.

They met when he enrolled in a college course she was teaching. It was not love at first sight; in fact, it was the reverse. More than a year would go by before the two would meet again and discover all they had in common.

"It was a period when I was really down, physically and mentally - I was a single parent, I was sick and my father had just been murdered - and Norman was right there for me," she says. Constance's father was shot in his Brooklyn apartment. She says police never found out exactly what happened. The violent death shattered her. Norman helped her recover. "We don't always agree, sometimes he infuriates me, but there is nothing that man can do that he hasn't already made up - he was that wonderful.

"Did I tell you, he even wrote me poetry?" A collection of poems written by Norm to Constance are bound in a narrow, blue leather book. Expressions of love and conflicts of a dual-career marriage.

"I don't think either one of us realized how much we would have to give up," she says. "I know I had no idea how much a political spouse has to give up. When Norman was elected to office - first as a city councilman and then mayor - I discovered I wasn't just married to the man, I was married to the office.

"Fortunately, I've always had a strong sense of who I am."

Marla Williams is a reporter for The Seattle Times. Betty Udesen is a Times staff photographer.