Mark Sidran: Not your Seattle stereotype

In Seattle, the root word for politics is polite. Any politician who speaks or acts outside that genteel expectation is rendered sinfully un-Seattle.

Or worse, he is portrayed as Satan, as has been the case for Mark Sidran in the pages of The Stranger, a local weekly.

Sidran, running for mayor against incumbent Paul Schell, Metropolitan King County Councilman Greg Nickels and nine others, doesn't put things mildly. But he masters understatement in summing up his campaign test: "The challenge for me is to get outside of the caricature."

The devil is in the details.

In 12 years as city attorney, Sidran has engineered laws that crack down on aggressive panhandlers, street drunks and unlicensed drivers. He tried unsuccessfully to hold nightclub owners accountable for violence inside and outside their premises.

Sidran says his positions reflect common-sense solutions to touchy problems that only someone with courage would dare take on. His message to voters is that they should demand that same level of courage from Seattle's next mayor.

Sidran's detractors view his agenda as discriminatory and anathema to civil liberties. They say his record exposes a heart of frost, oblivious to plights of the poor. For good measure, the more colorful of his critics brand him egoist, elitist, fascist, racist and sexist.

"And my response to all these things is, `No, I'm not,' " Sidran says. "What I am is someone willing to take a principled position and defend it even if it's going to piss some people off."

If Seattle is still the Seattle that lefties have known and loved since the days of the Wobblies, then Sidran wouldn't have a chance in Hades of being elected mayor. No righteous Seattle lefty would ever vote for Sidran, right?

Right. And no one ever watched "Melrose Place," either.

When the voting-booth curtain is drawn, when the mail-ballot envelope is sealed, all bets are off. That's partly why Sidran engenders such vitriol from his opponents. They see the Sidran campaign as a watershed — a verdict on Seattle's character. They worry what his ascension to the mayor's office would say about the Seattle of 2001.

"It's so dangerous for an historically strong liberal city like Seattle to embrace his polarizing, mean-spirited philosophy," says John Fox, a longtime Seattle activist behind the "Sidran Truth Squad" that aims to shadow, chide and embarrass the candidate at campaign appearances. "We need to send a message that his brand of politics has no place in Seattle."

Sidran's fans, however, suggest Seattleites have reached the point of favoring a candidate with spine. And Sidran's is considerable.

Former U.S. Rep. John Miller, a city councilman when he hired Sidran as his aide in the mid-1970s, says: "The Seattle electorate, after going through WTO, Mardi Gras, the Sound Transit debacle and some of these other things, might be ready to say it's time to have a mayor who's hard-headed and gets things done, someone not always Mr. Nice and Mr. Politically Correct."

Conduct, not color

Mention the delicate situation of race relations in Seattle and Sidran says: "You can't ignore criminal behavior because of the color of the offender. You have to be able to say, `This guy's a punk,' and the fact he's an African-American punk doesn't mean I can't point out he's a punk. And it certainly doesn't mean all African Americans are punks.

"It's not about color, it's about conduct."

Such a gut reaction is very un-Seattle. A reflection, Sidran suggests, "that my parents were born and raised in Brooklyn."

Sidran, however, is a native son, a role his campaign plays to the hilt. He grew up in Seward Park, a southeast Seattle neighborhood of mansions on the hill and shacks in the valley. Sidran was elected senior-class president at Franklin High School in 1968-'69, a year after racial tension exploded with a black student-union sit-in.

"A difference between myself and Paul Schell and Greg Nickels is I actually grew up in an integrated neighborhood and went to a high school with a very diverse student body," says Sidran, who now lives in Queen Anne.

His upbringing also molded his law-and-order attitudes. Sidran's late father, Jerry, owned Upland Pharmacy on Wilson Avenue South for more than 30 years. The family jokingly called the drug store Sidran's Stop `n Rob. The candidate estimates his father was held up a half-dozen times, not counting numerous burglaries carried out in the middle of the night.

"What can you say when your dad comes home and tells you some junkie stuck a gun in his face and made him lie on the floor?" Sidran asks.

His local-boy message has a lighter side, too. A tongue-in-cheek campaign video he distributes features an endorsement from Wunda Wunda, aka Ruth Prins, the storytelling clown whose children's TV show aired locally when Sidran was a boy.

"I remember thinking, `Some day, this kid is going to grow up to be either a clown or a mayor,' " Prins says on the video. "I never realized one could be both."

If Sidran becomes mayor, he won't pine for the old days. He rebukes Nickels' conciliatory approach to leadership as an attempt to recapture a Seattle of yesterday, a Seattle that is irretrievably gone.

"You can't indulge the desire for consensus, and you can't expect to make everybody happy if you want to actually accomplish something," Sidran says.

The civility package

Elected city attorney in 1989 on a promise to reform municipal court, Sidran entered Seattle's political consciousness in 1993 when he proposed a package of ordinances to outlaw aggressive panhandling and sitting on sidewalks during business hours, and to increase penalties for public drunkenness and public urination.

Dubbed Seattle's "civility laws," they were viewed as punitive by advocates for the homeless. Civility laws are "forms of prejudice and bigotry parading as something else," says Joe Martin, a veteran downtown social worker.

In 1993, downtown Seattle was on the skids, and business interests responded with a plan for a renaissance. They went to City Hall, requesting relief from a situation they thought was scaring shoppers away.

"Street folks had kind of taken over," recalls John Gilmore, retired president of the Downtown Seattle Association.

They found plenty of allies, including then-Mayor Norm Rice. But Sidran emerged as point man, willing to take the political heat.

"These laws aren't aimed at any person, class or race, they are aimed at behaviors that are unacceptable in any community," Sidran says.

In 1993, Sidran also had been hearing about downtown woes every day from his girlfriend. Anais Winant, now his wife, is vice president of public affairs for the Seattle-King County Convention and Visitors Bureau.

"Every corner of downtown was occupied by people with blankets at the time," Winant recalls. "It was an obstacle course to get from one step to the next."

Critics say Winant's recollections are hyperbole but typical of propaganda that spurred approval of the civility laws.

Schell and Nickels hold out Sidran's civility laws as divisive. To that, Sidran points out that Schell has had four years to repeal one but hasn't, and Nickels could pledge during his campaign to repeal one but hasn't.

Sidran also is architect of a 1998 law giving police power to impound cars of drivers caught with suspended licenses. Opponents emphasize the law's disparate effect on African Americans and others in economic distress.

Lisa Daugaard, a public defender leading the opposition, says most people whose cars have been seized are good citizens who cannot afford to pay their traffic tickets and thus have suspended licenses. They keep driving because they need their cars for work and to provide for their families.

Sidran is not sympathetic.

"There are responsibilities and costs that come with driving a car," he says. "We don't condone people pulling into a gas station and saying, `I really need to rip off some gas here because I can't afford to pay for it.' "

Critics of Sidran's proposal to regulate nightclubs say it, too, unfairly targeted African Americans. Sidran, however, says the policy is color-blind.

"If you can't run a club that's safe, then you shouldn't be in the nightclub business," Sidran says.

A disarming humor

Winant has two framed photographs of her husband on her desk at work. One is of Sidran at a podium, wearing a business suit. The other is of Sidran at home, wearing bunny ears.

"This is the one I married," she says, holding up the bunny photo.

Sidran's humor can be disarming in light of his reputation for grim-faced politics. But sometimes his jokes fall flat and he goes splat.

That occurred last year inside a City Hall elevator he shared with City Councilwoman Judy Nicastro and other riders. His faux pas came on the heels of Nicastro dressing down Sidran at a council meeting. When they ran into each other the next day, Nicastro told him she hoped he didn't take her criticism personally.

"Don't worry about it," said Sidran, according to both of their recollections. "I kind of like you in your dominatrix mode. Public spankings are much more interesting."

Sidran thought it was funny. Nicastro thought it was sexist and demeaning, not to mention poor judgment from someone experienced enough to know better.

"I wasn't trying to offend her — far from it," says Sidran, who eventually apologized to Nicastro. "I was just trying to make light, and she took it wrong. Or maybe I might have been out of place."

Nicastro, neutral in the mayor's race, fears Sidran's flippancy could cause him trouble as mayor.

"Not everything is a joke in the city," she says. "We have a lot of sensitive problems. I think he has a lot of maturing to do in how he communicates with people."

Labor friction

In a union town, Sidran is tagged anti-labor. A city commission slammed his office in 1997 after reviewing complaints from seven employees alleging they were retaliated against for their union activity.

"A more draconian stricture (of) lawful union activity is scarcely imaginable," a hearing examiner wrote.

Sidran denies ever clamping down on union activity in his office. But he opposes union demands that he relinquish his authority to fire lawyers under his jurisdiction to a third-party arbitrator.

Friction with organized labor is often fatal for a politician in a town like Seattle — that is, if this town is still that town.

A shift in Seattle values may be as clear as a story published last month in, of all places, The Stranger. The story was, of all things, sympathetic to Capitol Hill business owners complaining about the druggies and homeless people who panhandle on Broadway and intimidate customers.

Nicastro also notices a shift, using her mother as bellwether. The mother is 62, works at a low-paying job at a hospital, lives in a small Capitol Hill studio and "is more of a lefty than I am," the daughter says. The mother is annoyed at not being able to walk to her grocery store on Broadway without being harassed.

"Her attitude is, `Hey, I work for a living, and I'm uncomfortable walking my neighborhood streets,' " Nicastro says. "Mark has a tremendous opportunity to tap into lefties who are willing to house the homeless but think they should be given one bite of the apple — not 20. I feel like Sidran could hook in my mother."

The line is cast. The die is not.

"My mother can't stand Mark Sidran," Nicastro says. "But she's vulnerable to him."

Stuart Eskenazi can be reached at