The first 100 days: Mayor's reach goes further, makes waves

E-mail E-mail this article
Print Print this article

As Greg Nickels marks his first 100 days in office this week, Seattle's new mayor boasts about completing his modest to-do list of improving city services, like filling potholes faster and sweeping streets.

But the real measure of his influence so far is how a self-proclaimed regular guy from West Seattle has set his sights on re-establishing the power of the mayor's office — eroded from years of neglect under his predecessors — even if it means bruising egos and making enemies in the process.

He has answered questions about his ability to make tough decisions by whacking $58 million from the city budget and standing by his police chief through a union no-confidence vote. He has reined in a City Council that had grown used to doing pretty much whatever it pleased. And he has shown that the one thing he expects from city bureaucrats above all else is loyalty.

In doing so, the guy who ran as keeper of the "Seattle Way" has done more to challenge the city's reigning political culture than any mayor in a generation. He has brought a rough-and-tumble approach to a City Hall more accustomed to polite consensus.

"In Seattle, we have this sense that we are a small town in Connecticut" instead of being one of the largest cities in America, said David Brewster, a longtime political observer and executive director of the Town Hall cultural center. "They (City Council members) are sort of shocked by that kind of 'reward-friends-and-punish-enemies' kind of behavior, but they really shouldn't be."

With former City Attorney Mark Sidran playing the role of get-tough politician during last year's mayoral campaign, Nickels came across to many as the guy who would say yes to any idea if it would get him votes.

Critics pointed to his lack of management experience and questioned whether he had the backbone to run City Hall during tough economic times. Some worried that Nickels would fall prey to the cordial style of feel-good consensus-building that was the hallmark of Seattle politics for years.

But after winning by the narrowest of margins, it didn't take long for Nickels to show city officials that he planned to play by a different set of rules. When the council slashed $400,000 from the mayor-elect's staff budget, Nickels shook off his nice-guy image.

During informal get-to-know-you chats with individual council members in his temporary office in Key Tower, Nickels threatened revenge. He wouldn't say how, and he wouldn't say when, but he promised to make council members pay politically for their insult.

The bluntness of the mayor's response shocked even some veteran council members.

"He was trying to send a message... that he couldn't be viewed as a weak mayor," said Councilman Nick Licata. "It was an understandable concern, but the delivery could have used a little more finesse."

It was hardly "Seattle Nice," but it accomplished what Nickels needed to do, Brewster said. "It cleared the air and signaled that there will be real politics now."

Dwight Pelz, a Democrat on the Metropolitan King County Council, says "Greg remembers — and maybe that is a little surprising for City Hall politics, where all sins are forgiven with a smile and a pat on the back."

Building his foundation

Nickels has exerted his will in matters both important and trivial. He forced the resignation of Jim Diers, longtime head of the city's Department of Neighborhoods. He excluded other city officials from basking in the golden glow of Apolo Anton Ohno's medal when Seattle welcomed home its Olympic hero. And some City Council members say he has limited their access to information and hogged credit for their work.

The new mayor has fought with the council over access to city departments, how to reorganize a key planning office, and whether more than $800,000 the council discovered this year should go toward a new hygiene center for the homeless or toward plugging the city's budget gap instead.

When asked to give an assessment of his first 100 days, Nickels downplays the politics behind his move into office. But he is obviously pleased with his progress both in the public eye and behind the scenes.

"I feel really good about what we've been able to accomplish," he said. "We've built a real strong foundation for the four-year term."

Nickels moved fast to consolidate his power, and he started with the closest targets — the city's departments.

He got rid of four department heads, including Diers, a council favorite who had built his own powerful constituency as the first and only director of the Department of Neighborhoods.

At his first Cabinet meeting, Nickels made it clear to those who remained that the city departments work for him, not the council. No longer could departments perform work or craft new policy at the request of council members without first alerting the mayor's office.

It was a dramatic departure from the style of Nickels' predecessor, Paul Schell, who didn't replace any department heads when he took office. He let departments run themselves and didn't seem to mind the council's growing influence over them.

"Schell was the father who let us run around and do everything," said Councilwoman Judy Nicastro. "Nickels is the father who has the baby monitor in every room."

It's all about the mayor

Taking a page from Bill Clinton's book, the Nickels administration doesn't plan to stop campaigning just because the next election is four years away.

Unlike Schell, who shut down his political committee's bank account for most of his term, Nickels said he would continue to raise money while in office. He has hired the core of his young campaign staff for "community-outreach" positions, where they make sure the mayor stays in touch with the neighborhoods — and with voters.

Nickels is using the city's Web site to push his message. His staff has an entire section devoted to touting the success of his 100-day "action agenda," including a running tally of the number of potholes filled. And in case you missed it on the city's homepage, you will find links to it on the homepage of nearly every city department.

But the effort of Nickels' aides to ensure the spotlight is fixed on their boss whenever there is good news to announce has left some feeling snubbed.

Councilwoman Jan Drago was ready to join Nickels and King County Executive Ron Sims on the podium last month when hundreds of people crowded Westlake Center to welcome home speedskater Ohno.

Drago said Nickels' aide Mike Mann had assured her she was invited. But the day before the event, her participation was scrubbed. The framed award she had planned to present to Ohno is still sitting on her desk.

"It's very petty," Drago said. "What it says is everything is about the mayor."

Nickels spokeswoman Marianne Bichsel said Ohno had a tight schedule, and they didn't want too many speakers. "If there were misunderstandings, we feel bad," Bichsel said.

While that incident was a minor example, Drago said the mayor's office has also started taking credit for ideas she has worked on for years. Her office had been waiting for months for a report on possible new alcohol restrictions in Pioneer Square. The report was delayed and finally issued through the mayor's office. Headlines the next day talked about the mayor's strong stance against public drunkenness.

Nickels also has angered some of the very people who helped get him elected. Some supporters grumble that their issues — organized labor and the environment — haven't received the attention they deserve from the mayor.

And Nickels has shut out the group of left-wing progressives who dogged his opponent during the campaign under the banner of the Sidran Truth Squad.

John Fox, leader of the Seattle Displacement Coalition and an organizer of the coalition of homeless, social-justice and police-accountability groups, says the mayor's office postponed three meetings before finally telling him he would get no time with Nickels.

Fox figures it is a case of calculated indifference.

"It's frustrating," he said. "It's not like we are going to throw up our hands and say, 'Gee, we wish we would have voted for Mark Sidran.' ''

Bichsel said Fox had met with Nickels' aides and was welcome to show up at one of the mayor's community meetings, but "if he would like a sit-down meeting with the mayor in his office, that's probably not going to happen."

However, Nickels has found time to meet with downtown power brokers and others who can build support for his agenda. Shortly after taking office, he met with a roundtable of business executives who had mostly supported Sidran.

"Politics is really about figuring out who needs to be heard and who can safely be ignored," said former Mayor Charles Royer.

After his election, Nickels said he wanted to model his administration on those of Norm Rice, the consummate consensus guy who knew how to stroke egos, and Royer, the cagey outsider who could wield his charm with accuracy.

Instead, Nickels could turn out to be the most overtly political mayor Seattle has seen since Wes Uhlman, a young reformer who fought the battles that established the power of the modern mayor's office in the early 1970s.

The similar approach may have much to do with their common background. Both ascended to the job after learning the art of partisan politics as legislators — Uhlman served in the state Senate, and Nickels was a 14-year veteran of the County Council.

"The public wants one person in charge, not nine people (City Council members) and the mayor. They want accountability," Uhlman said. "I think he (Nickels) has done fairly well for a guy who hasn't had a lot of executive-level experience."

The budget battle to come

The real test of City Hall's new political structure will unfold over the next few months, as the mayor and council test the limits of their power while crafting the city's $2 billion budget.

"Policy follows money; it always will," said Deputy Mayor Tim Ceis, who developed a hardball political reputation as chief of staff to Sims.

After years of record revenue and spending, the city faces a $30 million gap next year, raising the stakes in the battle over control of the budget.

The council knows that, too, and plans to fight for more control of the city bureaucracy by approving the budget on a more detailed level, giving departments and the mayor less flexibility to evade the council's will.

"This mayor is very clever and is out to make sure the money goes to what he wants," Nicastro said. "And this means we need to be just as clever and sharpen our teeth. The budget is definitely going to be a battle."

While the mayor has clearly staked his claim to power in City Hall, the lingering question is how effectively he will use it for big issues. Nickels will be instrumental in keeping construction of light rail moving forward and winning voter approval for a monorail system and another low-income-housing levy.

Nickels said his priorities for the upcoming budget would be much the same as those highlighted by his 100-day agenda: providing basic services. If people don't trust city government to take care of the basics, he said, they won't support costly new projects.

But at some point, the mayor is going to have to show he can take care of the big things along with the small ones.

"The anxiety about that part, about whether he is a big picture guy who is going to make hard decisions, I think the jury is still out on that," Brewster said.

Nickels clearly wants plenty of time to make his case. And that means a second — or third — term.

"I think it's important to realize four years is not enough to accomplish everything I want to get done," he said.

Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628. J. Martin McOmber: 206-464-2022.