Boom and bust

Shaking earth bails out shaken mayor.

GOD IS A Paul Schell supporter.

How else do you explain last Wednesday's astounding turn of events? Five minutes before the start of an 11am press conference, the region's largest earthquake in 35 years hit. Thus, television viewers were treated not to the sight of the mayor on the hot seat over Mardi Gras violence but video footage of cameramen swaying and stumbling and Associated Press wire photos of reporters' butts sticking out from under Schell's massive conference table.

"The Mardi Gras sealed his political fate, and the earthquake granted him a temporary reprieve," says Republican political consultant Brett Bader. But as the beset mayor faces a tough November battle for re-election, observers seemed unsure just who benefits from the one-two punch of street violence and the 6.8 shaker that rocked the Puget Sound area.

Symbolically, video footage of riot police in the streets can't help but remind voters of the disturbances during the World Trade Organization conference, easily the low moment of the mayor's first term, says Democratic political consultant Greg Dewar.

However, TV news voyeurism was forced to the sidelines by the shared experience of the moving earth underfoot. Wednesday night's half-hour local news broadcasts started with 20 to 25 minutes of earthquake news. Could any other event turn such horrific and dramatic riot video into a late-in-the-broadcast footnote?

Schell's rescheduled media interrogation therefore started with a parade of guest speakers outlining what the city has done right. Over the last two years, several bridges were strengthened to better survive earthquakes, supports holding up several Pioneer Square sidewalks were stabilized, and damage to city infrastructure was minimal. "The big news is there's no news," the mayor stated proudly.

By the time the discussion moved to the issue of Mardi Gras violence, the mayor showed that he hadn't been napping during his 24-hour reprieve. He responded to criticism of police inaction during street disturbances by turning the question back on the questioners: Why is it that when a drunken mob commits violent acts, people assume the police are to blame? "I've had enough of this," snapped Schell (this being the only line that actually made the TV news that night).

Good work, says Dewar, who thinks the mayor will benefit from being plainspoken. "The people around [Schell] keep trying to mitigate his personality and his style, and I think that's a mistake."

Not that the mayor avoided Mardi Gras controversy. The revelation that he was home asleep during the worst of the violence drew criticism from County Council member Greg Nickels (his only declared opponent) and City Council member Jim Compton, a could-be mayoral hopeful. It's a good point: A more media-savvy chief executive would have borrowed a Jim Forman-style parka (Compton, an ex-KING TV commentator, may still have one in his closet) and found a nice, safe spot in a police command post for photo ops. Although Schell says he scolded aides for not waking him, he added, "The mayor does not direct operations of the Seattle Police Department."

Schell also drew fire for his vow that Mardi Gras celebrations were finished in this town. John Wyble of the liberal political-consulting firm Moxie Media likened Schell to "a bad actor in a B-movie. He misses his entrances and overcompensates by overacting."

A day later, the mayor was already softening his stance. The event will not continue "in its current configuration," he said. "It has to be [done] in a way where we're not putting any of our citizens in harm's way."

Assuming that the Mardi Gras violence hurts Schell's re-election chances, who benefits? Maybe tough-on-crime City Attorney Mark Sidran, who is forming an exploratory committee for a mayoral run, could get a boost. "If it helps anybody, I'd say Mark Sidran. I don't see what Greg Nickels gets out of it per se," says Bader.

However, Sidran won't get too many tough-guy props from pounding Mardi Gras perps: All but the most minor misdemeanor offenses will instead be referred to the King County Prosecutor's Office. Likewise, as Compton's role in the hiring of Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske was one of the major accomplishments of his 16 months in office, his criticism of police strategy may be muted.

Dewar argues that while the situation hurts Schell in the short term, it could benefit him as voters ponder how his three potential opponents might have reacted in his place.

"What do people think? Could Greg Nickels have done a better job?" asks Dewar. "Could Jim Compton have done a better job? Sure, he's done The Compton Report 400 times, but when has he ever made a life-and-death decision that affected his fellow citizens?

"When you fire someone, you've got to have someone to hire in the job."

To unseat Schell, a candidate has to make the incumbent the issue, "without appearing to do it simply for naked political gain," says Bader. "Just piling on isn't going to make anybody successful."

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