THERE IS PLENTY of cognitive dissonance in an encounter with Mayor Greg Nickels. It is hard to square the man in the room with the powerful mayor. His broad smile, twinkling eyes, and big body give him an avuncular appearance. He has a self-deprecating sense of humor accompanied by a frequent chuckle that reinforces his ordinary West Seattle Joe personality. On a recent visit to the mayor's office, the TV was tuned to a Mariners game with the sound off, while easy-listening KIXI-AM played in the background. His bland sound bites made it hard to recall that this mayor means business. Every now and then, however, another Nickels is revealed. His face reddens; his body movements get sharper; his outrage and frustration are palpable. The subject matter is always the same at those moments: the Seattle City Council.
Five of the nine members of the council are up for re-election this fall, and Nickels sees a political opportunity to create a legislative body that is more to his liking. In order to accomplish this, Nickels is willing, once again, to break the unwritten rules of politics in a city that has preferred a City Hall governed by polite consensus to one where rough-and-tumble street fighting holds sway. For the first time in 15 years, the sitting mayor is poised to actively campaign against incumbent City Council members. "I will have something to say about the council members and their records," declares Nickels. "People will be interested in my comments." And he doesn't apologize for stirring the pot. "I did promise I would come in and make change," he says.
The mayor's close friend and political adviser, Don McDonough, thinks the strategy makes sense. "If the mayor has [City Council] members he doesn't have a good working relationship with and there are not a clear five votes for his initiatives, then he ought to get involved."
WHILE THE MAYOR is too politically savvy to publicly target any single council member this early in the election cycle, he has endorsed two members: utilities czar and three-term incumbent Margaret Pageler and the green fund-raising machine, first-termer Heidi Wills.
Observers say Nickels is gunning for any of the other threerowdy renters' advocate Judy Nicastro, former TV newsman turned cop watcher Jim Compton, and Seattle City Council president and Pike Place populist Peter Steinbrueckbut won't take aim until he's certain of bringing them down with a sure shot.
Will Nickels be able to take out an incumbent or two? And how did relations grow so sour between the mayor and council that Nickels is willing to flout the unwritten rules of local politics?
NICE GUY TAKES OVER
During the 2001 mayoral election, longtime King County Council member Greg Nickels of West Seattle ran as the nice guy against the tough guy, Seattle City Attorney Mark Sidran. Nickels preached "the Seattle way" and made promises to every liberal, do-gooder constituency in town. Observers predicted a bland, boring mayoralty with lots of pandering to Seattle's myriad concerned citizens.
Instead, Nickels has turned out to be a strongman. One of Nickels' central battles for authority has been with the Seattle City Council. Seattle's government is called "strong mayor-strong council." By city charter and law, each side has considerable say over municipal affairs. For instance, the mayor writes the city's $600 million budget, but the council must approve it.
Nickels thinks that during the tenure of his predecessor, Paul Schell, executive authority was allowed to drift at City Hall. The city's 10,000 employees, who are organized into 18 departments and offices, were allowed to forget, in Nickels' view, that they worked for the mayor. City Council members meddled, giving orders and getting information freely. Nickels saw chaos and micromanagement of executive functions by nine feral-cat legislators.
The mayor has been very successful in seizing executive authority and bending the bureaucracy to his will. Outside of City Hall, he has likewise assembled an impressive machine: He and organized laborone of the city's most powerful interest groupshave worked very closely together, each extending their partnership far beyond their usual spheres. Nickels has formed close partnerships with the big kahunas like Paul Allen, Northgate Mall owner Simon Properties, and the University of Washington to vigorously push his agenda. There is one essential element missing, though, from his campaign to become a real big-city boss: a cooperative legislative body.
INSTEAD, A NUMBER of City Council members, including Nicastro, Steinbrueck, and Compton, have resisted Nickels' authority, believing it is a power grab to redefine the checks and balances between Seattle's executive and legislative branches. These council members say Nickels is overstepping his authority by needlessly restricting the flow of information to the council from city departmentsinformation they say they need to do their jobs.
The mayoral-council conflict is also fueled by political style. Nickels named as deputy mayor Tim "the Shark" Ceis, an operative who excels at playing hardball in partisan political environments like the King County Courthouse or Olympia. The Seattle City Council, on the other hand, prides itself on its unusual, nonpartisan political culture. All nine City Council members are elected citywide, without party affiliation, so the body resists leadership, political discipline, and vote trading. There are no factions or blocks. The members listen to various interest groups, consider the public-policy implications, consult their consciences, then vote, often unpredictably. No one member speaks for the council as a whole or holds votes during negotiations with the mayor.
This approach drives Nickels and many other politicians, both Democrat and Republican, batty. To many, the City Council is a soupy jumble of protoplasm that is putting on airs.
ENJOINING THE CIRCUS
Nickels' opening salvo in his campaign against City Council members is directed toward the institution as a whole. Says Town Hall's David Brewster, a longtime political observer and founding editor of Seattle Weekly, summarizing what he hears from the mayor and his allies: "The problem with government in Seattle today is the City Councilwhining and divisive. Things are too serious for the back-and-forth stalemate style of government."
The Connections Group's Cathy Allen, a veteran consultant working with incumbents Compton and Pageler, sees the same phenomenon. Everywhere the mayor goes, he talks about "circus animals and the Snake River dam," she says, referring to two of the City Council's least-relevant but most-newsworthy debates of 2000. (There was a failed attempt to ban performances by circus animals on city property, and the council adopted a resolution urging that Snake River dams be removed. Allen points out an irony, that the mayor's endorsed candidate, Wills, pushed both measures.) "The City Council has made great copy," admits Allen.
The incumbents' political challengers echo the mayor.
Says economist Rudi Bertschi, who is taking on City Council President Steinbrueck: "The City Council as a whole is often distracted by frivolous issues." Council members spend "way too much time bickering with each other and with the mayor."
Tom Rasmussen, who heads the city's Office for Senior Citizens and is running against Pageler, says, "I've never seen the relations between the City Council and the mayor be so difficult. Why does [the City Council] seem like they are waiting for the mayor to do something and then freaking out?" He adds, "Greg Nickels would be comfortable working with me."
Real-estate broker Robert Rosencrantz, who wants to oust Nicastro, echoes the mayor's agenda. "This election is about whether Seattle will have council members who can move the economy forward," he says. "I can introduce business sense, economic sense, and common sense to that [City Council] position."
As in most election debates, the image of incumbents projected by challengers is not entirely fair. The City Council has not spent a majority or even a significant minority of its time on goofball initiatives. Most of its days are spent on the boring minutiae of the budget, utilities, and land usethe bread-and-butter of any city hall. The ongoing squabble between the council and the mayor is derived at least as much from the natural tension between any executive and any legislative body and from Nickels' assertiveness as it is from the council's disputatiousness.
YET NICKELS ALREADY has effectively defined the agenda for the election. The mayor's depiction of the City Council as wasting his and the taxpayers' time quarreling over silly things is repeated by the chattering classes of political insiders and the challengers to City Council incumbents. "What insiders talk about eventually does filter down to the voters," asserts Nickels adviser McDonough.
Nickels says this election "is going to be a good debate over the city and the city's future."
Steinbrueck says Nickels also has introduced legislation to reinforce his electoral agenda. "We've had a lot of legislation dumped on usnew initiatives that create a big stir," Steinbrueck says, and the mayor is seeking to cast these debates as a simplistic challenge to City Council members: "Are you for or against business?"
Nickels has proposed three major initiatives that he claims will encourage economic growth: removing development restrictions on Northgate Mall to encourage new investment by owner Simon Properties; allowing the University of Washington to more freely lease new office space throughout the University District; and the investment of $570 million in transportation and utility improvements to support Paul Allen's plans to turn the area south of Lake Union into a major biotech hub.
John Fox of the Seattle Displacement Coalition regards all three initiatives as corporate welfare that degrades neighborhoods' quality of life and destroys low-income housing. He says Nickels' timing has been skillful. "He will use this opportunity to try to get incumbents to side with him."
Nickels says of his agenda before the City Council: "It's a test of the institution. The citizens do better if [the mayor and City Council] challenge each other to excel."
LOW PROFILE UNTIL FALL
Besides shaping the election's agenda, observers say, Nickels undoubtedly is working quietly behind the scenes against his political opponents. A key constituency will be the King County Labor Council, with which Nickels has worked closely since his narrow election victory in 2001. If labor chooses to run its "labor-to- neighbor" door-to-door campaign on behalf of any candidate, it could make a big difference in a close race. Political insiders say Nickels and his staffers probably are recruiting candidates, making phone calls to donors, sharing mailing lists with allies, and lobbying for important endorsements.
For the moment, Nickels' effort will remain covert because, as adviser McDonough puts it, the mayor doesn't want to violate one of the central rules of electioneering, as articulated in Chicago-speak: "Don't back no losers." Says the mayor: "I need to be very careful on when and where I take positions. I need to be able to work with whoever gets elected." McDonough agrees: "There is a level of contentiousness where the voters say a pox on all your houses."
Says Seattle City Council member Nick Licata: "Seattle likes the underdog. If a big mayor is picking on a small council member, it could result in sympathy for the council member."
Licata notes that Steinbrueck and Compton are potential mayoral candidates. By targeting his possible 2005 opponents while they are running for re-election to the City Council, Nickels forces them to expend more energy and money now, leaving them in a weaker position for a mayoral run.
Nickels will probably work behind the scenes until the Sept. 16 primary separates the pretenders from the contenders, then he will publicly endorse challengers for the Nov. 4 general election. But the public already knows what's going on in the case of one council race.
NICKELS VS. NICASTRO
Judy Nicastro recently walked into Salumi, a downtown Italian deli, on a campaign swing. The owner greeted her and asked, "Who's running against you?" The cashier deadpanned, "Greg Nickels," and the whole place erupted in laughter.
The conventional wisdom is that Nicastro is No. 1 on Nickels' hit list because the two have clashed so frequently and so publicly. Two encounters stand out. In one, Nicastro got five votes for cutting the mayor's budget last fall, forcing Ceis to threaten to cut funding for a fire truck unless council members changed their minds. Wills and Compton obliged. Nicastro also authored a five-page screed in which she objected to labor unions and Nickels lobbying her to vote against developer Richard Hedreen's effort to transfer some development credits.
Nicastro has drawn a number of serious challengers: Kollin Min, who is an impressive fund-raiser with ties to Democratic Party hotshots, power lawyers, and wealthy environmentalists; real-estate broker Robert Rosencrantz, whose appeal to more conservative constituents might be an asset in a crowded primary; and Realtor Darryl Smith, a Columbia City activist who is focusing on expanding home ownership. Even her own supporters concede that Nicastro is vulnerable due to her reliance on the support of tenantsa group that doesn't turn out to vote in large numbers and currently enjoys relatively high vacancy ratesand because of her public feuds with the mayor and labor.
Nickels and Ceis "have been recruiting people to run against me," asserts Nicastro. "They are about consolidating power. If anybody gets in their way, they have to be taken out." Nicastro believes Nickels and labor, working together, could affect the outcome of the election. "When you set up a political machine, you can take people out. If they want to take any of us out, they only have to move about 80,000 votes. Anyone is vulnerable."
Council member Licata wonders if Nicastro isn't overplaying the mayor's clout for effect. "She hopes he endorses her opponent," he quips.
Consultant Allen says to not underestimate the mayor's impact, however. "There will be 30 different forces at play" in Nicastro's election, she admits, but Nickels "could be the straw that breaks the camel's back."
In fact, Allen believes the bad economy renders incumbents more vulnerable than usual. Few incumbents have lost in recent years, but Allen argues this year could be different. "This is a yearbecause of the recession, the marvelous trivial headlines [about the City Council], and a strong mayorthat two or three [incumbents] might go."
NICKELS VS. STEINBRUECK
Council President Steinbrueck says he doesn't know if Nickels is targeting him, but "it wouldn't surprise me." He adds that after the City Council voted not to reconfirm the mayor's choice for Seattle City Light superintendent, Gary Zarker, because of the utility's poor performance, Nickels said, "The voters will have the final say about this." Steinbrueck opines, "It sounded like an implied threat."
While Steinbrueck says he expects to win the voters' approval, he adds, "I'm not taking anything for granted." In his bid for a third term, Steinbrueck is facing a serious challenger in Rudi Bertschi, an economist and the husband of former state Insurance Commissioner Deborah Senn. While several insiders believe Steinbrueck is vulnerable, tellingly, none of them would say so for the record.
"Twenty years of economic growth has screeched to a halt," observes Steinbrueck. "We are going to be criticized for the business climate. It's unfair, but that's the current thinking out there."
Steinbrueck has focused on housing issues in his six years on the City Council. He considers voters' approval of last year's levy for low-income housing one of his greatest successes. Since assuming the council presidency two years ago, he also has focused on the mayoral-council dynamic, but he feels discouraged. "I haven't seen a whole lot of interest [from the mayor] in relationship building."
Town Hall's Brewster says the mayor, too, is disenchanted with his on-again, off-again relationship with Steinbrueck. "It's off again now."
NICKELS VS. COMPTON
Relations between Nickels and council member Compton have been consistently frosty. While Compton would not comment for this story, most observers think Nickels considers the former broadcaster his leading rival in the 2005 mayor's race. Due to Compton's long and respected career in local and national television journalism, he has tremendous name familiarity, particularly among older voters, who dominate Seattle's electorate. He has not, however, shown much affection for campaigning, raising money, or open conflict with the mayor's machine. To date, Compton has drawn opposition from former City Council member John Manning, who left office in the midst of a domestic-violence scandal; West Seattle neighborhood activist Susan Harmon, who ran a lackluster campaign two years ago; and Ecuadorian immigrant Angel Bolanosa, a newcomer to city politics. None of them can be causing Compton much concern.
Brewster expects a vigorous challenger to emerge. "I think there will be a surprise getting into that race," he predicts. "I'll bet [Compton] will draw a serious challenger."
EVEN IF NICKELS can oust an incumbent or two, political consultant Michael Grossman of Fifty Plus One argues it won't really help the mayor push his agenda. Grossman, who is working with United Way's director of community affairs, David Della, in his bid to replace Wills, says, "If Nickels helps to elect one or two more compliant members, somebody else [on the City Council] will see it as their role to be the challenger to the mayor. It's in the nature of the legislative/executive tug of waryou never get a lapdog council."
McDonough says Nickels doesn't expect to be king. "He wants a City Council that he can work with. Now he feels there are many of the City Council members whom he can't work with or rely on." McDonough predicts, "After these City Council races, there's going to be a rededication to rolling up his sleeves and working together" with whomever has been elected.
It remains to be seen, however, if, after declaring political war, Nickels can negotiate a peace treaty.