Nice While It Lasted

Challengers say City Council incumbents are too enamored of process, that citizen consensus and 'Seattle nice' are in the way of progress. Well, excuse us.

"'Seattle nice' is gone and it's not coming back," says City Council member Richard McIver. As campaign season gets under way—the mayor and four of nine council members are up for election in November—the change in the city's political climate is more evident than ever. During the 1990s and the reign of Mayor Norm Rice (aka Mayor Nice), City Hall was a place of high civility, consensus, and cordiality compared to other major American cities. Now City Hall and corollary campaigns have become more confrontational and pugnacious. What's going on here, and do we need to worry about something we've lost?

Mayor Greg Nickels has been the most obvious agent of change. Since he took office in 2002, he has really altered City Hall's political culture. The former King County Council member brought the sharp elbows and partisan style of the county courthouse to Fourth Avenue and James Street. He has the city's bureaucracy under tight control and runs a very disciplined political machine, and he's shown no tolerance for dissent—whether on the City Council or elsewhere. In 2003, Nickels broke the unwritten Seattle rule that mayors don't interfere in City Council elections by actively opposing the re-election of renters' rights advocate and council member Judy Nicastro, who then lost. This year, in an even more audacious move, Casey Corr, until recently the mayor's communications director, is running against another council member who has clashed with Nickels, Transportation Committee Chair Richard Conlin.

The mayor is not the only factor changing Seattle politics, however. The city's 2003 election cycle saw a profusion of clever, funny, and effective negative campaigning by a variety of candidates and their consultants against council members Nicastro, Heidi Wills, and Margaret Pageler. All three were ousted by voters.

This year, the mayor's machine and negative council campaigns are more active than ever. Two very nice guys, McIver and Conlin face a bevy of tough, in-your-face, first-tier challengers, though at this point neither the mayor nor two other incumbent council members up for re-election, Jan Drago and Nick Licata, face viable opponents. The mayor and his machine candidate, Corr, are taking aim at Conlin, but Conlin also faces a fierce challenge from Seattle Port Commissioner Paige Miller. McIver has his hands full with King County Council member Dwight Pelz, a partisan Democratic courthouse brawler, and landlord Robert Rosencrantz, who went negative with his first press release.

Both McIver and Conlin are criticized for failing to accomplish the things that need to be done. The rap on Conlin is that he is hostage to the "Seattle way"—the consensus-building process that takes forever, and sometimes longer. McIver is being tagged as someone who is disengaged and no longer putting forth the effort required to tackle the city's major challenges.

The charges are not true, but that doesn't mean they won't stick. Both McIver and Conlin are relatively low-profile council members who work in a quiet but effective fashion—a style that makes them vulnerable to political challenges.

After his first election in 1998, Conlin emerged as the champion of a new neighborhood movement that was less dominated by slow-growthers and more interested in process, sustainability, and environmental stewardship. Assuming the chair of the Transportation Committee four years ago, Conlin has become one of the council's most thoughtful critics of big transportation projects like the monorail and changes in the South Lake Union neighborhood, like the mayor's proposal for a new streetcar and changes to Mercer Street. Conlin makes no apologies for his attempts to increase citizen participation in the process of making major civic decisions. "For most of these decisions, it's not good or evil, it's a matter of trying to accommodate one another," he says. "Why shouldn't we try to reach consensus? It's how you build community."

The council's lone African American, McIver was appointed to the legislative body in 1997 and has been a consistent advocate for disadvantaged communities. He first pursued his agenda by leading the successful effort to provide a $50 million community development fund to mitigate the effects of Sound Transit's light-rail project on small businesses in the Rainier Valley. Last year, McIver became the council's budget chair and received high marks from his colleagues for his work on the council's most important task: passing the city's $679 million budget. He deplores the change in Seattle's political climate. "A lot of things in politics have been done with a lot of courtesy and a lack of animosity," he says. "What I've seen in recent elections is more attack-oriented. It's going to get more personal."

The challengers' attacks on McIver and Conlin rely on old Seattle stereotypes. First, there's the notion there is too much process and citizen input in decision-making. Port Commissioner Miller starts her stump speech with a little story about President Harry Truman. The president told reporters that he wanted to have a one-armed adviser because he was sick of hearing, "On the one hand . . . but on the other hand." Miller says, "The on-the-one-hand-but-on-other-hand style has come to dominate our city. Nothing gets done." Miller's chief examples of supposedly overthought projects are building the monorail, rebuilding the Alaskan Way Viaduct, and solving the Mercer Street mess.

The examples show how foolish this complaint is. The monorail and the viaduct are the responsibilities of other governments—the Seattle Monorail Authority, created by voters, and the state, respectively. The City Council could no more get those projects completed than it could stop the war in Iraq. As for changes to Mercer Street in the South Lake Union neighborhood, they remain a big developer's solution in search of a problem. Speaking of developers, the excess-of- process complaint is theirs and has been for decades. Big developers don't like the fact that Seattleites frequently oppose all or part of their projects. City Hall sometimes listens to those complaints and either scuttles the projects entirely—a rare occurrence these days—or improves them by adding requirements for open space, low-income housing, environmental standards, or other public benefits.

The last thing City Hall needs is less public comment and less government interference with the plans of big developers. Both McIver and Conlin are firmly committed to public process and participation. In addition, Conlin has a strong record of paying attention to the concerns of neighborhoods and trying to protect quality of urban life. Process is one of the few remaining tools that citizens have to protect themselves from a mayor bent on ratcheting up development.

The second stereotype derided by City Council challengers has to do with that characteristic of "Seattle nice." Too often, to be sure, Seattle politics conceal real conflict with a smiling face of consensus. This was especially true during Mayor Rice's tenure, when major city initiatives—like the construction of the Pacific Place parking garage—got too little public scrutiny and debate. In the 1990s, too few first-tier challengers engaged in vigorous debates of the issues with incumbent council members. In response, the neighborhood rebellion, led by the plainspoken City Council member Charlie Chong, brought a refreshing, more full-throated debate to civic affairs.

This year, however, the tough talk is aimed at advancing the Nickels/development agenda. Harsh campaigns that serve special interests do not improve Seattle's political climate. Unfortunately, that doesn't mean they don't win elections.

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