A year after election, a leader in spite of himself by James Bush
Paul Schell was last year's biggest (and most belated) political comeback story. Winning election as Seattle mayor exactly 20 years after he had run unsuccessfully for the same job, the businessman and port commissioner was sold to voters as an idea-a-minute visionary, a big-picture guy who could move mountains of bureaucracy with the might of his mind.
Almost a year into his first term, Schell is becoming known less for his vision and management skill than for his contradictions. Despite campaign platitudes about his managerial prowess, his hope of serving as the ignition for firing up Seattle's housing market, and his eagerness to work with the City Council, the one-year picture finds a hands-off and largely inactive chief executive
who leaves management to subordinates, has played a largely peripheral role in the housing legislation approved, and who was a missing person during negotiations with the council on his first budget. And despite his carefully cultivated image as a visionary, he's seen more misses than hits on his big-ideas scorecard.
But on closer examination, this apparently low-impact executive seems poised to exploit the times we face: a good economy, new interest in regional cooperation, a Democratic-controlled Olympia leadership. Although not quite the mayor he was advertised to be, Paul Schell could end up being the mayor Seattle needs.
Year One under Schell has highlighted several traits that now figure to characterize Years Two, Three, and Four. Here's a few:
*He wasn't kidding about the ideas: Schell has kept the promise that he wouldn't keep his ideas to himself. In his first year, he suggested a mixed-use solution for the new downtown library building, a pair of major changes in the regional transit plan, and the sale of the city-owned Key Tower office building.
*His interest isn't in government itself, but in what government can do. Even with many expecting a status quo Schell administration, the mayor's complete lack of interest in tinkering with city government is surprising. Other than hiring his own aides and office staff, he has made few significant personnel moves in his first year. The current City Hall gang is essentially the Norm Rice administration under new management.
*He's not (yet) legislation-oriented. Maybe it was the flurry of initiatives Rice ran through the council in his final year, but the few pieces of major legislation passing council this year have mainly been housing-related, and some of those were first proposed before Schell took office.
*He is politically connected, but hardly politically savvy. It must be those years at the Port of Seattle; ex-commissioner Schell visibly chafed under the new level of media attention and public expectations directed at Mayor Schell. He also produced a few first-year political bobbles, most notably the bizarre effort to modify the city's Ethics and Elections Commission, which started poorly and went downhill from there.
*Schell loves to talk about ideas, but isn't adept at selling them to a skeptical audience. Supporters say the Paul Schell that Seattle voters have gotten is the same one they've known for years: well-intentioned, innovative, and excited by new ideas, but impatient with criticism or differences of opinion. His history with the City Council is a good illustration. The year started off with Schell himself representing the executive department at several meetings, each time with council president Sue Donaldson cheerfully noting his presence at the table. The novelty of having the mayor in the room cooled somewhat in April when Schell publicly chewed out the council for rejecting his proposal to sell Key Tower and build a new City Hall. (Council members later changed their minds on the sale, but the mayor has been unimpressed with the offers received thus far.) By the time budget negotiations rolled around, Schell sightings around council chambers were rare.
Other Schell watchers, both inside and outside City Hall, seemed more inclined to give the mayor a solid B on his first-term report card, although there were a few C's issued. "I avoid giving the mayor grades—that's my official position," jokes council member Nick Licata.
Walt Crowley, a Schell supporter and longtime political observer, says the mayor learned from his early missteps. "I think he's hit his stride," argues Crowley. "He seems to have established a good relationship with the council. He's focused his civic exuberance and is being more productive." Crowley also states—correctly—that the recent budget process didn't reveal any great policy conflicts between Schell and the council. But that's not the whole story.
TWO MONTHS AND 10 days passed between the afternoon Schell entered council chambers to deliver his optimistic budget address and the final council vote on Seattle's spending plan for the years 1999 and 2000. Schell was a no-show for most of that intervening storm, even during a prolonged battle over the executive's rosy revenue projections and more cautious council estimates. Asked publicly when the mayor would identify possible cuts, budget director Anne Fiske-Zuniga replied curtly that Schell was standing by his estimates. Council members burst into laughter and adjourned the October 29 hearing. As they left the dais, one council member was heard to remark: "That was amusing."
By subsequently skipping most of a budget battle so draining that council Finance Committee chair Martha Choe had to resort to the ancient comparison between making law and making sausage, Schell made it clear that he prefers to purchase his sausage ready-made.
Of course, it's instructive to note that the mayor got most of what he wanted: new police officers and firefighters, improved street and park maintenance, and $24 million for neighborhood plan implementation over the two years of the budget. But the council threw a few symbolic barbs his way through the cuts they chose: Schell's proposed Office of Housing and Project Management (OHPM) died on the vine (although a smaller Office of Housing was approved), and the council trimmed his request to significantly increase his own office's budget. Also falling by the wayside was a scheme to transfer ownership of street lights and poles along city arterials from the Transportation Department to City Light, a trick that would shift the expense of maintaining the lights to electricity rate payers.
The light-pole switch tanked mainly because the mayor failed to get support from council Utilities Committee chair Margaret Pageler, who was furious that she didn't find out about the proposal until she read Schell's proposed budget. Likewise, Schell's OHPM proposal, although a poorly kept secret around City Hall, was submitted to the council without warning. Council members are still shaking their heads over the rounds of behind-closed-doors discussions with Schell staffers on budget minutiae. Tina Podlodowski says the discussions "took place rather randomly. I think given the things we were talking about, and given the priorities, it would have been better to discuss those things out in front of the public."
This tension showed up in another terse exchange at a November 5 budget hearing. "We are absolutely behind the scenes wanting to help close the gap," Fiske-Zuniga told the council.
"Can we get you out from behind the scenes?" grumbled Podlodowski.
Not quite World War III, but in a city government where most battles are over style rather than substance, this was an unusually fractious process. At one point, a group of council members that included council president Donaldson circulated its own alternative proposal. The budget battles also exposed the inexperience of the mayor's management team. Council sources say that executive services director Dwight Dively—rather than Schell's two deputy mayors, as you would expect—proved the most effective budget negotiator. (Dively, who has held jobs both with the council staff and the Rice administration, is the key holdover on Schell's personal staff.)
Council member Peter Steinbrueck says Schell's strategy was especially jarring to his colleagues who had served under Rice, a former council member himself. "Rice would—before making public a proposal—do the legwork and obtain advance support from the council," says Steinbrueck. "There is a need to work more collaboratively if you expect to accomplish anything. And I think they're learning that."
COUNTY EXECUTIVE RON SIMS is known for his sunny disposition, but when he crossed Fourth Avenue for an appearance at a recent Schell press conference, his level of enthusiasm drew chuckles from the assembled reporters. "I can't tell you what it's like to have a mayor like Mayor Schell—I can't tell you!" he gushed. Sims had reason to be happy: Residents of the Denny Triangle neighborhood in the northeast corner of downtown had expressed interest in making their neighborhood a receiving area for development credits from rural areas in the county. This all-important role as eager growth recipient granted success—on paper at least—to a major component of Sims' SmartGrowth initiative.
The issue isn't that the executive didn't get along with Schell's predecessor—Rice—says Sims chief of staff John Arthur Wilson. "It's been a case where Paul sort of started with a clean sheet of paper, which didn't have a lot of crib notes written on it from past years of county/city relationships." Under Schell, the city and county have cooperated on issues including salmon recovery, welfare-to-work programs, transportation, and criminal justice. The mayor and county executive just returned from Washington, DC, where they jointly pursued a $100 million Empowerment Zone grant for distressed areas of the city.
Schell's relationship with Sims provides evidence for one of the mayor's professed strengths. "He really gets regionalism," says Alex Steffen, Allied Arts president and a supporter of Schell's mayoral campaign. In November, the mayor hosted a daylong meeting of the Cascadia Mayors Council, where 29 mayors of cities from Vancouver, BC, to Springfield, Oregon, discussed community policing and transportation. But Steffen argues that the mayor sometimes shows a tendency to hold back in exploring ideas for fear of getting too far ahead of the general public. "The big card that Schell has and hasn't played is that he's a visionary," he adds. "I don't think that he has beenvisionary in office."
Although some of Schell's public pronouncements have caused him problems, others have bolstered his standing with constituent groups. "One of the first things we look for as a politician is 'What are the words coming out of their mouths?'" says Ed Zuckerman of Washington Conservation Voters. "In the first year, I think he's surprised us in the strength of his words and his language." In addition to forceful talk about saving Northwest salmon, Schell has voiced support for exploring reduced- and no-cut options for city-owned forestlands in the Cedar River Watershed. Zuckerman says the final disposition of the watershed, which will be decided in early 1999, will constitute the Schell administration's first major environmental test.
Steffen and Zuckerman also cite several smaller environmental initiatives. Steffen likes a Schell-backed program to reduce Seattle's water consumption through conservation by 1 percent per year over the next two decades. Zuckerman was pleased to see funding for the previously proposed Office of Environmental Management in Schell's budget. "He deserves credit for pushing something that was someone else's good idea," he says.
And, although it's looking unlikely that he'll meet with total success, Schell's pledge to establish enough shelters to get homeless women and children inside by Christmas has drawn praise. "I don't know that it's going to be reached, but I think it's great he set that as a standard," says John Shaw, co-chair for the SeattleKing County Coalition for the Homeless. "It was unexpected."
Steinbrueck agrees, calling Schell's pledge "admirable and bold," as well as unprecedented for a Seattle mayor. "I would say my opinion of him has changed since we both took office—it's more positive," he says. "He's shown compassion for issues that I'm concerned about."
Schell has also allowed some of his less successful ideas to die a natural death. In early January, he floated the idea of purchasing the underused commercial space in the Newmark complex on Second Avenue for library administrative use, connecting by tunnel with a new library on a site across the street. Although the original proposal calling for the library to share its site near the Pike Place Market with housing and commercial uses received serious consideration, council support was lukewarm at best. Nick Licata credits Schell for backing off when he realized that an extended debate could hurt the library bond's chances at the polls. "He really had his heart in it and he was intellectually and emotionally attached to that game plan," he notes, sympathetically.
BUT, EVEN IN A YEAR characterized by small victories, when Schell has blundered, he's blundered big. Even his most dedicated supporters sigh at the mention of the PacMed deal. The public development authority's Beacon Hill headquarters was leased to a major Seattle development firm in a deal criticized as a government give-away disguised as a public/private partnership. Although PacMed is a public development authority and under the direct control of its board of directors, Deputy Mayor Tom Byers was unwisely allowed to shepherd the project through its required federal approvals (the feds still own a part interest in the former Public Health Service hospital building), despite his former role as a PacMed consultant and personal ties with major players in the deal. Both Schell and Byers bristle at any suggestion of impropriety, but—even though the evidence shows the mayor's office merely greased the skids for a deal cut elsewhere—observers marvel that so many obvious red flags were ignored.
Given that Schell's administration was taking a beating in the papers on the appearance of the PacMed deal, it's ironic that his next controversial effort was to question whether city employees should be subject to an "appearance" standard under ethics regulations. At least that's the question that remained after a couple of months of muddled process, vague answers, and the formation and dissolution of a citizen task force to address the operations of the city Ethics and Elections Commission. Chaired by a Schell acquaintance, the task force courted criticism at every turn. The initial list of members included several powerful establishment figures (some with obvious beefs against city elections regulators), the process was set to take just two meetings (most groups of this type meet for six months or more), and the task force's charge was suspiciously vague. A poorly prepared Deputy Mayor Maud Daudon appeared before the Ethics and Elections Commission and got a one-hour ass chewing. The first meeting of the task force was a bust when none of the establishment appointees bothered to show up, apparently scared off by the spiraling conflict. Schell mercifully pulled the plug on the process two weeks later.
Debacles like PacMed and the ethics review not only demonstrated a lack of forethought, but highlighted the Schell administration's inability to react quickly and decisively to controversy. David Sucher, a Schell supporter who thinks the mayor is otherwise doing a good job, says the PacMed attacks might have been best deflected with a detailed financial analysis proving the lease was a good deal for the public. Schell, likewise, is still letting the ethics review careen on. Joe McGee, executive director of the city's largest employee union, has shown up on television and radio discussing the ethics issue, hinting broadly that he'd like to do away with the Ethics Commission or at least eliminate its unusual independent status within city government. Are these the official positions of the Schell administration, or have aides just not bothered to rein in McGee? Look for Schell's proposed ethics regulation changes to languish on the City Council back burner before being quietly dropped.
Some pin the blame for the administration's rough spots on the mayor's staff choices. "I'm sorry he doesn't have better advice than he's getting," says one Schell supporter. Another otherwise impressed backer says the mayor's taste in aides runs too much to "yes" people. "The staff lacks diversity in a broad political sense," he says. "Everybody sort of thinks and looks the same—where's the advice that's contrary?"
Of Schell's two deputy mayors, the personable Daudon still hasn't managed to adjust to the City Hall spotlight, despite her record of success in the lower-profile Port of Seattle. And Byers, an aide to Mayor Charles Royer in the 1980s, hasn't provided the insider savvy Schell desperately needs. His first time around, Byers was just out of the social service world and still had extensive contacts there, serving as a valuable foil for the still-learning Royer. Now, after a decade as a well-paid consultant, Byers appears tired and cranky, like a 27-year-old forced to repeat high school. More than one person interviewed for this story noted that Schell should have considered keeping Tom Tierney, a former Rice aide liked and respected throughout City Hall, rather than letting him depart to Daudon's old Port of Seattle job.
Some question whether Schell himself is a little too quick to lose interest in following his own proposals through the endless city process. Housing activist John Fox, who first butted heads with Schell the developer two decades ago, was prepared for a brawl when some amendments, drafted by Fox's Seattle Displacement Coalition, were introduced for addition to the mayor's proposed multifamily-housing tax abatement legislation. But instead of raising objections, Schell aide Denna Cline sat by silently—and some of the changes were included in the final ordinance. "I don't sense a great deal of vigor in his efforts to stand by his proposals," says Fox.
IN REVIEWING SCHELL'S first year, one surprising fact should stand out to both his supporters and critics: He clearly has the tools to be an effective mayor. Like every modern politician, he swept into office with vague promises to be a consensus builder and a hardworking advocate for his positions; now, a year later, it's time for him to deliver on those promises. He is clearly suffering from the initial shock of realizing that, as mayor, many of his proposals must clear the City Council—a group of nine powerful, idiosyncratic individuals that includes some egos as big as his.
Schell, the former port commissioner, is also finding the glare of public scrutiny not to his liking. For the first time in his career, a guy who lacks the common touch must learn to anticipate how his actions will be viewed by the average citizen. His record also shows that he's happiest as a CEO issuing orders to subordinates; now his hands-off style of governing presents an additional obstacle—outside of his personal staff, he is dependent on department heads and managers schooled in the slow, wheel-turning bureaucratic style of his predecessor. If the mayor really wants to inject new ideas into city government itself, he'll have to provide a lot of the energy himself.
In short, Schell the Great Communicator needs to become a Strong Persuader. Although Schell has made a show of reaching out to the council, most council members actually talk to him less than they did to Rice, an underrated behind-the-scenes negotiator. One council aide says the mayor seems to have made the outsider's error by confusing advocacy for his programs with "horse-trading." With a limited pot of money, and nine council members—each with ideas of his or her own about how to spend it—the mayor's take-it-or-endure-the-tantrum style, showcased during this year's budget process, can't be repeated.
In truth, council members want more direction from Schell about where his priorities lie. Licata says that while the mayor loves to toss out ideas, "I think sometimes he's not very clear which ones he feels more strongly about." However, "direction" doesn't mean crafting proposals in the privacy of the mayor's office, then springing the final proposal simultaneously on the council and the public. In the culture of government, nobody likes surprises.
This coming year should provide several opportunities for Schell to show his worth as an outward-looking Seattle mayor. During his election campaign, he pledged to build an "urban coalition" of cities to lobby the state Legislature—now, with a Democratic-controlled state Senate and an even split in the House, he will have an immediate opportunity to notch some victories. And he's already indicated some key agenda items, including a doubling of the existing local-option gas tax (authorized by the Legislature, but not yet assessed by King County).
Schell also faces a self-imposed challenge next year in persuading Seattle voters to authorize three proposed spending measures: a transportation funding source, a levy for arts and culture, and funding for regional parks facilities. Rice, the last mayor to attempt this trifecta, lost big in 1994 when spending measures for schools, libraries, and law enforcement all failed at the ballot box.
Schell supporters caution that the mayor's big challenges can't allow him to lose track of the small things. Sucher cites the year of ceremonies marking the coming millennium as an area where Schell can shine. When the mayor first proposed lighting bridges to mark the coming of the year 2000, he drew some snickers, but the actual lighting of the Aurora Bridge has drawn nothing but compliments, he says. Taking his cues from the neighborhood planning process, Schell could lead reinvestment in public spaces, Sucher adds. "That could be his real mark on the city."
Others say that Schell needs to continue his first-year record of interacting with the public.
"Sort of adjust your mayoral spectacles so you can see the little picture as clearly as you do the big picture," advises Crowley. "Nearsightedness for a mayor is not a handicap."