It's April 18, and the view from the podium in the Westin Hotel's Grand Ballroom tells Greg Nickels it's a beautiful morning.
From his perch, the candidate can see 1,000 faces waiting for the good word from their chosen contender for Seattle mayor. The opening acts (Nate Miles' political impersonations and a comedy routine by Greg's teenagers, Jake, 19, and Carey, 18) have been well received—now it's up to Nickels to cap the occasion with a powerhouse speech.
Instead, we get a straightforward tribute to the "Seattle Way," Nickels' description of a community that works together and does things properly. "It's waiting on a street corner in driving rain until the light changes before crossing," intones Nickels. "Waiting for the light is part of the Seattle Way."
The crowd listens politely. The pundits yawn. A Seattle Times report dismisses the theme as "sugary." But this year, it may be a political masterstroke.
Incumbent Mayor Paul Schell sees Seattle as the world-class city of the future, a south-of-the-border Vancouver, B.C. City Attorney Mark Sidran positions himself as a would-be Rudy Giuliani and Seattle as a potential New York City looking for a steadying influence. West Seattle kid Nickels waxes rhapsodic about people standing at stoplights and sharing the harvest from their P-Patch garden plot. In a different town—or in a different year—his safety-patrol-member act would peg Nickels as a minor leaguer. In Seattle 2001, though, this nice guy sounds like a winner. Finally, Seattle may be ready for Greg Nickels.
Greg Nickels is many things people say they don't like in politicians. First of all, he's a careerist—he's never worked as anything but a political aide or an officeholder. And he's more about nuts and bolts (dare we say "Gore-like) than flashy and charismatic. But now that looks like an advantage.
Three early and limited surveys of Seattle voters showed Nickels with a 2 to 5 percent lead on the field. One even predicted that Nickels would whip Schell by an amazing 20 percentage points in a head-to-head race.
Much has been made of Schell's and Sidran's money-raising skills, yet the most recent election report found Nickels leading in that most crucial of tallies, cash on hand (Nickels' bank account shows $131,143, as compared to $95,727 for Sidran and $114,977 for Schell).
Nickels, 46, isn't surprised he's doing so well in the money race. As developer Schell's political inexperience plagued him throughout his first term, Nickels thinks Seattle voters want to end Amateur Hour at City Hall. "In a lot of elections, the fact that I've spent my life in local government would be a negative," he says. "In this election, that's not true."
Schell has raised more money overall, but Nickels has received donations from more people (he has 1,894 campaign contributors, as compared to Schell's 890 and Sidran's 983), a figure that he uses to establish his campaign's grassroots credentials, and contrast himself with wealthy developer Schell and tough-guy lawyer Sidran.
Politics has filled Nickels' adult life. At age 19, he left political science studies at the University of Washington to work in government. The longtime aide to (then-council member) Norm Rice made an unsuccessful run for Seattle School Board in 1983 before in 1987 becoming the youngest person to earn election to the King County Council (as a 32-year-old). He's been re-elected to his seat three times, and made unsuccessful runs for King County Executive and Seattle mayor.
No Seattle mayor has lost a race for re-election in the last 50 years, but Schell's approval ratings have lingered below 30 percent since the December 1999 World Trade Organization fiasco. Nickels saved a few unkind words in his kickoff speech for Sidran ("A man who doesn't offer a vision, but division"), but he's focusing his campaign on presenting himself an alternative to Schell—a more competent, homespun version of the sometimes in-over-his-head incumbent.
He's already drawn the nod from a major Boeing union, Aerospace Machinists Local 751, and the Seattle-King County Association of Realtors, while earning a dual endorsement (with Schell) from the Washington Conservation Voters. The King County Labor Council found its membership split between Nickels and Schell, so the group declined to issue a pre-primary endorsement for either candidate.
NICKELS' LOW-KEY STYLE as a County Council member has been a hit with many constituents.
On a recent Saturday morning, the earnest candidate faces an audience of 10 neighborhood residents at the Cascade People's Center before a neighborhood tour. "We are going to have to fix our transportation system—it is broken," he says. "We are choking on the region's traffic.
"We've also got to build the monorail. Voters have already told us twice they want us to build the monorail."
This is Greg's kind of audience. He's at his best in small groups and one-on-one—the kind of guy who looks you in the eye when you speak and nods when you make a point. While not a world-class podium speaker, Nickels' amiable delivery stands in sharp contrast to Schell's joyless approach and Sidran's tendency to lecture.
Nickels' self-declared political role model is former Seattle City Council member George Benson. A neighborhood druggist by profession, Benson prided himself on his common touch. Nickels likes to tell audiences about the construction of the downtown bus tunnel—Benson would walk the route every Friday, talking to merchants and recording their complaints in his pocket notebook. As mayor, Nickels says he would take a similar approach of listening to people and paying attention to details.
Vashon Island activist Emma Amiad cites his work to transfer authority over county parks properties to the island's local park authority. "He really listens," she says. "He tries to solve problems when he hears about it; he doesn't just brush you off like so many politicians." Amiad says she's sent a donation to Nickels' campaign even though she'd love to see him continue as her representative. "Seattle needs him," she says. "Our problems are really miniscule compared to the really earthshaking problems Seattle is facing."
However, Nickels isn't famous for addressing earthshaking problems.
During a tour of the Maple Leaf neighborhood, Nickels stops to stare at a Camel cigarette poster on the front of a convenience store. "That would be illegal in Boston," he says to no one in particular. He's referring to restrictions on cigarette advertising he pushed as a member of the King County Board of Health, which were struck down by our region's appeals courts. Nickels drew attention a few years back when he negotiated an agreement to pull the Marlboro Man sign from the Kingdome and remove cigarette advertisements from Seattle's remaining billboards. The Cigarette-Stomping Man also got violent video games banned from the Seattle Center and strengthened the county's inspection program for restaurants and other food vendors.
While some of his legislative accomplishments fit under the heading of "minutiae," his image as a hard worker who understands government fits the profile of the mayor Seattleites are looking for. Even on the editorial page of the pro-Sidran Seattle Times, Nickels has been described as "steady" and perhaps a "comfy fit" for the city—a reasonable middle-ground guy without Schell's political baggage or Sidran's authoritarian leanings. Think of the 2001 mayoral election as a Microsoft slogan: What does Seattle want to be today?
Nickels is unashamed of running on his nice-guy credentials. "People don't see me as threatening," he says. "I think that's part of the temperament of being mayor."
In the past, this understated approach has labeled him as colorless and hamstrung his efforts to move to higher office. In the 1993 county executive race, Nickels lacked the political stature of eventual winner Gary Locke. In the 1997 Seattle mayor's race, he seemed charisma-deficient when matched with thoughtful visionary Schell and fiery, populist City Council member Charlie Chong. Still, despite a field of five credible candidates, Nickels lost to Chong in the primary by only 1,000 votes. "I think if the election had been two days later, he would have won that primary," says Tom Weeks, a former City Council member and informal Nickels adviser. "He had all the momentum going into the vote, but he caught fire too late. I think he's really learned the lesson from that."
After waffling over his entrance into that race, Nickels has put his indecisive past behind him. His exploratory committee formed more than a year before the election, and Nickels was a declared candidate even as Schell was battling earthquakes and Mardi Gras thuggery.
On the more human front, Nickels grabbed a ton of local press for his major campaign-related accomplishment— losing 45 pounds on a diet that has kept him from eating potatoes or rice since last spring. He's also flashing a surprising sense of humor on the campaign, with the self-deprecating edge voters love.
Take his quip as a campaign aide performs an unorthodox traffic maneuver to get Nickels to an event. "Well, it's legal," deadpans Nickels. "But I'm not sure if it's the 'Seattle Way.'"
Nickels worked tirelessly to put together the deal that created Safeco Field, although he now wisely acknowledges that the project should have returned to the ballot rather than being slipped in through state legislation. Of course, with the Mariners off to a record best start, he's not apologizing a whole lot. "You can criticize me for the ballpark, but anytime I go there and see 45,000 people enjoying themselves and spending money in our city, I get a good feeling about it," he says. "It was worth the hits I took on it."
A good point, but voters won't get the opportunity to enjoy Nickels' other major legislative priority—the Sound Transit light-rail system—for at least another decade. Over budget and mired in a continuing series of blunders, light rail's public image has fallen far enough that Sidran has disavowed the plan.
Patiently, Nickels argues that a light-rail system (and, by the same token, a Seattle monorail) represents a rare opportunity to create a new transportation corridor through the city. Proposals to double-deck Interstate 5 are unrealistic, he says, and no neighborhood wants wider arterials or more traffic. "The goal is to create a [new] transportation system, and nobody ever said that was going to be easy or cheap," says the stay-the-course candidate.
He calls for the replacement of the Alaskan Way Viaduct with a new earthquake-sound elevated roadway. The viaduct is a necessary part of our transportation system, says Nickels, who isn't sold on the plans of Seattle's cocktail party architecture crowd, who would prefer to see an expensive tunnel built along the waterfront.
Besides, he says, in rueful reference to cost overruns on Sound Transit's Capitol Hill tunnel, "I've had enough tunnels for one lifetime."
Despite being forced to walk the tightrope on the Sound Transit plan, Nickels is toughening his rhetoric. He responds to Schell's boasts about tripling the size of the neighborhood matching fund by wondering aloud why residents have to file grant applications to fix up parks and repair sidewalks. "People feel that the city is there to provide services to neighborhoods and individuals, and that's not happening," he says.
Three ballot issues passed during Schell's tenure may be pouring money into neighborhood projects, but Nickels isn't impressed. "Being able to pass a levy in the best economic times in our city's history is not exactly heavy lifting," he says.
Nickels also criticizes Schell for his failure to put his own people in positions of power. "I will replace more department heads in my first year as mayor than Paul Schell has in four years," he says.
Despite this firm language, Nickels weakens his stand by refusing to specifically name any current department heads he would sack (although Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske should heed these sage words: "Rent, don't buy"). Over the years, Nickels hasn't escaped criticism for being overly calculating, for example on primary election night in 1997: When it appeared Nickels might advance along with Schell, the candidate borrowed a page from rival Chong by ripping into Schell as a big-money carpetbagger. Then, once eliminated, Nickels promptly endorsed Schell and blasted Chong's divisive rhetoric.
Other observers were appalled by Nickels' March pledge to hang the death certificate of 20-year-old Mardi Gras beating victim Kris Kime in his office if elected. Nickels responds that the current administration's poor performance at Mardi Gras is a big deal to most city residents, including Nickels himself and his wife Sharon, the parents of teenagers. "If somebody is getting beat up on the street within sight of our police, help should be coming," says Nickels. "A fundamental promise was broken that night."
Political consultant Greg Dewar, himself a West Seattle resident, says Nickels' record doesn't necessarily stand up to close scrutiny. As West Seattle simmered during the 1990s over such controversies as the Seattle Comprehensive Plan and the Admiral Garage project, Nickels often appeared out of touch with his constituents—a situation that became apparent when Chong soundly whipped him on his home turf in the 1997 mayoral primary. "Charlie being in the race will remind every West Seattleite where Greg has been on West Seattle issues over the last 10 years, which is AWOL," says Dewar.
Nickels' ability to say the right thing doesn't always lend itself to a substantial campaign. Take his response to the recent shooting of Aaron Roberts by police. Nickels invariably breaks into the story of his conversation with a prominent African-American minister, who asked him what he told his own son about the police. "I told my son that if he's in trouble to go to the police—they're there to help him," Nickels recalls. The minister replied that he told his son to avoid the police whenever possible, because he'll only get in trouble. This is a fine political anecdote that has scored well with crowds thus far. But what exactly does he mean by it?
Light-Rail Greg's recent conversion to monorail enthusiast could also draw charges of political expediency. However, Nickels has correctly identified yet another Schell blunder (the mayor led an effort to derail a grant and kill the monorail; the voters rebuked him with a second monorail initiative) and taken the other side.
Many observers expect the power of incumbency will propel Schell into the final election and into a two-man race with Nickels. Tim Flynn, Nickels' 1997 campaign manager, thinks Greg can take the incumbent. "It seems in this election that Greg's kind of found his stride," he says. "He's learned from '97, he's got an early start, he's put money in the bank to reach out to voters, and he's having more fun this time around. And I think that shows."
Nickels thinks that voters are looking for a candidate who can beat the incumbent, and he's the man for the job. "I think there's going to be a real issue of electability, and I think that's going to work in my favor," he says.