The Propaganda Bomb

When Mayor Greg Nickels printed and mailed campaign material at city expense, he wasn't seeking to influence just anybody.

After a wrist slap from the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission, is the mayor smarting or smiling today? Greg Nickels violated election rules by issuing a political campaign booklet from City Hall and must repay part of the cost, $2,205, commissioners decided on Monday, Oct. 10. But that's pocket change for a re-election campaign that has raised almost $500,000. It's also money that can be figuratively written off as the cost of doing political business. Having assembled a re-election apparatus in the spirit of his native Chicago, Nickels is powering toward a second term with cash and clout. In the September primary, his opposition included a die-hard socialist, a woman who never spoke, and a man who interviews himself on public-access TV. Flattening them, the mayor faces a November no-contest against a retired professor with great expertise in national parks.

But in the view of the Nickels campaign, you can't be too rich or too political. His face and name are layered across city press releases, newsletters, Web pages, and All-Greg-All-the-Time civic TV. In February, the mayor's office also began fashioning an eight-page booklet that would cost taxpayers more than $6,500 in printing, mailing, and salaries. It included six color action photos of the mayor and the imprecise headline: "Mayor Greg Nickels: Three Years of Accomplishments." What followed weren't necessarily accomplishments but actions taken or hoped for. "Replacing the Viaduct and seawall," for example, is years away. He was "restoring our waters," "helping commuters," "taking care of bridges," and "moving freight." He didn't claim to be leaping tall buildings, but he did say he was "reducing waste," which seems contradicted by the contents of the booklet.

Perhaps the most political and unprecedented move came in March, when Nickels ordered the document mailed to just a select group—the 3,100 people on a mailing list provided by the Department of Neighborhoods. Neighborhood activists were then seeking a viable opponent to oppose Nickels. Prominent among the hopefuls was former Neighborhoods Director Jim Diers, who was inexplicably fired by Nickels in 2001 and who likely would have given the mayor a good game. Dropping that eight-page propaganda bomb in the enemy's lair was a sly move. The popular Diers never declared, and other neighborhood-backed hopefuls stepped away. The booklet— and its targeting—was so obviously political it couldn't possibly pass ethics muster. And it didn't, but perhaps for the wrong reason.

The Ethics and Elections Commission board seemed to have only partly figured it out Monday when, in a 4-3 vote, commissioners decided the booklet itself was political in nature. But during a two-hour hearing at Muni Tower, members barely delved into the target mailing of the document, and Jim Diers' name never came up. The record shows mayoral Communications Director Marianne Bichsel ($45.97 an hour) and mayoral staffers Katherine Schubert-Knapp ($37.70) and Mark Kay Clunies-Ross ($32.70) together spent a total of 110 hours so the public could know the mayor was "helping neighborhoods" and "opening libraries all over Seattle" (without a nod to ex-mayor and library builder Paul Schell). Besides printing and mailing costs, the mayor's staff spent time e-mailing the accomplishments list to others. It also was posted on the mayor's Web site, and a modified version showed up on his campaign site. Once a whistle-blower's complaint was filed, attorney costs kicked in—for taxpayers. At the hearing, two city attorneys represented the commission, two represented Nickels. The booklet was nothing new, insisted mayoral counsel Sean Sheehan, boasting that the list of 74 items was "severely edited" to get in as many of the mayor's accomplishments as possible, all of which he insisted were "verifiable." Apparently that includes "accomplishment" No. 12, "building a new monorail."

The mayor's office has announced it might appeal Monday's ethics decision to Superior Court, a bit of bravura over a ruling that recoups but a third of taxpayer cost. Meanwhile, the campaign apparatus lumbers on. Nickels' remaining opponent, Al Runte, has officially received $8,360 in contributions as of Tuesday, Oct. 11—when he also loaned himself $4,000 to keep things going. The mayor has collected $496,646. Even with a second term assured, the money continues to flow in, another $7,000 since the primary vote. "We were a little slow in getting the check signed," says Wayne Stedman of UA Local 32 (plumbers and pipe fitters) in Renton, whose $650 arrived Sept. 29, intended as a primary contribution. But "we're probably not going to give him any money for the general. I don't think he really needs it." On the other hand, just as Nickels rolled over funds from his first mayoral campaign to this one, he can carry over funds from this one for his next race, a third term as mayor or for a higher office. At the current rate, he could start his 2009 campaign with a half-million. Maybe that is what he meant by accomplishment No. 47, "engaging Seattle's creative economy."

randerson@seattleweekly.com

 
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