During his 16-year career as a reporter for KING-5, Robert Mak became one of the most ubiquitous and respected personalities on Northwest television. He was the guy who scored the big interviews with political movers and shakers, the last of a dying breed of local boob tube journalists to actually host his own wonky public affairs show.
So when Mak announced he was leaving KING to accept a job as struggling Mayor Greg Nickels' Communications Director (along with the flexible subtitle of "Senior Policy Advisor"), it made the sort of splash that typically doesn't accompany such announcements. "Mak to the rescue!" was the unspoken message, and his annual salary of nearly $160,000 -- unprecedented for a mayoral communications director and more than Nickels makes himself -- did nothing to deflate the Super-Mak anticipation.
But upon assuming the reins of Nickels' press operation in June 2008, Mak did a funny thing (for Mak, anyway): He disappeared from the public eye. And now that his boss has been eliminated from contention for a third term, Mak will soon disappear from City Hall -- a place some city councilmembers wonder how often he frequented in the first place."I never saw him other than in the main entry of City Hall," says Councilmember Tom Rasmussen. "I never once saw him on the council floor." As for how much interaction his office had with Mak in general, Rasmussen says, "None, nada." And of course, there's the elephant in the room: Mak's salary, of which Rasmussen remarks: "There are a lot of people in more significant jobs with the city who supervise a heck of a lot of people and have a great deal more responsibility who earn less than that -- like city councilmembers."
SW contacted four of Rasmussen's colleagues -- Sally Clark, Richard McIver, Bruce Harrell, and Nick Licata -- for this story, and each of them reported that their interactions with Mak were similarly few and far between (in fairness to Mak, "council liaison" is not part of his job description). And other sources at City Hall, who asked to remain unnamed, report that Mak was far less engaged than his predecessors, Casey Corr, Marianne Bichsel, and Marty McOmber.
Licata feels it was bad publicity surrounding Mak's salary, which occasionally dogged Nickels during the primary campaign, that neutralized Mak from the get-go, at least in part. "I think he was one of the best TV journalists in Seattle, [but] I don't think the mayor was able to use him to his fullest capability," Licata says of Mak. "The mayor had him slotted for an admin position; he would have been better situated as spokesperson for the mayor. [And] the mayor probably hurt his own chances of using Robert for that when his salary became an issue, and therefore the mayor had to give Robert a lower-visibility position in his administration."
Clark feels that Mak's "very low profile," as Rasmussen puts it, comes down to the simple fact that he's Robert Fucking Mak. "While the salary is what people focused on when Robert was hired, my question may have to do more with why Team Nickels went for a celebrity with super high journalism cred," she says. "Alex [Fryer, the mayor's press secretary who currently reports to Mak], Marianne, and Marty all brought great credibility without the celebrity focus...Robert's lofty status meant he'd never be able to be invisible at an event...Robert and his salary always ran the risk of being part of a story."
Mak's apparent solution to this problem: Defer all media relations to Fryer, and don't show up at many events. "I did not seek the public spotlight because I felt the best person to speak for the mayor was the mayor himself," explains Mak. "It wasn't about my visibility, it was about his visibility."
McOmber, a former Seattle Times reporter who now works for Casey Family Programs (where Bichsel is also employed), says assuming such a behind-the-scenes role is well within the parameters of how a mayoral communications director might choose to structure his or her operation. For his part, mayoral consultant Christian Sinderman admits to being "a little bit" surprised that Mak has been so deferential, but feels that it may have been the public's getting so accustomed to seeing him so often that served to amplify his perceived absence. "One of the reasons why some people found [his lack of visibility] notable was, because he came from TV, he was an extremely visible person. So his lack of public persona in the mayor's office was more notable than had he been a print journalist."
"Robert approached the job a little differently than Marianne and Casey," says Deputy Mayor Tim Ceis. "He had Alex Fryer play the more visible press role. Robert tended to work on the strategic side of it...He was involved in all the major initiatives that we worked on, whether it was the housing levy or neighborhood policing plan...He's done a fine job. I think he made the transition and was hitting his stride. Unfortunately, that [stride] is getting cut off [with the administration's imminent departure]."
Mak's not sure what's in store for him professionally once he departs City Hall. Having just celebrated the birth of his second child, however, he says he's "looking forward to spending some time with my family."