Mayor Misfire

Bible week, botched vetoes, and now, being laughed at on late-night television: What will it take for Schell to recover?

Shining lights on a bridge isn’t the type of project that usually gets a mayor in trouble. Yet representatives of the Seattle Millennium Project could only sit mute last week as neighbors of the Aurora Bridge raked them over the coals, charging that plans to install permanent floodlights to illuminate the historic structure were ill-advised, environmentally unsound, and planned without sufficient neighborhood participation.

Typical of the critics was Queen Anne Community Council board member John Bridger-Lewis, who says he likes the concept but hates the way the city has implemented it. “This is a backhanded way the mayor is trying to do something without talking to the citizens,” he told city representatives.

The Millennium Celebration makes an apt symbol for Mayor Paul Schell’s first two years in office. Announced in May 1998 as a “15-month celebration” of the Year 2000, its major initiatives have tumbled like bowling pins. The original proposal to light as many as nine bridges was scaled back to just two when private donations proved hard to come by, and only Beacon Hill’s Dr. Jose P. Rizal Bridge was actually illuminated in time for New Year’s Eve. The most important millennium event, a New Year’s Eve celebration at the Seattle Center, was canceled due to fears of a terrorist attack.

The cancellation drew ridicule from around the country, from such disparate sources as talk show host Jay Leno to San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown—with the final indignity the now-famous Seattle Times headline of Sunday, January 2: “Schell: I’m not a wuss.”

While the mayor’s office has brushed aside talk of resignation and insisted Schell’s hard times won’t force him to become a one-term mayor, his political stature is undeniably diminished. “His career’s in the ER and the prognosis is not good,” says Eastside political consultant Brett Bader. “Seattle is such a polite city, and that is the only reason you don’t see more calls for his resignation.”

But most political insiders interviewed for this story feel confident that the mayor can weather the storm—and even run for reelection in 2001. “Two years is an eternity in politics, so I think any obituaries are premature,” says Walt Crowley, a one-time City Council candidate and longtime Schell supporter. But even Crowley admits Schell did a poor job “regaining his sense of balance” after the debacle of the World Trade Organization deliberations and the accompanying street violence. Schell’s inconsistent comments on the WTO events managed to alienate police, protesters, and the general public, Crowley admits. “That really squandered the political protection that [Police Chief Norm] Stamper’s resignation might have given him.”

So where does the Schell administration go from here? “I think the short answer is ‘forward,'” says Cliff Traisman, the city’s director of intergovernmental relations and a major adviser to the mayor. “I’m not going to lie to you and say it’s not depressing to read the newspapers,” he admits, adding that the mayor’s challenge is to put the furor behind him. “We are not having WTO meetings up on the 12th floor—we’re focusing on the state of the city and moving forward,” he says.

Schell’s next major public statement will be his annual State of the City address to the City Council on January 24. Reminded that last year’s address included the first public announcement of the WTO meetings, Traisman even manages a joke: “We don’t expect any announcements this time about hosting international trade events.”

The City Council, undergoing its own transition period with a trio of new members, is waiting to see how Schell rebounds from his darkest hour. Unlike predecessor Norm Rice, Schell never served on council, and therefore has no significant past allegiances among council members. He has also stood aloof from endorsing candidates as mayor.

Council member Nick Licata says he’s hopeful the combination of Schell’s hard political knocks and a new council lineup will encourage the mayor to adopt a more collaborative style. “That means getting down and negotiating, as opposed to just dropping ideas and seeing how we respond,” he says. “He needs to learn to use the council as a true partner in getting legislation passed.”

Other political observers believe that Schell needs to shed his image as merely a promoter of downtown shopping and the “International City” concept, and do something to get on the side of “ordinary folks.” Whether this year’s legislative agenda can provide that common touch is an open question. The council is currently wrestling with the many calls for new amenities contained in neighborhood plans, establishing a permanent funding source for facilities like the zoo and aquarium, and scoring state bucks to extend the Sound Transit light rail system to Northgate. Beyond that, the developer mayor needs to do a good job in the construction business, overseeing the building of a new City Hall and Downtown Library and sinking more millions into neighborhood branch libraries and community centers.

Perhaps he can also ride the energy of new council members like Judy Nicastro and Jim Compton. Nicastro hopes to join incumbents Licata and Peter Steinbrueck in seeking new protections for renters. A little support from the mayor (who, by the way, rents his downtown condo) could go far toward neutralizing his patrician image. And Compton, whose campaign called for a new focus on improving transportation, could be an important ally in helping the mayor appear more attuned to the everyday concerns of commuters and small businesses.

The mayor might also be advised to consider a few staff changes. While poor communication may start at the top, he saw the work of his blue-ribbon panel on police internal investigations tarnished by an aide’s blunder when confidential interview files regarding police misconduct were inappropriately turned over to the police. He also ended up in hot water by proclaiming Bible Week (a national effort by right-wing Christian groups) and Li Hongzhi and Falun Dafa Days (honoring the controversial Chinese Falun Gong movement). Mayoral proclamations are basically Valentines to constituent groups and not considered political heavy lifting, so Schell is at the mercy of his staff to do the research. Twice, his staff failed him. But some fear Schell’s fierce loyalty, exacerbated by the current siege, might keep him from ousting the bunglers.

Still, the much-touted investigation of the WTO events could indirectly benefit the mayor by introducing a more complex understanding of the troubles—rocking the common perceptions of saintly, peaceful protesters, a handful of nasty anarchists, good-but-poorly-led cops, and bumbling leaders. It’s not too outrageous to predict that there may be more than enough blame to go around—rather than the common view that the whole thing is Schell’s fault.

If criticism of the mayor’s performance doesn’t cool, citizens have a few options. Under the Seattle charter, the mayor could be removed by six council votes (of nine), following an impeachment hearing. However, the only Seattle mayor ever to be removed by this process was W.D. Wood of the Klondike Gold Rush era—he simply ran off to the gold fields.

State law allows any citizen to mount a recall effort for malfeasance (intentional wrongdoing), misfeasance (negligent wrongdoing), or nonfeasance (sneaking off to the Klondike to pan for gold). However, the charges must first pass muster with a Superior Court judge, who makes the decision as to whether they are sufficient to justify a recall. The city’s last recall effort, a 1991 attempt to sack Norm Rice, never made it past this stage. Two Seattle mayors have been successfully removed through the recall process, Hiram Gill in 1911 and Frank Edwards in 1931. (Gill was later elected to, and served, a full term as mayor.)

According to Julie Anne Kempf, King County’s acting superintendent of elections, 51 voters have picked up her office’s information package on the recall process since the WTO. Recall organizers would have to gather signatures from 47,075 registered Seattle voters (25 percent of the people who voted in the last mayoral election) in an 180-day period.

If the mayor resigns or is removed for any reason, the council president (now Margaret Pageler) is offered the interim job. If she declines, the council votes to choose another member for the post. The interim mayor then serves until the next annual regular election, when a new candidate is elected for the remainder of the mayor’s term.

An easier plan would be to wait until the end of Schell’s first term in 2001. Political consultant Lisa Collins of Moxie Media says the major effect of the Schell flap is that the mayor would be more likely to draw an opponent if he runs for reelection. “I would definitely say that his handling of WTO and New Year’s has emboldened his detractors,” she says.

Brian Livingston, administrator of political watchdogs the Civic Foundation, says his organization’s next quarterly forum will be a panel discussion entitled “Seattle After Schell: The Search for a 21st Century Mayor.” Livingston notes that the recall route will likely prove too complicated and time-consuming, so potential challengers need to get organized early. “They should be building some sort of a team, at least an exploratory committee, in the year 2000,” he says.

Who might be in the race? The shortlist starts with County Council member Greg Nickels, who barely missed surviving the mayoral primary in 1997. Next is Steinbrueck, who has racked up huge margins in two council elections. Former council member Tina Podlodowski, a vocal critic of the mayor’s, has name recognition and a big bank account from her days as a Microsoft executive. City Attorney Mark Sidran is also considered a viable contender, although he would have to give up his job to run for mayor. Due to election cycles, both Steinbrueck and Nickels could keep their current jobs during a mayoral run. A few longer shots: Licata, council member Jan Drago, and State Rep. Frank Chopp.

Aides insist that Schell has neither decided on nor ruled out a run for reelection. Although the 62-year-old Schell could just complete his term and retire, some political insiders caution that a continuing flood of criticism might have the opposite effect— actually pressuring the mayor into running for reelection in an effort to clear his political name.