Schell Shock

Will the mayor be around for four more years?

THE MAYOR THAT SEATTLE loves to hate certainly acts like he is. Last Saturday, he showed up at 13 events in celebration of Neighborhood Appreciation Day. This year’s annual State of the City speech read like a PR flack’s laundry list of first-term accomplishments. He says he “loves the job.” He has formed an exploratory committee and is contacting supporters about his election plans. Political heavyweight consultant Blair Butterworth is developing the spin.

But the man himself seems a pale imitation of the idea-a-minute visionary who excited Seattle voters in 1997. Face to face, Schell seems tired and cautious, issuing boilerplate bureaucratese about careful management and the need to keep his lips locked until his ideas have been thoroughly vetted by the collaborative process. Yikes!

Then there’s the WTO. Does anyone doubt that’s what’s behind Schell’s terrible poll numbers? A recent poll by Elway Research showed that only 27 percent of respondents were likely to vote for Schell again. Most people don’t know much about library levies or the Neighborhood Matching Fund, but they do remember how Seattle became a national laughingstock.

Schell is purposely giving off mixed signals about his future. As he told us last week, he doesn’t really have to make up his mind until July 27, the end of the filing period. But don’t count the mayor out. Seattle incumbents are practically guaranteed a spot on the final ballot.

In seeking to retool his public image, Schell could be facing his toughest task since taking office three years ago. The mayor must make the case that his administration’s successes should overshadow the indignities the city suffered from December 1999’s six days of tension and tear gas. “I’ll start out by saying that I think we’ve gotten a lot done,” says Schell, ticking off the list: a plethora of public-funded projects, including neighborhood libraries, a new City Hall, community center rehabs, upgrades at Seattle Center, increased funding for road repairs, and more services for the homeless. Schell says his administration has helped the private sector build new houses and apartments by providing tax breaks and fast permits.

There have been gaffes. Schell did more to deliver on his campaign vow to turn asphalt-covered school playgrounds into grassy fields (eight completed and eight on the way) than he did on fixing the city’s tangled transportation system. Only recently did he solidify his anti-gridlock plan, and his solutions sound suspiciously like his 1997 campaign trail riffs about bikeways and water taxis.

He’s also alienated former backers. The Seattle Times, whose editorial columnists pushed Schell to enter the race in 1997 (and then supported him steadfastly after he signed up), has officially ended its long-running love affair with the former developer and Port of Seattle commissioner. Already angry over Schell’s WTO performance, the paper’s ownership was enraged when the mayor refused to grant interviews to representatives of the paper while their regular reporters were on strike. The Times‘ endorsement doesn’t look likely.

And the mayor has competition. The lineup so far:

  • Already in the race is King County Council member Greg Nickels, who came within a few thousand votes of surviving the 1997 mayoral primary.
  • Almost in the fray is City Attorney Mark Sidran, who has informed the mayor that he will soon convene his own exploratory committee.
  • Lurking in the background is Charlie Chong, the maverick ex-council member Schell brushed aside to win election to the mayor’s office.
  • Waiting in the wings is council member Jim Compton, a former local television commentator whose superior name recognition allowed him to sweep into office a year ago, despite his late entry into the race.

Chong, who carried the banner of neighborhood discontent four years ago, is the only wild card in this group of middle-aged white guys with moderate Democratic credentials. West Seattle’s Nickels could challenge Schell for endorsements on a three-way front—going after the support of Democratic organizations, labor unions, and environmentalists. Sidran, who rudely squelched a unionization effort in his own office, isn’t

a labor icon, but he has an undeniable appeal to law-and-order types and folks concerned that Schell hasn’t managed to get the trains running on time. Compton ran the city’s WTO investigation but is otherwise a low-key council member who has taken few risky votes. He would need the help of a crowded field of less palatable candidates (not unlike the one that’s forming right now) to advance beyond the primary.

The main campaign issue will be Schell’s own performance in office—what some folks call “the competence issue.”

“There’s a feeling he’s not running the place,” says one observer. “Paul has become a focus for a lot of resentments,” agrees another Seattle politico. “A lot of people are going to want to vote against him.”

Plus, even though Schell ran as a pro-growth candidate in 1997, not everyone has been enthralled with the forest of construction cranes sprouting citywide. Blocked views and noisy construction sites may be cooling citizens’ ardor for the theory that more growth and density in the city is a good thing.

Could 2001 be the long-awaited year of tough campaigning? Will Schell’s rivals feature WTO scenes of riot-suited police and defiant protesters on their campaign mailers? Will the mayor’s synchronize-the-lights transportation plan be ridiculed as a Band-Aid approach? Will Sidran parlay his controversial persona into a sympathy vote as protesters dog his every move on the campaign trail?

Or will Schell’s record earn him a second term in office? The mayor argues that the accomplishments of the last three years are there, whether or not people want to assign him the credit. “I didn’t do any of this for credit. You’ve got to do it for the satisfaction of doing something constructive for your community,” he says. “And on that score, I feel pretty good.”

Seattle Weekly: Will you make an announcement about your plans for reelection shortly?

Mayor Schell: It depends on how you define “shortly.”

SW: Late last year, you claimed you were going to make an announcement “after the holidays.”

Schell: And it will be after the holidays when I announce it.

Dick Lilly (Schell’s press secretary): We’ve got another holiday coming up pretty soon.

Schell: I’ve got an exploratory committee going. I love the job; I want to stay being mayor as long as I can. But what we’re talking is being the mayor of the city, not [being] the candidate for the job. I think campaigns go on far too long as it is. Sign-ups are in July, and I’ll make an announcement before then. You’ll just have to stay tuned.

SW: How do you respond to the Elway poll that shows you with only a 27 percent approval rating among Seattle’s citizens?

Schell: I don’t know enough about it. I don’t know how much the sample was; I don’t know how they asked the question. But it seems to me that it’s very early to worry about that sort of stuff.

SW: The WTO conference has been very much identified with you. You seemed to have assumed things would go the way they usually go in Seattle, where you have a big demonstration but everybody’s very courteous. Things went very differently. What did you learn from that?

Schell: I said at the outset, I want everybody to be heard and nobody to get hurt. And in the end, when it comes to managing crowds, it’s not the mayor’s job. My job is to make sure the police department had the resources.

I was disappointed with the way it turned out. Nobody got hurt—by that I mean nobody was seriously hurt. Everybody was heard, but unfortunately a lot of it was focused on the bricks and the tear gas rather than the issues that were discussed.

I’m looking to learn from it and move on, basically. And I have.

SW: City Attorney Mark Sidran is seriously exploring a mayoral run. Do you think he could run against you saying, “Paul Schell is too soft; you need a tough guy like me”?

Schell: I wouldn’t be surprised. Mark’s told me that he’s starting an exploratory committee.

I think there are people, at least on the WTO, if you use that as your measure . . . who felt that the police should have been much tougher—not allowed the demonstrations, told the WTO to go away. But you know there are people on both sides of this.

I do think public safety continues to be an issue. I have a new police chief whom I have terrific confidence in. I’m pleased we’ve got staffing levels up to where they ought to be. We’ve got a chief who’s got the confidence of the rank and file, and of the larger community, and I think that will serve us well.

SW: Greg Nickels has become a major critic of yours since announcing that he would run for mayor. Recently, he called your transportation plan “laughable.” It seems like he wants to take the gloves off and go after you. Is he trying to scare you out of the race?

Schell: You’ll have to ask him that. I’m not going to comment. People are not interested in that kind of stuff. If you’ve got a better idea, put it out, and let it be a competition of ideas and results.

SW: Seattle doesn’t like that kind of hardball stuff?

Schell: No, I don’t think it works. This is not a very political town in the traditional sense. We don’t even break down to Republicans and Democrats; it’s more populists and pragmatists. People are far more interested in an idea than they are in an ideologue. If I do this, when I announce, it’s going to be because of what I think I can offer for the citizens in a second term and the energy I have to do it. And I’ll be running looking ahead, not against [Nickels].

SW: Do you think that you came into the job with an unrealistic idea of how much power the mayor wields?

Schell: Yes, you wield less power than most people think. It really is a collaborative society.

I don’t think anybody has any real notion of the amount of time and energy. As mayor of Seattle, you represent the city and this tremendous urban area, and you’re dealing with national and international issues. The mayor of Seattle speaks for two million [people], whether you like it or not. And then along with that comes the resentment that happens naturally with the other people you have to work with and the Seattle media.

SW: How long of a honeymoon did you get from the Seattle media, and when did you know it was over?

Schell: I think the first year—except for you guys. I’d say [the honeymoon ended] in the middle of the second year, when people were repeating over and over again why you didn’t really get the veto right on the noise ordinance—even though I did. I’ve learned to not take a lot of this personally, as I might have the first two years. You can’t say I like [criticism]—you can never like it—but you just have to understand the nature of it. And if I let it get in the way of me doing my job, then I’m cheating myself and the citizens.

SW: As a politician, you’ve been associated with The Seattle Times, mainly due to their early and enthusiastic support of your 1997 mayoral campaign. How frustrating has it been to see the paper’s support for you disappear during the last year?

Schell: It’s disappointing. I’m not quite sure why they’ve said some of the things they did. In the end, I guess I’ve always felt I won [the 1997 mayor’s] race. And I had support from both papers.

SW: You’re in an odd place on the Sound Transit issue. You’ve expressed enough doubts to alienate some of the true believers. Yet you’ve been pretty much a supporter of the “stay the course” theory. Do you think you’ll be able to maintain a leadership role?

Schell: I think [the Sound Transit issue] is going to be played out in the next six months. I believe that greater transit capacity will sell. The region needs it; we need it.

It’s clear it’s divided us as a community: the combination of questions about whether it’s the right solution coupled with the increased costs, the last minute surprises, and the extended time it’s going to take to pay for them. I think it will require us to go through a process to validate the proposal. To me that means seeing whether there are better solutions out there. And I think we need to go through that vigorously, involving the skeptics—because if we’re not together as a community, we’re not going to succeed.

SW: When both you and the county executive shared some concerns about Sound Transit, it seemed like there was a partnership forming, but you both backed away. Do you think Ron is behind you on this reexamination?

Schell: I hope so. There should be a good relationship between the mayor and the county exec. And while we’ve had our differences from time to time over water and other areas, we’ve also found a way to be able to disagree and still be willing to work together.

We’ve appeared so many times together that I could give his speeches about the same way that he can probably give mine. It’s not fun following Ron Sims on the stump: He’s the son of a Baptist minister; I’m the son of a Lutheran minister.

SW: With the recent school levy approval, the voters have passed every school and city ballot issue since you took office. What’s your secret?

Schell: The spirit’s good in this community. The people, if you’ve got the right program, they’ll make the long-term investments. I think the best example of this is the parks levy, which came out of a contentious debate over the zoo. And it came out at a number [$197 million] that I think people thought was never possible. And it had serious opposition from the apartment owners and The Seattle Times. Even with all of that, the voters said yes.

I went in [office] saying, “It’s the neighborhoods’ turn,” for things that were in all of those neighborhood plans. Roads, parks, and open space for breathing room, community centers, and libraries, were all included in most of the neighborhood plans. We’ve had the first major increase in arts funding in 20 years. So over the last few years, we have really set the table, and now we’ve got to deliver on a lot of those projects.

SW: You haven’t gotten a state solution for transportation funding. Do you think that will come in the near future, given the divided situation in Olympia?

Schell: I decided we’re not going to wait any longer, and that’s why we started building up the general fund response.

There are two [other future] arenas with the state: One is that we’re going to—I suspect no matter what happens—be cut back in human services. And we’re going to have to come up with strategies to deal with it, because the problems don’t go away simply because the state decides to stop funding it. And the other area is in public transportation. In fact, the state’s not a partner, and this is documented.

SW: You’re looking again at the idea of bus-only lanes on neighborhood arterials for several years. That’s been controversial because of neighborhood businesses losing parking. What made you decide to endorse these lanes in your latest transportation proposal?

Schell: We did it on Madison [Street], and we know it works. And it’s not bus-only. . . . It may be bus-only during rush hours. The neighborhood arterials are what we have; we’re not building any more roads. So it seems to me that’s the only way.

And then, at the same time, we need to deal with the parking issue that’s raised, hence the neighborhood transit centers. They are places to build parking that support the neighborhood business district, that support the public transportation system, that also are a place to park bikes, to park Flexcars, employer van pools, community van pools, a place to gather, and then use the land and build offices or housing. So it becomes a real centerpiece of each neighborhood. That, too, will have some controversy. It will require changing the city’s historic approach to being against any parking garages.

Ballard and Lake City and Capitol Hill all are very in need of parking, and as neighborhood business districts get stronger, surface parking goes away. And if you don’t create opportunities for people to park, even if they’re taking the bus, they’re parking on residential streets. Or they’ll drive to work. And if they’re going to the movies, they’ll drive to the first available parking lot, whether it’s downtown or at Southcenter. So if you want to keep your neighborhood business district strong, then you want to create opportunities to do their recreation there rather than have them drive somewhere. It’s all part of an integrated look at how we move around the city.

SW: Early in your first term, you made the vow that you would get homeless women and children off the streets by Christmas.

Schell: And we came close. I’m not sorry for setting goals—it’s one of those things that’s a difference between politics and the private world. I always set goals, and if I achieved them, I always know I didn’t set the goal high enough.

[Homelessness] is a much more complicated issue than I think I understood when I was running. It’s failed policies on mental illness, chemical addiction, domestic violence, unequal participation in our economy. We’ve doubled—from $7 million to $14 million—what we’ve been spending on this. And [we’re] doing everything we can to engage many other people to be a part of the solution.

SW: You’ve made minimal use of the veto—two bills in three years (a new city noise law and the all-ages dance ordinance). Did you expect to use it more?

Schell: It should be a last resort. And it’s not fun to do because it obviously disappoints the people who proposed [the law]. It’s a failure of the process, I guess. But I think in both cases, we’ll come back with something that I can support, and we’ll get a majority of the council on both of these.

SW: Do you think that the all-ages dance ordinance issue will be resolved?

Schell: We’re ready to send down a proposal next week. It will do some of the things I think need to be fixed there; it won’t go as far as setting up a circumstance where you can have young 13-year-old kids that are mixing with 20- and 21-year-olds and liquor all night. I think there are security risks. But there are lots of other elements that came out of that process which I agreed with from the beginning. So I think we can make reasonable changes to it—and necessary changes to it—that will get the support of the council.

SW: In your first year in office, council members would complain that you didn’t work well with them. Do you think today we’d hear a different message?

Schell: It was a contrast of styles between former Mayor Rice and myself. We weren’t going to focus only on two or three things and then spend our time on that—which was the early advice. I also didn’t do a good enough job of working the council. That said, you would hear today that I’m doing a much better job of working with them.

You just don’t get everything that’s happened without a true partnership with the council, because the mayor doesn’t do it all. That requires budget authority; it requires consensus.

SW: When you endorsed Bill Bradley for president last year, did you worry that it might affect your relationship with the Clinton White House?

Schell: It didn’t seem to have any negative impact of any kind. In the end, we got two more Hope VI [federal grants to raze and rebuild Seattle’s housing projects] after that. I think political power is overestimated. These things tend to go on the merits; they’re just not organized enough to exact retribution, even if they wanted to. And in this case, I think they worked harder on trying to make sure they kept the relationship solid.

I quickly went down there and attended Al Gore’s birthday party. And I’m going to do my best to work with the Bush Administration, especially on transportation. That’s my job. I don’t know that being a loyal soldier gets you anything. People take you for granted, and they shouldn’t take anybody for granted.

(Seattle Weekly interview conducted by James Bush and George Howland Jr., February 7, 2001.)