With less than an hour remaining until a public protest and special state Senate committee hearing in his honor, Mark Sidran asks, “Have you ever read Bonfire of the Vanities?” The Seattle city attorney is preparing testimony to defend his office’s controversial drug trafficking prosecutions—widely seen as targeting blacks. Judging from TV news interviews earlier in the day (“How do you feel about being characterized as a tool of the real estate people… literally a money-groveling, real-estate-dependent racist?”), the evening is indeed shaping into the sort of professional activists’ show trial portrayed in Tom Wolfe’s novel about a Wall Street arbitrageur arrested for a hit-and-run accident in the wrong part of the Bronx.
“Well, tonight’s going to be a full bonfire!” Sidran continues. He is sporting an incongruous, self-satisfied grin suggesting that he not only doesn’t mind being called a racist—he thinks it works in his favor. “In a perverse way, the race issue helps us,” he explains, “because the vast majority of people know that it’s ridiculous that there’s a racist conspiracy by white people to gentrify the Central Area, in which the police are used as tools to drum up drug or other abatement action in order to drive black-owned or black-patronized businesses out of business so that white developers can come in. That’s just too much.”
So everything must have been going according to plan when nearly 100 protesters brandishing anti-Sidran signs gathered with police and television news crews at Deano’s Cafe and Lounge, at Madison and 22nd, to march down to Seattle Central Community College—site of the classroom where the state Senate Committee on Law and Justice had set up shop. The crowd chanted civil-rights standards in the July drizzle: “The People! United! Will never be defeated!” “No Justice! No Peace!”—and, as they passed the Seattle Police’s East Precinct on Pine and 12th—”Hey, Hey! Ho, Ho! Mark Sidran’s got to go!” One marcher held a sign with a swastika, which he said symbolized the city’s fascist prosecutor. Another read, “Sidran is toxic to our civil rights.”
It was not the sort of scene that most politicians—especially conflict-averse Seattle politicians—would relish, but Sidran had specifically requested this day for our interview. “People pay money to see fights like these,” he told me. “I’m pumped! Excellent television.”
The protests are nothing very new for Sidran, who has been called a fascist, and worse, for years. In 1993, he wrote legislation that banned sitting on sidewalks in downtown business districts, and followed with his Enhanced Park Enforcement Ordinance, better known as the “park exclusion” law, giving police broad authority to sweep public spaces clean of drunks and vagrants. Civil libertarians and advocates for the homeless say those laws ignore much of the Bill of Rights. Undaunted, Sidran has responded by cracking down on nightclubs with a proposal for new licensing requirements and stricter enforcement of drug- and nuisance-abatement laws, which were originally written to close down crack houses but are now being used by Sidran and police to go after bars and nightclubs with long histories of violence and drug trafficking on and around their premises.
As a consequence, Sidran is under attack from nearly everywhere. His tactics have inspired at least three civil rights lawsuits, filed in state and federal courts by nightclub owners who say the city attorney uses his abatement laws to harass bars catering to blacks. The ACLU, Seattle Times editorialists, music community activists, and even some elected officials are after him for singling out hip-hop music for prosecutorial attack. Homeless advocates say the anti-sidewalk-sitting ordinance tramples such basic civil liberties as free speech. City watchdogs are piling on with questions about the Nordstrom parking garage scandal. And attorneys in his own office are suing him over unfair labor practices.
Meanwhile, the city’s “good cops”—the mayor, City Council members, and especially Police Chief Norm Stamper—are only too happy for Sidran to take the heat for laws they all promoted, and Sidran himself seems no less happy with the arrangement. “They’re putting me on trial,” he says with pride, as if thrilled at the opportunity to serve as city government’s lightning rod.
The crowd boos and hisses as Sidran enters the classroom-turned-senate-chamber. Sidran smiles confidently and sits down next to the dress-blue-uniformed Assistant Police Chief Harv Ferguson. (Sidran thinks Chief Stamper is a wimp for not showing up. Mocking Stamper, he makes a cross with his fingers and whines, “Stay away!”)
By the end of the evening, it is clear that Sidran’s allusion to Wolfe’s Bonfire is more prescient than he realized. The Central Area bar owners, better prepared than he gave them credit for, wisely stay on message, avoiding direct criticism of the city prosecutor’s office (over which the Senate committee has no real authority), and highlighting one particular story that will surely stick with GOP Sen. Pam Roach as her committee considers amendments to the state’s drug abatement law.
The story goes that on January 24, 1998, two young undercover police officers entered Deano’s Cafe to meet a black woman called “Genie,” an informant who would help facilitate a drug transaction. According to the police report submitted to the Senate committee, “Genie” was wearing a matching denim jacket and cap when she “walked outside and returned shortly with Suspect #1… Suspect #1 walked into the restroom. He returned a few minutes later and conducted a hand-to-hand delivery of approximately .2 grams of crack cocaine.” The officers paid “Genie” for her help with a piece of the cocaine (a procedure that, according to assistant police chief Ferguson, isn’t terribly unusual). The troubling bit is that no one was arrested. Instead, the incident was filed in abatement proceedings against Deano’s bar, even though the police instigated the deal and went so far as to bring the dealer inside the bar.
Before you can say “entrapment,” Sidran’s critics will thrust another police department document into your hands. This one is a memo to the City Council, which on Sidran’s request is considering a new, stricter licensing ordinance for nightclubs. According to the police memo, 19 of the 19 “problem liquor license establishments” that would be affected by Sidran’s proposed Added Activities Permit are either minority-owned or cater mainly to minority clientele.
It is one of the last witnesses at the Senate hearing, County Council member Larry Gossett, who finally connects the dots: “Why,” he asks, “do you target clubs that serve predominantly African-American clientele?” He is testifying to the committee, but everyone in the room knows that the question is directed at Sidran.
The following day, in his large, sparsely furnished office, Sidran delivers a surprising answer when asked for a postmortem on the Senate committee hearing. Rather than deflect criticism—toward the pair of overeager undercover cops, for example, who are facing an internal affairs investigation for their performance at Deano’s—Sidran spins the protesters’ testimony as criticism of his office rather than the drug abatement law under Senate review. “What I heard last night is that this issue is very clearly focused on the way the city attorney’s office is doing its job,” he says. “It’s not a problem with the state law. We are accountable for how we do our job, and if a majority of people have a problem with the way the law is being applied, they can vote us out.” (Not likely, given that he’s held the office comfortably since 1989 and didn’t even face an opponent in last year’s re-election bid.) The Senate will have to wait nearly a year to file any amendments to the decade-old abatement law, and Sidran is confident the Legislature will not vote to “weaken” drug trafficking laws.
“Deano’s is neither here nor there,” he says. “The notion that the police are creating the drug trafficking at Deano’s or Oscar’s [another Central Area bar targeted for abatement] is utter bunk to anybody who lives in that neighborhood. The drug trafficking is there. The police aren’t introducing it. The police are doing police work in order to make their case that the management has not done what could be done to stop it.” Indeed, the Senate testimony and inches of newsprint devoted to characterizing these bars as good, clean neighborhood businesses are disingenuous if not outright dishonest. As one neighbor puts it, “I don’t think bars in general are negative, but [Deano’s] definitely introduced an element that made me feel uncomfortable . . . and I think that’s the general feeling in the neighborhood. I felt things were not under control at Deano’s… and there’s a big police presence in that neighborhood, but it didn’t seem to mitigate the situation.”
As a visual aid, Sidran likes to cart around boxes of 911 records and police reports of incidents that he says originated at or around Deano’s. But David Osgood, an attorney for three bars shut down by Sidran, says that bar owners can’t be responsible for crimes committed by their patrons, especially if they’re not even in the bar. Worse, he says, Sidran ignores scores of 911 calls generated by white bars.
“I like to focus on the cold, hard, irrefutable facts,” Sidran says, half ducking the issue. “There are a number of people who are dead and a much larger number who have been seriously injured as a result of criminal violence associated with certain nightclubs. The overwhelming majority of these people have been people of color, almost all of the perpetrators have been people of color, in particular black, and I don’t see that as a race issue, I see it as a violence issue…. My position is that people who own and operate a nightclub have a responsibility to run a business in a way that doesn’t generate violence or isn’t a bad influence on the surrounding neighborhood…. The fact of the direct relationship between the violence and the race of the victims and the perpetrators and the [hip-hop] music format is pretty much an irrefutable fact. I don’t hear anybody saying that the violence isn’t
Before Mark was born, the Sidran family moved from New York City to Kirkland (and eventually Seward Park) during World War II. The second of two children, Mark was bar mitzvahed in the Orthodox temple that’s now the Langston Hughes Cultural Center, and he graduated from Franklin High School with Gary Locke and Kenny G. After Harvard, then law school at the University of Washington, Sidran joined the King County Prosecutor’s Office and rose to the head of the juvenile division before his 29th birthday. The position would land him smack in the middle of his first full-blown political scandal. In 1988, Sidran went to his boss and mentor, Norm Maleng, to push an issue that everyone else would rather have kept under the rug. “It’s very obvious something’s going on” with Judge Gary Little, Sidran said. What was going on, of course, was that Judge Little had been molesting several of the young blond boys Sidran was in charge of prosecuting. Being a witness in secret proceedings against Little, Sidran couldn’t discuss the matter (nor could KING 5’s Jim Compton, who had the story spiked by his Kennedy-era boss), until Seattle Post-Intelligencer investigative reporter Duff Wilson published the judge’s assorted transgressions, which included having sex with students at Lakeside School, where Little once taught a law class, and inviting boys up to his island vacation getaway. “The night before the story ran,” Sidran recalls, pointing out from his 10th-floor window to the County Courthouse across the street, “[Little] blew his brains out in his office—just over there.”
The following year, Sidran ran for and won the office he now holds, becoming Seattle’s top lawyer in civil matters (defending against complaints leveled at the city, signing off on council legislation) and chief prosecutor. In 1992, he faced Initiative 38, his first—and thus far only genuine—challenge to any of the set of ordinances, grouped by detractors as the “Sidran Laws,” that he has promulgated under a philosophy that says keeping the streets clean and petty crime down is preventive medicine for blight and violent felonies. Initiative 38 would have repealed the Sidran-backed drug loitering
ordinance, which critics said gave police overly broad license to arrest lookouts and others not directly involved in narcotics transactions. Many of the same race-baiting issues boiled into that public debate, but the initiative to overturn Sidran’s law was defeated by more than 70 percent of the vote. Liberal Seattle voters subsequently approved the state’s tough-on-crime “three strikes” mandatory sentencing law by 10 percentage points. Although Sidran had little to do with “three strikes,” pollster Stuart Elway says the vote is another indication of Seattle’s conservative streak: “Even though it’s a pretty liberal voting town, there’s a pretty significant level of support for Sidran’s efforts,” he says. Last year, when Sidran ran unopposed for re-election, Seattle Times editorial page editor Mindy Cameron urged him to run for mayor.
In recent weeks, the spotlight has shined particularly bright on the city attorney as a series of stinging rebukes and revelations have risen to the top of the news cycle. On July 8, Municipal Court Judge Judith Hightower dismissed trespassing charges against a homeless man from the Beacon Hill tent city known as “the Jungle,” which was indecorously demolished by city bulldozers while residents were appealing to the City Council for an emergency encampment policy. “We destroyed a neighborhood,” Judge Hightower explained during a recent interview. “The city can start prosecuting people for being homeless when the city provides enough shelter beds.” When I suggest that the encampment is technically against laws passed by the City Council and signed by the mayor, and that the city attorneys are only doing their job, she answers heatedly, “You know, that’s what people said about the Nazis—they were just doing their jobs.”
While it is astonishing that a sitting judge would say something like that about the city’s top lawyer, it is no less astonishing that Sidran, a Jew, doesn’t seem to take offense at being compared to Hitler. Instead, his response is a tepid: “When Judge Hightower says this is about going after homeless people, my response is that you cannot give up your parks or other public places to drunken disorder and illegal behavior.”
In this way, the homeless issue ties into Sidran’s get-tough policy with the bars. Sidran sees indulgence of any kind of disorder as a breach in the wall of Seattle’s vaunted livability, which ultimately invites more, worsening crimes in an ascending spiral. Critics of both his nightclub policies and his aggressiveness against the homeless make the same argument against him: that he’s only interested in appeasing downtown business interests. “That shouldn’t be the goal of our laws,” says ACLU spokesman Doug Honig. Rather than deny the charge, Sidran embraces it by saying defiantly that it should indeed be the intent of our laws. “The bottom line,” he says, “is that misdemeanors matter, and focusing on minor offenses in a number of ways has significant payoffs, whether you’re talking about domestic violence or drunk driving, or this low-level disorder like sitting on a sidewalk. This isn’t about ‘homelessness’—that’s a totally manipulative word and has lost all meaning, because it doesn’t get at why people lack housing. It’s not any more about homelessness than it is about race. What it’s about is behavior.” He says his point is proven by New York City, which, in cracking down under Mayor Rudolph Giuliani on everything from graffiti to jaywalking to turnstile jumping in the subways, has seen violent crime plummet by more than 40 percent. It is also proven by Cleveland, where the downtown became abandoned and blight-ridden during the 1970s and ’80s. “You cannot let illegal uncivil behavior take place in public places or people will abandon those places.”
Sidran believes his approach is critical to the survival of Seattle, which is at an important crossroads in its history. “Public spaces are even more important in a city like Seattle,” he says, “because there is only one conceivable way to deal with housing cost escalation and sprawl and growth management—and that’s increased density. And increased density means public spaces become even more precious and valuable because people are going to be living closer together with less backyards, and if these parks are not well maintained then people are going to abandon the city.”
Since Sidran has taken office, violent crime in Seattle has dropped 16 percent—a smaller improvement than in New York, he says, because Seattle had a smaller hole to climb out of.
Not surprisingly, Sidran’s arguments are no less scorned by advocates for the homeless than by the nightclub advocates who packed Pam Roach’s hearing. “Whenever Mark Sidran mentions civility, we start laughing,” says Anita Freeman, board president of SHARE, a homeless support organization, “because it means we’re supposed to behave. It’s not an issue of businessmen being uncivil to poor people. It’s not about the city being civil to people who are out on the street…. What we’re up against is the fear of Mark Sidran’s stereotyped homeless person on drugs coming after your children with a fistful of hypodermic needles. Even kind-hearted liberals will react against that.”
Sidran refuses to use the word “homeless,” which in his view lumps legitimate runaways, victims of domestic violence—unfortunates, in other words, who need only temporary shelter and a helping hand—with the chronic drunks, drug users, and mentally ill who actually dominate the street population. “At some point, the advocates have got to come to grips with the irony that after the city spends almost $8 million a year on shelter and care, in addition to some of the most generous charitable contributions in the country, the strongest economy in 30 years, and for all intents and purposes zero unemployment in real terms—that you still have people on these streets,” he says. “There is an element of the problem which is economic, but that has been almost our entire focus in terms of city public policy. We try to shelter our way out of it, or maybe we should have encampments, or if only we could do something about the cost of housing…. The core issue here is primarily dealing with the alcohol, drug, and mental-health treatment needs of a population that is largely unemployable and largely unhousable unless you can find ways to give the necessary treatment.”
Sidran’s tone is shrill and mocking, but the substance is something even Alan Painter, the city’s soft-spoken homelessness expert and manager of community services for the Department of Housing and Human Services, doesn’t contest. Low-income housing is the focus of homeless advocacy, Painter says, because it’s the easiest money to win from federal and state granting bodies. “The real struggle is for service dollars,” he adds, agreeing with Sidran that more than two-thirds of the chronically homeless are either addicts or mentally ill and will not be helped much by housing alone.
The city attorney, then, wants to crack down on public inebriation, sidewalk sitting, and trespassing not only to keep the streets spiffy for the businesses that keep downtown vibrant, but also to force into treatment those who need it. While the compassionate Painter recoils at Sidran’s get-tough rhetoric and worries about the right to privacy of Sidran’s targets, he agrees ultimately that “some people don’t know what’s best for them.”
One finds the strongest evidence of the kind of good-cop, bad-cop bargain Sidran has struck with the mayor and the council in his own office, where lawyers responsible for carrying out his policies rival hip-hop fans in their heated criticism of him. For more than two years, lawyers in the criminal division of the city attorney’s office have been fighting for “just cause” procedures in office dismissals similar to those in place in the King and Snohomish county prosecutors’ offices. City prosecutors formed a labor union and decided to sue the city over unfair labor practices when their union president, Margaret Boil, was demoted and eventually terminated 18 months ago. “We wanted to talk to the City Council and the mayor, but they refused . . . they wouldn’t even listen,” says Moses Garcia, a city attorney and union booster. “Mark Sidran has strong political allies . . . the council passed the panhandler law and not one of them was called a jerk for it. Mark Sidran took the heat. In return, what he gets is unfettered rein in how he runs his department.”
Since Boil’s case is currently under review by the city hearing examiner, Sidran declines to discuss particulars, but he embraces Garcia’s accusation just as zestfully as he embraces charges from the hip-hop-adept and the homeless. The more “unfettered” his rein, he says, the better: “As far as the performance of attorneys in this office, I think I should be the final decisionmaker.”
In a city whose leaders constantly invoke “consensus” in order to avoid taking a stand that might offend anyone, Sidran’s fearless honesty is bracing, to say the least. By contrast, the rest of city government seems intent on dithering for a living. When City Council member Tina Podlodowski had Sidran’s controversial Added Activities ordinance before her committee on public safety and health, she delegated the hot potato to a “working group” of club owners, activists, police, and other interested parties. When Paul Schell ran for mayor, he promised to convene a “housing summit,” but took no real stand of his own on the issue. “As we like to say in City Hall,” Sidran jokes, “process is our best product.”
Mayor Schell declined to be interviewed for this story because, according to his spokesperson, he doesn’t want to “get caught in the fray” surrounding Sidran (former Mayor Norm Rice also declined comment). King County Executive Ron Sims, however, has lots to say. “We’re not friends,” he begins. “I used to listen to Mark and shake my head. Then I got tired of it. I got tired of the street scene. All of a sudden it became clear that we have these policies to deal with the problem but we had lost control of the environment. Lost the ability to say to people it’s not OK to urinate in public, it’s not OK to pitch tents.”
Sims confesses considerable unease in endorsing Sidran’s hard-line approach. “I feel so Republican saying this,” he laments. But then he notes that pretty much everyone in city government is on Sidran’s side—it’s just that no one wants to say so out loud. “Mark Sidran said what everybody was thinking but was too scared to say. It’s not that he’s unsympathetic—he just said the system was failing. You’ve got to admire his guts and fortitude. Mark says what we all feel, but when we say it we feel guilty.”
Sims calls the street-sitting and chronic-inebriate laws “tough love,” and echoes Sidran’s feeling that gentler hands only enable addiction. He also derides the theory that Central District neighbors are persecuted by Sidran’s aggressive anti-drug policies. “For people who live in those communities, people who own property, they’re happy campers, they’re fine…. At least Mark’s not willing to tolerate drugs. As an African American, you want the drug abatement laws. Clean up my community—please.”
The reticence of his fellow politicians notwithstanding, it is clear that Sims and other prominent African Americans are not the only ones on Sidran’s side. After all, the fate of Initiative 38 and Sidran’s robust performance in elections shows such a hearty endorsement by the electorate of his policies that he more or less has a job for life if he wants it. “If I were to get disappointed and frustrated or particularly concerned with what my critics think about my policy positions, or views on these issues, I would be the one getting civilly committed in the mental health system,” he says. Then he hints at the real source of his power—the implicit endorsement of his policies by the electorate: “I think my positions are fairly mainstream and I think that most people if they were asked would agree with me.”