ON FRIDAY, AUGUST 21, three mornings after the election that tolled the end of his tenure and, maybe, his political career, Mayor Greg Nickels showed a side of himself that most of his constituents did not believe existed. With Seattle’s political press and political mavens packing the City Hall conference room named after his mentor Norm Rice, Nickels delivered a concession speech that recalled John McCain’s classy farewell last November. Answering questions afterward, he was warm, witty, spontaneous, and self-deprecating. He came off as a guy who didn’t take himself too seriously, and so could take the city he’s served all his adult life very seriously. Even his face—the jowls and jut-chinned scowl that hung deeper and deeper each year—seemed to lighten and lift.
Hardened reporters laughed and applauded despite themselves. For years they and the people they quoted had portrayed Nickels as a cross between Robert Moses, Richard J. Daley, and Sherman marching to the sea, a civic juggernaut brooking no opposition in his push to build a bigger, taller, developer-friendly but carbon-neutral city. Now they wondered: Have we been getting this guy wrong all these years?
Almost immediately the regrets and revisions started pouring out. “I don’t know what Seattleites are smoking voting this guy out of office,” one Seattle expat commented on this magazine’s Met Files blog. “I wouldn’t be surprised if in a year or so, we suddenly realize that guy who couldn’t plow the snow wasn’t so bad after all,” wrote the Seattle Times’s Danny Westneat. “Greg, we hardly knew ye,” David Brewster intoned on Crosscut.
Had Nickels been the victim of mistaken identity all these years? If so, the misapprehension began even before he became mayor. When he ran eight years ago, the rap on him was that he was too “nice” to be mayor. That was partly a legacy inherited from Rice, Seattle’s designated “Mayor Nice,” for whom Nickels worked as legislative aide. It also distinguished Nickels from his harder-edged opponent, City Attorney Mark Sidran, who was renowned and reviled for trying to make homeless people stop sitting on sidewalks and to make clubs police their premises and immediate environs.
But once he was elected, Nickels showed a much harder side, even before his inauguration. The mayor-elect sacked Jim Diers, perhaps the city’s most visible and popular department director, who’d headed the Department of Neighborhoods since its founding 14 years earlier and overseen the neighborhood planning effort begun by Rice. Many in the nabes saw this as an assault on the program (whose funding Nickels later reduced, leaving many neighborhood plans unfinished). Others thought it evinced a Giuliani-like need to hog power and glory. “The mayor never wanted anybody under him to outshine him,” says ex–City Council member Peter Steinbrueck, who challenged Nickels’s policies but declined to challenge him in the mayor’s race.