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.
Yes, governing is about the power, Deputy Mayor Tim Ceis affirmed as a few diehards milled around the hall after his boss’s speech. Yes, he said, department heads, like anyone else, need to know who they work for. A new administration needs a team that shares its goals. You want to get your own people in place. What’s so strange about that?
Nothing, in principle. It’s more notable when new presidents retain cabinet secretaries. But Nickels told Diers he was out even before taking office, rather than easing him out a few months in. As in so many subsequent moves by the new regime, it wasn’t just what it did but the way it did it that raised hackles. Much has been made of the snowstorms that paralyzed the town for a few days last December, and city crews’ inability to dig out from it. But snowstorms shut down Seattle every few years, and each administration is caught unprepared and underequipped. Metro Transit fared as badly this last time, failing to maintain even snow emergency routes; no one went ballistic at its managers. Few would have held the snow mess against Nickels if he hadn’t stepped in it and given his crews’ snow response a “B” grade while citizens were still digging out. The message conveyed was toxic: Hizzoner was out of touch with the people he served.
One of the great ironies of Nickels’s fall is how much better he played on the national than the local stage.
Even that “heckuva job” moment might have passed as a gaffe if people didn’t already suspect he was out of touch. One of the great ironies of Nickels’s fall is how much better he played on the national than the local stage. He’s president of the National Conference of Mayors. He stood tall on the pages of Vanity Fair. He achieved a signal triumph, enlisting 970 of his peers in other cities to sign the Mayors Climate Protection Agreement, a pledge to strive to meet or beat Kyoto standards and urge state and federal governments to do the same. That aspirational advance didn’t thaw Dick Cheney’s climate-busting heart or change national policy overnight. But “it stopped carbon from going into the atmosphere,” says Bullitt Foundation president Denis Hayes, who advised Nickels on climate change. “It certainly helped make the issue mainstream.” It surely bolstered Congress’s and the Obama administration’s will to act.
But it didn’t win votes in Seattle. Maybe it was the wrong time for civic struts on the national and global stages. Seattle reveled in world-city glory in the ’90s—hosting APEC and the Goodwill Games, emerging briefly as the center of the new digital media universe, being proclaimed the place to move to from Newsweek to New Delhi. But the glamour faded with the WTO chaos, the terrorism-squelched millennium celebration, and the dot-gone bust. Seattle, a city suckled on expositions and world’s fairs, rejected the 2012 Olympics. By the time Nickels took office in 2002, world-city fatigue had set in. Even many local environmentalists (who’ve flocked to Mike McGinn’s insurgent campaign) wrongly dismissed Nickels’s Climate Protection Agreement as hollow grandstanding. Nor were they impressed with the administration’s nuts-and-bolts environmental initiatives—special gas-miser taxi licenses, hybrid and electric vehicles for city fleets, electric charging stations, bike lanes, mandatory recycling, water conservation, the abortive shopping-bag fee. The less green-minded saw these as nanny-state meddling and voted down the “bag tax.”
Why couldn’t Nickels get respect, even from those whose causes he promoted? The problem was more the singer than the song. “Greg is one of those people who up close can be quite charming, personable, and interesting—a very good partner in discussion,” says Denis Hayes. “But over broadcast channels and in the public eye he has a rather low cuddle factor.” Kind of like Al Gore, another politician Hayes worked with, though Hayes notes that Nickels, unlike Gore, doesn’t change personalities when he moves from public to private venues: Authenticity isn’t the question with him. But what comes through in person just doesn’t play on TV.
And he didn’t step forward in person, not even to deal with the City Council. “There was never face time, never elected-to-elected contact. Why wouldn’t Nickels ever come down and show some respect for the council-members’ elected roles? He usually just passed Ceis down to do the dirty deeds.”
Indeed, Tim Ceis’s prominent role was the administration’s defining, and in many views fatal, feature. No Seattle official below the mayor has loomed so large since, at the very least, the early 1980s, when Charley Royer’s brother Bob served as deputy mayor. Comparisons between Nickels/Ceis and Bush/Cheney have long rumbled through city corridors, but Ceis is hardly secretive and stealthy like Cheney. He’s been everywhere—articulating policy, cutting deals, cajoling and threatening, browbeating wayward managers. “Ceis had a lot to do with setting the tone of the administration,” says Diers. “Tim runs the city while Greg’s off schmoozing with the other mayors,” says another prominent ex–city official.
A week after the election, Steinbrueck put it more harshly: “Ceis was and is notorious as the son of a bitch little asshole skunk who’s the face of local government.” That characterization isn’t entirely fair; for starters, Ceis is tall and he can be affable. But it suggests the degree of antipathy and fear he could inspire. Nickels brought Ceis over from King County—where he was a top aide to two county executivesv—to shake up city government and shake it out of the exacting, consensus-seeking process known as the Seattle Way.
Ceis has made no bones about being willing to break some eggs to get the job done. City Hall insiders called him “the Shark”; he embraced the term and promulgated “Rules of the Shark” that are worthy of Machiavelli and very much not of the Seattle Way. (For example, “Conflict is okay. Manage it, don’t avoid it.”) He flashed the shark’s teeth almost immediately. In the interregnum between the 2002 election and inauguration, city councilmembers voted to cut a few positions on the mayor’s staff that Nickels’s predecessor had lately added. “You will pay for this,” Steinbrueck recalls Ceis warning the council. “You won’t know when, but you’ll know when it happens.” Soon after, he announced a change in the way information flowed. Department heads and other staffers would no longer answer questions from councilmembers. Requests would instead go through the mayor’s office.
Outside City Hall, Ceis’s style inevitably became conflated with Nickels’s image; it was Nickels who got characterized by opponents and press as “a Chicago-style bully.” That may be only fair; Nickels is Ceis’s boss. But Steinbrueck disputes the “bully” label: “I think he’s more of a coward, because he put Ceis up front.”
Nickels for his part expresses no qualms about the course he took. In his concession speech he echoed a theme he’d sounded, prophetically, when he laid out his campaign agenda in July: From the start “I determined that I would rather be an effective mayor and get things done than be a popular politician who left nothing more significant than footprints in the sand. I said that I would make right decisions for the future of the city rather than ones that would preserve my personal popularity. Based on Tuesday’s primary election results, I have succeeded beyond my wildest dreams.”
“I’ve worked for the kind of leaders who spend their political capital to get things done, and for the kind who try to save it,” Ceis said afterward, referring to the two King County executives he served, Ron Sims and the famously cautious Gary Locke. “And political capital doesn’t last. If you don’t spend it, you lose it anyway.”