The Magazine

Sticking with the Seattle Way

The city's voters follow the path of least resistance.

Dec 3, 2001, Vol. 7, No. 12 • By HARRY SIEGEL
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FIVE YEARS AGO, Seattle was riding so high on its tech sector that Newsweek's cover announced: "Everyone else is moving there. Should you?" But the intervening years have tarnished this once golden city. The police inaction that allowed the WTO riots, and the brutal police response that they belatedly provoked, were followed by a Mardi Gras riot in which a young white man was murdered by blacks and several minority men were shot by white police officers, all later cleared in administrative and judicial trials. As if that weren't enough, Mayor Paul Schell, campaigning for reelection, was beaten about the head by a bullhorn-wielding black fringe candidate for mayor.

The rapid decline of the Internet economy, accelerated by the September 11 attacks, exposed Seattle's continued reliance on a few volatile market sectors. Tourism is down, Internet layoffs occur daily, and venture capital investment has fallen. Boeing moved its corporate headquarters to Chicago earlier this year and announced plans to lay off 20,000 Seattle area workers even before the one-two punch of post-attack declines in airplane orders and the company's loss to Lockheed-Martin of the $200-billion Joint Strike Fighter contract from the Pentagon. To add to these woes, Seattle's cost of living continues to rise, even as the economy sours.

The mayoral race, just ended after a prolonged vote count, shows that Seattleites haven't acknowledged these harsh new realities. Voters ousted Schell in the first round of the two-round, nonpartisan election, making him the first incumbent mayor to be so dumped in 64 years. But of the two Democrats left in the race--big-government politico and King County Council veteran Greg Nickels, who promised the moon and a light-rail system, and conservative city attorney Mark Sidran, nicknamed Giuliani Junior by friend and foe, who insisted he would hold the line on spending and refused to rule out tax hikes, service cuts, or privatization of nonessential services--voters chose the big-spending Nickels. He squeaked into office with just under 51 percent.

Both candidates ran on a single issue: an extremely expensive rail system, proposed to solve Seattle's rapidly worsening traffic problems. Nickels, ever one to emphasize procedure, boasted of his years spent fighting for rail and his seat on the Sound Transit Board (he chairs the Finance Committee), although the board has presided over huge cost overruns without so much as breaking ground for the rail system. Sidran condemned the board's inefficiency and its plan for an initial 14-mile light-rail line connecting no important destinations, but failed to offer an alternative. Pending a better proposal, he said he would put the money into improving the inconvenient and underused buses. Voters were left with a choice between continuing a documented failure or giving up on an enterprise essential to reducing traffic congestion and pollution.

City attorney Sidran's crackdowns on the homeless, nightclubs, and unlicensed drivers ran against the mellow grain of Seattle politics, so much so that there are at least five hate websites devoted to him. His candidacy was assisted by the influx of affluent property owners during the boom years of the '90s, plus his own deep pockets and the public's desire for tough leadership in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks. He also received support from the business community, both major dailies, Governor Gary Locke, and ex-governors from both parties. In their first-round photo finish, Sidran carried many more neighborhoods than Nickels, but by much smaller margins. His voters were consistently less enthusiastic than Nickels's, and less likely to vote for Sidran in the future once the threat of a second Schell term was removed.

Sidran ran a negative campaign. He proposed few policies, but stressed that he would not increase spending or break ground on rail anytime soon. Most of his ads mocked his opponents rather than touting his strengths. Nickels, the consummate politician, had many get-out-the-vote operatives and even more promises. In one debate, Nickels swore to hold budget increases to the rate of inflation, except for transportation, public safety, and neighborhoods--some 60 percent of the budget.