NORM Rice was one of the best mayors Seattle has ever had.
Revisiting Rice’s contributions to this city is a worthwhile exercise as the public takes in the news that he will be retiring as president and chief executive officer of the philanthropic Seattle Foundation. He is expected to leave his post by summer after a successor is found.
Rare is the public leader who manages to be highly effective and well-regarded. Rice has been both. During two terms as mayor — from 1990 to 1998 — Rice saved downtown, transforming sketchy blocks into vibrant corridors of retail, restaurants and lively arts.
Rice gave us a reason to go downtown rather than across the lake to shop and eat. He was holding community brainstorming sessions and delivering thoughtful speeches on Seattle civic affairs.
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As mayor, Rice
inspired thousands to attend a citywide summit on Seattle’s struggling public schools. A lasting legacy from that important conversation has been Seattle’s Families and Education Levy. Rice cast this education funding measure as a city’s duty to public education. Voters agreed, approving $69 million in property taxes in 1990. The seven-year levy continues with the most recent $232 million levy approved in 2011.
Taking a city where it is destined to go is part leadership and part consensus building. Rice was so good at it, he garnered the nickname Mayor Nice, a moniker that underscored his ability to win on important policy issues without making opponents feel they had lost.
Rice’s equanimity grew from a life built around public service. A 2010 PacificNW magazine article noted that Rice initially wanted to be a minister. In career and community work at the former Rainier National Bank, the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle and in the Mount Baker community, Rice carried values of equity and social justice.
At the Seattle Foundation, credit Rice with broadening the appeal of one of the city’s oldest and largest charities, making it more accessible to Seattle’s growing number of young philanthropists. Under Rice’s leadership, the foundation capitalized on social media’s considerable fundraising influence and targeted important social and human services for strategic giving.
In a pinch, if the city or any organization needs a visionary, a consensus-builder and steady hand at the wheel, coaxing Rice out of retirement would be a tempting idea. He deserves praise for stepping in with a steady hand when Seattle most needed one.