He's settling into his new job as president and CEO of The Seattle Foundation and is one of three who will lead new Mayor Mike McGinn's "youth and family initiative." Rice is now positioned to do what he says every leader should: use his bully pulpit to advance causes closest to his heart.
ONE EVENING last November, about a week after the general election, former Seattle mayors Norm Rice and Charley Royer met for dinner with Mike McGinn, the political novice who had just won the top job at City Hall.
When it came time to offer advice to the mayor-elect, Rice pointed out that McGinn’s campaign had benefited from extraordinary grass-roots support. Now, he said, to have real impact as mayor, McGinn should pick one thing he felt passionate about and direct all his energy toward that.
The example Rice picked was education, a subject McGinn had raised on the campaign trail. Rice must have been convincing. Not only did McGinn follow the advice, he tapped Rice to help lead what he called a “youth and family initiative,” focused on reducing violence and improving education.
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Slick move by McGinn? Well, it might have been an even slicker one by Rice.
The political veteran had just gotten the city’s newest boss to champion the issue of educational quality — Rice’s own favorite cause as well as a priority in his new job as president and CEO of The Seattle Foundation. One of three who will lead McGinn’s new initiative, Rice is now positioned to do what he says every leader should: use his bully pulpit to advance the causes closest to his heart.
“It kind of comes full circle,” Rice says, “back to why am I here and where do I want to go.”
Twelve years after Rice left public office, still popular after two terms, the guy once known as “Mayor Nice” is again involved in Seattle’s civic affairs. He may not be back in politics, exactly, but he’s leading community brainstorming sessions, delivering speeches, directing money to charitable causes and mentoring a new generation of city leaders. It’s the role he always saw for himself post-politics: that of the quiet but influential statesman.
“What Norm does is, he creates an incredible power that you never see,” says former King County Executive Ron Sims, one of Rice’s best friends. “He has a deceiving style. He lets you talk . . . Norm doesn’t just slap you around. He gets you to believe.”
WHEN SEATTLE Foundation directors went looking to replace Phyllis Campbell last summer after JPMorgan Chase recruited her away, they had an agenda.
The foundation, one of the city’s oldest and largest philanthropic groups, for decades had raised money from the area’s richest individuals and families, then awarded grants to nonprofits for capital expenses. Its role had been behind-the-scenes, its reputation quiet, even staid.
But in recent years, as new foundations and nonprofits have proliferated, Seattle Foundation leaders tried to attract younger philanthropists and promote “strategic investing” — targeting specific causes and publicly advocating for them. Right now, the foundation is focusing its giving on three areas: middle-school educational quality, workforce development and training, and the environment. In a report published last year, “A Healthy Community,” the foundation laid out statistics showing how various ethnic and socioeconomic groups have unequal access to necessities such as health care, education and jobs.
That’s much more in-your-face than the group’s earlier style.
“The foundation’s been through a fairly dramatic change over the last 10 years — from a wonderful Seattle institution that really only did capital funding, to an organization that sees that its role is to lead . . . to focus the community’s attention in a broader way on the problems that affect us,” says Bob Watt, the group’s chairman as well as Rice’s former deputy mayor.
Rice was the right guy for the right time, says Watt — “an extraordinarily logical next step in a transformation that’s been under way.”
AS A KID growing up in Denver, Norm Rice thought he’d become a minister. In college, though, he was drawn toward broadcasting and, later, public administration. He wound up working as a radio and television reporter, then as a bank’s social-policy adviser. At the old Rainier Bank, as well as at the Seattle Urban League and in the Mount Baker community, he was drawn to issues of equity, social justice and the life of neighborhoods.
Deciding he wanted a more direct way to help people, he ran for a City Council seat in 1978 and won. By 1985, he was challenging Royer for the mayor’s job. But he wouldn’t get it until 1989 when he jumped into a wide-open mayoral race over the issue of school busing (he opposed a movement to end it). One of his first acts as mayor was to convene a citywide education summit, a series of 32 gatherings that drew more than 2,500 people to talk about ways to improve schools. Even though the mayor has no official say in running city schools, the summit led to a successful $69 million school levy campaign in 1990.
Rice says now that he has no preconceived notion of what will come from the forums he’s helping lead as part of McGinn’s initiative. It could be another levy, a legislative proposal, a nonprofit agenda or something entirely different. But he’s a half-step ahead of critics who say the new mayor will talk forever and never do anything. “If you’re going to have a process,” Rice says, “you’ve got to have a product. Don’t go in knowing what the product is. But know that you’re going to have one.”
The ex-mayor also learned — the hard way — about truly listening when you ask people to speak up. His idea of creating “urban villages” throughout the city as part of a comprehensive plan drew blasts of reproach from people who wanted nothing to do with dense development in their neighborhoods. They called him autocratic, and the City Council gave his plan a thorough work over before finally approving it. He also angered advocates for the homeless, who opposed an anti-loitering law he wrote and thought he didn’t do enough to provide low-income housing and other services. To this day, some of those people feel Rice let them down.
“He sort of capitulated to the business interests,” recalls Sharon Lee, executive director of the Low-Income Housing Institute. She cites a three-year battle to locate an “urban rest stop” for homeless people downtown. Rice, she says, finally agreed to a compromise location but the city “could have done a lot more.”
Alice Woldt, an advocate for homeless people who organized sit-ins to protest the anti-loitering law, says she never thought of Rice as a strong leader, but more of a “consensus builder” — which was sometimes a good thing, but not always.
BEFORE TAKING The Seattle Foundation job, Rice was a visiting lecturer at the University of Washington’s Evans School of Public Affairs. He was overseeing a project on “Civic Engagement for the 21st Century,” researching new ways of involving people to find solutions to community problems.
He had time to baby-sit his much adored grandson, Sekoy, every Monday, to mentor young students and aspiring politicians, and to be home in time to catch a movie or cook dinner and watch “Jeopardy” with his wife, Constance, a well-known Seattle college administrator and former Seattle Foundation board member.
When Rice, 66, was approached about the foundation job, he worried at first that it might be just a caretaker position. But after realizing how much the group’s goals fit his own, he went into the search-committee interview pitching hard to get the job.
“Norm didn’t rely on all the stuff he had done,” says Bill Lewis, a Seattle construction executive and immediate past chairman of the foundation board. “It was really more about the future than the past.”
Now, though, it sometimes seems Rice is back on the campaign trail. His face is fuller and a bad knee forces him to limp when he’s tired. But he still has the energy to work day and night, glad-handing people wherever he goes.
One soggy Monday late last year, he drove himself to the First Place school for homeless children, a program that receives money from the foundation. It was clear right away that this was no ordinary site visit. When Rice saw the school’s director, Doreen Cato, the two of them grabbed each other in a bear hug.
Cato recalled how Rice and Constance led a First Place fundraising drive in 1999, the year after Rice left office. They raised $6.2 million in 14 months, more than half-a-million dollars over the goal. During one “ask,” Rice met with a prospective donor in the school’s modest library, looked him in the eye and calmly said he thought the man’s foundation could give $1 million.
“It was an incredible feat,” says Cato, recalling that she had asked the Rices to be honorary co-chairs. So much for the honorary part.
RICE’S FRIENDS say he’s got a golden touch, that everything he does ends in success.
Rice himself knows that isn’t true.
He’s had political failures, including unsuccessful runs for Congress and governor. But more recently he experienced failure in business. He was in charge of the Federal Home Loan Bank of Seattle when it got into financial trouble and federal regulators stepped in. Like other banks, Rice says, the FHLB tried to grow too fast by buying mortgages that later went bad. Rice wishes he had tried to get rid of bad assets and shrink the bank back to a manageable size.
“I learned a lot — about myself,” he says. “I actually saw it and didn’t do anything because I felt stymied. I didn’t go with my instincts.”
Rice was paid more than $400,000 to resign in July 2005, seven years after taking the position.
Lewis, the past foundation chairman, says that when Rice interviewed for the job, he took responsibility for what happened: “It seemed like there was plenty of blame to go around, and he just didn’t go there.”
Sims, who’s known Rice more than 30 years and asked him to be best man at his wedding, wasn’t surprised by that. “Norm is hard on Norm,” he says.
Rice says making mistakes is OK; it’s how you handle yourself afterward that matters. That’s his approach as a manager: “You don’t penalize failure, you penalize blindness to what they did wrong.”
He learned that, he says, during his failed political campaigns. An example: When he ran against Royer in 1985, he carried thick briefing books with him wherever he went and proudly recited the facts behind every issue. What he didn’t do was speak from the heart, showing voters who he was and what he was thinking.
He got trounced. The next time out, he left the books behind and hit the trail as a real person. That’s when he became mayor.
In a weak moment recently, when he wasn’t being “cautious Norm,” as he has called himself, he came right out and noted that Joe Mallahan, who ran against McGinn with briefing books at the ready, lost solidly.
AT THE FOUNDATION, expectations for Rice are high.
He’s expected to bring in a new generation of donors — younger, more racially mixed — and move toward using the Web and social media to reach out.
He’s expected to continue raising big money the way Campbell did, even during the worst recession the country has seen in decades.
And he’s expected to work with elected leaders to bring about public policy aimed at reducing violence, improving access to good schools, and helping people get the training to find good, and stable, jobs.
All the while, he’s expected to nurture his staff and wow his 24-member board, a new challenge for Rice, Watt says.
But those who know him well — even critics like Lee and Woldt — agree he has the right temperament for the job.
The youngest of four kids, Rice says he survived the usual sibling fray by listening — and mediating if he had to.
“He is the centerpiece of his family,” says Constance. “And he’s a peacemaker. I think one of the things that carries Norman forward is there’s a contentment he has that he tries to spread to others. He leads with kindness. It takes a lot to get him riled up.”
That doesn’t mean he’ll tolerate everything.
“He will step up for anything that will deny people rights,” his wife says. “He will definitely get annoyed if he feels that an educational system is not doing all it can to teach all the kids equally. He’ll definitely get annoyed that we even have to look at an Initiative 71 (the referendum that sought to repeal domestic benefits for gay couples). He’ll get annoyed when he’s told one thing and someone doesn’t follow through.”
Watt says his old boss is “a little more impatient today. More urgent about finding fixes, like, ‘Let’s get on with it.’ But I guarantee you that it will be done respectfully. Maybe a little more forcefully than when he was younger.”
Still, Sims says Rice knows the art of pacing. He tells of meeting his old friend at the Fairmont Olympic Hotel for breakfast over the holidays; he was home from D.C., where he’s now deputy secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Sims went on a rant about how the region would suffer severe growing pains with its new crop of inexperienced leaders.
Rice, according to Sims, sat quietly. “He let me vent.”
The reason, Sims knew all along, was that Rice had his own plan to work the problem behind the scenes. Just days later, McGinn named Rice to lead his youth initiative, along with Watt and Estela Ortega of El Centro de la Raza.
In predicting what Rice might accomplish, Sims reflected on the mayor’s success in revitalizing downtown in the 1990s, drawing new retail stores, restaurants and theaters after losing I. Magnin and Frederick & Nelson, two landmark department stores.
“Here was Norm, way ahead of everybody, talking about a vision that everybody (now) takes credit for,” Sims says. “The person who conceived this, who brought the paint and the canvas, was Norm Rice.”
Michele Matassa-Flores is a former Seattle Times reporter and editor. Alan Berner is a Times staff photographer.