Former Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels recalls the city's botched response to an epic snowfall that helped bury his hopes of re-election.

Share story

He can enjoy the snow now; the views out his West Seattle window, the kids playing on his street. The comfort of being inside, and warm, and not having to worry about anything but his own front walk.

But 10 years ago, Greg Nickels was buried in the stuff, literally and politically. And it may have cost him his re-election.

“Every mayor in America, I believe, breaks into a cold sweat when snow comes into the forecast,” Nickels told me the other day. “It’s not something you can control.

“You prepare for it as best you can, and it’s a roll of the dice. And sometimes, it comes up craps.”

There’s an understatement.

Just before Christmas 2008, Seattle was hit with snow and freezing temperatures that paralyzed the city for two weeks.

The city’s response was disjointed and delayed. Roads were impassible. Buses couldn’t get through. Christmas gifts couldn’t be delivered and uncollected garbage blew everywhere. A later review by The Seattle Times found that the manager of the city’s snowplows had no experience directing a major snow response, and that special attention was given to the streets where city officials — including Nickels — lived.

It took days of citizen complaints before Nickels reversed a decade-old city policy against using salt on icy roads.

While it wasn’t his call, initially, to use sand instead of salt, he “should have known,” he said, that it was up to him to reverse it more quickly.

“You don’t anticipate everything, and that’s on me.”

And then he gave the city’s snow response a B grade — a gaffe that would contribute to killing his run for a third term. Nickels finished third in the 2009 primary election, failing to qualify for the general.

“I think voters were just pissed off,” he said, citing the start of the 2008 recession, “and when you’re on the ballot, there were lots of things that people wanted to latch onto.”

Could it have been the snow? The sand? The Grade B?

“I think when people are in a good mood, they overlook things like that,” he said. “And that wasn’t the case.”

Ten years later, Mayor Jenny Durkan has fared much better. As of Wednesday, Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) was clearing Metro bus routes and areas near school drop-offs. There were 36 SDOT trucks roving city neighborhoods, and crews hand-shoveling where needed. Navigation Teams were visiting homeless encampments and had taken nearly 200 people to shelters, which included the Exhibition Hall and The Armory at Seattle Center.

“Whatever lessons they got from us, great,” Nickels said. “But they also did their homework.”

Has he heard from Durkan at all, during these snowy days?

“I am the last person she would call in the snowstorm,” he cracked.

Nickels was speaking from his home, where he was baby-sitting two of this three grandchildren, whose schools were closed.

He even posted photos of the snow on his Facebook page with this caption: “I have to admit, if you don’t have to drive, have a warm roof over your head and aren’t the Mayor, it really is quite beautiful!”

It wasn’t all bad, being mayor, he said. He is taking “great pleasure” in seeing the completion of city projects he helped to start, such as the SR 99 Tunnel along the waterfront; the tearing down of the Alaskan Way Viaduct and the extension of Link Light Rail to the University of Washington. (The system will eventually form a 55-mile regional system, along with expansions to the Sounder commuter rail and ST Express bus services.)

The latter took 22 years “from rolling up my sleeves to opening,” Nickels said. “The day that the stations opened, all the pain and agony just kind of washed away.

“We did some good things. One of the things I was left with was that you only get so much time. You have to make it count.”

Since leaving office, he served as a public delegate to the United States Mission to the United Nations and was a fellow at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.

When your time is up, Nickels said, you have to be comfortable in just watching from the sidelines. Even if it’s just the snow out your window.

“Being more of an observer than sitting in the hot seat is a lot less stress,” he said.

But Nickels declined to give the current mayor a grade on how she’s handling her own Snowmageddon. No thanks.

“One of the strengths I have is that once I make mistakes,” he said, “I won’t repeat them.”