As Seattle mayor, Greg Nickels became more popular away from the city than in it. He was named president of the U.S. Council of Mayors and gained a national reputation as an environmental leader. Locally, though, he came to be seen by some as a bully who alienated the neighborhoods and angered members of the...
A grinning Mayor Greg Nickels took his first end-to-end ride on Seattle’s Link light-rail train on a perfect June day last year. It was a good day for a mayor having a rough year. Nickels was proud, and as the train zipped through Beacon Hill, he proclaimed: “I’m busting.”
The train tops a list of accomplishments many public officials would boast about. In eight years, Nickels presided over a period of major growth in Seattle. His work helped raise the city’s skyline, build new fire stations, pass two housing levies, remake the Northgate and South Lake Union neighborhoods.
But as his time in office wore on, Nickels became more popular away from the city than in it. He was named president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors and gained a national reputation as an environmental leader.
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Locally, though, he came to be seen by some as a bully who alienated the neighborhoods and angered members of the City Council.
When it came time to seek a third term, in the middle of a recession, Nickels was defeated in the August primary.
As Nickels exits and Mike McGinn takes the oath of office Monday, the two-term mayor says he feels good about his time in office and was plagued by “caricatures” of himself he couldn’t combat.
In the last year, he’d often reach for this quote to shrug off the critics: “Friends come and go, but enemies accumulate.”
Nickels’ reputation as a revenge-seeking Chicago-style heavy is the flip-side of his reputation in 2001, when he beat the law-and-order candidate, then-City Attorney Mark Sidran. He was seen then as a pushover, a “Seattle nice” politician with not a lot of charisma, but big neighborhood backing and Democratic Party support.
But right away, Nickels seized control at City Hall. He sent a memo reminding city-department employees that they answered to him, not the City Council, and he fired popular Department of Neighborhoods Director Jim Diers.
“People underestimated Greg,” said Tim Ceis, who as Nickels’ deputy was seen as his enforcer. “They also didn’t understand that he ran for mayor to be mayor … we reasserted the authority of mayor in those first few months.”
Internally, Nickels was known as a loyal boss. He set about trying to build a more diverse staff. As he promised in his campaign, he took on little stuff, like potholes and sidewalks.
His stable of political advisers grew. He took heat in 2008 for hiring a new communications director at a $160,000 a year. Even with professionals working on his image, Ceis said, voters didn’t seem to connect personally with Nickels.
“He’s your next-door neighbor. Greg is most comfortable watching the Mariners game, cooking up a pot of spaghetti and serving it with his meatballs,” Ceis said. “That’s really who he is, and that’s the part that didn’t come across to people.”
Nickels won the 2001 election by just 3,158 votes. But he proved unafraid to take political risks. Many of them paid off, but his approach to the messy work of government hurt his image.
“I think he bought into his own image of making things happen and being a strong decision-maker,” said City Councilmember Nick Licata. “He lacked the finesse that would allow him to do the very same things he was doing, but without alienating people.”
For example, Licata said Nickels took a “top-down approach” to his “Car-free Sundays” program (which limited traffic on certain streets) instead of getting neighborhood support first.
Early on, Nickels took on development restrictions in two stymied Seattle neighborhoods: South Lake Union, where Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen was a major landowner; and Northgate, where neighborhood groups had battled for years over future development.
“Western cities in general hate sprawl and they despise density,” Nickels said in a recent interview.
He set about persuading people that to have a bustling, diverse, 24-hour-city, you need density. Nickels believes density and environmentalism go together, so he pushed for taller buildings, new condos in neighborhoods, and more dense development along bus lines and in urban centers.
Critics said he was too close to developers and gave away too much, especially to Allen, who teamed up with the city to build a streetcar line in South Lake Union.
“I think this mayor was one of the first people who really saw the connection between dense urban living and positive contributions to the environment. He, I think, consciously set out to try to create that kind of a city,” said Lyn Tangen, director of government and community relations for Vulcan, Allen’s development company.
Nickels spent what might have been his last bit of political capital on an agreement with the state to tear down the Alaskan Way Viaduct and replace it with a tunnel. The deal was hard-fought.
Many legislators wanted a cheaper, rebuilt elevated highway, and Seattle residents worry about the unknown costs of digging underground, but Nickels was adamant about opening up the waterfront.
The tunnel ended up being a major issue in the 2009 mayoral race. McGinn opposes it.
As the pace of change picked up in the middle of Nickels’ eight years in office, he gained enemies. Neighborhood groups complained he didn’t listen to them. Sonics fans blamed him for the team’s move to Oklahoma City. State leaders said he was demanding. City Council members said he didn’t share credit with them.
“I found Mayor Nickels, no matter what he did, it was all about promoting Mayor Nickels,” said Chris Wilkey, a Wallingford resident who said he voted against Nickels mostly because he just didn’t like him.
Nickels seemed “arrogant,” he said, and had a “take-it-or-leave-it attitude.”
All the while, Nickels gained clout elsewhere. He became known for his work on the Mayors’ Climate Protection Agreement, getting more than 1,000 mayors to sign on to the Kyoto Protocol emissions standards.
When he lost the August primary, Mother Jones magazine wrote an article about him, calling him “America’s greenest mayor.”
And he got an e-mail from Elizabeth Kautz, mayor of Burnsville, Minn., explaining that mayors “are not evaluated on the merits of our overall performance, but on one or two issues and emotions. The press doesn’t help at all.”
“We were all surprised,” by Nickels’ defeat, Kautz said in a recent interview, “because of the things that we read about his work in Seattle and the many accomplishments that he has achieved.”
Kautz, who takes Nickels’ place as head of the mayors’ conference, had just returned from last month’s U.N. Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, where Nickels was lauded for his work.
Joe Quintana, a local political consultant who was an early Nickels insider, said Nickels’ success went to his head. As his national influence increased, Quintana said, the mayor left local work up to Ceis.
“Success can be funny, you know? After awhile, you start thinking you can just get your way all the time and you start running over everyone,” Quintana said.
Voters were already in a bad mood when a brutal snowstorm buried Seattle two weeks before Christmas 2008. Unplowed, icy and rutted streets paralyzed the city during the important shopping season.
Nickels refused to use salt and outfitted snowplows with rubber blades. At a post-storm news conference, he gave the city a “B” for its performance.
The city’s snowstorm response seemed to epitomize voters’ sense that the mayor was out of touch.
Out of a pack of challengers in the mayoral race, the two that rose to the top were Joe Mallahan, who ran on management ability and a consistent anti-Nickels message, and Mike McGinn, who promised to listen to people.
McGinn, whose campaign included 25 neighborhood town halls and an accessible, outsider image, won.
Nickels all but disappeared from the public eye after his loss. He stopped having news conferences and planned trips to Saudi Arabia and Copenhagen.
It was awkward at times, Nickels said, continuing to represent the city that had rejected him.
After Thanksgiving, he made his annual appearance atop Westlake Center for the downtown tree lighting. Thousands packed the streets, waiting for Santa Claus, the fake snowfall over Pine Street and the lighting of the Macy’s holiday star.
As Nickels said his piece, there were a few scattered boos, and it was clear: Maybe this hometown boy and his city need a break from each other.
“I’ve always said that I wanted to do this job as long as I was having fun, I was adding value, and the people could stand me,” he said in an interview last month. “And a couple of those, you know, sort of came to a head at the same time.”
Emily Heffter: 206-464-8246 or email@example.com