Seattle's 2 deputy mayors work their community connections
Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn's two deputy mayors, Phil Fujii and Darryl Smith bring a passion for urbanism and deep experience in the community to City Hall. Fujii, charged with internal affairs, worked in city government for years before moving on to Paul Allen's company, Vulcan. Smith, a classically trained actor who also worked as a real-estate salesman, was a leader in revitalizing the Columbia City neighborhood where he lives.
photographed by Benjamin Benschneider
FROM THE rain-soaked bike gear hanging in his office to the raucous open house he held instead of an inaugural ball, Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn has practically stood on City Hall's grassy roof and screamed "meet the new boss, not the same as the old boss."
Even before he took office, McGinn signaled change with his first hires, his deputy mayors, the two wingmen who would be his confidants, taskmasters and ambassadors.
Under Greg Nickels, there was just one deputy — his friend and alter ego, Tim Ceis, who more than lived up to his nickname, "The Shark." Ceis roamed City Hall like a Great White. Former City Councilwoman Jan Drago called Nickels and Ceis "the mayors." Both a policy wonk and furniture-tossing enforcer, The Shark was fiercely smart and feared.
McGinn's deputies come from a different kettle.
Both are generally considered nice guys; neither has executive experience.
Darryl Smith is an actor-turned-realtor, Buddhist and neighborhood activist who'd never worked a day in government. Phil Fujii spent almost 9,000 days on the city payroll but never rose to the top management ranks before defecting eight years ago to Paul Allen's company, Vulcan.
How will these two deputies fill the formidable footwear of Ceis?
As McGinn clears his first 100 days in office after a rocky start marked by controversial resignations, low morale at City Hall and a dust-up with the City Council, Smith answers simply: "We have different shoes."
AN EMOTIONAL tribute to Martin Luther King Jr., full of powerful speeches and painful images, is winding to a close at the Paramount Theatre. Sofia Smith, 13, stands in the spotlight, holding a top award for writing an essay about King.
Her father, the deputy mayor trained at the American Conservatory Theater, sits in the audience unable to check his emotions. "I haven't cried that much since my dad died," he says.
His mother, Josie Smith, is beaming. An actor herself before becoming a psychologist and political activist, she opened a rape-crisis center and ran two mayoral campaigns in Englewood, N.J., just across the bridge from Manhattan.
"All of my kids were exposed to community service. They couldn't go any other way," says Josie Smith, now president of the Southeast Seattle Senior Center.
Her son tried.
He made a living as an actor for nearly 10 years in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Seattle, mainly in theater. But classically trained for the stage, he says, "Doing films where you're supposed to play Drug Dealer No. 7 wasn't really in my wheelhouse."
After closing one show outside L.A., Smith and his wife, Andrea (then a jazz singer, now a consultant to nonprofit groups) drove up the coast on vacation. They fell in love with Seattle — in February — and moved here in 1992.
"It was one of those clear winter days," Smith says, "where the mountains are out . . . and you're like, 'Man, this is a great place.' "
It wasn't long before he was selling houses and diving into the affairs of his neighborhood, Columbia City, helping lead a renaissance that filled empty storefronts with bustling restaurants and homegrown businesses.
Sally Clark, then a neighbor now a City Council member, remembers Smith running meetings in the basement of the local library with patience, humor and an emphasis on the arts. "Darryl and Andrea spoke passionately about using music" to revitalize the neighborhood, Clark says. He hatched a monthly music festival called Beatwalk — following through on an idea to bring night life there instead of having to go to Capitol Hill for it.
Political consultant Christian Sinderman recalls first meeting Smith: "He was a smooth-talking guy in a fedora and hipster glasses going into great detail about Beatwalk and how he wanted to take that energy citywide."
Using his actor's skills in service of his activist DNA, Smith made his only run for office in 2003, a relatively unknown challenger to City Councilwoman Judy Nicastro. He impressed insiders with his poise and command of housing issues. And when he took the microphone and the words rolled out — no wonder he got paid for doing voice-overs. "I heard his stump speech so many times, and I was always impressed," says Jean Godden, one of seven candidates in the race and the eventual winner.
Dramatically outspent, Smith finished fifth in the primary. Some saw him, though, as the city's most promising African-American politician and heir to Councilman Richard McIver, whose seat had been held by an African American for 40 years.
Others grumbled that Smith lacked roots in Seattle's African-American community. A Buddhist with a lotus tattoo on his shoulder, he did not belong to a local church, complained King County Executive Ron Sims in a Seattle Weekly story.
Smith, 47, acknowledges that some people have a hard time figuring him out. "I'm African American. I'm an urban environmentalist . . . I drive a Mini."
But Smith kept toiling in the community vines, becoming president of the Rainier Valley Chamber of Commerce and later president of the Great City Initiative, a nonprofit group founded by McGinn and funded in part by Vulcan.
When McIver retired last year, Smith says he didn't become a candidate because he felt fulfilled at Great City, which was taking a holistic approach to urbanism in shaping policy on transportation, housing and land use.
"It all came together," says Smith. City Councilman Mike O'Brien, a former board member, says he'd like to emulate Smith's way of dealing with strong, sometimes divergent opinions at Great City.
"He's very calm, very thoughtful, and watching him run meetings, he could help shape the direction of conversation so it felt like it wasn't the Darryl Smith Show but a very organic process."
That doesn't mean Smith has always made everybody happy. At the chamber in 2004, he signed a letter opposing CASA Latina's proposed move from Belltown to the old Chubby & Tubby garden center on Rainier Avenue South. Smith argued that vibrant businesses should showcase the site, not a day-labor and social-service center for Latinos.
The letter expressed concern that schools were nearby, insinuating nasty stereotypes about Latinos, says Gabriela Quintana, former president of the CASA Latina board. Quintana, now co-president of Latino Political Action Committee of Washington, says she's never heard Smith apologize and "the Latino community is still feeling wounded."
Smith says he's apologized several times, but will continue to reach out and "build small bridges" with Latinos.
McGinn chose to focus on Smith's strengths, rewarding an early supporter of his populist campaign with one of the top city jobs.
In McGinn's division of duties, Smith is the yin to Fujii's yang. Smith, deputy mayor for community, essentially deals with people outside City Hall. Fujii, deputy for operations, focuses on internal affairs.
Smith, seen as a neighborhood activist, "comes more from a business background," McGinn says. Fujii, seen as a business guy because of his Vulcan job, has actually spent most of his career working on neighborhood issues. Each makes $125,000 a year.
The deputies say there's not a strict hierarchy in McGinn's inner circle, which also includes chief of staff Julie McCoy, policy adviser Ethan Raup and budget director Beth Goldberg.
In the early going, there have been questions about whether this inner circle is too deferential. But Smith says "Mike likes a lot of strong people at the table. He likes to arm-wrestle ideas, then he'll make the call."
ON FUJII'S FIRST day as a Vulcan employee in July 2002, he pulled up his pant legs and showed his new co-workers the long scars that run through his knees, where damaged cartilage was taken out and titanium put in.
He and his wife had gone to Mexico, he explained; he'd jumped into a bullfighting ring to show off and got gored.
It was all a joke. The scars were really the price of what Fujii calls his "extreme" behavior and his old habit of running 16 miles a day.
If Smith is one who flew here, as the Urban League's James Kelly says, Fujii is one who grew here. Raised in the Central District, Fujii, 57, graduated from Franklin High in 1971.
After studying urban planning at the University of Washington, Fujii took a City Hall job to see its inner workings up close. He stayed an urban designer for 12 years.
"He's just very stable. He doesn't have high emotions or low emotions," says David Moseley, Fujii's boss in the late 1980s at the Department of Community Development and now head of Washington State Ferries.
When family friend Cheryl Chow was elected to the City Council, she hired Fujii as an aide. Chow made headlines, with Fujii's help, by taking on an explosive surge in Asian gang violence.
With Chow's blessing, Fujii micromanaged some of the city's youth programs. He even went to the extreme of visiting late-night recreation programs to study police officers, making sure they had the right temperament for working with kids.
"Phil works too hard. That's my only complaint," Chow says.
When Chow retired, the charismatic Jim Diers at the Department of Neighborhoods hired Fujii to implement neighborhood plans in northwest Seattle. Soon, Fujii met McGinn, then-president of the Greenwood Community Council.
Fujii quickly became valuable to Mayor Paul Schell, says his former deputy, Tom Byers. "He was one of the top people we turned to to make things happen." That meant new streetlights in Bitter Lake, sidewalks in Greenwood, mixed-use development in Green Lake.
Neighborhood leaders such as Suzie Burke and Irene Wall, who have been tough on City Hall, praise Fujii for his honesty and care. But his days under Diers were short-lived. When Nickels became mayor he fired Diers.
Fujii applied for the top neighborhoods job and was a finalist, but Nickels and Ceis gave the post to Yvonne Sanchez.
Then more bad news. Looking to cut the budget, Nickels planned to eliminate Fujii's job.
Fujii says he's considered running for City Council, but likes to stay out of the limelight. He applied to be Vulcan's manager of community relations.
"I think the question then was his two sons (now 22 and 20) would be going to college at the same time," Chow recalls. "He was ready for something new — and why not?"
Fujii's job at Vulcan was part-lobbyist, part-ambassador. He steered Vulcan's aid to South Lake Union institutions such as Immanuel Lutheran Church and the Cascade People's Center. He also cultivated support for Vulcan's priorities — a streetcar, taller buildings and a two-way Mercer Street — in its plans to transform South Lake Union from warehouses into labs and lofty cubicle farms.
"I never apologize for the great things we did at Vulcan," Fujii says.
Cascade Neighborhood Council President Lloyd Douglas, who recently opposed a Vulcan push for taller buildings, says he had no beefs with Fujii.
Fujii was restless enough, though, to apply one more time for the city's top neighborhoods job when it came open again in 2006. Again he didn't get what he considered his dream job.
But when McGinn was elected, he got something bigger. "It was like hitting the lottery," Fujii says.
Before he accepted McGinn's offer he consulted his wife, Jeanne, who recently retired from IBM. If he was going to be deputy mayor he'd have to give it the Extreme Phil effort. "I said I can't go into this half-assed, pardon my French. I have to go in 150 percent."
His wife approved.
One of the first people Fujii then called was John Fox, head of the Seattle Displacement Coalition and the city's staunchest critic of Vulcan. "He wanted to let us know he'd listen to our issues, our positions," Fox says. "He called again after Christmas to reassure me that he wanted to sit down and talk. That impressed me."
"I hired Phil because of his knowledge of the city," says McGinn of Fujii. "I think that's why Vulcan hired him."
City ethics rules prohibit Fujii from working on anything that could be construed as benefiting Vulcan for a year (unless McGinn seeks an exemption, which he hasn't). Fujii says he won't touch those issues for the foreseeable future.
"Please tell anyone who questions our integrity and bias to judge us from Day One in this administration."
GOOD DEPUTY mayors are like imaginary best friends. They're active listeners with integrity to spare. They don't need to be the center of attention and will help you with projects, even clean up your messes.
"What makes a politician a good candidate often makes their governing difficult," says Anne Levinson, former deputy mayor under Norm Rice. "It's important that a deputy make sure all trains run on time and all priorities get addressed."
Above all, a deputy mayor "has to be frank and give unvarnished advice" to the boss, says Levinson, now co-owner of the WNBA's Seattle Storm.
And that's a recurring question about McGinn's administration so far. Who's going to tell the emperor he's naked — and it's not a pretty sight?
McGinn's team has stumbled early. There was the resignation of aide Chris Bushnell because of his bogus credentials, then the departure of widely respected finance guru Dwight Dively, and a hasty proposal to rebuild the central waterfront's sea wall. City Council members said they were blindsided by that, raising their ire and suspicion.
Fujii says he told the mayor to slow down and be more deliberative in rolling out the sea-wall proposal. He also concedes that, after announcing a plan to cut 200 management jobs, they had to backtrack because some details "were not completely thought out."
McGinn says the staff has pushed back from the start.
"He'd be crazy to surround himself with nodders," Smith says.
In any case, McGinn's selection of deputy mayors reinforces the idea he values community activists.
"The challenge," Clark says, "will be how to channel that activism into governing."
Bob Young is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff writer. Benjamin Benschneider is a Seattle Times staff photographer.
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