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Seattle's image, like Paul Schell's, has changed forever

Paul Schell stops by City Attorney Mark Sidran's election-night party. Schell, bumped in the September primary, endorsed Sidran, but voters didn't listen. Nickels didn't even ask for Schell's endorsement.

Jubilant supporters mob Greg Nickels at Carpenter's Hall on election night.
PAUL SCHELL'S FACE will never be the same.

The bones in his nose and around the right eye remain broken, mending unevenly from the crushing blow of a bullhorn slung during a protest last summer. The muscles beneath are traumatized; they don't work quite right. His lower eyelid curls under the wrong way. Streaks shoot through his vision like bolts of lightning when he is tired.

Schell doesn't complain about it much. Surgery will correct some of the problems. He has deeper scars to worry about as his tumultuous administration ends and a new one takes over — wounds that can't be so easily shrugged off.

Schell's reputation, and Seattle's, got battered mightily during his term. In September, voters said four years was enough, making him the first incumbent mayor since 1936 to lose in a primary.

"I feel like we did eight years in four," Schell says, listing the calamities that accompanied him: riots through the World Trade Organization's conference, an earthquake, police shootings, more riots at Mardi Gras, Boeing's corporate departure and layoffs, and now, a recession.

"The only thing we didn't have to deal with was snow," he adds, knocking on a wooden chair in the mayor's office.

You can't blame the superstitious gesture. At times it seemed he was jinxed, the way crises piled one on top of another. It's telling that the bullhorn assault on Schell, which might have been the most dramatic moment of any other mayor's administration, seems like just a footnote for him.

Given all that has happened, it's not surprising that Seattle's image, like Schell's, has been permanently altered. In 1998, when Schell took office, the city had a certain swagger: a confidence that it was the next big thing. As he departs, that confidence has been shaken to the point where many have the nagging feeling that nothing is going right.

What happened here? How much of our malaise is Schell's fault? Was he the victim of circumstance or was the city brought low by the mayor's flaws? These are questions we'll likely be sorting out for some time. But as new Mayor Greg Nickels settles into the office, they're worth considering now.

• • •

SCHELL IS A NOTORIOUS big thinker with a deep understanding of the city and a desire to make it better. One on one, he projects an earnestness that doesn't always come across in press accounts, or seems goofy. Look into his puppy-dog-brown eyes and you know he means well.

In another stunning moment for an administration full of them, a bullhorn-wielding assailant clobbered Schell at a Central Area unity festival. Bones around his right eye were smashed and Schell still experiences flashes in his vision. The man accused of attacking him, Omari Tahir-Garrett, is facing trial on charges of second-degree assault.
But study Schell for any time at all and you also recognize his flaws. At times, he seems to float in a dreamland, oblivious to the challenges most people face. He says he's never been motivated by money with the sincerity of a rich man who hasn't had to worry about it in a long time. When things go wrong in Seattle he often tries to pin the blame on out-of-towners, as though bad people don't live here.

At times over the past four years, he seemed more philosopher king than mayor, dispensing his wisdom on the correct way of building a great city and expecting others to see the inherent truth of his vision. Trouble is, here the plebes are in charge — and they resent people like that.

"Paul thought if he could just make a good argument, everyone would follow him," says friend and adviser Joel Horn. "There is a deeper, dark side of society that Paul and his advisers never acknowledged. I think that was the single biggest problem of the administration: a basic naiveté about human nature."

Nickels, on the other hand, understands some of what Schell lacked. He will never be accused of forgetting to take politics into account, of not understanding how to maintain his own popularity. More than that, he's a neighborly guy, not a kingly sort. He's got a house in West Seattle, no estate on Whidbey Island and no pad in France.

Nickels has not been known as a big thinker. His ideas are down-to-earth, generated by little problems he sees while walking around town. A traffic jam on the West Seattle bridge? Station tow trucks at each end to clear stalled cars faster. A crack in a city sidewalk? The city needs a 1-800-SIDEWALK number to get it fixed.

And Paul Schell? Ask him whether the Sound Transit board should be directly elected, as some have proposed, and he launches into a discourse on how King, Pierce and Snohomish counties need to be merged and the transit agency subsumed under the authority of a new regional government. Like many of Schell's visions, it'll never happen, even if it should.

For his part, Schell admits to being a lousy politician, but leaves insisting he was a "hell of a mayor."

With a hot economy and a generous electorate, he launched a massive civic construction boom, building new parks, libraries, community centers, a pricey new City Hall and a thousand neighborhood projects.

Mayor Greg Nickels shares a laugh with former mayor Norm Rice. Nickels was an aide to Rice when he served on the city council.
"I do think with time the considerable accomplishments of the Schell administration are going to be increasingly recognized," says David Olson, a political-science professor at the University of Washington. But for now, Schell knows he's viewed by many as a flop. In the waning days of his administration, he grew reflective:

"The criticism that hurt the most is when people called me incompetent. Nobody's ever called me that in my life."

Schell's own self-image is that of a devoted public servant whose only drawback was a certain contempt for the political game. "I think there's a difference between being a successful political person and a public servant," he says. "You have to make a choice: Do you want to be Mr. Popular, Mr. Nice? Or do you want to be effective? The way you survive as a politician is to not do much."

It's true that Schell's political instincts were crummy. But his self-analysis misses the point. Voters did not reject Paul Schell because he built too many parks and libraries. In fact, those accomplishments ought to have guaranteed him an easy second term. Voters booted Schell because they believed he fumbled the most important crises of his term: the WTO and Mardi Gras riots.

• • •

IF NEW YORK Mayor Rudy Giuliani proved anything after Sept. 11, it was the power of a mayor who rises to the occasion. After the World Trade Center collapse, Giuliani seemed to be everywhere, dispensing information and reassurances at a time when the city and the nation needed both. A laudatory magazine ad proclaimed him "the mayor who never sleeps."

In the public's eye, Paul Schell was just the opposite. When crisis hit Seattle, he was the mayor who slept too much.

Nickels, flanked by Rice, is applauded by members of his transition team. Nickels promises an "inclusive" administration that listens, and his 38-member transition team should offer plenty of advice.
That image was cemented after the Mardi Gras riots, when Schell spokesman Dick Lilly told a radio reporter the mayor had been asleep while 20-year-old Kristopher Kime was beaten to death in Pioneer Square as police stood on the sidelines. It was a telling moment in the Schell saga — a public-safety breakdown compounded by a horrible public-relations mistake. It was also unfair.

Should the mayor have been at the scene, ordering police around? Probably not.

A critique commissioned by the police union said command lines during Mardi Gras had been blurred because Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske was there. Schell would only have smudged the lines further. In fact, some people criticized Schell's office after the WTO riots for interfering with police too much.

The notion that Schell's problem was laziness was particularly galled him. He routinely started work at 7 in the morning and often kept at it until 9 at night or later. And yet the image of Schell snoozing while Kime was beaten to death was what stuck.

"If it wasn't for Dick Lilly being an absolute (expletive) idiot and volunteering to the press Schell was asleep, I think the political fallout from that would have been a lot less," fumes Blair Butterworth, one of the mayor's political consultants. Trouble was, by the time Mardi Gras happened, the public was already primed to believe the worst about the mayor. That was a direct result of the other defining moment of his administration: the WTO riots of 1999.

Schell's response left him permanently damaged.

An idealist at heart, Schell tried to please everyone. In the end, no one was happy.

Despite the shattered glass and graffiti littering downtown, Schell declared the demonstrations a great display of free speech. He praised police, too, for going without sleep and enduring the taunts of hostile demonstrators. But the protesters called him a fascist for allowing police to drive them off, and the head of the state police chiefs association called for his resignation.

Schell made matters worse by angrily confronting King County Sheriff Dave Reichert, who had criticized the city's preparedness, and threatening to destroy him.

Schell was left with no way out. His political advisers wanted him to fire Police Chief Norm Stamper, who failed to take charge of WTO planning. But Schell demurred and Stamper beat him to it, announcing his resignation.

Maud Daudon, Schell's deputy mayor in charge of public safety, also offered to resign. Schell refused to let her. In fact, several months later Daudon was promoted to chief of staff, to the chagrin of some of Schell's political advisers. She offered to resign again after Mardi Gras; again Schell demurred. Daudon had been chief financial officer at the Port of Seattle before accepting the top job in Schell's administration. She understood finances and managing a bureaucracy, but was ill-prepared for the political pressure of the mayor's office.

Schell, some supporters say, was loyal to a fault, stubbornly refusing to fire anyone for their shortcomings.

"I don't believe in that. I believe blame, quite frankly, is a destructive force," he says. "I think you learn from your mistakes and move on."

Besides, Schell argues, the WTO conference went better than anyone around here is willing to admit. Subsequent anti-globalization protests have seen more arrests and serious injuries. And, he points out, other cities have been calling Seattle to learn what the city did. But they've all taken pains not to repeat Schell's mistakes.

Politicians and police elsewhere have taken one lesson from Seattle: If you have to make someone angry, make sure it is the anti-globalization protesters (who don't decide elections). In Washington, D.C., at a World Bank meeting after the WTO, officials sealed off 80 blocks of the city and shut down protest headquarters on the pretext of fire-code violations.

"A super political mayor with the capability to draw upon support of other elected leaders could have survived," says Daudon. In fact, she notes a lot of other politicians were involved in the planning and decisions surrounding WTO. But when the going got tough, Schell was left alone to take the blame. Says Daudon: "All these people had been at the table and just evaporated."

• • •

LOOKING BACK, it's hard to see why Schell sought re-election at all. In two polls months apart, the percentage of people who said they'd vote for him remained stuck at around 21 percent, according to Don McDonough, a Democratic pollster and adviser to the Nickels campaign. Schell's job rating was 77 percent negative in those polls.

Schell hoped the hiring of Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske, a national law-enforcement star, would improve the police department's image after the resignation of Norm Stamper in the wake of the WTO riots. But Kerlikowske came under fire quickly after the Mardi Gras riots. Nickels hinted during the campaign he might fire Kerlikowske, but decided to retain him.
"He never moved at any point," McDonough says.

Former Mayor Charles Royer, an ex-TV newsman who served three terms, is sympathetic. "There's almost no way to win as a big-city mayor," he says. "You are very close to the action and you are particularly vulnerable to anything that happens with the police."

Royer, who supported Schell's re-election, says he never understood why Schell showed a disdain for politics, as though it could be separated from governing. "What the hell is he? He ran for office three times — he is a politician," Royer says. "Like it or not, politics is substance. You can't separate them."

Throughout the campaign Schell was clearly miffed at Nickels' popularity. He didn't understand how people could support a guy who dropped out of college — who'd never had a job outside of politics — over a Harvard Law School graduate who'd made his fortune in the real world. Schell groused in one interview that maybe it was a good thing Nickels won — "he needs the job."

Schell's political sense was so bad he even flubbed his biggest political announcement: the February statement that he'd seek a second term. Did he seek momentum or a photo-op with balloons and confetti and a roomful of loyalists praising his record? Nope. He sent out an e-mail late one evening without any warning, leaving reporters to write about how he'd failed to even time it correctly for the evening news.

"I never did anything in my first term to ensure that I'd get elected to a second," Schell said in several interviews.

Part of Schell's trouble was simply bad public relations. At times, he seemed to be trying to appear as bewildered, weak and defensive as possible. It didn't help that his first communications director, Vivian Phillips, had a personal crisis and left in the middle of the WTO.

After deciding he wanted a second term, Schell did make some efforts to improve his public image. A new communications director, Roger Nyhus, helped Schell understand he needed to do a better job at seeming mayoral. Nyhus revamped the mayor's press strategy — canceling monthly meetings with print reporters in favor of weekly television-oriented news conferences. He placed the mayor at a podium, ending the old practice of letting him slouch at a table surrounded by reporters. While the election was in full swing, Schell was making allegedly important "announcements" almost daily. It was too little, too late.

Greg Nickels, beginning with a "100-day plan," intends to remind everyone early and often how lucky we are to have him as mayor. Remember, this is the guy who started talking about running for a second and third term even before last year's primary.

"He understands politics and the necessity for it. He's not going to make the same kinds of mistakes Schell did," says McDonough, the pollster.

But Nickels supporters also say that despite his image as a cautious politician, he understands the importance of decisive leadership. After all, people weren't explicitly calling for a slick politician after four years of Schell. What they wanted was a leader.

It may wind up as a historical footnote, but City Attorney Mark Sidran — running a campaign in which his only clear promise was "decisive" leadership — came just a hair from winning. He would have pulled it off had it not been for Nickels' superior field campaign.

It's a lesson not lost on the new mayor. Nickels has already made a big show of his decision to retain Kerlikowske — publicly doubting the police chief's competence after Mardi Gras and then publicly forgiving him — making it absolutely clear who is in charge. He also sacked several city department heads, including the popular Jim Diers, director of the city's Department of Neighborhoods.

• • •

THE HUMAN SIDE of Schell never got out much. During the dark times, Schell often turned to his wife, Pam — "Pammy," he calls her — for comfort. Pam Schell would pick up the phone and recite the words to Rudyard Kipling's poem "If." The opening lines were somehow fitting for the turbulent Schell administration:

If you can keep your head when all about you / Are losing theirs and blaming it on you . . .

In Schell's mind, he kept his head — despite the screaming critics — and focused on what was important. He got a lot done. Even his opponents acknowledge that.

"I'm the first one to admit that Paul Schell probably has the greatest unknown record as mayor," says Tim Ceis, Nickels' new deputy mayor. Ceis, nicknamed "the shark," will be Nickels' enforcer, doling out punishment and rewards to keep the administration ahead of the curve instead of reactive. He's a sharp contrast to Schell's deputies, the bookish Daudon and Tom Byers, a former '60s radical and Royer aide.

Even before his term started, Schell was being compared to Wes Uhlman, the controversial two-term Seattle mayor who championed the Forward Thrust initiatives that left a vast legacy of civic improvements.

"No mayor will ever be able to put together that kind of list again," Paul Schell said in a 1998 newspaper story about Uhlman's term. "And all this from a mayor that nobody ever liked very much."

Schell's long-term legacy looks markedly similar. Every neighborhood in Seattle can point to projects that may not have gotten started without his pledge to "fix the roof while the sun is shining."

Schell doesn't like the word legacy. "Legacies are for dead people," he says. Even as Nickels starts to put his own stamp on City Hall in much leaner times, Schell sees himself remaining involved in the life of the city. He seemed genuinely upbeat in the final days of his administration, grateful to the city for giving him the four best years of his life.

In the most literal way imaginable, the job left its imprint on him. Schell, for better and worse, returned the favor.

Jim Brunner is a Seattle Times staff reporter covering City Hall. Benjamin Benschneider is a staff photographer for Pacific Northwest magazine.

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