SEATTLE — Mayor Paul Schell can’t possibly want four more years of this.
His first term has been pocked by riots, tear gas and terrorism. There was an earthquake. Boeing left. A protester bashed Schell’s face with a megaphone.
Nevertheless, he’s running again, and he faces two strong challengers who would like to make him the first Seattle mayor voted out of office since Allan Pomeroy in 1956.
One is City Attorney Mark Sidran, best known for pushing through "civility laws" that banned sitting on the sidewalks in some business districts and boosted penalties for public urination and aggressive panhandling.
The other is King County Councilman Greg Nickels, a career politician who boasts of his efforts to improve public transportation. Nickels finished third in the 1997 mayoral primary.
Schell, 63, acknowledges that he has a lot to overcome. When Mardi Gras rioting left one dead and more than 70 injured, he slept through it. Boeing didn’t warn him before announcing it was moving its headquarters to Chicago. And after canceling the city’s millennium party in the wake of a terrorism scare, Schell gave a memorable declaration that ended up a Seattle Times headline: "I am not a wuss."
But what has most overshadowed his tenure is the city’s handling of the 1999 World Trade Organization protests. About 50,000 demonstrators overwhelmed the 400-plus police officers assigned to control them.
"If it were not for that, I don’t think this would be a close race," Schell said.
In one recent poll released by KING-TV, the local NBC affiliate, Schell, Sidran and Nickels finished within the margin of error for a statistical tie, each polling between 21 and 25 percent. Charlie Chong, a former city councilman who lost to Schell in the 1997 general election, trailed at 14 percent.
The top two finishers in the Sept. 18 primary advance to the November general election. The mayor’s office is technically nonpartisan, but the city itself is solidly liberal. Schell, Sidran and Nickels are Democrats.
The local Democratic Party has endorsed Nickels — Schell’s punishment for backing Bill Bradley for president, says University of Washington political science professor David Olson.
Nickels also has heavy support from labor, which "took a lot of pepper spray" during the WTO demonstrations, says Lance Bennett, director of the UW’s Center for Communication and Civic Engagement.
Ruth Brown, a 31-year-old accountant, isn’t ready to forgive Schell for being tear-gassed as she left a friend’s apartment during WTO.
"I fully believe we wouldn’t have had problems with WTO if we had had better planning, and I put that on the mayor’s head," she said.
"Paul’s dead meat," said local historian Walt Crowley.
Schell says he’s focusing on his accomplishments in Seattle’s neighborhoods. The city helped raise $200 million in private money in the last four years, much of it for new or improved parks and libraries, Schell says.
The city also has quadrupled spending to fix roads and bridges during his term.
And, he adds optimistically, Seattle’s WTO riots don’t look so bad when compared to increasingly violent protests at international summits in Quebec and Genoa, Italy, this year.
Nevertheless, Schell’s rivals say the city’s troubles illustrate the need for new leadership.
"We were a city that was very confident of the future," said Nickels, 46. "That mood has really changed over the last four years."
Seattle’s two daily newspapers agree. Both endorsed Sidran, 50.
As a law-and-order candidate, he has been compared to New York’s Rudolph Giuliani. Many critics say his civility laws — which were supported by the city council and two mayors — are constitutionally questionable and target the poor.
Sidran said his toughest challenge is "breaking out of the caricature that has been drawn of me … that I’m a hardheaded hard-ass."
A few years ago, The Stranger, a local, left-leaning weekly newspaper, portrayed him as the devil on its cover. Sidran responded by taking out an ad in its classified section: "Satan’s Little Helper. City Attorney Mark Sidran seeks exec. asst. … "
Nickels, meanwhile, is happy to portray himself as a nice, if bland, guy who would invest heavily in the city’s neighborhoods. He’s been knocked for his long-running involvement in Sound Transit, the agency overseeing plans to build a light-rail route in the region. The project is $1.1 billion over budget and three years behind schedule.
"We’re a generation late building mass transit," Nickels said. "Big projects have problems, and they’re hard to build."
Nickels and Schell, who are on the Sound Transit board, want to forge ahead with the project, pointing to studies showing Seattle has some of the nation’s worst auto traffic. Sidran wants to scrap it in favor of improved bus service. All three would consider an expanded monorail system.
But when it comes down to it, the race might not be about issues.
"Schell’s heart was in the right place when he started," said furniture-maker Stewart Wurtz. "But his decision-making in the past has definitely affected his chances."
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