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Saturday, December 21, 1996 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Rice's Loss Of Hud Job Is City Of Seattle's Gain

SEATTLE Mayor Norm Rice is terribly disappointed President Clinton didn't name him Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. To Seattle political cognoscenti who care about the city's welfare, though, the appointment of Andrew Cuomo triggers a different reaction - Whew!

Not that numerous Friends of Norm weren't pulling for him or didn't think he was qualified for the post. As a politician who can artfully advocate traditional Democratic principles as well as speak comfortably to the business community, Rice has the kind of centrist Democratic skills Clinton wants to emphasize in his second term.

From a more selfish standpoint, however, the news is good for the city. With so many sharp veteran pols leaving the city, Rice's departure would have capped a serious talent drain at City Hall. Deputy Mayor Anne Levinson departed a couple of weeks ago; Councilman Tom Weeks ducked out last summer for a Seattle schools post.

More worrisome, Council President Jan Drago, one of city government's true rookies, was poised to become mayor, a job for which she was woefully unprepared. Due to a silly shuffle of the political deck last year, Drago, still in her first term on City Council, became council president and therefore would have served as mayor until the end of Rice's term next year.

Drago's ascension came about when council members Jane Noland and Cheryl Chow battled for the presidency last winter. Both were unable to collect requisite votes, so the council settled on Drago, who was deemed less threatening and less ambitious than Noland. An odd way to do the public's business.

Drago is well-intended but would have faced a Matterhorn-sized learning curve. Her pet issue, off-leash areas in the parks, pleased the city's considerable population of "dog people," but by itself does not amount to suitable mayoral training.

Rice's appointment would have reflected favorably on Seattle - yes, even a place that has won so many "best city" honors it is almost bored by them.

The mayor has worked in city government 18 years and earned his place in the national spotlight as mayor of a progressive Western city that works and as immediate past president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. His innovative ideas about spending federal money more effectively at the local level intrigued the Clinton White House.

Rice may never know exactly how he fell from HUD frontrunner status, but a chippy charge from two frequent city critics didn't help. Their cheap-shot complaint centered on the HUD loan that was part of the financial package for the $400 million downtown redevelopment project including the F&N building.

The complaint says the Rice administration used inflated crime statistics and otherwise misled HUD in the loan application. The mayor has a strong record on housing and homeless issues and deserves credit, not complaints from ungrateful curmudgeons, for turning downtown around.

Whether Rice will or should seek a third term is fodder for another day. It depends on his own enthusiasm and new ideas for the city.

At this point, he'd be wise to write a list of things to accomplish in the last year of this term and take pride in leading one of the most livable, most confident cities in the nation.

Copyright (c) 1996 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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