He's Seattle's `Law-And-Order Guy' -- Sidran Is OK With Being Hailed As Hero, Condemned As Heartless
Seattle Times Staff Reporter
A cartoon is tacked to the wall outside Mark Sidran's office - a gag gift from one of his staff attorneys.
It shows the two sides of the city attorney. The prince of darkness in a lawyer's suit, casting a devil's shadow. And a clean-scrubbed Dudley Do-Right, ready to right the smallest wrong.
Hardly flattering. But Sidran thinks it's hilarious.
"I have a very strong sense of self," he says. "You kind of have to, to be in this business."
After 10 years as Seattle chief prosecutor, the 48-year-old Harvard grad has been hailed as a crusader and vilified as heartless. In recent weeks, his unapologetic manner and law-and-order agenda have resulted in a new round of headlines.
His cause: clean up the city of his birth. To that end, Sidran has pushed law-and-order proposals aimed at controlling beggars, street drunks, the homeless, drug dealers, rowdy nightclubs, unlicensed drivers, even biting dogs.
His motivation: He has seen Seattle change - for good and bad. And he wants to make sure it doesn't mimic the decline of other major cities.
His goal: a bid for higher office, according to some. To do his job, and do it well, according to Sidran.
For a guy who is supposed to be the champion of civility, Sidran has generated a lot of uncivil reaction. Critics have labeled him a fascist and a racist. He has been booed, hissed, shouted down and crushed in effigy with a portable toilet.
"People say, `You must be remarkably strong to put up with
that,' " he says. "But there's an alternative explanation, which is I am remarkably shallow and insensitive and I don't realize this is a highly personal attack."
The humor is vintage Sidran.
In a city where "nice" is right and consensus sacred, Sidran has earned a reputation as Seattle's political heavy, and a darling of the business community for helping tidy up downtown. But he also has been re-elected - twice. His proposals have become laws, and his laws have withstood challenges in court and at the ballot box.
"There are a lot of good Seattle liberals who say at parties that he is a horrible person, but then vote for him because they agree with what he is doing," says Timothy Harris, executive director of the homeless community's newspaper Real Change.
Harris is hardly a Sidran fan. Yet he acknowledges: "If there wasn't a Mark Sidran, Seattle would have to invent one."
Born to be a prosecutor
Sidran seems tailor-made to play Seattle's enforcer. He is, by most accounts, a brilliant lawyer with an inexhaustible drive and skin thick enough to absorb personal attacks. He has a flair for theatrics, a talent for sound bites and a sense of humor - often self-deprecating - that can be disarming.
"Mark is a born prosecutor," said Bill Bailey, a Seattle attorney who ran against Sidran in 1989. And Sidran never shies away from a fight. But lately, the blunt-talking attorney is under more fire than usual in the city.
During the past few months, Sidran has fended off challenges to a law that gives police power to ban troublemakers from city parks. A federal court ruling dealt a blow to his eight-year effort to pass tough new nightclub regulations. And citizens groups have charged that the city's new ordinance allowing police to impound the cars of unlicensed drivers unfairly targets minorities and the poor.
Five of nine City Council seats will be on the November ballot; with no incumbent in three of them, Sidran could face a council less inclined to support his get-tough policies.
None of this flusters Sidran. He defends his policies with a confidence born of two beliefs: He is right, and most people agree with him.
"When I say, `Geez, people shouldn't be peeing in the street, or lying down on the sidewalk, or driving without a license, or shooting each other in nightclubs,' I don't think that is wretched excess."
But to civil-rights groups and advocates for the homeless, Sidran's laws seem like single-minded attempts to drive the underprivileged from the city or simple-minded responses to complex social problems.
And his mission to regulate nightclubs has drawn criticism that his policies are racist, because enforcement has targeted clubs that cater primarily to African Americans.
"Rubbish," says Sidran. "The race issue would be a much more troubling allegation if, when black people are killing each other or beating each other or shooting each other outside of a nightclub, the police didn't respond."
Champion of `civility' laws
A former chief juvenile prosecutor for King County, Sidran was elected the city's attorney in 1989 on his promise to fix a municipal court then choked by a backlog of cases and paralyzed with morale problems.
He still considers those reforms his proudest accomplishment. But he rose to national prominence a few years later as a champion of so-called civility laws, which targeted the minor crimes and bad behavior that can make urban life uncomfortable.
Similar programs were taking hold in New York, San Francisco, Boston and other large cities. In 1993, Sidran persuaded the Seattle City Council to outlaw aggressive panhandling and sitting on downtown sidewalks during business hours. He stiffened the penalties for public drunkenness and urination. He later backed an ordinance that held landowners responsible for cleaning up graffiti.
Sidran says he is the first to admit that his policies aren't a cure-all. The answer to homelessness lies in programs that address alcoholism, drug abuse and mental illness, he says.
But that is the domain of social-service agencies, he says. His job is law enforcement. And as far as he is concerned, being down on your luck is no excuse for breaking the rules.
"I'm a prosecutor," he says. "People expect the prosecutor to be the law-and-order guy."
The nerd who roared
For all his showmanship when making a case, Sidran is not physically imposing. He reminds a lot of people of the stereotypical student-body president: smart, ambitious and a little nerdy. That's not far off the mark: Sidran was senior class president at Franklin High School in 1969.
Sidran calls himself a moderate Democrat. His parents owned Upland Pharmacy in Seward Park for 40 years. He says his father, Jerry, was a warm and generous man who passed on his sense of humor. His mother, Sylvia, sharpened his reasoning skills, pushing him to refine his arguments.
Like any good trial lawyer, Sidran knows how to make a point, says City Councilman Peter Steinbrueck. He recalls watching Sidran argue that nightclub regulations were needed to stop violence.
"He almost relished describing the gore in his matter-of-fact manner, to the point where he became an actor," Steinbrueck says. "It is very effective, but some see it as glib and overblown."
Sidran also can be wickedly funny. The Stranger, Seattle's irreverent alternative weekly, ran a cover story last year comparing the city attorney with Satan. A week later, Sidran placed his own ad in the paper's classifieds: "Satan's Little Helper. City Attorney Mark Sidran seeks exec. asst. Reqs: thrive in hellish environment, exc. press relations, xtra soul, Stranger fan."
That wit helps explain why Sidran has been so effective in a city known for its liberal heart, says City Councilman Nick Licata.
"I've never known anyone to enter so many lion's dens and emerge smiling, no matter how many limbs he has lost," Licata says.
Barbs against Sidran have come from within his own ranks as well. As acute as his legal sense is, he is not widely regarded as a stellar manager. Some find him overbearing, abrasive, confrontational and controlling.
Even Sidran admits it's not his strongest suit: "Managing in the public sector is always a challenge. And managing lawyers is an even bigger challenge."
Unrest in the city's law department prompted prosecuting attorneys to form their own union. In 1997, the Seattle Prosecuting Attorneys Association charged that Sidran allowed an atmosphere of hostility and retaliation to develop against members. Sidran dismissed the accusation as a bargaining ploy.
"He tends to be almost borderline flip - he likes to make wisecracks," says Moses Garcia, head of the attorneys union. "But he has a very serious side and he can be very angry. . . . He can be very punitive to people he thinks are out of line."
Out to build Stepford city?
But for the most part, the city's attorneys get high marks in the legal community, and Sidran gets credit for caring about the city.
"It's tough love," says Bob Watt, director of the Seattle Chamber of Commerce and a former deputy mayor under Norm Rice.
Despite attacks on his zeal, Sidran insists his laws aren't driven by some master plan to turn Seattle into Stepford, but rather are specific responses to specific problems.
"What I propose is the result of seeing a problem and trying to come up with a fix," he says.
His latest hot-button issue is sure to draw the usual fire. In a city of dog lovers, he wants to make it easier to prosecute owners for negligence when their dogs bite someone.
With a decade of wins on his resume, and name recognition that most politicians would envy, speculation abounds that Sidran hungers for higher office. He has two years left in his current term. Some buzz at City Hall has Sidran biding his time, waiting for King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng to step down. Other talk has him running for Congress next year.
Sidran doesn't deny further political ambitions, but says it is too early to decide where they might lead. For now, he says, he likes his job, even if it means continuing to play the foil to Seattle's liberal conscience.
"I suppose I could diffuse a lot of this if I kept my mouth shut, but that isn't in my nature," Sidran says. "I'm a lawyer, I like to talk."
J. Martin McOmber's phone-message number is 206-515-5628. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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