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Tuesday, September 4, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Greg Nickels: Political soul at ground level

Seattle Times staff reporter

At a recent mayoral-candidates forum in the Chinatown International District, Paul Schell and Mark Sidran greeted the audience with the familiarity of two men who, for years, have been steeped in Seattle politics.

Then Greg Nickels walked stiffly to the microphone.

"My name is Greg Nickels. I represent the King County Council and have been a member for 14 years. Because I'm from West Seattle and on the King County Council, I may not be as well-known as these two fellows."

Certainly Mayor Schell and City Attorney Sidran have their own political foibles, but Nickels may face the toughest hurdle: making his name known to 423,000 Seattle voters who may only remember him as the guy who got beat four years ago.

Or the lawmaker who watched as Sound Transit's finances went south.

But Nickels, a Democrat first elected to the County Council in 1987, has been representing Seattle voters longer than any of his opponents in the mayor's race.

Nickels has been struggling to spread his name beyond his comfort zone of West Seattle. He says a poll in June found him to be the most popular mayoral candidate but also the least well-known. Publicly, anyway, he shrugs it off.

"I'm from one-quarter of the city, West Seattle, and people from other parts of the city wouldn't know who I am other than from time to time they've had a chance to hear my name," said Nickels, seated in the living room of his two-story bungalow , while country music played in the background. "My name ID is slightly lower than Mark Sidran's, but five times what it was in 1997. I learned a lot in '97."

A reformed pasta lover

In many visible ways, Nickels is not the same man who ran for mayor four years ago.

When a reporter called him "jowly," wife Sharon went out and bought a treadmill. Nickels has shed 45 pounds through a combination of exercise — helping his wife train for a marathon — and a diet that forced him to cut out potatoes and pasta, except for once a month when he indulges himself with noodles.

"The hardest for me was pasta," said Nickels. "I make a mean spaghetti and meatballs."

Nickels, 46, is the consummate politician. He's been in politics his entire adult life, dropping out of college to go to work for the late Sen. Warren Magnuson. Even his one-time boss, former Mayor Norm Rice, advised his young aide to get some real-world experience out of politics. The advice was ignored.

Although he was the youngest person ever elected to the County Council, defeating long-time incumbent R.R. "Bob" Greive, Nickels has taken his political lumps. He lost races for Seattle School Board in 1983 and King County executive in 1993, and was defeated in the primary for Seattle mayor four years ago.

In a city of change, Nickels is rooted. He lives near where he grew up, his brother lives across the street and his parents and other siblings live nearby. Nickels is the oldest of six children, all but one still in Seattle. With his wife, his parents and two voter-aged children, Nickels should have at least 10 certain votes.

With their youngest daughter enrolling at Washington State University, Nickels and his wife, an analyst with the federal Environmental Protection Agency, have become empty-nesters.

He researches genealogy and has found 2,000 relatives of his and his wife's families. He likes to read biographies and baseball books.

Nickels has season tickets to the Mariners — bought when former owner Jeff Smulyan threatened to move the team — but has been to only a handful of games this year. His annual two-week summer trip with friends to Discovery Bay near Port Townsend was reduced to one day this year. He spent his birthday collecting the endorsement of King County Executive Ron Sims.

In the campaign, Nickels has been portrayed as the ultimate Seattle kind of candidate, the guy who waits in the pouring rain for the light to change, the one who asked his opponents to sign a clean-campaign pledge.

"He's like oatmeal," said one supporter privately. "Not very colorful, but nutritious and good for you."

"I really appreciate that Greg Nickels will never lie to you. If you shake his hand and make a deal, it sticks," said state Republican chairman Chris Vance, who served eight years on the County Council with Nickels and considers him a good friend who happens to be in the wrong party. "Greg is absolutely straight up. He's a great guy. He's just wrong on the issues."

Nice is nice to be

To criticism that he is too bland, too nice, Nickels scratches his head. "They say I'm a nice guy. I am a nice person, and I'm proud to be a nice person. You can make tough decisions and still be a nice person.

"In a lot of elections, I think it would be a disadvantage to have been in local government my whole career," said Nickels. "In this election it's not a disadvantage but an advantage. The city's not been able to tackle issues over the last four years. They've been debating toilets for five years," he said, referring to the hot topic of installing expensive public toilets in Seattle. "A city that debates putting in five toilets for five years is not ready for the 21st century."

But critics suggest that being too nice may be one reason Nickels was slow to recognize the financial crisis facing Sound Transit, where he serves as finance chairman. The light-rail project is behind schedule and more than $1 billion over budget.

Perhaps more than anything else, the project overruns have set the tenor of the mayor's race. Sidran is quick to pounce on Nickels and Schell, who both sit on the Sound Transit board, asking who was minding the store when the finances went sour. Sidran says the light-rail project is dead and is calling for alternatives.

Schell has been more circumspect. When asked about Sound Transit at a candidate's forum, Schell said, with a jab at Nickels, "While I wasn't the finance chair, I share responsibilities. I relied on the finance chair."

Nickels insists the light-trail financial troubles were not his fault.

"I'm not an engineer. I couldn't tell you what it costs to build a tunnel," said Nickels. "I had to ask the Sound Transit staff what it would take to get a good number and gave them the resources to do that."

Nickels said when he realized the extent of the financial problems, "I went to the executive director and said it was time for him to leave."

Former director Bob White acknowledged he did have that conversation with Nickels, but said he'd had a similar conversation with board Chairman Dave Earling days earlier.

Those who serve with Nickels on Sound Transit say it's unfair to blame him for not recognizing the financial woes facing the light-rail project.

"I think it's unfair to point it at one person," said Kevin Phelps, deputy mayor of Tacoma. "We relied on staff to provide the information and the whole board has some culpability. The chair has limited authority; he is but one vote on a committee of six."

King County Councilman Rob McKenna, a light-rail critic, agreed. "I think it would be unfair to single Greg out from the rest of the board. Most of the board refused to dig deeper and ask harder questions about the light-rail cost."

Nickels is popular among colleagues, who say he is knowledgeable about transportation issues and works hard for his constituents. When Lawrence Molloy, a member of the Mount Baker Community Club, figured out the North End transit stations would get twice as much money for art as the South End stations, he fired off a letter to Nickels.

Nickels quickly sent a one-sentence reply: "This is unacceptable and I will go to work on it."

Sound Transit officials later apologized and ordered a reassessment of how the money for artwork would be distributed.

Another challenge for Nickels is explaining how someone who has spent his entire career as a legislator can manage a city.

"Greg is a very dedicated, conscientious, hard-working public servant," said McKenna. "But certainly something in his background is missing, like private-sector experience."

Born in Chicago, Nickels moved to West Seattle in 1961 when his father took a job with Boeing. He graduated from Seattle Prep, where he developed his first taste of politics working on the gubernatorial campaign of Jim McDermott.

He left the University of Washington at 19 to immerse himself in politics, and in 1976 was elected president of the state Young Democrats, where he met wife Sharon. Nickels became a legislative assistant to then-City Councilman Norm Rice in 1979. Eight years later he was elected to the County Council.

Nickels says he regrets not finishing college and plans someday to obtain a degree. "I didn't have a choice," he said. "I needed to work full time, and my passion was politics and civic involvement. That didn't leave me with enough time, or I wasn't disciplined enough. I wish circumstances were different."

Among his accomplishments, Nickels points to his leadership on transportation issues, his push for a monorail, the Elliott Bay water taxi to West Seattle, the push to build Safeco Field and keep the Mariners in Seattle and the removal of tobacco ads from billboards and violent video games from Seattle Center.

One political regret

Asked if he has any regrets in his political career, Nickels said he was proud of his work building Safeco Field but wishes the ballpark had gone to voters a second time after its ballot defeat.

"I think we would have won, and people would have felt much better about the decision if they had the final say in it," he said.

"That's ridiculous," said Vance. "Greg's playing politics with that. He knows as well as I do putting it to a second vote wasn't an option. We had days or weeks at the best to do something, or we would lose the team. There was no time for a vote."

Vance said Nickels should be talking about his leadership role in the county budget after Sims left the council and became county executive.

"In that position, Greg became the lead negotiator for the Democrats on the budget," said Vance. "He demonstrated that he can negotiate a budget."

Nickels has put together a campaign that is a Democrat's dream, picking up endorsements from the powerful King County Labor Council, the Machinists union at Boeing and the King County Democrats.

Council colleague Cynthia Sullivan said Nickels may be the right candidate at the right time.

"There was a time in the city that was perfect for Paul. The city needed so much in terms of development and fixing things that were crumbling," she said. "But WTO and Mardis Gras is so pervasive, you can't get out from under them."

Vance, of course, would like to see a Republican mayor, highly unlikely in Seattle.

"Seattle has all these politically correct, left-wing liberals running the city forever," he said. "I'd be looking for a John Wayne sort of mayor. Greg would be a return to the bland left-wing Seattle correctness."

Nickels makes no apologies. "I know I'm not the most charismatic human being you'd meet and I'm fine with that. People are comfortable with me."

Susan Gilmore can be reached at 206-464-2054 or at sgilmore@seattletimes.com.

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