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Thursday, September 6, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Paul Schell: A lasting imprint on city

Seattle Times staff reporter

No matter what voters say in two weeks, they'll be seeing Paul Schell around Seattle for years to come.

From manhole covers designed during his stint as the city's director of community development, to the downtown buildings he refurbished as a developer, to the dozens of parks and libraries he campaigned to build as mayor, Schell's stamp on the cityscape is one that cannot be matched by any of his rivals in the Sept. 18 primary.

But it may not matter.

For everything that has happened to Seattle physically over the course of Schell's career, the city's self-image has undergone a change just as profound during his term as mayor.

The protests at WTO, the rioting at Mardi Gras, Boeing's departure, worsening traffic, racial tensions and a nagging sense that the economic good times are over have left many with the sense that the community is on the wrong track and that Schell's City Hall can't put it straight.

Schell was elected four years ago as mayor of a city viewed as on the rise, named as "most livable" and lauded as the coffee and software giant of the New Economy. Schell, a port commissioner, had been practically begged by newspaper editorialists to run, had the backing of the business community and trounced his opponent, Charlie Chong, in the general election.

"He had the city handed over to him on a silver platter in the best of times," says City Councilwoman Jan Drago. "For him to be fighting for his life in the primary — it's just amazing."

In a way, Schell has been lucky, blessed by economic good times and generous voters who combined to help him launch the biggest civic building boom since the Forward Thrust initiatives of 1968.

"We fixed the roof while the sun was shining. I'm proud of that," Schell says.

At Schell's urging, voters approved a $196 million library bond to expand or replace the downtown library and two dozen branches and a $72 million effort mixing public and private money to renovate the Seattle Center Opera House and build new community centers. And last year they OK'd a $198 million levy for parks and the zoo.

"There were three things in a row that happened that all responded to the commitment I made to the neighborhoods," Schell says. "Every single one of them was birthed in my office."

Meanwhile, record tax collections poured into City Hall, allowing Schell to boost spending on just about every priority. He increased spending on roads maintenance from $11 million to $45 million. He more than doubled spending on homelessness, to $14.9 million last year. And Schell and the City Council used the city's non-voter-approved debt capacity to start building a new City Hall and Justice Center, a $259 million venture. Along the way they added 1,000 employees to the city payroll.

Perhaps Schell's proudest accomplishment was a fulfillment of his campaign promise to triple the city's spending on the neighborhood matching-grants program.

That program, copied by other cities, matches city dollars with neighborhood volunteer efforts to complete projects suggested by community groups.

"If you look across the city, there are some pretty wonderful things happening," said Joyce Moty, who lives in the Mount Baker neighborhood, where she and other volunteers have turned a vacant lot into a park with the grant money.

Moty, who didn't vote for Schell in 1997, now counts herself a firm supporter.

Then came the tear gas

Schell's chief trouble is that many people won't associate the neighborhood park with him the same way they do WTO, Mardi Gras and other troubles that have worn heavily on civic pride.

The 1999 meeting of the World Trade Organization was viewed as a plum when Seattle landed the event, but it quickly turned sour. Thousands of protesters shut down city streets, overwhelming police who were not prepared for the magnitude of the event. Schell, who had repeatedly stressed the rights of people to demonstrate, found himself declaring an emergency that made downtown off-limits early in the Christmas shopping season.

For months after the smell of tear gas faded, WTO lingered for Schell as his police chief resigned and a City Council investigation pointed fingers squarely at his administration.

Schell is more than tired of talking about the event and lately he has begun answering questions about WTO with a question of his own.

"I ask people, so are you mad at me for using too much tear gas or too little?" Schell says, pointing to the irony that he has been blamed as too harsh by protesters and too weak by police and some business owners.

Schell argues that WTO was an "unprecedented" event, that Seattle was a guinea pig for a new sort of protest tactic, and that subsequent demonstrations in other cities — including the bloody confrontation recently in Genoa — have made Seattle's experience look pretty good.

Less than a month after WTO, Schell, acting on information about terrorist threats, took heat for canceling the millennium celebration at Seattle Center, leaving the city watching while the rest of the world partied.

Since then, federal indictments have made it clear that action may have been prudent, but at the time it was another blow to Seattle's image.

Schell seemed to retreat into a sulk, doing little to dispel the notion that his administration was embattled. He was only starting to emerge from that funk when Mardi Gras violence struck, saturating the airwaves with images of a young man being beaten to death while police stayed back and Schell slept.

Schell still seems troubled by the criticism over that event. "It's still a puzzle to me that the mayor is supposed to attend all riots," he says. However, when protesters and police clashed downtown last month, Schell made sure he left a winery auction to be there.

Perhaps nothing has symbolized Schell's rocky term more bluntly than the black eye he got after an assailant knocked him down with a megaphone at a Central Area event this summer.

Paul Schell's eye is mostly healed, though he still complains of streaks in his vision and flashes of pain. Meanwhile, Omari Tahir-Garrett, the alleged attacker, is also running for mayor and often sits on the same stage as Schell at forums.

Personality issues

A large part of Schell's pitch is that he is "battle tested" and would be an improved mayor. But observers say he may be too late in sending that message.

"He didn't spend enough time after WTO rebuilding his political capital. So by the time Mardi Gras happened, he didn't have enough reserve in the tank," says Ron Dotzauer, a veteran political consultant.

In retrospect, some say Schell got too much blame for those events, which would have damaged any politician. Former Mayor Norm Rice recently chuckled as he said the Schell administration probably had "the worst timing in the world."

But Schell, because of his personality, has been chronically unable to shake the image that he is an unfocused bumbler.

Part of the problem, which even his advisers will privately admit, is that Schell's political tin ear has kept his administration lurching in an almost constant state of crisis, leaving him appearing constantly blindsided by events, rather than controlling them. And, they say, he never appointed a staff capable of compensating for his weak points.

He is not the most charismatic of politicians. He has a low growl of a voice and droopy eyes. He mumbles, slouches and has sometimes come across as defensive, grouchy and tired.

At times, he infuriates people when he could have avoided it.

For example, Schell angered the Boeing Machinists union in 1999 by being the only invited politician to refuse a meeting with union officials before the start of their contract negotiations. The machinists then used their clout on the King County Labor Council last month to ensure that Metropolitan King County Councilman Greg Nickels received their sole endorsement, overriding the objections of city-worker unions, who support Schell.

King County Executive Ron Sims said he too had witnessed firsthand Schell's "political naiveté."

Sims recalls wincing on a trip to Washington, D.C., when Schell, visiting with then-Vice President Al Gore to seek federal money for the region, said he was thinking about supporting Gore's rival, former U.S. Sen. Bill Bradley.

"It was a faux pas," said Sims. "At that point, I understood Paul."

Schell's relationship with Sims soured publicly last month when the county executive endorsed Nickels.

Sims angered Schell with unflattering comments about his leadership and also let it be known that the two hadn't dealt with one another directly for more than a year.

It's a feud that Schell supporters chalk up to his willingness to challenge Sims on issues such as control over drinking water and bus service.

But Schell has also had difficulties building bridges with the City Council, a body he had pledged to work closely with when elected.

While they cooperate on many issues, Schell and some of his staff have irritated council members and staff by stopping by only when they want something and sometimes not returning phone calls.

Schell has used his veto three times and each has provoked controversy, not just because they represented clashes with the council but also because of the way he went about it.

He forgot to check the appropriate box on the paperwork for his veto of a new noise ordinance. His rejection of a rewrite of the city's restrictions on youth dance clubs surprised and infuriated council members and music activists who had worked for 18 months to craft it. And his latest veto of pricey new public toilets also drew accusations that he should have tried to compromise first.

Working his way up

Paul Schell was born Paul E. S. Schlactenhaufen on Oct. 8, 1937, in Pomeroy, Iowa, the oldest of six children of a Lutheran minister in the small Corn Belt town. After graduating from high school, Schell attended Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa, where he played linebacker on the school football team.

Schell transferred to the University of Iowa and went on to law school at Columbia University in New York. It was there he met his future wife, Pam, who was a registered nurse. The two were married on the day he graduated from law school — a double celebration scheduled so his father would have to pay for only one plane ticket.

Schell landed a position at a prestigious Wall Street law firm, where he specialized in corporate finance. It was then that "Schlactenhaufen" became "Schell," a truncation Schell says was practical, not political. The longer name wouldn't fit on computer punch cards used in those days, he says.

Having gotten a taste of the Northwest as a summer law clerk in Portland, Schell wanted to settle here. In 1967, Paul and Pam Schell moved to Seattle so he could take a job with the Perkins Coie law firm. A few years later he left to form his own small law partnership.

Almost immediately, Schell fell in with a crowd of young and educated idealists bent on transforming Seattle, backing new blood on the City Council as well as changes in the city's arts and skyline. He rallied support for Mayor Wes Uhlman's re-election bid, but then clashed with Uhlman on a plan to redevelop the Pike Place Market. Uhlman wound up hiring the energetic Schell as director of his community-development department, where he made a name for himself by pushing slow-moving bureaucrats to get neighborhood-redevelopment projects off the ground. His department also designed decorative manhole covers with maps of the city on them.

Schell decided to take the plunge and run for public office himself in 1977, vying with former television newsman Charley Royer for the mayor's office. One of the campaign's central themes became a Schell proposal for a major redevelopment of Westlake Mall, one that would create two new public squares, two theaters and a hotel. Royer derided it as too big and out of scale with downtown. He went on to beat Schell easily.

Schell retreated from politics, going on to be a developer of downtown buildings and then serving as interim dean of the UW College of Architecture and Urban Planning.

In 1989, Schell was elected a Port of Seattle commissioner and played a role in the port's major waterfront developments.

`Get people inspired'

It has been a life Schell, 63, describes as fulfilling, and he is often asked why he wants to run again. He certainly doesn't need the work.

Paul and Pam Schell live in a one-bedroom condominium overlooking the Seattle waterfront, a tasteful home decorated with Native American art and Dale Chihuly originals. They have a grown daughter, who lives in Edmonds.

They also own a bed-and-breakfast resort on Whidbey Island and rent a garden apartment in Vence, France. Their net worth has been estimated at $5 million.

Yet Schell says it's never been about money. His campaign, with its goofy newspaper ads and a recent mailer showing him playing with Woodland Park Zoo's new baby elephant, is an effort to get people to lighten up and stop dwelling on bad news.

"My job on the campaign is to go out and get people inspired again," Schell says. "I want to be mayor of a city where people have a positive feeling and work together to solve our problems. If people want to focus on all that has gone wrong and say `woe is me,' I'm not the right mayor for them."

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