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Wednesday, September 19, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Events, bad timing undo Schell

Seattle Times staff reporters

Bad news hit Seattle again last night in the form of Boeing's announcement of massive layoffs. But this time, it probably didn't dominate Mayor Paul Schell's day.

He had his own problems. By late last night, voters were turning him out of office before he was ready to go, and by this morning he had conceded defeat in the primary election to Metropolitan King County Council member Greg Nickels and Seattle City Attorney Mark Sidran, who will both advance to the Nov. 6 general election.

Much of Schell's political demise can be traced to a string of events that would have sorely tested any mayor: the World Trade Organization turmoil, Mardi Gras chaos, Boeing's flight to Chicago.

"Mayor Schell had an excellent vision for Seattle," said King County Executive Ron Sims, who backed Greg Nickels for mayor. "You have to give him credit. But you have to be able to control the bureaucracy. WTO and Mardi Gras were defining issues. People felt like things got out of control."

Schell, 63, has a lengthy résumé in the public and private sectors. He worked for former Mayor Wes Uhlman as director of community development before losing a 1977 mayoral bid. He went on to develop downtown buildings, serve as dean of architecture and urban planning at the University of Washington and as a Port of Seattle commissioner.

Four years ago, Schell and Seattle looked as if they had it made.

He soundly beat former City Councilman Charlie Chong in the mayor's race and took the helm of a city with a robust economy. That meant plenty of tax revenue to pursue his city-building vision.

As promised, Schell tripled the neighborhood matching-grants program. He increased spending for street repairs and the homeless. He induced the City Council to start building a new City Hall and Justice Center.

He also successfully urged voters to approve a $196 million bond to rebuild or replace the Seattle Central Library and two dozen branches, along with separate issues to renovate the Opera House, build new community centers and parks and expand the Woodland Park Zoo.

But the big-profile events such as the WTO riots and Boeing's departure shook Seattle's image and Schell's political fortunes.

Former Mayor Norm Rice said recently the Schell administration probably had "the worst timing in the world."

Schell's political slide began in November 1999, when WTO leaders came to town for an event that was supposed to validate Seattle's status as a world-class city.

On the eve of the meetings, Schell spoke warmly of the prospect of Seattle hosting a "global conversation." Instead, the city got a brawl.

Police were overwhelmed by thousands of protesters who locked arms and refused to let delegates pass. Schell, under pressure from local and national officials, ordered downtown closed, and police chased protesters with tear gas. Schell's performance was roundly panned. Police Chief Norm Stamper resigned, and the head of a state police organization called for Schell to follow suit.

The mayor quickly found himself the target of more abuse when on Dec. 31, 1999, he canceled a Seattle Center celebration of the millennium, acting on information that terrorists had been arrested at the Canadian border.

Those terrorists were later linked to Islamic extremist Osama bin Laden, and Schell has received numerous apologies since last week's terrorist attacks in New York City and near Washington, D.C., proved just how serious such threats are.

Schell seemed to be regaining his stride by the end of last year, hiring a well-regarded new police chief in Gil Kerlikowske and supporting a successful $198 million parks levy. Then in February, Mardi Gras rioting in Pioneer Square claimed the life of a 20-year-old man while police didn't move in until too late. To make matters worse, it all happened while Schell slept at home.

Schell's response struck critics as limp. He railed that it was "not Seattle" to riot. He appointed three task forces and told them not to discuss the aspect of Mardi Gras that people were the most furious about — that police did not break up the crowd sooner.

Still, Schell told supporters last night, he was proud of his record.

"All of these challenged us, and in every case I think our city has met that challenge," he said.

However, City Councilman Nick Licata perceived "a sense of drifting" in Schell's tenure, even though most Seattleites shared his values.

He said Schell deserved a lot more credit than he got, but "he ended up being his own worst ally."

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