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Saturday, November 17, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Nickels gets first taste of new life as mayor

Seattle Times staff reporter

After a career of politics, 18 months running for mayor and two weeks waiting for a final vote tally in the Seattle mayor's race, Greg Nickels yesterday got to savor his victory over Mark Sidran and start living his lifelong dream of a prominent role in local politics.

The day started when Mayor Paul Schell's police bodyguard showed up to escort Nickels on his first full day as mayor-elect and to tell him how his life would begin to change.

"They call it transition for a reason," Nickels said. "I'm going to have to get used to some things I haven't experienced before."

Things will also be different for some city officials.

"I'm going to make more changes in the first week than Paul (Schell) made in his entire term," Nickels told reporters about his plan to replace department heads and other top city officials.

One of the first, and most important, decisions Nickels will make is whether to keep Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske.

Nickels has hinted in the campaign that he might fire Kerlikowske, whom Schell hired last year. Nickels was critical of how Kerlikowske handled the Mardi Gras riots that resulted in the beating death of one man.

Nickels and Kerlikowske talked yesterday morning and plan to meet Tuesday.

"I look forward to sharing with him the priorities I have as the next mayor and seeing how that matches up with some of the things he has done and is planning to do," Nickels said.

Nickels said he thought Kerlikowske had made some good hires for top police officials and congratulated the chief for doing a "very candid assessment" of the Mardi Gras riots.

Nickels didn't say when he'd make a decision about Kerlikowske's future, but indicated it would be one of the first he makes.

"I think the relationship between the police chief and the mayor is perhaps the most important relationship in city government," he said.

At a news conference with supporters at the Carpenters' Hall, Nickels said he would appoint a transition team next week to begin helping him decide whom to hire and fire and what to do about the city's budget plans for the coming year.

He said his transition plans didn't mean everyone would go. With a career in local government, he says he respects institutional knowledge.

"But there is a time and place for that new idea, new energy, creative thinking, and it's at the beginning of a new mayor's term I believe," he said.

He also reiterated his support for building a light-rail system and said as mayor he would make sure ground was broken on the line by July 2002 and that it runs to the airport, addressing a key criticism of Sidran's during the campaign.

Advice for new mayor

Nickels led after the Nov. 6 election but as absentee ballots were counted Sidran was closing the gap. But a count Thursday gave Nickels a wide enough margin that Sidran conceded and Nickels was finally able to declare victory.

"I'm also very mindful that this was a close race," Nickels told supporters. "I don't know if you noticed that," he joked.

Nickels has just over 50.1 percent of the vote, to Sidran's 48.4, with the rest going to write in candidates.

"For those folks who voted for Mark Sidran and for those folks for whom Paul Schell was their first choice in the primary, I want to say I am going to work hard every day to earn your support. I will be a mayor for all the people of Seattle, not just those who voted for me," Nickels said.

Challenges of slim majority

While taking office on the slimmest of majorities poses challenges, Nickels' supporters yesterday said in interviews it should not lead him to change any positions from his campaign.

"He should be true to the things he ran on, improving the quality of life in an open process," said City Councilman Nick Licata, who endorsed Nickels in the final week of the campaign.

Licata said Nickels should stick to his promises to maintain what he said was Seattle's traditionally open, inclusive and sometimes lengthy process before making major decisions.

"Mark tried to make that an issue, but Greg won," Licata said. "I don't think he should back down at all."

James Kelly, president of the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle, said Nickels shouldn't deviate from what he ran on but needed to "talk about how he's going to reach out to the 49 percent that didn't vote for him."

The close finish also makes it even more important, Kelly said, for Nickels to have a strong transition effort.

Not the usual crowd

Joining Nickels for his news conference were representatives of the labor unions, environmentalists, state Democratic Party and others that backed him.

Democratic Party Chairman Paul Berendt said the crowd was different from ones that usually surround new Seattle mayors.

While Nickels has the city's liberal power structure firmly in his camp, Sidran attracted a lot of the business interests, attorneys and others that Berendt said were the usual power brokers.

"The powerful people in Seattle had a lot of influence choosing Schell and have been comfortable with a number of mayors we've had," Berendt said.

"There is a kind of a cadre of people who sit out there and say, 'The city should do this or that,' but they don't go out and get their hands dirty doing something about it."

David Postman can be reached at 360-943-9882 or at dpostman@seattletimes.com.

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