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Friday, January 4, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Guest columnist

Unlucky Paul Schell: accomplishments and fatal flaws

Special to The Times

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Once, as a brand new mayor of Seattle, I had an opportunity to tour Boston's new City Hall with Boston Mayor Kevin White.

"Great building," I said. "Seattle's City Hall looks like an old Holiday Inn. How did you manage to build such a nice one?"

"I didn't build it," said White. "My predecessor did. And it's one of the reasons he's not mayor anymore. It's not real safe politics to try to build one of these things."

Seattle will have a new City Hall — and a new Justice Center — thanks to the vision and political courage of now former Mayor Paul Schell. But that's not the reason he is now a former mayor. Paul is no longer mayor primarily because he had maybe the worst string of purely god-awful bad luck of any mayor in Seattle's history. And that history includes the Boeing bust, central-city riots and Vietnam protests of the late '60s and early '70s on Wes Uhlman's watch, and the Seattle General Strike of 1919 on Mayor Ole Hansen's.

Ole just gave up and left town, but Uhlman survived a recall election, got elected to a second term and used it to accomplish a great deal: rebuilding Pioneer Square, securing public funding for the arts, establishing little city halls in the neighborhoods, creating a new generation of programs for senior citizens. Uhlman survived because he was smart and he did the politics right.

Paul is smart. Maybe the smartest mayor we've ever had. But he didn't do the politics right. And that, probably more than the WTO, the Mardi Gras riots and problems with the police department, brought this mayor down.

And it's a shame. Because in his one term, Paul Schell got more done than any first-term mayor has a right to expect. The former developer not only got the new City Hall complex started, he led an impressive effort to build a new and important downtown library, rebuild the branches and renovate and build the community centers. He led the effort to fund a record $200 million in new parks, rebuilt the aging Opera House, and in a stunning victory that future generations will celebrate, preserved the 90,000 acres of the pristine Cedar River watershed.

Mayors sometimes concentrate on the built environment, possibly because it's easier to have victories there. A good mayor must be the city's chief designer and builder. But the really good mayors move beyond the hardware of the city into its soft tissue — the aspirations of people for the places in which they live, for their families. On that side of the Schell legacy ledger, look to the neighborhoods and the children.

Paul took a stalled process for developing neighborhood plans and got it done. And invested in it. He tripled the Neighborhood Matching Fund, starting or completing nearly 1,000 neighborhood projects. He created more beds and new space for the homeless, and a new Office of Housing that helped to create or preserve 10,000 units of low-income and affordable housing.

Looking to the future in urban America today means looking to the well-being of the children who live there. Paul created Project Lift-Off, a now joint Seattle-King County effort to create effective and affordable early learning and out-of-school-time opportunities for all Seattle and King County children and youth. It's an impressive and growing partnership including community and business leaders, schools, governments, private funders, parents and faith-based organizations. It's the right target, the right blend of good science, good strategy and good sense, and it's about the future.

So, the legacy of this one-term mayor will soon be quite visible in its new civic buildings and parks. But other people, children today, will see a different legacy — quality places to live higher-quality lives.

Finally, part of the Schell legacy must be in lessons learned from his defeat — lessons for the new mayor and for others who would work to improve their communities through public service.

First, politics is not dirty. It's an essential, time-honored part of serving and of governing. Some people around Paul saw politics as being below them. Not as worthy of their time or energy as good ideas. The substance is what mattered.

Well, in government, the politics is very often the substance. It's about listening carefully and communicating clearly and attending to people who must be attended. It is about explaining, in the heat and chaos and unfairness of the public forum, things that must be explained. Used well, politics is the tool that helps clear the debris from accomplishment in public life.

And if you are serious about getting things done for the city you love — and Paul and his wife, Pam, surely love this city — doing the politics right is about getting re-elected.

The new mayor has been in it long enough to understand the politics. And he is smart. He might even be lucky. Let us hope that he, like Paul, can see the future, lead us there, and put us to work for our beautiful city.

Charles Royer was Seattle's mayor for 12 years, from 1978 through 1989.

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