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Wednesday, August 28, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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'Shark' Tim Ceis keeps grip on power of mayor's office

Seattle Times staff reporter

Perhaps nothing sums up the reputation of Seattle Deputy Mayor Tim Ceis better than the tongue-in-cheek proclamation issued last year by King County Executive Ron Sims to honor his departing chief of staff.

Sims declared Dec. 13, 2001, the "Tim Ceis Day of Caring and Sharing" and praised his "quiet understanding, reasoning and sensitivity in an effort to build consensus and unity ... much like a warm and fuzzy teddy bear."

That description got a lot of chuckles at the county courthouse, where Ceis was known as more tiger than teddy.

Across the street at City Hall, few are laughing. Except maybe Ceis, who seems to enjoy his reputation as Seattle's chief political operator.

As Mayor Greg Nickels' right-hand man, Ceis (pronounced "cease") brings a sense of hardball politics to a city government that had grown accustomed to the whiffle variety.

He has engineered the Nickels administration's clampdown on the city bureaucracy, recapturing authority many say had eroded from the mayor's office over the past decade.

Ceis' political talents have landed him a succession of jobs with some of the state's top elected officials. But his blunt, at times combative style has left a trail of critics who say he's more interested in grubbing for power than good public policy.

Ceis plays on his image, even embracing his nickname "the Shark," by adorning his office with pictures of the ocean predator. He flashes a smile when asked why he infuriates some people.

"I think I have a pretty good record of getting my way," Ceis said.

'The Seattle Way'

The Nickels administration's early aggressiveness has shocked some who'd heard the mayor's campaign rhetoric. Running against tough-talking Mark Sidran, Nickels played the nice guy who would do things "the Seattle Way."

After taking office, Nickels tapped Ceis as deputy mayor and the soft image dissipated. He sent popular Department of Neighborhoods Director Jim Diers packing, threatened retaliation for a City Council cut of the mayor's office budget, and ordered city bureaucrats to quit taking orders from council members.

"This isn't 'the Seattle Way,' this is 'my way or the highway,' " fumed Councilwoman Jan Drago.

Like many Nickels critics, Drago lays much of the blame at Ceis' feet. "Tim Ceis is running the city. You think Greg Nickels is making these decisions?" she said.

But while most observers agree Ceis is largely responsible for the tenor of the new administration, some say no one should be surprised — Nickels and Ceis go way back. The fact that Nickels planned to appoint him deputy mayor was probably the worst-kept secret in town last winter.

"Tim and I have worked together over 15 years, and I have total confidence in his judgment and his ability to get things done," Nickels said.

Nickels meets Ceis

Nickels even knows a bit about how Ceis' adversaries feel.

The first time the two crossed paths in 1985, Ceis trounced his future boss in a minor political skirmish.

Nickels had been lining up an endorsement from 34th District Democrats for his political mentor, Norm Rice, then a city councilman mounting an underdog campaign for mayor against incumbent Charles Royer.

To this day, Nickels swears he had the votes lined up for Rice. But Ceis, who was working for the Royer campaign, stepped in and twisted some arms. The night of the endorsement vote came, and the Democrats declined to endorse anyone, denying Rice a small political victory. "Ceis maneuvered and just ate us for lunch," Nickels recalled, laughing.

Two years later, Nickels recruited Ceis to run his campaign for the Metropolitan King County Council. Together, they toppled longtime power broker R.R. "Bob" Greive in the Democratic primary. Nickels, 32, became the youngest person elected to the County Council.

Up to that time, politics had been a sideline for Ceis, who had been running his family's construction firm. But with the business faltering, Ceis took Nickels up on his offer to become his legislative aide after the election. It was the start of a long relationship, and both have been in government ever since.

Liberal upbringing

Born Timothy Yorke Ceis in September 1955, Ceis was steeped in the good and bad of politics from an early age as part of a prominent West Seattle family.

His mother, Margaret Ceis, has been a crusader for a variety of civil-rights and liberal political causes.

His father, Philip Ceis, was a construction contractor dragged into the Red Scare for his political beliefs. In 1954, when the House Un-American Activities Committee held hearings in Seattle, Philip Ceis was subpoenaed and grilled on his membership in the Communist Party a decade earlier.

Unlike some witnesses, Philip Ceis was unapologetic for his political affiliations and declined to name other ex-Communists, angering congressional leaders on the panel.

The publicity haunted the Ceis family for years. Potential construction clients shunned them, saying the FBI had been around asking questions, Margaret Ceis recalled. As a boy, Tim Ceis wasn't invited to play at the homes of some disapproving neighbors.

Ceis graduated from West Seattle High School in 1973 and attended the University of Washington, but school didn't hold his interest. He dropped out and worked for his father's construction company, eventually taking it over. He still lives in West Seattle, just blocks from his mother. (Philip Ceis died in 1996.)

In 1999, he married Karen Reed, former assistant city manager for Bellevue. Nickels was Ceis' best man. (Reed, whose family is fond of nicknames, gave Ceis his "Shark" moniker.) The marriage was the third for Ceis. He has one daughter from his second marriage, which ended in divorce in 1994.

Playing hardball

Ceis, 46, is not particularly ideological. He got into politics because he's good at it — though like most Seattle politicians he counts himself a liberal Democrat.

He believes in a strong mayor's office, demanding total accountability from city departments. That's only fair, Ceis says, since the mayor will be ultimately accountable for how city employees perform.

"I recognize some people are upset with the way things are changing, but this is the way the mayor has told me he wants the government to work here," Ceis said.

To hear Ceis tell it, there is no reason for anyone to get too upset. But his critics in county and city government tell a different story.

Ceis' method, they say, is to control and distort information, freeze out legislators and route all political credit to his boss. "He turns up the dial on conflict," said King County Councilman Rob McKenna, R-Bellevue.

McKenna argues that Ceis' style makes for inefficient government, because legislators spend all their time and energy trying to pierce a fog of misinformation. McKenna said when Ceis ran county government under Sims, he had trouble prying basic data from county staff, such as an accurate tally of county employees.

"His style is hardball politics and arm-twisting," said lobbyist Jamie Durkan, who was on the receiving end of a recent Ceis tirade.

One of Durkan's clients, the Tukwila City Council, ran afoul of the Nickels administration and other Sound Transit backers in June with a surprise vote against the proposed light-rail route, jeopardizing the project's federal funding.

After the vote, Ceis threatened Durkan in a blustery phone conversation, telling him "you're through" in this town, according to Durkan. He added a few profanities before hanging up.

Ceis says he merely told Durkan he'd foolishly "played all his cards" on the Sound Transit issue. (The Tukwila vote did not stop federal transportation officials from releasing $50 million in funding for light rail last week.) Ceis says he holds no grudges. It was merely business.

Nevertheless, the story made the rounds in the political-gossip circuit and further cemented Ceis' bare-knuckles image, which he'd cultivated as chief of staff to Sims.

Back in 1996, when Sims succeeded Gary Locke as county executive, one of his first acts was to force Ceis out of his job as deputy county budget director.

"Tim was an effective pain in the neck," Sims said. "I just said, 'If I get to be executive, Tim Ceis won't be working in the county courthouse.' I took some delight in it at the time."

Ceis said he was puzzled — he'd never been fired before. He took a job as a top policy aide with Gov. Locke. Two years later, after seeing Ceis give an impressive presentation to a group of suburban officials, Sims decided he needed him on his side. He lured Ceis back to be county salmon czar, and eventually his chief of staff.

When Ceis accepted that position in 2000, County Council members say they felt an immediate hardening in the attitude of the executive's office.

"They don't negotiate. They use power politics first, and only when they are backed into a corner do they give up ground," said Maggi Fimia, a Democrat and former King County councilwoman from Shoreline who blames Sims and Ceis for her decision not to seek re-election.

Repeatedly, Fimia said, she'd try to set up meetings with county staff and interest groups to craft new laws, only to have people cancel at the last minute. Ceis had called them off, she said. "The message was: 'If you deal with Fimia, you don't deal with us,' " she said.

City Council members say Ceis is doing the same thing at City Hall. For example, after Sept. 11 last year, some council members wanted to conduct a review of the city's emergency preparedness.

They met with police and fire officials in December, but when they tried to set up a second meeting in January, Nickels' office ordered the departments not to cooperate, said City Councilman Jim Compton. Council members were informed that the mayor, not the council, would be the one to propose an emergency-preparedness plan.

Nickels' alter ego

For all the rancor he inspires, there are some criticisms not leveled at Ceis.

No one says he is dense or indecisive. In person, most critics agree, he comes across as a straight shooter you can make a deal with and count on to hold up his end of the bargain.

Admirers say he is doing exactly what a chief of staff ought to do: bend government to his boss' will. If he bruises a few egos along the way — well, that's just politics.

"Tim is the best there is," said county Councilman Dwight Pelz, D-Seattle. "If you are going to make things happen, sometimes you have to let people know there is a price to be paid if they haven't followed the rules."

Rollin Fatland, a veteran political consultant, adds, "I think every county executive or mayor needs someone like Tim Ceis who is tough, politically astute and wakes up every morning and says, 'How am I going to advance my boss' cause today?' "

While Nickels at times seems constitutionally averse to confrontation, Ceis has no such qualms.

"Tim is kind of his alter ego," said Durkan.

At Nickels' first staff meeting, it was Ceis, not Nickels, who delivered a speech that created a buzz in City Hall and signaled the administration's new way of doing business. He warned department directors that they were no longer allowed to craft policy at the request of City Council members and told them he expected loyalty to the mayor.

Immediately, council staffers reported problems getting information out of city offices that had previously been cooperative. Some employees describe an ongoing climate of fear at City Hall.

But maybe that's not such a bad thing, Fatland said.

"Bureaucracies, believe it or not, don't always respond unless there's a consequence for not responding," he said. "The bureaucratic posture is: 'I was here before this guy, and I'll be here when he's gone.' "

Sims agrees a touch of righteous fear can be a manager's best ally.

"If you can walk into a room and have people be afraid of you — or have a healthy respect for you — that can be an advantage," he said.

But while most observers say Ceis has helped Nickels capture the high ground in his early political skirmishes at City Hall, some say his style could bring the mayor trouble in the long run.

"We gave him a long honeymoon," said Drago, the city councilwoman. "But this administration is proving to be vindictive. I wouldn't predict a very positive reception to the mayor's proposed legislation when he has not worked with the council."

Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628 or jbrunner@seattletimes.com

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