Friday, January 30, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Nickels at mid-term: a nuts-and-bolts leader

All politicians are measured against expectations, and Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, at mid-term, has been a pleasant surprise. He is a more adept day-to-day manager of the city, a more decisive and practical leader, than anticipated.

For all his campaign talk of leading in a consensus-oriented "Seattle Way," Nickels is a tough executive able to articulate a refreshing back-to-basics and pro-business agenda.

But it's not all high-fives on the seventh floor of the shiny new City Hall. The mayor is growing into the job and has rough edges to smooth. He should, for example, improve his skills as a regional leader. He should temper a too-prevalent "my way or the highway" approach. The job description calls for a more statesmanlike tone than he has set so far.

Nickels began by promising to take care of the small steps of government. An entry appeared on his Web site early on announcing with certain breathlessness the number of potholes filled! Beginner's stuff, but he does a credible job plugging potholes and paving rutted streets, and, in the course of it, builds credibility with voters.

If predecessor Paul Schell was the dreamer with big ideas and underwhelming management skills, Nickels is the nuts-and-bolts mayor with achievable goals.

Schell presided over boom times, so he was able to ask voters to spend more for libraries, community centers and open space.

Nickels has the misfortune of managing in a down economy. No city CEO wants to stand and explain why libraries are closed at certain times, with patrons peering in the windows, but he has had to do that.

All mayors operate within the circumstances of their times in office, and Nickels cannot build big edifices as predecessors have done. He is not a visionary who looks out across Puget Sound and sees a region's broader possibilities. So he is putting his stamp on basic services, ushering through an essential fire levy and focusing on economic growth.

Most impressive have been Nickels' efforts to improve the business climate at Northgate, South Lake Union and the University District. He understands the importance of boosting residential and commercial opportunities in key neighborhoods; he understands the university's powerful role in the city's economy.

Former Mayor Norm Rice will be remembered as the mayor who turned around a declining downtown; Nickels will leave his mark on three important business districts.

At South Lake Union, he is helping to create a biotech center. In the University District, he's lifting a ban that limited expansion of the University of Washington. At Northgate, a dingy, older shopping mall will become a more exciting gathering place.

This page disagrees with Nickels on issues such as the latest housing levy, the teen dance ordinance and transportation. Nickels is a zealous supporter of Sound Transit light rail, the monorail and a streetcar the South Lake Union area doesn't need.

The disappointment comes from his inability to shore up one system before jumping feet first onto the next. Though the monorail's governance is largely separate from the mayor's office, he could use the bully pulpit and his keen political skills to assure the newest train doesn't make the mistakes Sound Transit did.

Nickels ruffled feathers when he reclaimed control of city departments; their oversight had fallen by default to City Council members during the Schell administration. Nickels was right to assert his authority, wrong in the overbearing way he went about it.

Nickels sometimes exhibits a disrespect for the legislative branch, reminiscent of partisan politics he practiced at the King County Council. That style came back to bite him at the low point of his tenure when the council refused to reconfirm City Light Superintendent Gary Zarker, a mayoral pal.

Looking forward to the next two years, the mayor should improve his conduct. He should become more sophisticated on regional transportation matters. It's not all about what Seattle needs; the challenge is to improve travel throughout the region.

When Nickels delivers his State of the City address next week, he can rightly crow about fixing the basics in Seattle and creating a renaissance of sorts in key neighborhoods.

So far, the mayor has done a solid job.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company


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