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Peddling Public Policy to the People

This Article is By: Civic Strategies    On  Jul. - 16, 2006

Civic government - a view from Seattle...

-- Kingston Electors


The "It" Mayor

Peddling Public Policy to the People

Civic Strategies 

Some politicians have "it," and some don't. What's "it"? That rare ability to connect with the voters on the one hand and deal shrewdly with political foes and allies on the other — the wholesale and retail ends of politics, if you will. Well, here's a tip of the hat to Greg Nickels, mayor of Seattle, who may be the best example of the "it" mayor around today.

Take our word for this, Nickels manages the retail end of politics pretty well. That is, he gets what he needs from a fairly independent city council. So let's look at the wholesale end, the way Nickels connects with the public, which is where he truly shines.

Selling the voters on new ideas is a critical part of a mayor's job in Seattle because, like many West Coast cities, cities have to take so many things to referendums, including fairly routine transportation improvements. Seattle's a pretty liberal place, so persuading voters to tax themselves for urban improvements isn't an impossible task. Still, it's hard to get people revved up about a bond issue to install pedestrian signals, resurface streets, bolster bridges and replace street signs, as Nickels is proposing for this year's fall elections.

So here's what Mayor Wholesale did: He sponsored a public contest. In June, he asked voters to send him their nominations for the worst traffic problems in Seattle — the bumpiest roads, the most irksome delays, the most dangerous bike routes, whatever. From the nominations, he said, he would create a "Dirty Dozen" list that would receive "very high priority" for repair.

Nickels was careful not to say that the Dirty Dozen would be included in his $1.8 billion transportation request. That package of improvements is largely set, and it would look like pandering if the mayor put a portion of it up for a straw vote. Nickels' intent was to shine a light on the city's backlog of transportation needs, generate some publicity for his upcoming referendum and show the voters how such things connected with their everyday lives.

So how did the contest turn out? More than 700 people wrote or e-mailed the mayor with their peeves. (Of the messages, 50 named a single street, North 45th Street in the Wallingford neighborhood. One complained that the pavement there was so rutted, it looked like "waves in the street.") The mayor had a chance to unveil his Dirty Dozen at a press conference (North 45th Street was at the top) and talk at length about the need to repair all of Seattle's transportation infrastructure. Referring to Seattle's growing tourist appeal, Nickels told reporters, "you can't have a world-class destination with a second-class transportation system."

This isn't the only example of Nickels' flair for framing issues. He's promoting an effort to tear down downtown's hideous Alaskan Way elevated highway and replace it with a buried highway. Nickels' name for the Alaskan Way: the "Big Ugly." (For a glimpse of Nickels' marketing genius, visit his web page by clicking here. You'll find his Dirty Dozen list and a hilarious video he sponsored about the Big Ugly.)

Footnote: So what happened to the Dirty Dozen list? Lo and behold, the mayor found enough money in the existing budget to fix them all. The biggest chunk of loose change, $7 million, will go to taking the waves out of North 45th Street.