Civic government - a view from Seattle...
-- Kingston Electors
Peddling Public Policy
to the People
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
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
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