Greg "Hoss" Nickels has two goals for 2001: Lose 55 pounds and become mayor of Seattle. To meet goal number one, the West Seattle native doesn't eat starch and rides the treadmill in his bedroom every night. To meet goal number two, Nickels has raised about $75,000 and uses the word "neighborhoods"--constantly. Nickels used the word no less than once every two minutes during an hour-long Stranger interview at Cafe Septieme last week. "The only way you make [it] work is by investing in the neighborhoods, asking those neighborhoods what is it about your neighborhood that's special... and the neighborhood plans were exactly that process."

Well, the guy's on message.

Nickels, 45, is the lead Democrat on the King County Council, where he represents West Seattle, White Center, Burien, and Vashon Island. He was elected to the council in 1987 when he was 32 years old, making Nickels the youngest person ever elected to the county council. Prior to winning that job, Nickels spent eight years working as a legislative aide to then-Seattle City Council Member Norm Rice. Nickels ran for mayor in 1997, but narrowly lost in the primary to fellow West Seattleite (and political enemy) Charlie Chong.

Nickels is a square. He married his college sweetheart Sharon, thinks video games are corrupting our youth (he has two kids), and prefers water to beer on poker nights. But Nickels is a solid Democrat, consistently pushing the Republican-controlled King County Council to do the right things. He recently won a fight to increase the number of methadone clinics, and battled to up the pay for county child care workers by $1 an hour. He fought to put limits on growth by initiating the open space ballot measure in '89. He also wants to re-prioritize the war on crime, putting the focus on prevention rather than jails. In 1992, for example, he was on the losing end of a 9-2 vote--coming out against the $368 million Regional Justice Center in Kent. Finally, Nickels serves as chair of the King County Board of Health where, in addition to pushing the video game thing, he won a fight to outlaw outdoor tobacco ads.

There are, of course, some serious bloopers on Nickels' record. He voted for the $517 million Safeco field, and he's the chair of Sound Transit's finance committee--you know, the committee that managed to let the wayward agency come in $1.1 billion over budget on its cockamamie light rail project.

So, in this year's mayoral race, it looks like we've got an ambitious white guy Democrat who supports light rail (again, Nickels sits on Sound Transit's board) running against incumbent Paul Schell--an ambitious white guy Democrat who supports light rail (Schell's on the Sound Transit Board too!) So what's the difference between these two ambitious white guys? The answer is that Nickels seems to have a pulse.

First of all, Nickels says he's willing to piss people off to do the job--and piss them off on purpose. "If you do the job right, over time, you're going to piss a lot of people off. To move the city forward you're going to have to take action, and that inevitably is going to piss people off." (Nickels slights Schell for having the "gift" of pissing people off by accident.)

Asked what policies he would pursue that would actually stir things up, Nickels had two specifics. First, he says he's willing to go the mat for the increasingly besieged Sound Transit--something he accuses Schell of being wishy-washy on. "It's not [Schell's] idea," observes Nickels. "I don't think he's got a strong feeling that as mayor he's got to make sure that it's built and it's built right. Frankly, I think if he did, we would have avoided a lot of the problems of the last several months." Nickels then mocks the mayor: "He's gone back and forth on what his position is. 'Yes, I want it down Rainier Valley. ...No, I want it down Duwamish Valley. ...Got to get to Northgate... got to get started... got to rethink it.'"

"I've been involved with this thing for 15 years," Nickels says, differentiating himself from Schell, "from the day we went to the ballot in 1988 with an advisory question. And I will see this through to the end. And I think that's very different from where Paul is."

Secondly, Nickels seems prepared to fight for the neighborhoods. "Schell is a developer by training and inclination. He wants to build big things, and that's the legacy he wants to leave. But thousands of people helped write neighborhood plans, and I think that should be the blueprint for how [the city will] spend money. I love going downtown, it's a vibrant healthy place, but I would have spent the same energy in the neighborhoods. I think it's time for a mayor to really spend time fighting for the neighborhoods."

To further empower neighborhoods, Nickels says he supports district elections for city council. "It's not like fighting for a neighborhood is a bad thing," he says, dismissing critics of districting who fear neighborhood-versus-neighborhood Balkanization.

Nickels also supports the monorail (he tried to funnel $50,000 to the Elevated Transportation Company before the city council killed it last summer). "I would have been supportive of the monorail rather than trying to do it in during the last three years. The monorail was on the ballot the same time the mayor's office was. By now you should have a plan going to the voters, rather than just starting out again." (By contrast, Schell had the temerity to qualify his support of the voter-approved monorail in his January 29 State of the City speech, adding the word "perhaps" before saying he would include monorails in his transit plan.)

Nickels' passion for governance seems like an appealing antidote to Paul Schell's malaise. Nickels talks tough about re-prioritizing the city budget to highlight services. For example, he thinks that asking voters to pass last year's $198.2 million parks levy that included $21.9 million for maintenance--something the city should already be doing--is symbolic of the city's weird priorities. "At the end of my time as mayor," he says, "there will be more street cleaners and more parks maintenance workers, and fewer folks downtown in the administrative areas."

If Nickels is serious about rolling up his sleeves and upping the octane level of mayor's office, it will be a needed relief from unconvincing Mayor Schell. Last week, in his doddering State of the City speech, Schell did little more than recite inspirational slogans from his personal stationery: "Imagine what we can do together."

josh@thestranger.com