Two weeks after Mayor Greg Nickels, a two-term incumbent, lost his bid for reelection and ended a lifetime in politics, the reasons for his failure have become conventional wisdom: He lost because of his ham-handed handling of last December's snowstorm, his support for a $930 million tunnel to replace the viaduct, and his bullying management style.
All true. But Nickels's approval ratings were in the toilet long before the streets looked like crap. Anyone professing shock at the outcome—not to mention those in the mayor's own camp who are presumably paid to predict such things—missed obvious signs of his vulnerability going back at least a year.
In South Seattle, lots of people could have told you he was on shaky ground.
When kids as young as 14 were being gunned down in the streets there, Nickels said the city had no problem with youth violence. Then he said the news media had invented the problem. Then, with an election looming and more teens getting shot each week, the mayor unveiled a $9 million initiative to prevent a problem he'd insisted did not really exist.
"Nobody believes in the plan," said Dawn Mason, a former state legislator and community leader who regularly holds meet-and-greet events attracting hundreds of people to her Hillman City home. After decades in local politics, Mason has become something of a South Seattle doyenne—enough so that Joe Mallahan twice stopped by her backyard fish fries while campaigning. He won Mason's vote and her considerable influence. Nickels, meanwhile, earned only her disgust.
Kids were getting shot, but Nickels did not show up at their funerals or the community marches that followed. (He said he did not want to be seen as grandstanding.) Meanwhile, in a politically tone-deaf move, he was touting his ability to fill a proposed $200 million city jail.
"He is not connected with the community or with those who are really doing the work to help kids," said Mason, on her way to speak at a March for Youth rally Sunday in the Central District. "I think it backfired on him. All of that stuff was resonating, and those are the conversations people were having. All of my fish-fry friends voted, and they did not vote for Greg Nickels."
For Mason, Nickels's purported interest in preventing youth violence smacked of insincerity. He made no public statement after De'Che Morrison, 14, bled to death behind a car after being shot in January 2008. Nor did he say much after Allen Joplin, 17, was shot and killed at a party that same month; or after Perry Henderson, 18, was fatally shot one evening a few weeks later; or after Pierre "Pete" Lapoint, 16, was gunned down that summer walking along Rainier Avenue South. In September, more than nine months after youth violence began making headlines, Nickels unveiled his multimillion-dollar plan to combat the problem, though it wouldn't get under way until more meetings and arrangements had been made. Quincy Coleman, 15, was killed outside Garfield High School a few weeks later. South Seattle residents were screaming that their mayor cared only for downtown developers, that black boys getting killed simply didn't rate.
Did youth violence lose Nickels the election? That's probably going too far. But it did contribute to a general sense that the city wasn't running as well as it should. Even those who have long supported the mayor admit that this summer—with a brazen daytime shooting outside of juvenile detention, teens hit by bullets in South Seattle, gunfire at the city-boosting Torchlight Parade, and a youth murder in Leschi—has been the hottest for street crime in a long while. Further, between January and June, the number of assault calls involving guns jumped 58 percent over the same period last year.
"I don't think it had anything to do with him losing the election," said James Kelly, president of the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle and a point man for Nickels's youth-violence initiative. He attributes the mayor's loss to the snowstorm-tunnel-recession triad. Still, he allowed, "People are worried about the shootings."
On internet bulletin boards, posters repeatedly rip Nickels for his flaccid response to crime.
"Dear Greg," wrote one on SeattlePI.com, "What low crime rate?? Tell that to the residents of South Park, the family of the young storekeeper in Ballard, or the families of all the young men shot in Rainier Valley this year. Get out of your limo and do something about the gang violence, drunk houses, and rampant drug use in our neighborhoods. We need proactive leadership, not reactive."
Blithely, the mayor keeps touting statistics showing that his city is safer than ever. But South Seattle resident Tom Acker isn't buying it. He filed a blizzard of public-records requests with the police department and found that certain areas—the South End, in particular—suffered a dramatic spike in homicides, assaults, and burglaries through 2008.
The numbers validated Acker's less-than-secure feeling, one echoed by the Seattle Police Officers Guild after a patrolman waited almost 10 minutes for backup last summer while holding a suspect at gunpoint. "An eternity," in the words of guild president Rich O'Neill.
So while crime was merely part of the background din drowning out Nickels's reelection bid, districts that might have carried him by a landslide ended up much closer. "I was surprised that 75 percent of the voting population did not vote for Nickels," Acker said. "But I was not surprised that he lost."