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SGN exclusive interview: Mayor Greg Nickels
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SGN exclusive interview: Mayor Greg Nickels

by Mike Andrew - SGN Staff Writer

Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels has an ambitious agenda. Nickels hopes to become only the second man in Seattle's history to win a third term as mayor. The first, and so far only mayor to do so was Charlie Royer in 1985 (Mayor 1978-1990).

When Nickels was sworn in as president of the US Conference of Mayors earlier this month, his inaugural speech featured a bold call for a "New Deal with America's cities." Among his first official acts, he presided over passage of a resolution endorsing marriage equality.

Nickels is arguably more popular with his fellow mayors than with Seattle voters. According to a KING5 poll earlier this month, Nickels leads his four competitors, with 25% saying they will vote for him, but trails "undecided" at 30%. Polling done by rival candidate Jan Drago shows Nickels in even deeper trouble.

Nickels shrugs off his poor polling numbers. "The job is all about making decisions," Nickels told SGN in an exclusive interview, "and when you make decisions, you'll alienate somebody."

"Friends come and go," he chuckles, "enemies accumulate."

"When I make decisions, I have in mind the regular working people of the community," Nickels continued. "I'm running on my record. I hope I'm reelected. I will wage an aggressive campaign."

Nickels is already waging a hard-hitting campaign. The day opponent Jan Drago let it be known she was planning to launch her candidacy, the Nickels camp announced that the mayor had received the endorsement of six powerful union locals. The next day they followed up with the endorsement of the Building Trades Council of construction unions, and the day after that with Washington Conservation Voters.

Nickels denies that he meant this string of endorsements as a pre-emptive strike against Drago's candidacy. "No, no, no," he told SGN, "they were just things happening that week."

"People make their minds up based on where they're coming from," Nickels told SGN. "I've always worked very closely with labor folks to add to the number of living wage jobs with benefits."

"Sound Transit expansion, for example, will create 65,000 jobs," he continued, noting that he is chair of the Sound Transit Board. "It will also get Seattle moving. The light rail line from downtown south will be open on July 18. I've worked on that for 25 years. In another 15 years, we will truly have a mass transit system."

"My emphasis is on getting the job done," Nickels says. As an example, he cites obtaining state money for the viaduct replacement, in spite of House Speaker Frank Chopp's longstanding opposition.

"Removing the viaduct and replacing it with the tunnel will help us move people and freight, and it will also open up our beautiful waterfront," Nickels says.

Among other accomplishments, Nickels cites public safety. "We're seeing a 40-year low in the crime rate," he says. "There were 29 homicides last year, which is down 40% from when I took office."

Nickels' public safety record is not without controversy, however. Last year he ordered a series of police sweeps of homeless encampments, which were widely protested by homeless advocates. Twenty-two prosecutions were later dropped by the City Attorney's office on the instruction of Seattle's DOT, which owned the land on which the arrests occurred.

"There were no rules as to how the city dealt with encampments," Nickels explains. "They are illegal, they are unhealthy, they are centers for significant violent crimes."

"We also opened a shelter for the people who were displaced," Nickels added. While the new shelter included only 40 beds for an estimated population of 300 people affected by the sweeps, Nickels insists that "everyone who wanted shelter space got it."

In spite of the controversy surrounding the sweeps, Nickels defends his record on homelessness. "I started the Housing First program for chronic alcoholics, people with addictions," he says. "We have 300 units now and 300 in the pipeline."

"I was the leader in the previous housing levy in 2002," Nickels continues, "and I'm working hard for this year's levy." Opponent Jan Drago, on the other hand, tried unsuccessfully to get the City Council to reduce the size of this year's housing levy.

While Nickels acknowledges the challenges of running a major city in the midst of economic crisis, he believes he's seen tougher times.

"When I took office on January 1, 2002, we were in the midst of the post-9/11 recession," he says. "We had 100,000 people unemployed. The city was unprepared. As a result we had to cut $120 million from the budget."

"I set aside a $30 million rainy day fund," he continues, "so we wouldn't be in the same situation as I was in 2002. Now, we did draw down the rainy day fund this year, and we might next year as well. Above all, we have to fund public safety and human services."

Although Nickels exudes self-confidence, he declines to predict his own reelection. "I have over 1000 donors. That's a broad base of support," he says. "But I don't take anything for granted. That's for the people to decide."

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