Assured and comfortable with himself, Seattle Mayor Norm Rice projects a relaxed, warm manner and an easy sense of humor.
His genuineness refreshes. Greeted on the street by a supporter he doesn’t know, Rice asks her name, rather than pretend to know it or blowing by in a cloud of bombast.
After nearly 20 years in public office, Rice, 54, knows who he is and is up front about his vision. He stands up for spending money on welfare for the jobless and protecting the environment. He doesn’t fuzz his commitment to gay rights.
He says he would sign a bill legalizing gay marriage, backs gay adoption, and would amend the state’s civil rights law to protect gay people against discrimination.
Meeting with Pierce County union leaders, Rice unequivocally opposes privatizing government services or contracting them out. “The private sector doesn’t do it better. It can be equal, but it doesn’t do it better.”
On the combustible subject of taxes, Rice is equally up front. He says the gas tax should be raised and its application expanded to build not only roads, but alternatives, like rail.
He’s opposed to rolling back the business and occupation tax, out of concern over cutbacks in federal money.
Rice supports some tax breaks, but says they should be targeted to create jobs, or give more small businesses a break from paying the business and occupation tax.
Education is first priority
He says education is his first priority. It was his salvation. His mother cleaned other people’s houses. His father worked as a postman and ran a small restaurant.
Raised in Denver, Rice flunked out of the University of Colorado at 18. He stayed out of school five years, reading meters, working as a hospital orderly and at other jobs until realizing he needed a degree to get somewhere.
He came to Seattle to visit a relative at age 25 and started over, earning his bachelor and master’s degrees at the University of Washington.
Rice was elected to the Seattle City Council in 1978 and to the mayor’s office in 1989.
Rice doesn’t describe himself as a technical expert or administrative whiz. As governor, he wants to offer leadership and bring people together from the bully pulpit of the governor’s office.
“You can hire someone to write a bill or a budget, but you elect leaders.”
Critics say nice guy may finish last
Critics describe him as Mayor Nice, and some say he takes the chairman of the board approach to governing too far, distancing himself from the day-to-day workings of city government to the point of being disengaged.
“He seems to be very, very detached from the daily occurrences in the city,” said Cynthia Sullivan, a Democratic member of the King County Council whose district includes Seattle. “He’s more reactive than proactive.”
Sullivan said Rice doesn’t have intimate knowledge of Olympia to leverage the Legislature, or the bent of an administrator who sweats the details of governing.
“I want to know why he is running for governor. This is not his race. He doesn’t know the statewide issues and he doesn’t know the Legislature,” Sullivan said.
Tina Podlodowski, a Democrat on the Seattle City Council, said Rice can be too slow to cut the rope on people who aren’t performing.
“He gives people the benefit of the doubt too many times. Where some managers would say two strikes and you’re out, he’d say three.”
But Podlodowski, a former Microsoft executive, praised Rice’s style of leadership as that of a corporation CEO. “He knows when to be a great spokesman and bring leadership to issues. But he doesn’t try to do all the work himself. He hires good people to do it.”
Rice earns high marks for working to pump up the city’s business community, creating jobs and revitalizing the downtown.
Bob Watt, president of the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce, said when the Frederick & Nelson department store closed downtown, Rice went to work.
He put together a combination of incentives, from a low-interest loan to changes in parking and street traffic patterns to attract new investment.
Now Nordstrom is planning a flagship store and national headquarters, and the block is a magnet for new businesses.
“He is very good at problem solving,” said Watt, who also served five years as Rice’s deputy mayor.
He and others praised Rice for understanding the value of a vibrant downtown and economic growth and taking steps to nurture it.
The city is frequently listed as one of nation’s top places to live or do business.
Paige Miller, a Seattle port commissioner, remembered Rice traveling with her to China to cement relations with a shipping company, and his support to double another major shipper’s business, generating 1,500 jobs.
Also willing to take political risk, Rice stepped forward to support a controversial new, third runway at Sea-Tac International Airport to spur economic growth. “He stood up for the third runway when my neighborhood paper called it a third rail,” Miller said.
Took on talk radio
One of Rice’s campaign themes is standing up for convictions and taking the high road. He can rightly claim to have done so himself when confronted by baseless rumors that he had been caught in a homosexual tryst by his wife.
The rumors were aired during a statewide talk radio program last spring.
The safe thing to do, according to some, would have been to ignore the rumor, hoping it would go away, rather than give it wider exposure by confronting the source, a popular talk radio host.
Instead Rice surrounded himself with his family and area clergy and called a news conference, denouncing the rumor and “hate talk” radio, winning national publicity and positive reactions that still reverberate.
Searching for common ground
He has a knack for bringing people together to find solutions. When first elected mayor, Rice called an education summit. That puzzled some, because the mayor, like the governor, has no day-to-day responsibility for the public schools.
About 2,000 people turned out to meet at more than 40 locations throughout the city, and a multimillion dollar effort was born to boost early childhood education and readiness to learn programs.
The bully pulpit approach doesn’t always work for Rice. The Seattle Commons, a massive park planned for downtown, bombed twice at the ballot, despite Rice’s avid support. And Rice remembers an anti-crime initiative called Weed and Seed that antagonized entire neighborhoods as a failure.
Lack of communication was the problem, Rice said, and he believes it’s usually at the root of conflict and screw-ups. Listening to all sides and bringing people together is the key to success in his view. It’s a first instinct for him, learned as a child, Rice said.
“It’s the blessing of the youngest child. I was always the one surveying the attitudes in the house. I was the peacemaker, the compromiser, the guy who can make things right. It’s a craft.”
As mayor, he’s made town meetings and walking tours of the city a priority, to stake out listening posts. As governor, Rice promises to work with people with very different convictions to forge solutions. While some prefer a more headcracking style, the Rice approach may be catching on.
At a recent Rice fund-raiser at her Tacoma home overlooking Puget Sound, Linda Bemiller uncorked some Washington chardonnay while her Dalmatian Dottie mingled with the string quartet on the porch and guests paying $50 to $100 a ticket.
“I think he’s a consensus builder,” Bemiller said as Rice worked the room. “In today’s political climate that’s critical. In order to move forward we need someone who can build bridges.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: NORM RICE (D) Resume: Age 54. … Bachelor’s degree in communications, master’s in public administration, University of Washington. … Served 11 years on Seattle City Council before being elected Seattle mayor in 1989. … Previously worked as writer and editor for KOMO-TV, reporter for KIXI radio, manager of corporate contributions and social policy for Rainier National Bank, director of government services for the Puget Sound Council of Governments, assistant director of Seattle Urban League. … President of U.S. Conference of Mayors since June 1995. … Named last month as one of the top 10 rising Democratic stars in the country by Time magazine. … Born in Denver, moved to Seattle in 1968. Married, one son. Finances: Has $38,045 on hand, according to Aug. 27 report to the state Public Disclosure Commission. Raised about a quarter of his money from outof-state political contacts Rice made as president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. Why he’s running: “I want to help the people of Washington state build a better future.” What he’ll do first: “I will make education our state’s number one priority.”