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Nickels, Gregory James (b. 1955)

  • By Phil Dougherty
  • Posted 10/12/2017
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 20452

Greg Nickels was the 51st mayor of Seattle, a Democrat who served two four-year terms from 2002 through 2009, following a 14-year stint on the King County Council. While he ran for mayor as one who would follow the "Seattle way" of public inclusion and consultation, Nickels went his own way while he was in office -- an approach that brought results, but that also siphoned away public support and eventually contributed to his defeat in the 2009 primary. During his first term Nickels focused on fixing the city's fire stations and potholes; his second term focused more on light rail, urban density, and combating climate change.


Gregory James Nickels was born in Chicago on August 7, 1955, to Robert Charles Nickels (1925-2007) and Kathleen McKenney Nickels (1929-2012). He was the oldest of their six children, with four brothers and a sister. The family moved to Erie, Pennsylvania, in 1956 and lived there for five years before moving to Seattle in 1961. They lived in West Seattle until 1967, then moved to Capitol Hill.

In the 1970s Robert Nickels made a complete career change when he left Boeing, passed the Washington bar, and began practicing law (he had earned a law degree back in Illinois, but never previously practiced). He founded a private, nonprofit public-defense firm that represented juveniles in trouble who did not have anyone to advocate for them. Greg Nickels later said his father's example reinforced his decision to go into politics: "That was the big lesson to me. That was 'follow your dream'" (Chan). The younger Nickels worked on Mayor Wes Uhlman's (b. 1935) reelection campaign in 1973, shortly after he graduated from high school at Seattle Preparatory School, and the following year served as an intern for U.S. Senator Warren G. Magnuson (1905-1989). He was elected president of the King County Young Democrats in 1975, and served as president of the Washington State Young Democrats from 1976 to 1978.

In early 1975, when he was 19, Nickels went to work for the City of Seattle. He worked first as a purchasing trainee, a job that lasted a little more than a year. After a hiatus in the summer and autumn of 1976 to work on Uhlman's unsuccessful campaign for governor, he returned to work in the city's Department of Community Development as a grants and contracts specialist.

County Councilman

In 1979 Nickels became a legislative assistant to Seattle City Council member (and future mayor) Norm Rice (b. 1943), a job he held for eight years. In 1987 he challenged Robert "Bob" Greive (1919-2004) in the Democratic primary for the 8th District seat on the King County Council, which included West Seattle, parts of the southern suburbs of Seattle, and Vashon and Maury islands. (He later explained that he ran for county council instead of city council because he thought the county council made wider-reaching decisions.)

Nickels seemed an unlikely candidate given his limited name recognition and experience, especially since Greive was well-known and generally well-regarded. The incumbent was a former state Senate majority leader, and he'd been on the council since 1975. However, he was also 67 years old (an age perhaps considered to be somewhat older and closer to retirement in 1987 than it is in the twenty-first century), and there were reports that he occasionally seemed confused, sometimes dozed in council meetings, and often missed votes. Liberal Democrats complained that he ignored their interests, and his generous pension benefits also became an issue. Nickels was in the right place at the right time, and picked up the support of several influential Democrats and union leaders. He won in the primary that September, and was unopposed in the general election. At age 32, he became the youngest person elected to the county council up to that time in King County's history.

Taking office in January 1988, Nickels became known for his work on transportation issues. During his first year on the council he co-sponsored a measure that led to an advisory vote on building a regional light-rail system. The vote helped win state legislation that in turn led to the formation in 1993 of a regional transit authority that later became known as Sound Transit. Nickels served as the first finance chairman of Sound Transit and later (in 2008) became chairman of its Board of Directors. As a county councilmember he was a proponent of the restoration of Seattle's Union Station, which became Sound Transit's headquarters. He was also an open-space advocate during these years and promoted the 1989 Open Space bond measure protecting open spaces in the county from overdevelopment. He also supported the move to build Safeco Field and keep the Seattle Mariners in Seattle.

Nickels won reelection to the county council in 1991, 1995, and 1999, but lost in a run for county executive in 1993. In 1997 he ran in the primary for Seattle mayor, but even with Mayor Rice's endorsement, lost to Paul Schell (1937-2014), who went on to win the office, and Charlie Chong (1926-2007). Not dissuaded by the defeat, he ran again in 2001.

The 2001 Mayoral Election

Despite Nickels's years of experience in Seattle politics he was plagued by a lack of name recognition outside of West Seattle, even though The Seattle Times pointed out in a 2001 article that he had represented Seattle voters longer than any of his 11 opponents in the primary that year, including his two main opponents, Mayor Schell and City Attorney Mark Sidran (b. 1951). But he again was in the right place at the right time. Schell, who had beaten Nickels in 1997, had fallen from grace after the 1999 World Trade Organization (WTO) protests in downtown Seattle, the Fat Tuesday riots in 2001, and the move of Boeing's headquarters to Chicago that same year. He became the first incumbent mayor to lose in a primary in more than 60 years when both Sidran and Nickels outpolled him (and nine other candidates) in the September 2001 primary.

During the general-election campaign that followed, Sidran amassed a two-to-one funding advantage and a large majority of press endorsements. He campaigned as the law-and-order candidate, waging an aggressive campaign emphasizing his work (which was frequently controversial) as Seattle City Attorney. He also tied Nickels to Sound Transit's failure to break ground for light rail, despite voters having approved taxes for a 19-mile system in a 1996 bond measure. Nickels campaigned as the nice candidate, the one who could best uphold what he called the Seattle way of public consultation and inclusion. His detractors claimed he was just another left-wing politically correct liberal, and one without much charisma, who, as state Republican chairman Chris Vance (b. 1962) put it, "would be a return to the bland left-wing Seattle correctness" (Gilmore). Others wondered how well Nickels's years of county experience would translate into managing a city such as Seattle.

They would find out. Sidran benefitted from an early wave of write-in votes, but by the end of election night Nickels was ahead by 8 percent, buoyed by a get-out-the-vote drive by labor and other supporters. Still, the race was still too close to call. There were thousands of mail-in votes left to be counted, and Sidran was expected to get the lion's share of them. He did. Nickels's lead dwindled but never quite disappeared entirely, but it wasn't until November 15 -- nine days after the election -- that his victory became apparent and Sidran conceded. At the carpenters' union hall in Seattle, a jubilant Nickels declared: "The race is over. It was a marathon that turned into a seven-week sprint that went into extra innings" (Verhovek). He won by 3,158 votes out of more than 172,000 cast, with 50.9 percent to Sidran's 49.1 percent. It was Seattle's closest mayoral election since Allan Pomeroy beat William Devin in 1952. (Many accounts say it was the closest election since 1912, but this was based on a preliminary tally and turned out to be wrong.)

Mayor Greg Nickels

Nickels hit the ground running. Concern that he was too nice for the job proved to be unfounded. Tim Ceis, who was Nickel's deputy mayor, later recalled, "People underestimated Greg ... They also didn't understand that he ran for mayor to be mayor" (Heffter). Nickels immediately created controversy when, three weeks before being sworn in, he announced the firings of Jim Diers, the popular 14-year director of Seattle's Department of Neighborhoods; Denna Klein, Director of Strategic Planning; Rick Krochalis, Director of the Department of Design, Construction and Land Use; and Clifford Traisman, the city's chief lobbyist.

Not long after he was sworn in on January 1, 2002, Nickels sent a memo to city-department employees advising that they answered to him, not the city council, putting an end to the past practice of city employees working directly with members of the council to draft legislation. In a city more accustomed to collaboration and negotiation, this assertive approach didn't sit well. In a poke at his Chicago roots, wags began characterizing him as a bully in the style of Richard J. Daley (1902-1976), a famous and controversial mayor of Chicago, but his hands-on approach brought results, especially in his second term. He had little trouble winning the 2005 primary and the general election that year.

In his first term Nickels became known for fixing Seattle's potholed streets, and the mayor's website sported a counter resembling a McDonald's hamburger sign that proudly proclaimed the number of potholes repaired in the city. A more significant project that Nickels took on was updating the city's fire stations. In 2002 he traveled to Kobe, Japan, which had been devastated by an earthquake in 1995. He learned that much of the devastation had been caused by fire, and when he returned to Seattle had an analysis done of the city's 33 fire stations. It showed that two-thirds of them would not survive a major earthquake, and Nickels called for their wholesale renovation or replacement. Voters approved funding for the project in 2003, and nearly all of Seattle's fire stations were subsequently upgraded or replaced with more modern structures. During these years, he convinced the city council to change plans for placing floating lids on the city's reservoirs and instead to bury them, turning the lids above them into small parks.

Nickels also focused on transit during his first term, but he concluded that the proposed monorail-expansion project (which he'd previously supported) had become financially unsustainable. He withdrew city support for the project, helping insure its doom in a 2005 vote, but this was hardly the end of his support for public transit. Instead, Nickels turned his efforts toward regional light-rail construction. He successfully promoted the 2008 Sound Transit 2 measure, which added regional express bus as well as commuter-rail service, and authorized the construction of an additional 36 miles of light rail to form a 55-mile regional rail system. Light-rail service opened between downtown Seattle and Sea-Tac Airport in 2009 and the system has slowly expanded since, spanning 21 miles between Angle Lake south of Sea-Tac and the University of Washington stadium by 2016. A third Sound Transit measure was approved that year to extend the rail system to a total of 116 miles, with 2017 schedules calling for the entire project to be completed in 2041.

During Nickels's mayoral tenure, debate also raged about the replacement of the aging Alaskan Way Viaduct along downtown Seattle's waterfront. Options included replacing it with another elevated roadway (unpopular with many who considered the viaduct an eyesore), or eliminating it entirely and modifying surface streets to handle the estimated 110,000 vehicles a day that the viaduct routinely carried. (Planners asserted that this option would create more, not less, traffic problems.) Other options included replacing the viaduct with a surface-tunnel hybrid or simply with a two-mile tunnel. The tunnel idea was unpopular at first, including with Nickels, but he changed his mind. During his second term he argued strongly for a tunnel, helping lead to a plan for one by the time of his final year in office in 2009. Boring the tunnel was completed in April 2017 -- following problems with the tunnel-boring machine that put the project more than two years behind schedule -- with the new highway then scheduled to open to traffic in early 2019 after construction of roadways inside the tunnel.

Nickels was a force behind housing levies approved by Seattle voters in 2002 and 2009, and was a proponent of denser development. He argued for taller buildings, new condos, and more development in urban centers. He reasoned that a diverse city such as Seattle needed density to fully succeed, and that density would cut down on urban sprawl. Naysayers complained that Nickels was too friendly with developers and worried about the impact on Seattle's single-family neighborhoods, but with Seattle's population continuing to soar and traffic a bigger problem than ever, his successors would also argue for denser development.

Climate Change Crusader

In his second term, Nickels became known as a climate-change crusader. It hadn't always been that way. His environmental policy during most of his first term was, as he described it in a 2008 interview with Seattle Metropolitan, "a nice list of random acts of kindness for the environment" (Barcott). But he became increasingly uneasy at mounting evidence of warming winters in the Cascades and at the federal government's seeming indifference to climate change. It was enough to make him go green.

The Kyoto Protocol is an international agreement that sets binding emission-reduction targets among its members in an effort to combat global warming. It took effect on February 16, 2005, without the participation of the United States, which declined to join. On the same day, Nickels announced that by 2012 Seattle would cut its greenhouse-gas emissions by 7 percent compared with its 1990 levels. The city actually met the goal in 2007, though this early success came primarily from action taken before 2005 to reduce emissions by Seattle City Light and two industrial cement plants. However, Seattle continued to reduce its emissions. A 2016 study reported that the city's core greenhouse gas-emissions dropped another 6 percent between 2008 and 2014.

Seattle benefitted in other ways. As part of the overall plan to reduce emissions, Nickels created a $37 million Climate Action Plan for the city, which among other things called for denser housing and more bicycle lanes. Implementation of the plan helped dramatically reshape the Northgate and South Lake Union neighborhoods, among others, in the subsequent decade. Mayors of more than 1,000 other cities and municipalities across the country have since adopted similar plans under what is known as the U.S. Mayors' Climate Protection Agreement, but it was Nickels's initiative that boosted him into the national spotlight. He won the 2006 Climate Protection Award from the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and more awards followed. His visibility increased in 2009 when he was elected president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

Yet as he was gaining national support he was losing it locally, and 2008 was a particularly bad year for Nickels. In July the Seattle Sonics, the city's NBA team, which had been sold two years earlier, moved to Oklahoma City. Nickels was blamed for not doing more to keep the team in Seattle. More trouble followed at the height of the Christmas holidays in mid- and late December, when the most significant period of heavy snow and sustained cold in approximately 20 years gripped Western Washington in an icy talon. The city's response was woefully inadequate, and Nickels's initial praise of it only fueled the wrath of constituents snowbound in their houses because streets hadn't been plowed or salted.

His problems worsened. His support of a tunnel to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct was unpopular with many. Neighborhood groups said he ignored them. City council members complained he didn't share credit when credit was due. His critics grew louder and more bold. By mid-2009 his popularity had declined to the point that he found himself facing seven challengers in the August primary, including former Seattle Sonic James Donaldson and city council member Jan Drago. His two most formidable opponents were Joe Mallahan, a telecommunications executive, and Mike McGinn (b. 1959), a business lawyer active in the Sierra Club and other environmental causes whose opposition to a tunnel to replace the viaduct was popular with many voters. McGinn's outsider status was an additional asset, but it was still a surprise when he outpolled both Mallahan and Nickels in the primary. It was close: McGinn received 27.7 percent of the vote, Mallahan 26.9 percent, and Nickels 25.4 percent. The third-place finish eliminated Nickels from the race, and McGinn went on to edge Mallahan in the general election.

Moving Out and Moving On

Despite his missteps and low personal approval rating, many in Seattle believed that Nickels had been a strong and effective mayor. His final day in office was December 31, 2009. He taught at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government in Massachusetts the following spring. He next served as a public delegate to the United Nations General Assembly between the autumns of 2010 and 2011; not surprisingly, his work at the U.N. related to climate change. Returning to Seattle afterward, Nickels announced in 2012 that he was running for Secretary of State. There were any number of factors weighing against the run, but he gamely plunged in. He came in a distant third in a field of seven in the primary that August, garnering a bit less than 16 percent of the vote.

Nickels has since largely distanced himself from the public spotlight, but he hasn't distanced himself from public service. In the opening moments of a September 2017 interview with HistoryLink, he described himself as "semi-retired" and said he was "done" with public office (Dougherty interview). But as he warmed to the interview his tone changed to some extent: "If an extraordinary opportunity came about I'd consider going back to public life. I do get calls from time to time ... But otherwise I'm enjoying life" (Dougherty interview).

At the time of the interview, Nickels sat on boards for the Institute of Sustainable Communities and ecoAmerica, two national organizations devoted to dealing with climate change, and he sat on a few nonprofit boards in Seattle, including HistoryLink's. Since 2012 he'd been involved in small, behind-the-scenes local projects, had had a few speaking engagements (mostly in the eastern U.S.), and had periodically provided advice to young adults interested in working on environmental and climate issues. He had a health scare in 2014 when he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and though it was caught early, 30 percent of his pancreas was removed. He said he'd been cancer-free since, but reflected "it does put things in perspective" (Dougherty interview).

Eight years after the end of his term and with the tunnel to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct literally in sight, Nickels said it still remained a "painful issue" for him, while other issues he felt better about: "ST 2 [the 2008 Sound Transit measure] was the most fun I've had on any issue. I'm loving watching that [progress]," he said, rattling off the names of some of the stations being added pursuant to funding provided by the measure (Dougherty interview). He was also happy to see Seattle's increasing urban density, though wary of the rapid pace of the transformation in recent years, which he attributed to pent-up demand released in the early 2010s after the end of the Great Recession of 2007 to 2009.

Nickels married Sharon Colwell (b. 1955) of Ellensburg in 1978. Their son Jacob was born in 1981 and their daughter Carey in 1983. In 2017, Greg and Sharon Nickels continued to live in the West Seattle house the family moved to in 1986.


HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Greive, R.R. ("Bob") (1919-2004)" (by Cassandra Tate), "Nickels, Robert Charles (1925-2007)" (by Kit Oldham), "Challengers Mark Sidran and Greg Nickels outpoll incumbent Seattle Mayor Paul Schell in primary election on September 18, 2001" (by Walt Crowley), "Seattle voters elect Greg Nickels mayor on November 6, 2001" (by Walt Crowley), "Voters ban indoor smoking, require performance audits, reject dueling malpractice initiatives, and pull the plug on the monorail on November 8, 2005" (by Kit Oldham), "Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels loses in the primary, Susan Hutchison leads for King County Executive, and city voters defeat a shopping bag fee on August 18, 2009" (by Kit Oldham), "Sound Transit's Link light rail connecting downtown Seattle with Sea-Tac International Airport reaches SeaTac/Airport Station on December 19, 2009" (by Priscilla Long), and "Tunnel boring machine named Bertha begins digging new State Route 99 tunnel underneath downtown Seattle on July 30, 2013" (by Jennifer Ott), http://www.historylink.org (accessed October 10, 2017); Bruce Barcott, "The Greening of Greg Nickels," August 25, 2008, Crosscut website accessed August 25,2017 (http://crosscut.com/2008/08/the-greening-greg-nickels); "Carbon Emissions Here Drop 6 Percent," Daily Journal of Commerce, September 9, 2016 (http://www.djc.com/news/en/12092833.html?cgi=yes); "Primary Results: Huge Changes Afoot in Seattle," Kitsap Sun, September 17, 1997 (http://web.kitsapsun.com/archive/1997/09-17/0005_primary_results__huge_changes_afo.html); Sam Howe Verhovek, "Winner Emerges in Seattle's Mayor's Race," The New York Times, November 17, 2001 (http://www.nytimes.com); Larry Lange, "Nickels Sacks Department Chiefs, Stirring Storm of Protests," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, December 13, 2001 (http//www.seattlepi.com); Scott Gutierrez, "Nickels Gets Transit Hero Award," Ibid., December 10, 2009; "CETA Employes [sic] Deny Connections Helped," The Seattle Times, May 7, 1978, p. A-14; Susan Gilmore, "Greg Nickels: Political Soul at Ground Level," The Seattle Times, September 4, 2001 (http://www.seattletimes.com); Sharon Pian Chan, "Mayor's Father, 81, Was Advocate for Children," Ibid., May 15, 2007; Joni Balter, "A Changing of the Guard at Seattle City Hall," Ibid., December 30, 2009; Emily Heffter, "Outgoing Mayor Greg Nickels Leaves Stamp on Seattle," Ibid., December 31, 2009; Goldy, "Meet Greg Nickels," The Stranger, March 28, 2012, (http://www.thestranger.com/seattle/meet-greg-nickels/Content?oid=13185228); Andrew Stevens, "Greg Nickels: Former Mayor of Seattle," City Mayors website accessed October 12, 2017 (http://www.citymayors.com/mayors/seattle_mayor.html); "Bio for Gregory J. Nickels," 25th Legislative District Democrats website accessed August 20, 2017 (http://25dems.org/2012%20Endorsement%20Returns/NickelsInfo.pdf); "ST2 Plan and Project List," Sound Transit website accessed August 27, 2017 (https://www.soundtransit.org/st2); Phil Dougherty interview with Greg Nickels, September 14, 2017, Seattle, Washington; Greg Nickels email to Phil Dougherty, September 26, 2017, in possession of Phil Dougherty, Sammamish, Washington.

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