Seattle Mayor Off to Good Start

Rice faces problems from school issues to gangs and drugs

THE day after Mayor Norm Rice was elected last November, people stopped their cars in the middle of the street to take pictures of him as he walked around Seattle greeting residents. Today, the surprise and euphoria of having a black mayor in a predominantly white city have worn off, and the real work of running a big city has begun. Seattle has a $25 million shortfall to deal with and a host of problems including gangs, drugs, rampant growth, and school issues.

By most accounts, the suave and likable Rice (nicknamed ``Mayor Nice'') has gotten off to a good start. With 11 years on the City Council and a penchant for listening to residents, he is well-known. In his first six months, he has held education summits, gotten City Council to OK a controversial basketball stadium, beefed up police, and is working on revamping city government.

``I'm real pleased with him,'' says state Speaker of the House Joe King. ``It's one of those cases where he was billed as a consensus builder, and I think that Seattle is getting that and more.''

``It's not easy to move from the legislative body where you're one of several to mayor, which is in effect CEO of the city. But he's made the transition smoothly and shown leadership on several different issues that were on his in-box when he arrived,'' says George Duff, president of the Seattle Chamber of Commerce.

One of those issues is education. Seattle has mandated busing for 12 years. Many people here point to busing as a chief reason for the school system's failings. During the mayoral campaign, Rice's opponent, city attorney Doug Jewett, favored an initiative that would set aside 6 percent of the city's sales-tax receipts for schools if mandatory busing was ended. (Washington schools are funded by the state, rather than cities.) The initiative was favored to win, but Rice told people it would polarize the city. It barely passed, and the Seattle school board refused to authorize it. Rice was elected by 15 percent.

Since then he has made education a high priority. Fulfilling a campaign promise, this spring he held a series of education summits to elicit parents' and residents' concerns about schools. From that emerged a ``declaration of interdependence'' to get the private sector, labor, government, and the school district to commit to improve the schools.

``He got a lot of people in the same room and talking,'' says Susan Levy, president of the Washington Federation of Teachers.

HOWEVER, she says some teachers are skeptical about the summits. ``Our concern is that it will mean a list of things that the school system should accomplish without the funding behind it,'' she says. Rice says his summits raised $1 million for the schools, and he is considering the possibility of an education levy to supplement state funding.

But the skepticism shows the honeymoon is over. Rice has gotten a lot of flak from the black community for his Drug Loitering ordinance that was set up to expand police powers of arrest in perceived drug transactions. Blacks say it will lead to undue harassment, especially of youths.

Rice has to tread the thin line between attacking a growing drug problem and upholding civil rights. The city also has a rising gang problem. Drive-by shootings have increased. In June, the mayor drove all night with the antigang squad and talked to gang leaders.

Rice says growing up the youngest of four children may have something to do with his being a conciliator. ``It makes you be a politician,'' he said during an interview in his Seattle office. ``You have to figure out how to get along with all these bigger brothers and sisters.''

Rice's parents gave him strong messages about doing well in school. But he hit some snags. He flunked out of the University of Colorado, though he was able to finish his education through the Economic Opportunity Program at the University of Washington.

``If I hadn't had EOP, I might not have gotten into school in Washington State, and it might have made a difference in what my future opportunities were,'' he says. ``It was a major turning point in my life.''

To win as a black in a city with only a 9 percent black population means that he had to win on his credentials, observers say. He has worked in broadcasting, the Urban League, and has been active in local civic organizations.

But more hurdles came later when he lost two big races: mayor in 1985 and congressman in 1988. When he threw his hat in the ring for mayor this time, it was a half-hour before the deadline. What made him tackle politics again after two raw losses?

``I felt that if you feel you're the most qualified and you have something to say, you should say it and do it and you ought not to sit on the fence,'' he says.

Observers compare him with New York City Mayor David Dinkins and Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, who ran on credentials rather than race. J. Thomas Cochran, executive director of the US Conference of Mayors, says that Rice, like new black Mayors Cordell Cooper of East Orange, N.J., and John Daniels of New Haven, Conn., is emerging nationally well-prepared with strong city backgrounds.

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