Rice, Norm 1943–

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Norm Rice 1943

At a Glance

Fell in Love with a City

Mayor Nice


His nickname is Mayor Nice. He was elected by a landslide, and even his critics concede that he is decisive, efficient, and a master conciliator. He is Norm Rice, the mayor of Seattle, Washington. Rice is serving his second term as mayor after more than a decade as a city councilman. He has faced tough issues such as mandatory busing, rising crime, and budget deficits, but has also helped to promote Seattle to its position as a top city in the nation for business and industry.

Rice calls himself a politician who believes in fixing problems instead of just fixing blame, a leader who is determined to promote Seattle as an international city with its door open to enterprising citizens of all races and creeds. Seattle is a thinking, caring city, Rice told the Washington Post soon after his election in 1990. Its a city that likes to be involved in the decision-making process.

Rice was born in Denver, Colorado, the youngest son of a train porter named Otha Patrick and a beauty parlor maid named Irene. Rice told the Christian Science Monitor that growing up the youngest in the family prepared him for his career. It makes you a politician, he said. You have to figure out how to get along with all these bigger brothers and sisters. Early in his life Rice established the practice of listening carefully to other people and using their ideas wherever possible. He took that characteristic with him to the Seattle Municipal Building, where he is known for soliciting opinions from numerous sources on a host of city issues.

Rices parents divorced when he was a teenager. Their split proved a painful ordeal for their youngest son, who was estranged from his father for quite some time. I was too young to understand that divorce was a more complex situation than youth can realize, the mayor told the Seattle Times in 1989. Now were close. In fact, Rice noted in retrospect that his parents marital troubles helped to form his character. I always have looked at myself as a person who had to pull people together, he said. At 13,1 did assume a role of responsibility, and my behavior changed. Rice has described himself as a well-behaved youngster who did not drink or take drugs. In high school in Denver, he was president of his senior class, a member of the debating team, and an honor student.

As a teen Rice had an inspiring role model right in his family. His maternal grandmother, in middle age, became one of the first female ministers in the African Methodist Episcopal

At a Glance

Full name, Norman Blann Rice; born May 4, 1943, in Denver, CO; son of Otha Patrick (a railroad porter) and Irene (a maid) Rice; married Constance Williams, February 15, 1973; children: Mian. Education: University of Washington, B.A., 1972, M.A., 1974. Politics: Democrat.

KOMO-TV, Seattle, WA, assistant editor of nightly news, 1971-72; Seattle Urban League, assistant director and media action project monitor, 1972-74; Puget Sound Council of Governments, executive assistant director of government services, 1974-75; Rainier National Bank, Seattle, manager of corporate communications, 1976- 7S; city councilman for Seattle, 1978-90, president of City Council, 1983-90; mayor of Seattle, 1990-. Member of board of directors, Planned Parenthood of Seattle, 1978; member of Seattle Human Services Commission, 1978.

Selected awards: Named outstanding public citizen by National Association of Social Workers, 1991.

Address: Office 600 4th Ave., 1200 Municipal Bldg., Seattle, WA 98104-1873.

Church. When she went to churches, they would hide the keys so she couldnt preach, Rice recalled in the Seattle Times. I admire her for her spiritual sense and her never-quit, unshakeable faith. Rices grandmother lived to see him serve on the Seattle City Council but died just before he was elected mayor.

Fell in Love with a City

After high school Rice attended the University of Colorado at Boulder. The school did not suit himhe was distressed by the segregated housing and meal facilities and frustrated by the work load. He dropped out in his second year and went to work. Between 1963 and 1969 he held jobs as a hospital orderly and a meter reader, helping to support his mother. Then, late in the 1960s, he visited Seattle for a brief stay. It was love at first sight, so to speak.

Rice was enchanted by the Emerald City on Puget Sound and was encouraged by what he perceived to be its healthy economy. He moved to Seattle in 1969 and went back to college in the Economic Opportunity Program at the University of Washington. If I hadnt 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 told the Christian Science Monitor. It was a major turning point in my life.

Rice earned his bachelors degree in communications in 1972 and a masters degree in public administration in 1974. Simultaneously he worked for the Seattle Urban League as an assistant director and public relations coordinator. During this period Rice also met and married Constance Williams, the owner of a small public relations firm.

In 1976 Rice took a position with the Rainier National Bank as manager of its corporate communications. There he developed close ties with such diverse alliances as downtown businesses, neighborhood activists, and social service groups. True to his nature, Rice listened to these diverse voices and began to consider how he might serve them better in a public office. He ran for City Council in 1978 and beat the incumbent Wayne Larkin in a close race. Rice was a youthful 35 at the time.

A Democratic candidate in a city that was overwhelmingly Democratic, Rice quickly assumed a leadership role on the Seattle City Council. He was named president of that body in 1983 and thereafter was almost expected to run for mayor. He did just that in 1985, mounting a primary campaign against then-mayor Charles Royer. Royer defeated Rice soundly in the 1985 mayoral primary, taking 56 percent of the vote to Rices 34 percent. The loss shattered Rice. A defeat is an interesting kind of phenomenon in ones life, he told the Seattle Times. I had a period of adjustment, Im not going to deny it. Rice contemplated quitting politics to return to the private sector. Instead, he retained his seat on the City Council and continued quietly to broaden his base of support.

Perhaps the nadir in Rices political career came in 1987. That year he ran for the 7th Congressional District seat against fellow Democrat Jim McDermott. McDermott was not an incumbenthe had recently returned from business ventures in Africa. Nevertheless, McDermott won the race by a substantial margin. Once again Rice questioned his future in politics, but as he stepped to the podium to concede his loss in the congressional race, his supporters began to chant: Mayor Rice. Mayor Rice. Mayor Rice. The chance to run Seattle was only a few years away.

Mayor Nice

With a population of approximately 530,000 during the late 1980s and early 1990smost of it whiteSeattle was a major seat of industry in the Pacific Northwest. In 1992 Forbes magazine named the Emerald City number one in the nation for business. The city was also a popular tourist destination with a reputation for cleanliness, friendly citizens, and fewer crimes than many towns its size. Still Seattle suffered from the usual problems besetting an urban area: crime and panhandling had risen since the 1980s, the annual budget had faced serious shortfalls, and the quality of education had seemed to diminish over time.

The issue that prompted Rice to run for mayor in 1989 was not crime or budget deficits, but mandatory busing. The Republican mayoral candidate, Doug Jewett, was the architect of Initiative 34, a plan to end school busing in Seattle. Rice was appalled by Initiative 34he called it a terrible new ingredient in local politics, and he announced that he would run for mayor to heal the wounds that would be inflicted by implementation of the policy. As it turned out, Initiative 34 was endorsed by Seattle voters but turned down by the local Board of Education. And Rice, who had lost two major elections in the previous four years, was elected mayor of Seattle by a large margin. He was the first black ever to hold that office in Seattle.

When Norm Rice stepped into the Seattle mayors office in 1989, the fighting between the City Council and mayor that was typical during his predecessors administrations came to a halt, wrote Dick Lilly in the Seattle Times. At the same time, Rice, too began to change. Often seen as a fence-sitter during his years on the council, as mayor, Rice has pleased his supporters and surprised some of his critics with his decisiveness. Rice established a reputation as a consensus-builder early in his first term when he held an education summit that sought the views of nearly everybody interested in the future of Seattles public schools. From the summit came the idea for a Families in Education Levy that has since provided more than $25 million in city funds to pay for such services as school nurses, family counselors, and activities supervisors.

Rice also faced the vicissitudes of the local economy. Although Seattles manufacturing base was more stable than that of many major metropolitan areas, it too had suffered a slight decline. The mayor countered this by inviting entrepreneurs of all races and nationalities to make it their home and expanding overseas trade. Christian Science Monitor contributor Guy Halverson wrote: From the Rainier Valley in southeast Seattle to Aurora Avenue on the north, dramatic change is evident for this cosmopolitan community once dominated by Northern Europeansfrom England, Scandinavia, and Germany; now store signs greet visitors in Vietnamese, Korean, Chinese, Cambodian, Russian, and Spanish.

Still, only roughly ten percent of the population of Seattle is blacktestament, perhaps, to the broad-spectrum appeal of Mayor Nice. Race was only obliquely an issue in Rices first campaign for mayor. When he ran for re-election in 1993 it was not an issue at all. The problems he faced when running for re-election were those of any big city mayor: escalating drug abuse, crime, and homelessness. Rices opponent, David Stern, accused the mayor of being soft on these issues and consequently allowing Seattles desirability to erode.

Sterns concerns did not move the citizenry: they overwhelmingly voted to return Rice to office for a second term. In response, the mayor has led initiatives to reduce the number of guns in private hands in Seattle. I dont think youre seeing African-American mayors trying to be overly defensive, Rice told Emerge magazine. Theres a willingness now to be tough. Its not based on insensitivity but on what will happen to cities if you dont take action. Mayors are not going to sit here and passively watch neighborhoods become consumed by guns and gangs in a way that jeopardizes African-American life.

Rice, who is described in the Christian Science Monitor as youthful-looking, energetic, and genial, lives quietly in a Seattle neighborhood with his wife, Constance. In recent years she has reduced her workload in public relations to be more available to help him with his agenda; indeed, she may at some point pursue political office herself. Asked about his popularity with white voters in Seattle, Rice told the Seattle Times: The issue is leadership. I can bring people to agreement without conflict. I know how to listen. He told the Christian Science Monitor that he could not in good conscience sidestep the responsibilities of mayor when he knew he could do the job. Rice concluded: If you feel youre 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.


Christian Science Monitor, August 16, 1990, p. 7;August 28, 1991, p. 8.

Emerge, March 1994, pp. 52-5.

Seattle Times, September 13, 1989, p. D-l; November 3, 1989, p. A-l; October 15, 1993, p. B-l; November 3, 1993, p. C-l.

Washington Post, April 12, 1990, p. A-8.

Anne Janette Johnson