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Norm Rice, Seattle's 'Mayor Nice,' Says It's Time To Retire

It's been more than a decade since Norman B. Rice ran Seattle. But Seattleites still remember “Mayor Nice,” as he was known.

Rice oversaw the revitalization of the downtown core and the launch of the city's Families and Education Levy. But perhaps most importantly, Rice pressed people to discuss pressing issues that faced Seattle at the end of the 20th century.

Rice, 70, didn't set out to be a politician. As a kid in Colorado, Rice says he wanted to be a minister. After college, Rice went into journalism. He says the more he stalked the halls of Seattle's old City Hall, the more he imagined he had some ideas about how to run the city. Rice was a leader of the Mount Baker Community Council, and he took his neighborhood concerns with him in 1978, when he was first elected as a city council member.

Rice ran an unsuccessful mayoral campaign in 1985 against two-term incumbent Charles Royer. He thought he'd be a great manager, because he had Seattle's fiscal details down pat. After he lost the race, Rice recalls that a friend pulled him aside.

"That's never a good thing," he says laughing, "when somebody wags their finger at you!"

That friend gave Rice advice he has kept in mind over the years.

"People hire managers," Rice's friend told him. "They elect leaders."

Soon after his election, Rice convened a group of stakeholders who were interested in the health of Seattle Public Schools. Seattle was embroiled in controversy over the school district's mandatory busing program. Rice favored the plan, which forced integrated schools by busing mostly non-white children to predominantly white schools in the city’s North End. His support for busing lost Rice some votes, but he says he still believes it was a good thing for schools and for Seattle.

Rice remembers one evening, at campaign headquarters, when he was calling potential voters. A woman he reached told him she opposed busing and therefore wouldn’t vote for him. But she was willing to listen to what Rice had to say. After the conversation, she told the politician that she still wasn't sure if he had her vote, but she was pleased. She felt he had listened and heard what she had to say. That willingness to sit down, listen and facilitate dialogue became one of the guiding principles of Rice's career.

After two terms as mayor, Norm Rice left electoral politics. But he didn't leave public service. Rice has taught at the University of Washington, advised governmental entities at all levels, including the Obama White House. He even had a controversial tenure in mortgage banking. And Seattle’s outgoing Mayor Mike McGinn tapped Rice to spearhead a conversation about improving the Seattle Public Schools.

Most recently, Rice has headed the Seattle Foundation, a community philanthropy. In some ways, this job synced Rice's skills as a political leader with his original desire to perform community service. But he wasn't sure this was what he wanted to do. "Ex-mayor goes to Foundation," he imagined the headline would read. But after giving it some thought, Rice realized it was a path to continue his work in community development.

In his five years with the Seattle Foundation, Rice has worked to expand its donor base beyond the city's old money philanthropists. The foundation's "Big Day of Giving" consolidated hundreds of local nonprofits for a day of online philanthropy. In its three years, Rice says the Big Day has raised more than $25 million for those organizations, with a significant percentage of small donations.

Despite these successes, Rice has decided it's time to slow things down a bit. The Seattle Foundation announced that Rice intends to retire from public life in the spring of 2014, after they find his replacement. Rice says he'll "retire," but he won't stop working on the issues he's most passionate about: neighborhood planning, public education and mentorship for low-income and minority kids in Seattle.

"The biggest thing troubling me today is equity, equality and diversity," he says. "How do we galvanize people to realize this can't be lost?"

Rice doesn't really know the answer to that question yet. But after 40-some years in the public eye, he still has one attribute that may help him find out. He’s still willing to sit down and listen.