Rice, Norman B. (b. 1943 )

  • By Mary T. Henry
  • Posted 9/17/2007
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 8283

Norm Rice was elected mayor of Seattle in 1989 and served two four-year terms. He was the first African American to win the office and the first in the nation to govern a city that had an African American population of less than 10 percent. Both before and after his terms as mayor, Rice was deeply involved in the affairs of his city, serving with a variety of civic organizations and on governmental committees and boards. From 1999 to 2005 he was president and CEO of the Seattle Federal Home Loan Bank, and in 2007 he was named distinguished visiting practitioner at the University of Washington's Daniel J. Evans School of Public Affairs. After chairing a committee to help plan the redevelopment of the Yesler Terrace public housing project, Rice in 2009 became president and CEO of The Seattle Foundation, from which he retired in 2014.

Early Years

Norman B. Rice was born on May 4, 1943, in Denver, Colorado, one of four children of Irene Hazel Powell Rice (1913-1993) and Otha Patrick Rice (1916-1993). His father worked for the postal service and as a railroad porter, and owned and operated a restaurant. His mother was a caterer and a bank clerk. Rice would later say that as the youngest and smallest of the family siblings, "I learned negotiation and compromise at an early age" ("A Life in Politics"). His grandmother, Reverend Susie Whitman (1895-1989), was assistant pastor at the First AME (African Methodist Episcopal) Church in Seattle, one of the first women AME ministers in the western United States.

Rice's first attempt at higher education was not a success. He briefly attended the University of Colorado but, unhappy with its segregated facilities and overwhelmed by the large work load, he soon flunked out, an experience he later called "devastating" ("A Life in Politics"). He worked as a meter reader, a hospital orderly, and an engineer's assistant before moving in 1968 to Seattle, where he began his education anew at Highline Community College. His experience this time was far better -- Rice received an associate of arts degree in 1970, and by 1974 he had earned a bachelor's degree in communications and a master's degree in public administration from the University of Washington.

At the university, Rice met Constance Williams (b. 1945), the first African American woman to receive a doctorate in higher education administration from the UW School of Education. Norm and Constance were married in 1975 by the Reverend Samuel B. McKinney (b. 1926) at Mount Zion Baptist Church. Both would soon become prominent civic leaders in Seattle: Dr. Constance Rice built a distinguished career as an educator, in which she chaired the Ethnic Studies Department at Shoreline Community College, directed Western Washington University's Center for Urban Studies in Seattle, and served as a chancellor for Seattle Community Colleges and interim president of North Seattle Community College, while also founding her own public relations business (which she closed when Norm became mayor), and later becoming Managing Director for Knowledge Management for Casey Family Programs. The couple had one son, Mian.

In the Political Arena

In the early 1970s, Norm Rice was a reporter for Seattle's KIXI radio and an editor at KOMO-TV. From 1973 to 1976 he served as Director of Government Services for the Puget Sound Council of Governments and from 1976 to 1979 as Manager of Corporate Contributions and Social Policy for what was then called Rainier National Bank. He also served as assistant director of the Seattle Urban League from 1975 to 1978.

Rice entered the political arena in November 1978, when he won a special election for a vacant seat on the Seattle City Council. He was the second African American elected to the council, preceded only by Sam Smith (1922-1995). Rice won a full term in 1979, was re-elected in 1983 and -- after losing the 1985 mayoral race to incumbent Charles Royer (b. 1939) -- again in 1987, when he won a third full council term without opposition.

During his 11 years as a councilmember, Rice put his stamp on the life of the city as an advocate for diversity, growth, crime prevention, and human rights. He served as chair of the finance and budget committee, the energy committee, and the public safety committee, and was elected council president twice by his fellow councilmembers. While heading the energy committee, Rice facilitated funding for weatherization and energy-assistance programs for low-income families. During the four years he was chair of the finance and budget committee, he negotiated passage of the Women and Minority Business Enterprise (WMBE) ordinance and elimination of city investments in firms doing business with South Africa, then still in the grip of apartheid.

As public-safety-committee chair, Rice spearheaded the addition of 100 officers to the Seattle police force, helped secure funding for drug prevention and school safety officers, and sponsored the creation of neighborhood anti-crime teams. He worked to establish a survival-services fund to assist the hungry, ill, and homeless, and in1986 denounced Mayor Royer's proposed youth curfew, arguing that the city should do more to fight increasing drug use, prostitution, and burglaries rather than expend police resources to keep kids off the streets at night. In 1988, Rice ran as a Democrat for the open U.S. House of Representatives seat from Seattle's 7th District, but lost in the primary to former state senator Jim McDermott (b. 1936).

In 1989, after earlier ruling out a run, Rice decided at the last minute to enter the race for the mayor's office, which had already attracted 12 candidates seeking to succeed Royer, who was not running again. Rice was motivated by his opposition to Initiative 34, a ballot measure supported by City Attorney and mayoral candidate Doug Jewett that was designed to ban the Seattle School District from continuing its program of mandatory busing to achieve school integration. Jewett and Rice prevailed in the non-partisan primary, finishing ahead of the remaining candidates, who included two other councilmembers -- Jim Street and Dolores Sibonga (b. 1931); former King County Executive Randy Revelle (b. 1941), advertising executive David Stern, and a host of lesser-knowns. Although Jewett had more primary votes, Rice won the endorsement of most of the defeated candidates and prevailed over Jewett by a significant margin, 99,699 to 75,446, in the general election. He was the city's first African American mayor and the first sitting councilmember elected to the office since J. D. "Dorm" Braman (1901-1980) in 1964.

Rice proved to be an effective and popular mayor, and when he ran for re-election in 1993 he won easily, practically doubling the vote total of challenger David Stern. While still in the mayor's office, Rice ran for governor in 1996, but in the crowded primary election he lost to King County Executive Gary Locke (b. 1950), who went on to win the position.

Mayor Rice

During the eight years Norm Rice was mayor, Seattle rose in stature in the eyes of the nation. It was named the best U.S. city for business by Fortune magazine and the nation's second-most-livable city by Rand McNally, and made top-10 lists in Forbes, Money, Financial World, and Working Woman magazines.

Partly because of his affable personality and warm, dimpled smile, Rice was affectionately known as "Mayor Nice." A city-hall watcher once said, "You can't translate Norm into words. His medium is feelings. By his quiet competence he makes you feel he is in control of the city" ("Rice's Legacy"). Described as caring and optimistic, he worked to build community between groups. Roberta Palm Bradley, who Rice brought in to head Seattle City Light, said of him: "He's a fine person. He's a good person, which you can't say about a lot of politicians" ("Teflon Mayor ... ").

Rice faced many challenges as mayor. When he took the reins of the city, the public schools were in poor shape; the downtown was losing Frederick & Nelson, I. Magnin, and other retail stores; and homelessness was a major and growing problem. He tackled the issues head-on, and upon taking office immediately convened a citywide education summit, bringing together business leaders, elected officials, educators, and parents to help resolve major problems in the schools. More than 2,500 people attended a total of 32 community meetings, and in 1990 Seattle voters passed the Families and Education levy, providing $69 million over seven years for the schools. Rice became a statewide leader on education and served on the Governor's Council on Education Reform and Funding, where he pressed for new policies and programs to address the social and health needs of students across Washington.

Rice also took aggressive steps to reverse the economic decline of Seattle's downtown area, which he discussed with the heads of Nike, FAO Schwartz, and other companies with a presence in downtown Seattle. Rice worked to acquire a $24.2 million federal loan guarantee for the private redevelopment of Westlake Center and conversion of the Frederick & Nelson building into Nordstrom's flagship store. He also supported a campaign, eventually successful, to re-open Pine Street to traffic as an additional incentive for Nordstrom's move.

On other economic fronts, Rice helped facilitate an expansion of American President Lines' container facilities, which added 1,500 jobs in West Seattle, and the building of a campus at Interbay for the biopharmaceutical firm Immunex. His efforts to revitalize the Central Area and the Rainier Valley also fostered new commercial development.

Rice took on the issue of homelessness by establishing the Partnership for Homeless People, a collaboration between city officials and social workers that sought both to educate the public on homelessness and find private funding for homeless services. Part of his initiative was establishment of the Aloha Transitional Housing Project on Aurora Avenue, one of the nation's first self-managed projects for homeless men and women. Several existing low-income shelters, such as the Gatewood Hotel, were saved through the efforts of the City and church coalitions during Rice's time in office.

While mayor, Rice helped ensure a continuing major-league sports presence in Seattle. He worked with SuperSonics owner Barry Ackerley to renovate the Seattle Center Coliseum into Key Arena, which helped keep the basketball team in the city (until 2008, when subsequent owners moved it to Oklahoma). And he worked with other government and business leaders to help Seattle keep the Mariners in the face of plans by then-owner Jeff Smulyan (b. 1947) to move the baseball team to Florida. Rice supported the city's cultural organizations as well as its sports franchises, making sure that funding for the Seattle Symphony, the Seattle Center, and the Seattle Art Museum was included in city budgets. For the environment, Rice launched an ambitious Environmental Action Agenda, which became one of the first of its kind in the nation.

On the savings side, Rice cut the costs of government by reorganizing departments and eliminating hundreds of positions. After some earlier consolidations, he proposed and presided over a major reorganization of city departments, approved by the city council in November 1996, that among other things combined the water department and the solid waste, drainage, and wastewater utilities that had been part of the engineering department (together all the city's utilities except City Light, which remained independent) to create Seattle Public Utilities (SPU). That new beginning marked the end of independent existence for two historic entities: the Seattle Water Department and the Seattle Engineering Department, as the latter's Engineering Services Division also became part of SPU, while its traffic and transportation sections became part of the new Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT). In addition to SPU and SDOT, the reorganization created the Executive Services Department (combining the former Finance, Administrative Services, and Personnel departments), and the Office for Civil Rights.

Rice's anti-crime initiatives and innovative community policing methods brought the city's crime level down to a 16-year low during his time in office. He was praised for his handling of events in the spring of 1992, when looting and other disturbances across the country followed the acquittal of Los Angeles police officers in the infamous, video-taped beating Rodney King. Rice sought and received advice from local civil rights and business leaders, and Seattle saw little disturbance. When many African Americans questioned the appropriateness of a $1.2 million "Weed and Seed" anti-drug campaign, Rice met with an estimated 600 angry citizens in the Central Area, listened to their arguments and concerns, and promised to make adjustments to the program.

Parts of Rice's vision for Seattle met with disfavor among some citizens. His growth-management plan, which would have affected about 30 neighborhood and commercial areas, sought to channel job and population growth into urban villages. Concerns over this approach came from small-business owners and from neighborhood groups that opposed increases in multi-family densities, and the city council later approved a less rigorous version of Rice's plan. In 1994, voters rejected a bond issue to finance a new central branch of The Seattle Public Library, and in 1995 voted down a proposal Rice championed to revitalize the South Lake Union area with a park and development called Seattle Commons. (In 1998, voters did approve a $196.4 million "Libraries for All" bond measure that paid for renovations of branches around the city and a new downtown central library. In subsequent years, South Lake Union became a high-tech hub and the new home of the Museum of History and Industry.)

From 1995 to 1996, Rice served as president of the U. S. Conference of Mayors, an association of leaders from more than a thousand of America's largest cities. He was the first Seattle mayor in the organization's 63 years to lead the conference and the second West Coast mayor to do so, after Joseph Alioto of San Francisco, who served in the early 1970s. Rice made welfare reform a key agenda item and pressed for job training, federal tax modifications, job creation, and a nationwide campaign for greater tolerance and respect for diversity.

Out of Office but Busy as Ever

After completing his second term as mayor at the end of 1997, Norm Rice was considered a leading candidate to become Secretary of Housing and Urban Development in the second administration of President Bill Clinton (b. 1946), but New York's Andrew Cuomo (b. 1957) was appointed instead. In 1998, Rice was named executive vice president of Federal Home Loan Bank (FHLB) of Seattle and went on to serve as its CEO from 1999 to 2004. The bank, one of 12 member-owned cooperative across the U.S. chartered by the federal government during the depths of the Great Depression, served Alaska, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Utah, Washington, Wyoming, American Samoa, Guam, and the Northern Mariana Islands. Its more than 370 members were lenders, including commercial banks, savings institutions, credit unions, and insurance companies. The FHLB helped provide private capital for affordable housing and economic development by making below-market-rate loans to its members, and each year 10 percent of its profits were used to fund affordable housing.

In January 2006 the University of Washington's Daniel J. Evans School of Public Affairs named Rice a distinguished visiting practitioner-in-residence and assigned him to oversee its Civic Engagement for the 21st Century Project. The project's goal was to conduct seminars, workshops, and research to develop a new model for civic engagement. This focus would prove useful six months later, when Rice agreed to chair a citizen review committee to study and make recommendations on the proposed redevelopment of Yesler Terrace, an aging low-income housing project on the south slope of Seattle's First Hill. He commented at the time on the dovetailing of his roles with the university and the Yesler Terrace project:

"The opportunity to be a part of conversations around the future of Yesler Terrace fits perfectly into this assignment. Yesler Terrace provides an opportunity for civic conversations that are both worthwhile and necessary" ("Norman B. Rice to Chair Committee").

The Yesler Terrace work would be neither easy nor without controversy. Opened by the Seattle Housing Authority (SHA) in 1941, Yesler Terrace was until the 1960s Seattle's only subsidized housing built specifically for low-income tenants (low-income housing at Rainier Vista, Holly Park, and High Point had been built originally to accommodate defense-industry workers and military families). As the oldest such project, and one that gained national attention when first opened, Yesler Terrace's redevelopment had both historical and practical ramifications. As Rice pointed out in 2006:

"Yesler Terrace holds both the legacy of serving low-income residents for nearly 70 years and the potential of serving them for another 70. Our challenge is to balance the significance of its distinguished history with the needs of future generations" ("Norman B. Rice to Chair Committee").

The proposals for mixed-use redevelopment of Yesler Terrace did not lack spirited opposition. A significant faction of housing activists objected to razing existing low-income housing projects, believing that the shortage of such housing was so great that the SHA's efforts should be devoted to expanding the number of available low-income units, rather than redeveloping what existed into mixed-income housing and other uses. Rice headed an 18-member committee that held numerous meetings with interested parties, most particularly the residents of Yesler Terrace. Interpreters were provided to accommodate the many recent immigrants living there, and all prepared materials were offered in English and nine foreign languages. By September 2007, a set of four core principles had been drafted to guide redevelopment: social equity, economic opportunity, environmental and sustainable stewardship, and one-for-one replacement housing for low-income residents. Sixteen of the 18 committee members issued their final report in November 2007, filling out the details of the guiding principles and recommending steps to ensure their fulfillment. A minority report was also published that reflected the views of two dissenting members who advocated refurbishment, modernization, and expansion rather than redevelopment.

As if Rice did not have enough on his plate, in late 2006 Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels (b. 1955) proposed his predecessor as interim leader of the troubled Seattle Public Schools, but the proposal was rejected by the school board, which wanted a permanent superintendent to be named. Then, in June 2007, after a civilian oversight report accused Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske (b. 1949) of interfering in an internal investigation, Nickels named Rice to an 11-member panel to examine police accountability.

The Seattle Foundation

In June 2009, The Seattle Foundation, which was created in 1946 and grew to become one of the largest such community organizations in the country, appointed Norm Rice president and CEO. The foundation, with assets of more than $700 million in 2013, primarily matches its slate of donors with appropriate causes. One of Rice's major accomplishments there was the launch of GiveBIG, a highly successful, day-long online-giving campaign that by 2014 had raised more than $25 million for King County nonprofits.

Rice announced his retirement from the foundation in December 2013, but agreed to serve until a replacement was selected. The chair of the foundation's board of trustees, Martha Choe, said of him:

"The Foundation -- and indeed, the region -- benefitted immensely from Norm's vision and leadership. He accentuated the 'community' in community foundation, making The Seattle Foundation a place for everyone working to build a healthy community. It has been an honor to serve with him" ("Norman B. Rice to Retire ... ").

Still More

Even as he was preparing to leave The Seattle Foundation, Rice was active in a variety of other organizations. In 2014, he was serving as an adviser on the Brookings Institution's Committee for Sustainable Communities, a post he had held since 1992. He was board chairman of Seattle's Northwest African American Museum and held a seat on the board of the Casey Family Foundation, a national philanthropy headquartered in Seattle, and on the board of the city's 5th Avenue Theatre. In previous years, Rice also served on the White House Council on Community Solutions, the United Way of King County, the YMCA of Seattle, and the Enterprise Foundation.

Rice's long career in public service brought broad recognition. Among the awards and other honors he received are honorary doctorates from the University of Puget Sound (1993), Whitman College (1997), Seattle University (2003), and Cornish College of the Arts (2010); the Charles E. Odegaard Award (1985); the Isabel Coleman Pierce Award from the YWCA of King-Snohomish County (1997); American Association of Community College Students' Outstanding Alumni (1997); the National Neighborhood Coalition Award for Leadership on Behalf of Neighborhoods (1999); the University of Washington Department of Communications Distinguished Alumnus Award (2003); the American Jewish Federation's Human Relations Award   (2003); the University of Washington Communications Department's Hall of Fame (2004); the A.K. Guy Award from the Seattle YMCA (2005); and the Odessa Brown Children's Clinic Spirit of Caring Award (2013). In 2014, the Seattle-King County Association of Realtors announced that its annual First Citizen Award (which Constance Rice had received in 1993) would go that year to Norm Rice.


Constantine Angelos, “City Council Oks Looser ‘Urban Villages’ Plan,” The Seattle Times, July 16, 1994;  Rebecca Boren, “Across Street from Nordy’s See UN Mall,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, May 2, 1997; Sharon Pian Chan and Steve Miletich, “Locke, Rice to Study Police Accountability,” The Seattle Times, June 29, 2007; Susan Gilmore, “Councilman Norm Rice -- Is Mayor’s Office in His Future?” The Seattle Times, January 8, 1984;  “Highlights of Norm Rice’s Two Terms as Seattle Mayor,” The Seattle Times, April 11, 1997;  Dick Lilly, “Rice Still Has Clear Goal with ‘Villages,’ ” The Seattle Times, March 3, 1994;  Scott Maier, “Rice Throws Cold Water on Mayor’s Curfew Proposal,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, August 22, 1986; Lee Moriwaki, “Rice Outlines Drive to Fight Homelessness,” The Seattle Times, September 14, 1992;  Eris Neiman, “Seattle’s Norm Rice Takes USCM Helm,” American City and Country, June 1, 1995;  Michael Paulson, “Mayor’s Report:  Downtown Recovery and Potholes,”  Seattle Post-Intelligencer, April 11, 1997;  Susan Paynter, “City Cited for Handling of Homeless,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, December 16, 1992;  Times Staff, “Rice Says Summit is Action Oriented,” The Seattle Times, May 4, 1990; “Rice Faces Wrath of Central Area Residents,” The Skanner, April 22, 1992; “Rice’s Legacy:  Downtown and Caring Stewardship,” The Seattle Times, December 28, 1997; Bill Virgin, “Rice Takes Executive Post With Loan Bank,“ Seattle Post Intelligencer, January 28, 1998; Kimberly A. C. Wilson, “Two Terms Enough, Says Rice,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, April, 1997;  Don Williamson, “Norm Rice -- Year One, Part One”, The Seattle Times, March 5, 1991; Peter Lewis, "Council OKs $3.7 Billion Budget," The Seattle Times, November 19, 1996, p. B-3; O. Casey Corr, "'Teflon Mayor' Looks Upward: Rice Hopes Nice-Guy Image Works," Ibid., September 6, 1996, p. B-1; Ross Anderson, "Similar Men Now Polls Apart," Ibid., September 20, 1989, p. A-1; Jim Simon, Mark Matassa, "Seattle Mayor: Revelle, Street Feel the Sting of Defeat -- Losses Linked to Flood of Look-alike Candidates," Ibid., September 20, 1989, p. D-2; Anderson, "Anti-Bus Initiative Drives Rice into Race," Ibid., July 29, 1989, p. A-1; HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Rice, Constance Williams (b. 1945)" (by David Wilma), "Voters elect Norm Rice mayor of Seattle on November 7, 1989." (by Walt Crowley), and "Norm Rice unexpectedly enters race for Seattle Mayor on last day of filing, July 28, 1989." (by Walt Crowley), http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed April 7, 2014); "Mayors of the City of Seattle," Seattle City Clerk website accessed February 11, 2014 (http://www.seattle.gov/cityarchives/facts/mayors.htm); "Norman B. Rice to Chair Committee for Planning the Future of Yesler Terrace," Seattle Housing Authority website accessed March 30, 2014 (http://www.seattlehousing.org/news/releases/2006/rice-chairs-yesler-committee/); "Our Company," Federal Home Loan Bank of Seattle website accessed March 31, 2014 (http://www.fhlbsea.com/OurCompany/Default.aspx); "Norman B. Rice, President and CEO," The Seattle Foundation website accessed March 31, 2014 (http://www.seattlefoundation.org/aboutus/Pages/NormanRice.aspx); "Norman B. Rice To Retire As President & CEO Of The Seattle Foundation," The Seattle Foundation website accessed April 2, 2014 (http://www.seattlefoundation.org/news/Pages/NormanBRiceto RetireasPresidentCEOofTheSeattleFoundation.aspx); "Norman B. Rice Named 2014 Recipient of Seattle-King County First Citizen Award," The Seattle Foundation website accessed April 9, 2014 (http://www.seattlefoundation.org/news/Pages/NormanBRicenamed2014Recipientof SeattleKingCountyFirstCitizenAward.aspx).
Note: This essay was substantially revised, expanded, and updated on April 9, 2014.

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