By-law freak let loose on Microsoft City

American Times SEATTLE
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The Independent Online
HE HAS been called the Rudolph Giuliani of the West or, less flatteringly, Little Rudy. So determined does he appear to be to stop anyone in Seattle breaking the tiniest rule - or, for that matter, having any fun - that some of his trendier detractors have compared him to Satan. Although he has been re-elected twice, he is regularly denounced as a racist and a fascist by the city's liberal intelligentsia.

Quite some reputation, for a man who is not even mayor. In all of Seattle's angst about its own rapid gentrification - a process hastened by Microsoft and the Internet revolution - it is Mark Sidran, the City Attorney, who has undoubtedly become the bogeyman for the city's aspirations to self- improvement.

He doesn't like people urinating in the streets, so he passed an ordinance enabling police to arrest and fine people who do it. He doesn't like public drunkenness, so once again he issued orders to make it a prosecutable offence - even if the drunk in question is causing no other disturbance.

He has told landowners to clean up the graffiti on their property or else face the judicial consequences. He has made certain traffic offences, such as driving with a suspended licence, punishable by a jail term and pushed for far higher sentences - months rather than days - for shoplifters and prostitutes.

Mr Sidran subscribes to the same "broken windows" philosophy that has driven Mayor Giuliani in New York - the thinking being that if you make people respect the small stuff then crime as a whole will come down. "Misdemeanours matter" is his mantra, and "civility" his abiding passion.

As with Mayor Giuliani, this has made Mr Sidran a controversial figure, with civil rights groups and public defenders arguing that he is inevitably persecuting minority groups and the poor with his homeless sweeps, his anti-begging ordinances, his injunctions keeping "troublemakers" out of city parks and his indulgence of get-tough police behaviour.

It has also made people wonder whether he isn't trying to be some kind of puritan commissar, forcing a humourless, fun-free straitjacket on this easy-going, culturally vibrant capital of the American North-west.

For two years now he has had his sights set on the Fremont Summer Solstice, an annual gathering of artists and parade marchers in one of Seattle's funkier neighbourhoods that traditionally features naked men on bicycles. Last year the police arrested a handful of these cyclists for indecent exposure but failed to make the charges stick in court. This year, Mr Sidran ordered the artists organising the parade to state explicitly that they did not endorse nude cycling and testify in court against anyone who tried it, or else risk losing their licence next time around.

He does not always get his way. For months he has been campaigning to prevent late-night noise at downtown clubs by curtailing their music and dancing licences. He has made little secret of his desire to close many of these places on the basis that illicit drugs probably get sold and consumed there. But recently a federal judge declared the Prohibition- era laws regulating these licences to be unconstitutional since music, dancing and entertainment were basic rights of free speech - a ruling that in effect cocked a snook at Mr Sidran's zealous efforts and suggested he should unbutton his shirt and enjoy himself for a change.

Speaking for many of the City Attorney's detractors, a local political operative-cum-heavy metal freak called Matthew Fox recently accused Mr Sidran of trying to turn Seattle into a glorified middle-class suburb. "If I wanted to live in Bellevue, I'd live in Bellevue," Mr Fox said, referring to a residential neighbourhood across Lake Washington, "and if I wanted to live in a city run by Rudy Giuliani, I'd move to New York."

Much as Seattle might seek to deny it, though, Mr Sidran is peculiarly representative of the city's transformation from the arty provincial centre of times past to one of the main engine-rooms of the computer age. If grunge defined Seattle in the early 1990s, then Mark Sidran and his yuppyish, Harvard-trained sense of social order defines it for the Microsoft generation.

The new Seattle no longer wants to face its armies of homeless drug addicts (the city has the highest heroin consumption in the United States); it wants to shop at Armani and Pier One and Restoration Hardware and Pottery Barn - the very emblems of the long, technology-driven economic boom of the Clinton years.

"There are a lot of good Seattle liberals who say at parties that he is a horrible person, but then vote for him because they agree with what he is doing," observes Timothy Harris of the street newspaper Real Change. "If there wasn't a Mark Sidran, Seattle would have to invent one."