Local Heroes: No 25: Norman Rice; City's first black mayor cleans up white city

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The Independent Online
Washington - There are two utterly contradictory ways of looking at the evolution of race relations in America since the civil rights movement of the Sixties. Each is equally plausible.

You can point to the OJ Simpson affair and the Louis Farrakhan phenomenon as evidence of the country's abysmal failure to achieve Martin Luther King's dream of colour-blind integration.

Or you can point to the rise of the black middle class: the number of black doctors and lawyers has more than tripled in the last three decades, and the number of black mayors has risen from below 50 in 1970 to more than 300 today.

If you are looking for one example to argue the thesis that there is more to admire than to despise in America's handling of the race question, then look no further than Norman Rice, one of half a dozen Americans singled out as "heroes" by President Clinton in his last State of the Union address.

Elected Seattle's first black mayor in 1989, Mr Rice was re-elected with a hugely increased majority in 1993 and is now running for governor of Washington state. What is remarkable here is that Seattle, unlike other major American cities with black mayors, has an overwhelmingly white population. Only 10 per cent of Seattle residents are black.

Which puts to rest the notion cherished by some of America's more radical black leaders that their white compatriots are constitutionally incapable of setting skin colour aside and judging people on merit. In the same way that it shatters the no-less cherished notion of white bigots that black people cannot, to coin a phrase, run a bath.

Mr Rice is wildly popular in his constituency, viewed by black and white alike with something of the pride all South Africans take in Nelson Mandela. During his tenure as mayor, Seattle, a magnet for Californian migrants in recent years, has been described in survey after survey as the number one American city in which to live.

Unapologetically all-American, not one to indulge in the fancy that Africa is where his real home lies, he made a bet last year with the mayor of Cleveland that the Seattle Mariners baseball team would beat the Cleveland Indians. Mr Rice lost. His stake? Ten pounds of Pacific Northwest salmon - which he delivered to his Cleveland counterpart in a small ceremony last month.

Mr Rice could afford to be gracious; he is a man more accustomed to winning than to losing. Apart from his electoral victories on home turf, last year he was voted president of the US Conference of Mayors and , in a no less celebrated coup, went on to win the title of America's "Funniest Mayor" on an HBO television charity show featuring Whoopi Goldberg and Robin Williams. Cracking jokes about Seattle's notoriously high rainfall, he manipulated his voice to gurgle as if he were speaking underwater.

If you can put up with the rain, Seattle is the perfect place to live. To a prosperous city bountifully blessed with natural charms - mountains, forests, lakes and ocean - Mr Rice has helped add a high quality of life. While keeping a tight rein on the city coffers, he has made Seattle's streets and public transport the cleanest of any large American urban centre. He has brought crime down - it fell by 14 per cent in 1994 - and won Seattle a national prize for its success in dealing with the problems of the homeless.

If the people of Seattle are proud of him, it is in large measure because of the pride he takes in his job. In an interview a few years ago he lyrically described his passion for the city. "I want Seattle's children to feel their linkages to water and weather," he said, "to sense the unfathomable power of salmon returning to spawn after years at sea, to have mountains and forests as anchors in their souls."