Mark Matassa on life in the mayor’s office

In the last year, Mark Matassa left journalism behind to steer Mayor Mike McGinn’s communications staff through controversial budget cuts, bike-friendly road policies, and tunnel debates.

And he’s done it all while fighting brain cancer.

Remarkably, Matassa expresses only optimism and gratitude for where he’s at. He’s embracing his hectic life, stress and all.

“I really love working for the mayor,” Matassa said. “I feel lucky to have landed here.”

Matassa didn’t set out to become McGinn’s director of communications. When the mayor’s office reached out to him last December, he’d been working as an editor at online news site Crosscut for only a few months. He’d been a reporter and editor at news outlets up and down the West Coast his entire life, and hadn’t given much thought to leaving journalism.

But out of pure curiosity, Matassa decided to take the invitation for an interview at the mayor’s office anyhow. Upon meeting with McGinn, Matassa instantly took a liking to the man, both for his values and his open, comfortable attitude.

“If Dino Rossi had called looking for a communcations director, I would not have taken the job,” Matassa said. “But I felt a political and personal connection with McGinn.”

Matassa also became intrigued by the idea of witnessing behind-the-scenes operations of city government for the first time. He’d covered politics throughout his journalism career, and wondered about the view from the other side.

Almost a full year later, Matassa isn’t sorry he took the leap away from journalism. For the first time in decades, he feels he can engage in political debate at a party. After years of trying to be objective, he’s happy to say that he feels McGinn’s budget is brilliant, agrees with the mayor’s anti-tunnel stance, and advocates for cycling and mass transit.

“I’ve found it really refreshing to come out and say what I think about stuff,” Matassa said.

Matassa won’t talk politics, however, in his own home. His longtime partner, Michelle Nicolosi, is the executive producer at Seattlepi.com. To counter any potential perceived bias in Seattlepi.com’s coverage of City Hall, Matassa and Nicolosi steer away from business and political discussions. Nicolosi, in turn, won’t work on or edit stories that involve the mayor’s office, and Matassa communicates with other reporters at Seattlepi.com.

While Matassa’s political gig marks a shift from the attempted objectivity of reporting to clear bias, he also finds similarities between City Hall and a newsroom. Both jobs carry equal pressure. In the news business, he hurried to meet deadlines, report stories accurately, and produce copy quickly. At the mayor’s office, his stresses come from managing relationships with various groups and people. Both types of pressure, Matassa has found, suit him well.

“I’m good under stress,” Matassa said. “I find the challenges in journalism and at the mayor’s office incredibly invigorating.”

Day to day, Matassa also finds his role as communications director not so different from being an editor. In both jobs, he spends significant time managing other people and sitting in meetings.

For Matassa, the challenge of adapting to a new career pales in comparison to his larger fight. Since 2006, he’s been battling brain cancer. He’s gone through two surgeries, chemotherapy, and radiation.

This summer, Matassa took two months off from his duties at the mayor’s office to undergo radiation therapy. He’s been back at the office for four weeks now, but struggles with fatigue. Matassa credits coworkers with filling in for him when needed.

“Everyone at the mayor’s office has been so cool and helpful,” Matassa said. “They’ve all pitched in.”

Even though he’s constantly tired, Matassa embraced his return to work. He loves being part of Seattle’s political scene, and he missed the action while on sick leave.

“I wake up happy,” Matassa said.

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About Heidi Dietrich
HEIDI DIETRICH has worked as a journalist and writer for the past decade. She began blogging for the Washington News Council in spring 2010. Read Heidi's blog posts, see more about Heidi, or see more of what she's writing at http://heidiseattle.com/.