Nick Licata: An Appreciation

Seattle City Councilman and former council president Nick Licata made official today what many people expected: he will not run for re-election in 2015, retiring after 18 eventful years on city council:

“I’ve been lucky to have an exciting life filled with challenges taken on voluntarily, not out of hardship.

“Perhaps the greatest challenge we all face is the need to improve the lives of Americans who are seeing their future increasingly impeded by the outrageous growing concentration of wealth, and I would add power, in this nation.

“No one city can resolve this problem. But Seattle has done much in attempting to do so. I would like to play more of an active role in that effort. And see what I can do to have Seattle’s accomplishments duplicated elsewhere.

“I hope after my current term ends this year that I may have that opportunity in some capacity. So, I will not seek re-election.”

Local politicos immediately pivoted to speculation on this year’s council races. Licata and sometimes-ally Mike O’Brien both live in the same district, so Licata’s retirement allows O’Brien to run for his district seat and for both to avoid running against a fellow incumbent (Sally Clark or Tim Burgess, neither of whom face serious opposition as yet) for an at-large seat. But before immersing themselves in this year’s horse race speculation, the city’s political class would do well to stop and pay homage to one of the most significant and effective council members in modern Seattle history.

First, the disclaimer: Nick has been an acquaintance, casual friend, and political ally of mine for nearly a quarter century. I first met him in the early ’90s, when he and a mutual friend both lived in an urban land trust on Capitol Hill called PRAG House. I worked with him in 1995-96 in the futile effort to block public funding of not one but two sports stadiums, opposed by the public but built anyway. The visibility from those campaigns helped fuel his successful run for city council in 1997, the last unabashed progressive to be elected to council until Kshama Sawant 16 long years later.

In that race, Licata narrowly defeated Aaron Ostrom, who insisted – with the backing of much of the city’s political elite – that he was the true progressive in the race. Ostrom went on to found and still leads Washington FUSE, a “progressive” activist group that endorsed the execrable Richard Conlin over Sawant in 2013. That arc is pretty much a microcosm of what Licata has faced throughout his council career: a civic establishment that prides itself on its progressivism, so long as all the money goes to the Right People.

Over the years, I haven’t always agreed with Nick. But having been an activist for nearly 40 years (!), and a paid political journalist and commentator for nearly 20, I’m comfortable that I’m separating both my friendship and my politics out of the equation when I say the following:

Nick Licata is the best elected official I have ever known. At any level. Period.

Despite having been the most left-leaning council member for most of his tenure, Licata has more high-profile accomplishments than any of his colleagues. (Do you like that Seattle requires paid health leave for our city’s businesses? Thank Nick.) But most of what has separated Nick from any other elected official I’ve ever seen is the stuff behind the scenes.

Before his election to council, Nick worked writing insurance policies. As it turned out, that’s ideal training for serving on city council, especially in Seattle. Much of the job is dull, and much of the way our city’s economic elites feed at the public trough is buried in the details of legislation that doesn’t make the news: zoning changes, city budget line items, and other bills that are genuinely soporific bedtime reading. The devil, in Seattle politics, is almost always in the details, and Licata has been masterful at getting language changes that make decent proposals good and awful ones less awful. In the perennial political struggle between ideals and effectiveness, Nick does the best job I’ve ever seen of managing to serve both.

More than that, however, Licata is the exception to the Seattle political rule that coopts even the best new legislators. (Does anyone remember that pro-business stalwart Margaret Pageler was originally elected as a reform candidate? Or that Conlin, when he was also first elected in 1997, was affiliated with the Green Party?) Nick has kept his priorities – and his commitment to openness and to treating people decently – long after most politicians abandon such things. And he has had a remarkable ability to go into a room with his ideological opponents, find common ground, and hash out a compromise that still serves his priorities. Nick is both on the side of the angels and has remained singularly effective – an impossibly rare combination – even while serving for nearly two decades on a council dominated by business-friendly nonentities.

Three other friends of mine helped Nick in that original 1997 campaign. He hired each on his staff when he won, and eighteen years later, every single one of them – Lisa Herbold, Newell Aldrich, and Frank Video – remain on his staff, each beloved in their own right in local progressive circles. It’s a measure of how Nick treats people that after 18 years he has retained his entire original staff. That’s also unheard of.

As his statement today says, Nick will remain active in local politics. He’s played a significant behind-the-scenes role in mentoring both O’Brien and Sawant to become more effective council members, and has personally been hugely helpful – as one of the only council members willing to actually talk with and his constituents – to hundreds, if not thousands, of people over the years. That generosity of spirit surely won’t change in his well-earned retirement. And with district elections this fall, Seattle has an unusual opportunity to elect a whole new generation of progressive political leaders.

But I’ll miss Nick in office. I’ll miss the poetry readings, I’ll miss the openness and accessibility, and I’ll miss the sheer decency. Seattle City Council will be a lesser place without him, no matter who gets elected this fall.

For most of my life, I’ve agitated for and written and talked about politics. Most of the news, most of the time, isn’t especially good. It’s easy to get cynical. A lot of people within our political institutions are well-intentioned, but there are very few that I genuinely admire. One of them announced his retirement today.

Seattle’s civic elite likes to name things after its political champions, and Nick doesn’t qualify on that score, which is exactly why he should be honored. Hopefully we’ll name something after him – and it’ll be an institution that helps people. He deserves it.

One thought on “Nick Licata: An Appreciation

  1. Pingback: Lefty Seattle city councilmember Nick Licata will not seek re-election | Catalytic Community

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