Longtime Council Icon Nick Licata Bows Out

Nick Licata will not return to the City Council next year.
Nick Licata will not return to the City Council next year.

Nick Licata, the five-term Seattle City Council incumbent, who once said that every politician should live in a commune at one time in their life, announced he wouldn’t be seeking a fifth term last week.

Kudos quickly filled the Seattle Council blog where Licata made the announcement. Licata’s been a leader on progressive issues since taking office in 1997 and is well-liked for his amiable personality. Licata has crafted several pieces of legislation benefitting the overburdened working class. Most recently he sponsored the law requiring all Seattle employers with a minimum of four full-time employers have to provide paid sick leave. Geov Parrish, who wrote and published Eat The State and has served as a political consultant, has called Licata the best politician, as far as getting things done, that he’s seen in over 30 years. Housing advocate John Fox calls Licata’s departure a huge loss.

Licata’s announcement wasn’t a total surprise. He won re-election in 2013, but voters also passed a change from citywide to district council elections. All nine council slots are up for re-election this year. Licata expressed disappointment at that time, noting that he thought he would be in office until 2017, giving him 20 years on the council.

A few months ago, Licata said he would announce a decision in January about whether he would run this year. Licata and fellow Council Member Mike O’Brien both live in District 6, the Greenwood, Ballard and Fremont neighborhoods. Licata has consistently said he wouldn’t run against O’Brien, “because he’s doing a good job.” Licata also had the option of running against incumbents Tim Burgess or Sally Clark for one of the two still citywide council seats.

It’s a little ironic that Licata announced his decision in a week where the Seattle Seahawks are preparing to return to the Super Bowl. Many people first knew of Licata back in 1995 when he spearheaded a group, “Citizens For More Important Things,” which opposed “excessive” public funding for professional sports stadiums. Licata’s group collected 73,000 signatures to get an initiative on the ballot preventing King County from building a new stadium for the Seattle Mariners. The inititiave passed, but politics being politics, the Council almost immediately started plans to build the Mariners a new stadium (followed by the Seahawks a few years later).

Two years later, Licata ran against Aaron Ostram — who raised more money — for an open seat on the Council. He won that election and has been re-elected by wide margins ever since. While born in Ohio, Licata brought a Seattle quirkiness to the Council. Where else would a politician start committee meetings with poetry readings like Licata did when he first joined the council?

When I came to Seattle in 2001 and started working for Real Change, Licata was already an established friend of the organization that advocated for homeless and low-income citizens. I wrote an article for the Real Change newspaper about legislation that Licata worked on that curtailed the city from booting and towing cars that had accumulated lots of parking tickets. Low-income groups labeled it a Catch-22 situation. Poor people couldn’t pay parking fines because they didn’t have a job; and it’s harder to get a job if you don’t have a car.

But here’s a little secret: politicians don’t really benefit from helping the poor, or the homeless. Those aren’t the folks making $600 donations to their favorite politicians. A lot of them don’t even vote. It’s easier (and more profitable) to support the Seattle Chamber of Commerce and do the bidding of downtown developers. You have to have the courage of your convictions to line up on the other side.

A couple of other observations on Licata. He was one council member who didn’t mind if he was the one in an 8-1 vote. It seems some council members don’t like being the outsider and will support something if it’s going to pass unanimously. But Licata always voted his conscience. He also made many proposals over the years that were voted down, but he never sulked or took it personally. He lived the advice that he would give newer council members like Kshama Sawant, “Disagree, but don’t be disagreeable.”

While Licata was rightly considered the most liberal council member during most of his tenure, he often sounded like the most fiscally responsible. He was usually the first to question the money being thrown towards pet projects that the corporate Democrats on the council gleefully supported like overpriced pay toilets and amenities for downtown businesses. Last year he joined Sawant in trying to shoot down a token raise for City Light head Jorge Carrasco. He spoke up when Seattle briefly considered going after the Winter Olympics, noting it would be another financial boondoggle. (Boston will be the US city bidding on the Olympics this year, and Boston papers are starting to write articles on what a financial drain that will be for the city.)

Not that Licata never made any flubs. Speaking of sports, he seemed to regret a comment he made a few years ago when he said the soon-to-depart Seattle Sonics basketball team had “zero economic impact on the city.” However, it should be noted that the Sonics themselves agreed with Licata — at least owner Clay Bennett, who couldn’t wait to move the team to Oklahoma City.

While Licata’s ready to step aside and let others lead, some feel this is a bad time for him to be departing. After years where he was the one in an 8-1 vote, Licata has a couple of allies on the council in O’Brien and Sawant. While much different in background and temperament they vote the same on many issues, and more like-minded individuals could be on the way.

The most time I ever spent talking to Nick Licata was at a Real Change event. Licata liked Real Change so much, he even hosted one of our yearly anniversary party one year — at Prag House, a Capitol Hill collective where Licata lived back in the 80s with several other people. Yup, that was his commune.

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