Victoria Renard
IT WAS IMPOSSIBLE to miss the glow emanating from City Council Member Judy Nicastro each time she announced the arrival of a council colleague to her June 10 Renters' Summit at Seattle Center. On the most basic level, Nicastro, the day's host, was simply and politely thanking her co-workers for showing up. (All eight of her cohorts plus Mayor Paul Schell attended.) On another level, again demonstrating good manners, Nicastro was introducing the city's elected officials to the crowd. On a third level, Nicastro was using her polite introductions to tell the 500-plus crowd of renters, activists, bureaucrats, and landlords that--given her colleagues' obedient attendance--renters' issues are of major concern to the full council. "All nine of your city council members are here today," Nicastro beamed, "because they all care deeply about renters."

She's a shrewd one, that Judy Nicastro. Clearly, she was using the forum to corner her colleagues and send a couple of other sly messages their way. Mostly, she was looking to hold her colleagues accountable to the renters' rights agenda that was taking center stage early on that rainy Saturday. Nicastro knows she needs five votes to pass her populist package (which includes strengthening renters' legal standing in court and pushing for rent regulation), and she was saying, hey, Heidi Wills, I just introduced you to hundreds of people who support me. You'll be hearing from them if you don't back me on this.

Basking in her newfound star status as the most visible, charismatic, and commanding lefty politician Seattle has seen in years, Nicastro was also flexing a little muscle, boasting that she had the power to drag Council President Margaret Pageler out of bed at 8:30 on a Saturday morning. Keep in mind this was an event that wouldn't have attracted more than a reporter from Eat the State less than a year ago. No other local politician has the draw or the hot-button issue to pack Seattle Center's Rainier Room on a Saturday morning (although I suppose Mayor Schell might attract a large crowd of hecklers if he held a transportation summit). Nicastro's message: I'm for real.

Indeed, never mind the cursory "debate" on rent control that closed the session. The Renters' Summit was mostly a savvy organizing tool orchestrated by Nicastro and her team of four charged young staffers, designed to rev up her city council agenda.

The most concrete policy issue to emerge from the Renters' Summit--thanks to riveting testimony from beleaguered Capitol Hill tenants like Juli Hughes ["That Time of the Month," Josh Feit, August 19, 1999]--was Nicastro's call to lower the standard of proof for plaintiffs in landlord retaliation cases from the criminal standard of "beyond a reasonable doubt" to the civil standard of "preponderance of the evidence." Lowering the standard this way would allow tenants like Hughes, who was targeted with an additional rent increase after she first complained about an untimely and thus illegal rent hike, to simply show that her allegations are "more likely true than untrue."

When Hughes, a tenant at R. P. Management's Biltmore Apartments, recounted her chilling tales of landlord retaliation to a roomful of renters, you could feel the crowd's anger elevate Nicastro's agenda. In fact, Nicastro concluded the summit by giving an award to Hughes and her neighbors for being the city's bravest tenants.

It's not clear, however, how much immediate political support Nicastro has for lowering the standard of proof. Tenants Union organizer Scott Winn likes Nicastro's idea of pushing for a civil option in cases of retaliation, but he doesn't think the city should simultaneously scrap the criminal option. "Why take away a right?" asks Winn, who wants tenants to have the option of sending their landlords to the slammer.

Nicastro has her reasons. "The idea of keeping rent retaliation as a criminal violation is that it's supposed to work as a deterrent," she says. "Well, it clearly hasn't worked." Nicastro thinks switching rent retaliation cases to the civil courts will be the ultimate deterrent because the city will have a better chance of winning the cases. Nicastro believes the summit has given her the green light to enact her changes. "We had a phenomenal turnout. I feel like I have the backing of real people, working people in the city."

Meanwhile, the landlords on hand were less impressed. "Not a whole heck of a lot happened today," said Chris Benis, a landlord, panelist, and spokesperson for the Apartment Association of Seattle King County. "Some city council members told me this wasn't as big of a show as they expected."

As if anticipating this disingenuous political pooh-poohing, Nicastro began her final remarks by asking how many people in the audience were renters. Hundreds of hands went up. "Whoa!" Nicastro said, stepping backward to emphasize the jolt of legitimacy that her urban populism attained this weekend.