I am standing in the lobby of the Paramount Theatre on a dark Wednesday night as the room is slowly emptying. A woman in a fur hat is talking so close to my face and with such fervor that I never get her full name. She has a complicated conspiracy theory she'd like to tell me about. It involves a guy she says was shot by a city employee. It'd make a great novel, she says—even better, a screenplay. If I ever want to write a screenplay—she leans in closer than ever—I can have that idea. She knows people in L.A. who are always looking for ideas. I don't write screenplays, I tell her.
Just then, Seattle City Council member Nick Licata sweeps by on his way out the door for another event marking his departure, after 18 years, from the Seattle City Council. The small crowd follows.
Licata is the reason we're all here: me, a gaggle of Seattle Times reporters who have covered him over the years, police reform advocate Lisa Daugaard, City Attorney Pete Holmes, and a lot of gray-haired people I don't recognize, all gathered for a send-off party hosted by the Seattle Theatre Group. There are also pot entrepreneurs, a fossil fuel divestment activist, a guy who met Licata in the 1970s working at WashPIRG, and the lady with the hat, who also met Licata in the '70s when she was a member of the local Communist Party. Back then, Licata was covering a Communist Party event for the community newspaper he founded, the Seattle Sun.
"The communist party at that time," Licata says, "was so stodgy... so out of date and feeble."
Licata's official retirement is happening this month. (The council will be in recess for most of late December and will get back to business on January 4 when its newly elected members are sworn in.) He's served four and a half terms, the last one cut short by the switch to district elections that put every seat up for grabs this year. His last day on the payroll is December 31, but they're kicking him out of his office on the 20th to repaint it for Bruce Harrell, he says.
During his time on the council, he's fought for increased funding for social services and renters' rights and against using public money for professional sports arenas. Over the last year, he's helped lead the call for rent control. On this night, though, he's relieved to be on the way out.
"Literally every day someone is calling me up and asking me to introduce legislation," he says, "And I'm like, you don't understand. I'm not going to be here."
He's already priming for the next thing, peddling cards advertising his forthcoming book, a how-to guide for regular people who want to start agitating city government that's called Becoming a Citizen Activist: Stories, Strategies, and Advice for Changing Our World.
Not everyone loves Nick Licata, but the crowd here is friendly. He's in the fullest DGAF mode I've seen yet, drinking a Heineken and rocking back and forth with a huge smile as he tells story after story to a small, spellbound group of old friends.
("You got to see how loquacious I can be with a single beer," Licata said in an e-mail this morning.)
He shit-talks Tom Rasmussen a little and even mocks his ally Mike O'Brien. "Mike O'Brien was there," Licata says during a story, "holding a protest sign or something. You know he's always doing that kind of thing. Maybe he was dressed as a canoe. I don't know."
Later that night, at the Northwest Film Forum, he's on stage for local comedian Brett Hamil's politically themed show "The Seattle Process." (The next show, by the way, will be February 25.)
Licata falls a little flat compared to Kshama Sawant's appearance last month. He shares the stage briefly with Lisa Herbold, his longtime aide who'll become a council member in January, and reflects on making change as a far-left member of the council.
"You can always tell something's going down," Licata says about progressive legislation, when other council members say, "'We've got to think about this. Can we get some more time?"
Throughout the segment, Licata follows almost every mention of another council member, even those he's known to regularly spar with, with something like "who I like." ("Tom Rasmussen, who I like, ...") It's a sign of the kind of diplomat he's been over the years.
Licata pairs his brand of populism—sometimes skeptical of growth, but radically left on social issues—with a willingness to play the political game. While Sawant has openly antagonized Council Member Tim Burgess for falling short on her issues, for example, Licata has taken him on a walk around Green Lake to try to get his vote.
After another "who I like" aside from Licata, Hamil turns to the crowd: "This is how he survived for five terms."