Elected in 1997 on the momentum he created with his anti-stadium fight, Licata stormed the downtown Bastille as a rowdy amalgam of populist neighborhood interests and good old-fashioned left-wing egalitarian politics. Once in office, the rowdiness gave way to a finely tuned and thoughtful progressive politician who has emerged as Seattle's own Ralph Nader (in a good way!).
But also--as evidenced by his latest defeat--in a bad way, too. Case in point, Licata's legislative record is about as impressive as Nader's electoral vote count in 1996.
The Stranger looked at the issues Licata has championed during the past year and a half. Here's how he fared: All five of the resolutions (including amending the parks exclusion ordinance) that he brought to the council failed. Three more (including doubling the one-percent-for-arts funding) are still in political limbo. And two others (including trimming the design of the downtown convention center) never came to full council. Licata's last major accomplishments were in 1998, when he squashed the Olympics bid, found funding for libraries, and enacted tenant rights legislation.
One has to wonder if Licata needs to overhaul his strategy in order to get progressive interests passed, rather than simply heard. Here's the current script: disenfranchised constituents storm city hall and get their day in court; people speak eloquently on the issue; and Licata's resolution fails. The larger political fallout of this ritual seems bad for Seattle's progressive agenda. Licata's council colleagues have built up an immunity to the routine, and activists, given the chance to vent, have been lulled into a false sense of accomplishment. A solid victory from Licata's corner would change that.
How effective is Nick Licata?
Well, I actually think I'm probably one of the most effective people on the city council. The Olympics is a perfect example. Early on I had major doubts about it, but I didn't immediately start slamming the Olympics. You have to educate people up here. You have to bring people along. So very slowly I worked with the other council members and start raising questions, and eventually it was people like Tina [Podlodowski] and Richard Conlin who said this is not a good idea. And eventually it was an eight-to-one vote. The council is a much more progressive body because I'm on it. And it's also because I provide cover for other people to move up a little bit.
Is that Nick Licata's role in the city council?
I see my role as trying to represent the disenfranchised. To see the issues debated out in the open, even if you're on the losing side, is an important process. A lot of time, what you are doing is moving the scene of the battle. A good example is the convention center. Initially the Washington State Convention Center was going to give something like less than $100,000 in amenities to the community. And we talked about eliminating the canopy. Well, we didn't win the canopy vote, but we ended up getting the community half a million dollars in amenities. So, we moved the debate. We got a lot accomplished.
Have you learned any lessons from the losing votes, like the impound ordinance?
I probably get five to 10 phone calls a week on what I know are losing-cause issues. I mean, every dissident, anybody who's upset about government, calls me. You know, I expect to see my number on phone poles: "Got a problem with government? Call Nick Licata!" But I want at least two other votes. I want a three-vote. If I go down, at least it's three people, which is somewhat insulating.
Why do you go ahead with something that's going down?
Well, you know the impound ordinance amendment is a very good example. As a politician I'd just as soon avoid a vote that's going to be lost. I made some phone calls to leadership in the black community, and I said, "I don't think we've got the votes here." And I said, "But you tell me what you want to do. If you want to go ahead and have a vote, I'll pursue it." They said yes.
Is it simply a numbers game? Is the problem that there's not enough Nick Licatas on the city council?
Well, I'm trying to convert those numbers with the people who already sit here.
Is there a strategy to do that?
Well, you know, again, I think there's already been a number of votes that we've won.
What's the next big piece of legislation you're working on?
I probably will introduce legislation to fund the ETC [the monorail].