We've said it before and we'll say it again: Judy Nicastro, the populist street fighter who ran on a renters' rights platform in 1999, is still the strongest voice on the council for renters, poor folks, and people who want Seattle to be a city, not a low-rise West Coast backwater.

Ever wonder why Nicastro has been the focus of the Rick's rezone scandal while her colleagues Heidi Wills and Jim Compton, who collectively accepted another $16,000 from people associated with the club, escaped relatively unscathed? Maybe it's because Seattle's Birkenstock-wearing liberal establishment just doesn't like this mouthy gal from New Jersey who advocates for affordable housing and a more compact Seattle.

The daily press have pilloried Nicastro for playing political games and not being a "serious" presence on the council. They have some evidence: Most memorably, Nicastro flip-flopped on the reconfirmation of Seattle City Light chief Gary Zarker. And she often shoots her mouth off without thinking. Remember her ridiculous suggestion last June for potentially illegal Boeing tax breaks? And Judy detractors recently uncovered transcripts from a 2001 safety-advisory council meeting, when she badmouthed the ACLU and suggested cops "sweep the city." But those weird episodes--along with a handful of others--are a minor sour note in a record that's mostly right on key.

For example: Living up to her '99 promise to defend renters' rights, Nicastro made it easier for tenants to sue landlords who retaliate against them; ensured tenants' rights to organize; and lowered the parking requirements for affordable housing citywide, making it cheaper for developers to build housing for the very neediest. She's been a consistent voice on the council for density (especially in areas that will one day be served by rapid transit) and for packing more housing units into Seattle's residential neighborhoods.

She also provides crucial backup for lefty colleague Nick Licata--on things like holding Sound Transit accountable and stalling the council's blind endorsement of the chamber of commerce. Nicastro has also taken some brave solo stands. She took the lone vote against selling off five acres of South Lake Union city property to Paul Allen in 2001 after she, Licata, and Peter Steinbrueck failed to get the low-income housing guarantees they fought for.

And Nicastro also took a controversial solo stand against 2002's low-income housing levy, opposing it because she felt it included too much money for homeownership programs. While there's room for debate on the merits of last year's housing levy--Nicastro's worthiest opponent, Darryl Smith, saw it as a leg up for first-time buyers who'd otherwise move out to one of Seattle's sprawling suburbs--that's not the point her other opponents, like mealy-mouthed environmental lawyer Kollin Min, have made. Instead, they've characterized Nicastro's opposition as a wrong-headed vote against a law that did more good than harm. Wrong. Nicastro opposed the housing levy for good reasons: It helps families making up to $62,000 a year, not the folks the "low-income" levy was designed to assist. The Stranger Election Bowling League says: Way to go.

Nicastro's six opponents are unimpressive. One, Min, is a politically vapid environmental lawyer and mainstream Dem--oh, and he's a big fan of the drug war. (Smoke pot? Don't vote for Min--he's the only guy in this race who wants to send your ass to jail.) Robert Rosencrantz, a Mark Sidran-esque landlord who never met a civility law he didn't like, is the Election Bowling League's worst nightmare. And former Seattle Times columnist Jean Godden, a sweet lady whose politics are liberal but untested, doesn't offer the energy or vision the council needs. (But even ol' Jean thinks pot should be legal, Kollin!) Only Smith, a former actor and longtime neighborhood activist in Columbia City who touts density and affordable housing for people at all income levels, stands out in this crowded field. We hope he'll run again.