On June 24, as a heated debate broke out over a $6 million council handout to powerful downtown developer Richard C. Hedreen, Wills went mum. In fact, Wills--who netted $800, the maximum at the time, from the Hedreens during her '99 election bid--was so unobtrusive during the testy debate that if you watch a tape of the hearing (www.cityofseattle.net/council/Council_Live.htm), the camera doesn't even pick her up. It's as if she wasn't there.
Well, she was there, and Wills, supposedly a supporter of low-income housing, quietly cast her vote for a piece of corporate welfare that robs the city of low-income housing. The legislation Wills voted for allowed Hedreen to expand development plans without building the low-income housing units city law requires. Wills' old activist pals--people like Sarah Jaynes of the SAGE Coalition and John Wyble of Yes For Seattle--were desperately lobbying against the Hedreen giveaway. So why did Wills vote for such a gross deal? She won't say. She seems to hope that if she keeps her mouth shut no one will notice her vote.
Well, people noticed. I called Wills' office and sent two e-mails, asking her about it. Wills didn't reply. A couple of days later, I got an e-mail from one of her assistants. I was told that Wills would explain her vote "later." Two weeks "later," I'm still waiting to hear from Wills.
Meanwhile, there's another illness making the rounds at city hall. Let's call this malady "Judy Nicastro Disease." In this version, rather than disappearing and refusing to explain your vote, you repeat over and over again, really loudly, that what is happening isn't happening. That's how Nicastro--another supposed ally of the left and supporter of low-income housing--justified her June 24 vote for the Hedreen handout.
"The misinformation is just despicable," Nicastro lectured about the June 24 vote. "It's being spun that we're taking $6 million away from low-income housing by us voting in favor of this. But Hedreen getting this does not mean we are taking $6 million away from low-income housing.... Supporting this does not mean we're taking $6 million away from low-income housing."
Nicastro kept saying it, but she couldn't make it come true. And low-income housing activists watched in horror as Judy ("Renters' Rights!") Nicastro cast her lot with the rich hotel developer instead of low-income renters. (Hedreen's development bonus was worth $6 million in low-income housing units.)
THE PROGRESSIVE BLOC
Stuff like the Hedreen legislation was supposed to stop after recent elections catapulted outsiders, populists, and Greens like Nicastro, Wills, Peter Steinbrueck, and Nick Licata onto the city council. Unfortunately, the Hedreen vote happened, and it played out according to some bad film script about small-town corruption. Hedreen's lobbyists (Jamie and Ryan Durkan) wrote the legislation and handed it off to Richard McIver. (McIver received $1,200 from the Hedreens in the last election.) It's not surprising that a conservative like McIver would go to bat for Hedreen and the Durkans, but it is troubling that a self-proclaimed working-class commando like Nicastro (who got zip from Hedreen) and a supposed lefty wonk like Wills would vote for the Hedreen deal. The Hedreen story, first reported by The Stranger ["The Six Million Dollar Scam," Josh Feit, June 20], was eventually picked up by the Seattle Times and Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and progressive voters were disappointed to discover that Seattle still had a city council that kisses downtown butt.
"I'm disappointed in the council," says Kent Kammerer, president of the Seattle Neighborhood Coalition. "I had higher hopes. What is happening represents no change from the past."
The Hedreen handout is but one of many signs that the team on the 11th floor is practically indistinguishable from the mid-'90s Seattle City Council--an infamous group whose votes made neighborhood groups and lefties alike cringe. The council in the mid- to late '90s--Sue Donaldson, Jim Street, Jane Noland, Martha Choe, Jan Drago, Margaret Pageler, et al.--was viewed as an "establishment" council that coddled downtown development interests in cooperation with Mayor Norm Rice. In June 1995, the council agreed to pay $73 million to build a downtown parking garage for the Nordstrom family. After a series of maneuvers involving Pine Street Development and an elusive $20 million, federal and local authorities investigated the scheme. Ultimately, the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission found that the city broke the law by agreeing to the deal without holding a public hearing. No action was taken.
This same council gave $170 million to the expansion of the Washington State Convention & Trade Center, and $72 million to a municipal building overhaul--all the while, between 1993 and 1999, passing a slew of controversial ordinances written by "Mr. Civility," City Attorney Mark Sidran: upping public urination to a misdemeanor (8-0), instituting a poster ban (7-2), banning panhandling (9-0) and sidewalk sitting (8-1), excluding people from parks (7-2), impounding cars (8-1), and regulating noise (6-3).
With the Nordstrom deal still grating on their nerves, Seattle voters began electing dissidents to the city council. First up was Charlie Chong in 1996. A West Seattle populist who ran for mayor after one erratic council term, Chong's flame-out was welcomed by downtown interests and the conservatives on the city council. But voters weren't through with the city council yet. In 1997, two outsiders--Nick Licata, 50, and Peter Steinbrueck, 40--were elected to the city council.
Licata, who looks something like Woody Allen (and no, Seattle, he's not Jewish), is a classic (and brainy) lefty. Schooled in the radical SDS politics of the late '60s and early '70s, Licata was a longtime member of Seattle's progressive community. Living in a commune-type group house known as PRAG, or (tongue-in-cheek) the Provisional Revolutionary Action Group house in Capitol Hill, Licata made his name as an activist in the grassroots battles against public financing for the stadiums and Nordstrom's $73 million Pacific Place garage. He also led an effort to keep Pine Street open as a plaza in downtown Seattle. Then he stormed the council in '97, thwarting Seattle's cheesy bid to host the Olympics and battling the $170 million convention center revamp.
Meanwhile, Steinbrueck quickly established himself as an effective bleeding-heart liberal on homeless and housing issues. Early in his term he sponsored a city hall alternative to Mayor Paul Schell's housing summit, giving a high-profile forum and stamp of approval to a set of progressive recommendations like repealing rent control and advocating "right of first refusal" for low-income tenants. Son of the famous Pike Place Market savior Victor Steinbrueck, Peter was a personable, handsome, shoot-from-the-hip lefty who also took the lone vote against Sidran's impound ordinance in 1998.
After the 1999 municipal elections, Licata and Steinbrueck were joined by two young, lefty female politicians: loud-mouthed, street-fighting populist Nicastro, and Green do-gooder Wills. Nicastro, who won big campaign-trail accolades from The Stranger for her proletarian shtick (she was the renters' rights candidate), held a giant renters' summit at Seattle Center early in her term in June 2000, forcing the council and mayor to move on tenants' issues. Meanwhile, Wills--a sort of Beatles to Nicastro's Rolling Stones--unnerved us with her overeager, goody-two-shoes stuff on the campaign trail. But her youth (e.g., she actually went to the Monastery, and she's not freaked out by dancing), and her ability to turn Robin Hood idealism into finely tuned legislation (like her Third Tier rate for energy hogs), convinced us that, despite a penchant for waffling and duplicity, Wills was a valuable part of the progressive bloc at city hall. Her number crunching on the Rainier Vista revamp, for example, kept one-for-one replacement of low-income housing in the mix.
The Licata/Nicastro/Steinbrueck/Wills presence on the council was supposed to nudge city hall closer to the tenor of Seattle's progressive voters. And while these council members rarely work together as a team (Nicastro and Wills--as far as I can tell--can't even look one another in the eye), the four have done some good work. While the gang doesn't hold a majority, the full council is often forced to take a closer look at the finer points of legislation that impacts low-income housing, the environment, and civil rights. For example, a combined Licata/Nicastro/Steinbrueck/Wills effort to reform Schell and council member Richard Conlin's low-income housing bonus program was a cool effort; however it was completely contradicted and screwed by the Hedreen vote.
Indeed, as a parade of recent votes make plain, the Steinbrueck-era council is a huge disappointment: On June 25, the council faltered on reforming the archaic Teen Dance Ordinance (thanks to childish and evasive politicking by Steinbrueck--not to mention some wimpy deference to fringe council member Margaret Pageler); on June 10, the council passed a housing levy for the "poor" that dedicated an unprecedented amount of assistance to middle-class home-ownership; on July 1, the council continued its somnambulant "oversight" of Sound Transit, A-okaying the "train to nowhere" by handing over the downtown bus tunnel to the suspect transit agency. And earlier this spring, on April 29, the council downloaded $50 million to Sound Transit, saving Sound Transit's ass with the feds. That legislation also prevented the future monorail from tapping city funds!
These disappointing votes don't come out of nowhere. There have been big clues over the past few years that Steinbrueck, Wills, and Nicastro, et al., weren't going to shake up the council as much as Stranger readers had hoped. Back in 1999, Steinbrueck bailed on reforming reactionary City Attorney Mark Sidran's parks exclusion ordinance, and according to low-income housing activist John Fox, Steinbrueck was a disappointment as Housing Committee chair, rubber-stamping Seattle Housing Authority appointments and projects that threatened low-income housing stock. He also scoffed at public toilets for the homeless. Heidi Wills introduced the legislation that repealed the first monorail initiative, bailed on her Green supporters over water conservation, broke a campaign promise to reform Sidran's car impound ordinance, and pulled her support from the Downtown Emergency Services Center--an anchor for the homeless. Ditto Judy Nicastro on the homeless center and the monorail. She also cast an off-key vote to gentrify the Duwamish corridor, and came out against neighborhood involvement in the Northgate plan. Nicastro also joined the elitist downtown Rainier Club on Fourth and Columbia, with its regal reading rooms, billiard parlors, and servers who have to address members as "Mr." and "Mrs."
WHAT THE HELL HAPPENED?
Ultimately, there's a common denominator that ruins this council, a weighty inertia that drags people like Nicastro toward Team Drago's, risk-averse, center. The center may sound okay--after all, compromise is the heart of politics--but here's the rub: The root cause of the lefty crew's risk-averse MO is that each council member has aspirations for higher office. Antsy Nicastro nearly made a bid for mayor after one term in office. Steinbrueck has been eyeing the mayor's office for years. (He started to run for mayor before running for a council seat in '97.) And overly cautious Wills (you'll notice that she often plays the role of the fifth and deciding vote, as she did during the Hedreen giveaway, waiting to see how everyone else lines up) is said to have her eyes on U.S. Representative Jim McDermott's seat. (Take a number, Heidi.) These higher aspirations paralyze people like Wills and Nicastro and Steinbrueck.
"You're far more vulnerable when you care passionately about moving up, because you watch the polls, the players, and you become less risk-prone," says political pollster Cathy Allen. "They become risk-averse."
Comically (council members should take note), not a single former council member in recent memory has gone on to higher office.
"The city council has not been a ladder to higher public office," laughs political consultant and prognosticator Blair Butterworth.
The recent Tukwila City Council vote provides a handy comparison to our council's record. The five Tukwila council members who spat in the eye of Sound Transit last month--including a secretary and the head custodian at Tukwila Elementary School--weren't compromised by aspirations to higher offices. Consequently, they were able to vote in the best interests of their community rather than their careers.
"We have a different perspective than full-time politicians," says Council Member David Fenton, a retired Air Force pilot who holds down the $10,000-per-year Tukwila council job in his spare time, and who does most of his politicking by chatting with neighbors over coffee at the Pancake Chef.
Indeed, on June 9, Fenton was among the five Tukwila council members who realized that by bypassing Southcenter, the city's commercial hub, Sound Transit's proposed light rail route wasn't in Tukwila's best interests. The Tukwila council told the big boys (including Mayor Nickels) to take a hike. "We were unhappy that it didn't go to Southcenter," says Tukwila Council President and 40-year Tukwila resident Richard Simpson, a retired federal employee. "When you have a facility that has 35,000 employees and at least twice as many customers, why wouldn't the train go there? It doesn't make sense."
Simpson proudly sums up Tukwila's righteous Southcenter vote this way: "Sound Transit needed a bunch of letters for the federal government that said they had all their marbles in a row. They didn't get one from Tukwila."
It's a different story in Seattle. In fact, let's join Seattle's wimpy city council on July 1, when they signed off on a Sound Transit plan that (a) isn't funded yet and (b) doesn't go to one of Seattle's commercial hubs: Northgate. The most telling thing about that day's shenanigans was Nicastro's fake ploy to appear tough on Sound Transit and Licata's real efforts to play hardball with the agency.
At the 9:30 a.m. briefing, Nicastro introduced a resolution that sure sounded cool. She proposed that the Department of Construction and Land Use (DCLU) and the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) not issue permits to Sound Transit light rail stations until Sound Transit's plan was more secure. Unfortunately, as her colleagues quickly pointed out, a resolution has no teeth, and the mayor--a Sound Transit diehard who controls both the DCLU and SDOT--could simply ignore it.
"The mayor can ignore this," McIver laughed. "It doesn't mean anything."
Nicastro's attempt to challenge the status quo was figuratively and literally meaningless. It was also a flop. But we'll be hearing a David-and-Goliath version of this story come re-election time, when Judy will attempt to sell progressive voters her I-had-the-courage-to-take-on-Sound-Transit version.
Meanwhile, Licata actually took on Sound Transit. Licata introduced a legally binding ordinance, attempting to amend the council's plan to turn over the downtown bus tunnel to Sound Transit by attaching two conditions: He demanded that Sound Transit secure the critical $500 million federal grant before taking over the bus tunnel, and that Sound Transit secure the money to get to Northgate in the first phase. Licata got shot down, of course, but by bringing a real measure to the table (an ordinance with teeth and consequences), he forced a debate and forced his colleagues to go on record about Sound Transit.
It's hardly surprising that Licata was the one council member who attempted to use his power to thwart Sound Transit. Licata, in the final analysis, is currently the only member of the council's disappointing reformist wing that truly challenges the status quo. He may not pass a lot of legislation ["Licata Loses Again: Lefty Council Member Licata Is Way Cool, But Is He Effective?" Josh Feit, July 13, 2000], but he represents Seattle's progressive voters with unwavering consistency. He is constantly advocating for more police oversight; he's a civil rights stalwart (testifying against the city on behalf of the April 20 protesters, and leading fights against the racially biased car impound ordinance, parks exclusion ordinance, and police drug enforcement policies); he's clearly the council's internal watchdog (he recently outed a secret council committee that was leaving the public out of the loop on police issues); and he's been a longstanding, steadfast monorail supporter. And--take note--Licata does have power: He successfully led the charge against the Hedreen deal, securing Mayor Nickels' veto.
"Nick is really the only one you can count on," says neighborhood coalition guy Kammerer.
Ironically, while folks like Wills and Nicastro think their knack for compromise makes them more electable (and Licata's idealism makes him laughable), they ought to think again. Indeed, the bad news for Nicastro and Wills is that their current polling numbers suck when compared to Licata's. Pollster Cathy Allen thinks Nicastro's inconsistency has contributed to her bad numbers. "Her identity is as a contrarian. Anti-whatever," Allen says. "But when she ends up being the contrarian who is also a member of the Rainier Club--that has a chilling effect on voters, who see it as a contradiction they can't justify."
Allen wouldn't comment on Wills' spotty record. (Maybe that's because Allen is jonesing to get Wills' business when Wills runs for reelection next year.) However, Wills' record, like Nicastro's, is littered with inconsistencies, such as leaving environmentalists in the lurch on water conservation ballot measure I-63--her most egregious breach.
As for Licata, his numbers are reportedly about 10 points higher than either Nicastro's or Wills'. Heck, during his 2001 reelection campaign, despite his radical reputation, Licata netted nearly 80 percent of the vote for his seat. (By comparison, establishment guy McIver won with just 54 percent of the vote.) Licata, it turns out, is probably the only council member who could rise to higher office.
However, Licata's not a political climber. "I get asked that a lot," Licata says about the possibility of running for a more prominent political office. "I get encouraged about once a week." But Licata is content to stay put. "The city council is as relevant as being in Congress or being mayor. It's important to feel comfortable in the office you have."
Licata's comfort on the council explains why he's able to govern with his convictions. "He's not invested in political aspirations," Allen says. "[Nick] can afford to be consistent because he has a base that he respects; they're part of his political rib cage."
It's disappointing that other so-called reformers on the council seem to lack "political rib cages," not to mention backbones.
"They don't want to offend," Licata says of his colleagues. "They don't want to offend other council members or offend the general public." By "other council members" Licata means old guard conservatives like Pageler. By "general public" Licata means big donors and lobbyists.
He's right. Wills, Nicastro, and Steinbrueck go out of their way not to offend the "general public"--i.e., Jamie Durkan--nor to offend their conservative colleagues (like Margaret Pageler, who was able to bog down TDO reform). Unfortunately, they do offend the progressive and reform-minded voters who put them in office in the first place.
Licata, on the other hand, uses those voters as his compass: "I keep my eye on people who are not major, recognized political players." When it came time to getting reelected in 2001, Licata's strategy clearly paid off. We'll see how Wills and Nicastro fare next year.
Brook Adam contributed to this article.