Nick vs. Nickels

Is Seattle ready for Mayor Licata? The council’s resident dissident will be a contender—if he runs.

By L.D. Kirshenbaum February 11, 2009 Published in the March 2009 issue of Seattle Met

Nick Licata isn’t your usual babe magnet. He’s 61 and happily married, neither tall nor glitzy nor honey voiced. Even his white hair is thin. When he doesn’t take the bus, he drives a dented 2002 Chevy. You might not notice him if it weren’t for his smile, almost wider than his narrow face, and the camel-colored fedora he occasionally sports.

But on a freezing mid-December night, four gorgeous young women are breathing in his aura. “Oh, Nick Licata is amazing!” enthuses one, 23-year-old Natalie Novak, her long blonde hair streaming out from under her wool cap. These aren’t groupies; they’re volunteers with a Jesuit service group, handing out salad and lasagna at a trimonthly rally for the homeless on City Hall’s sliver of plaza. Of the nine members of the Seattle City Council, Licata is the only one in attendance. “We only openly invited Nick,” says Novak, a community organizer with Real Change. “He’s been our biggest ally against the sweeps [of homeless camps].” If he’s your ally, who’s your adversary? “Our biggest obstacle is the mayor.”

Eight years ago, Greg Nickels won his first race for mayor by running as a working-class guy from West Seattle who knew what ordinary folks needed. Now he’s widely seen as another downtown mayor, a champion of the big developers rather than the little people, and derided as “Mayor Kyoto” for his carbon-busting green agenda. As another mayoral election approaches, some longtime Nickels supporters seem open to alternatives—such as Licata’s more cautious approach to growth and big, pricey civic projects.

The homeless rally draws a sizable crowd, though the temperature’s just 28 degrees. Nick Licata enjoys himself—he always seems to enjoy himself—as he greets people. One woman in a wheelchair can’t leave him alone: “Mr. Licata! Mr. Licata!” He eventually gives her a hug, then snaps photos (“as a souvenir,” he says) of the tidy rows of donated blankets and jackets.

The way Licata makes the rounds of community events like this, you would think he’s ready to challenge Nickels for the mayor’s seat. He says he just might. Or he might retire from office altogether; he won’t decide until some time in March. Anyway, he shows up at this rally regularly, so his appearance isn’t much of an indication. If he retires from public office, it will mark a second blow to those weary of what they see as Nickels’s and the City Council majority’s spendy ways; Peter Steinbrueck, the council’s only other frequent dissenter from the mayor’s agenda, relinquished his seat at the end of 2007.

Steinbrueck is another strong prospective mayoral candidate, but it’s widely understood that he and Licata wouldn’t run against each other. The two are friends; both arrived on the council in 1997 as change agents, and both draw from the same well of activist support. “If Steinbrueck runs, I’d definitely help with his campaign,” says Bill Bradburd, who is fighting the proposed shopping mall on the Dearborn Street Goodwill site. “But I’d rally behind Nick, and I’m not alone. He’d find a waiting army.”

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Licata, like Steinbrueck, attracts his share of hell-raisers and tree huggers. But he’s also winning the respect of people who aren’t natural allies, such as Peter Holmes, a downtown bankruptcy lawyer and Nickels voter who wanted to “give back” to the community. Holmes became chair of the first civilian review board established to oversee the Seattle Police Department’s Office of Public Accountability. The experience changed his political outlook.

“I was a white, business-type guy, and nobody, not even me, thought there’d be any trouble with me,” Holmes recounts. But he says Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske (who declined to be interviewed for this article) ignored the investigative reports Holmes and his board had painstakingly researched. “And then we got a lot of hands over the ears from the mayor, too,” Holmes says, covering his own for emphasis. “Nick was the only one who would listen and help us out. His door was always open.”

But Licata’s charm still hasn’t penetrated one sanctum: the Seattle Police Department. “Within the police community, Licata is seen pretty much as a buffoon,” says one sergeant. “His constituency wants to pee on the sidewalks.” Really? “That’s from a lot of third-hand impressions,” the sergeant admits. “I haven’t had one-to-one dealings with him.”

A reputation as a rabid lefty has followed Licata since he first ran, unsuccessfully, for the council in 1979. (He waited 18 years to run again, and won.) This rap stems in part from the fact that he lived for 25 years, from the 1970s to the ’90s, in a large communal household on Capitol Hill. “He still has the odor of flower power,” says business lobbyist Joe Quintana, though he expresses great personal affection for Licata.

There are signs, however, that Licata is shedding this image. Last fall a poll commissioned by developer Greg Smith, who is also considering a run for mayor, showed Licata drawing almost twice as much support among Republicans as Nickels. In his council races, Licata regularly garners more votes than any other candidates for city offices, including the mayor.

“That’s because Nick gets it,” says Suzie Burke, a prominent Fremont landholder. Burke first met Licata when he was an insurance broker—and, she says, a champion problem-solver. “Believe me, I’m no hippie—I’m a pragmatic Republican,” she explains. She adores Licata for his fiscal conservatism. “He is the only one who can talk blue-collar, who knows that this is about surviving economically.”

Lobbyist Quintana thinks Licata’s celebrated frugality is mere antibusiness sentiment: “He just wants to spend on something else.” Certainly not on himself; Licata wears 20-year-old suits and sometimes fixes lunch in his office for visitors rather than going out. “I grew up watching my parents count their pennies,” he explains, “and I guess I’ve just adopted that attitude ever since.” His father was a barber who always worked two jobs. “My earliest memories were of my parents going over their bills and figuring out which ones to pay that week and which ones they could put off a little longer.”

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With Seattle facing a never-ending menu of expensive entrées—streetcars, tunnels, bridges, arenas, bids to host the Olympics—Nick Licata has been like the diner who asks, If we order the lobster, who’s going to pay for it? How about the prix fixe special instead? If he does run for mayor, the outcome may hinge on how many voters are glad he asks such questions and how many find his parsimony annoying.

On the first Monday in January, the City Council was preparing for its regular weekly full session. Fifteen minutes before showtime, the usual attendees were already waiting: sleek lobbyists, earnest union reps, young housing activists. Licata, dapper in maroon tie and shined shoes, breezed through his colleagues’ offices alerting them to a bit of last-minute legislation he was going to introduce, a resolution urging President Obama to convene a panel on urban priorities, with representation from Seattle.

Floating even such an innocuous measure is tricky; the council can be like high school, where the popular kids rule. If you aren’t liked, your causes and legislation suffer. But as ex-colleague Steinbrueck says, Licata is “just a very likable guy.”

As Licata made the rounds, Councilmember Sally Clark greeted him and his bill warmly. Licata complimented Councilmember Jan Drago on her hair, but she didn’t promise her vote—an ominous sign, since Drago usually gets her way on the council. Councilmember Jean Godden cheered Licata’s legislation and offered homemade cookies, warning, “They’re just a little dry.” Licata took a bite as he strode out of Godden’s office. “She’s right,” he quipped, “they are dry.” Her aides chuckled.

All the while, Licata was sizing up his bill’s odds of passing. He is a deft vote-counting legislator, handy with numbers and quick with a killer amendment. Last September he inserted one requiring that planning for a new streetcar system consider potential costs and impacts—a sensible measure his colleagues couldn’t argue with. In November he inserted a proviso requiring that the panel reviewing a proposed jail include citizen experts. It provoked vigorous debate but finally passed.

Licata also earns high marks as a boss; his aides have worked for him happily since his 1997 campaign. Licata himself thinks his decades in a communal household were terrific training in the give-and-take of politics; he learned that falling on your sword doesn’t advance your cause.

Licata has also learned to be wary of grand projects; he’s one of the few civic leaders who doesn’t yearn to make his city a “world-class destination.” He has stood (not always successfully) against the rush to fund one costly project after another: stadiums and an arena, a convention center, an Olympics bid, a biotech barrio in South Lake Union. Unfortunately, he notes, “you don’t get any glory by putting the brakes on.”

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Nor by deploying snowplows, but mayors in New York and Chicago saw their careers dive when they failed to get the streets plowed. Likewise, and fairly or not, Seattle’s weak response to the December snow dump only enhanced Nickels’s reputation for fixating on big projects at the expense of basic services. And he suffered a “heckuva job, Brownie” moment when he gave his departments a premature B for their snow performance.

But Nickels was looking vulnerable even before the snow hit. The October poll showed Steinbrueck outpacing Nickels 39 to 26 percent, and Licata drawing 35 percent to Nickels’s 28 percent.

After 11 years on the council, Licata still hasn’t acquired the tarnish of a city hall insider. “What I find refreshing about Nick is he isn’t beholden to any interests,” confides an aide in another council office. “Developers would love to see him defeated.” Even some in the trenches within the Nickels administration say a change of mayors would make their jobs easier. Nickels and Deputy Mayor Tim Ceis have clamped down on city staff to a degree formerly unthinkable in Seattle, requiring that they get approval from the central administration before communicating with council members. An affable candidate with a sharp pencil and a broad smile, who watchdogs costs and weighs priorities, might be just as welcome inside city hall as outside it.

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