Afternoon Jolt

Afternoon Jolt: Veteran Progressive Licata Won't Seek Re-election

Licata reflects on what he's accomplished and what he hasn't.

By Josh Feit January 21, 2015

Afternoon Jolt

Longtime progressive city council member Nick Licata announced this morning that he will not seek re-election; Licata was first elected in 1997 as an anti-downtown-subsidies populist (Nay Nordstrom garage, Nay Seahawks stadium) taking office in 1998.

Licata, 67, lives in the new 6th council district, northwest Seattle from Greenlake west to Golden Gardens. Licata said it would be "awkward" to run against current colleagues he's still trying to work for votes (he still says he has a lot do, including passing a fee on developers to fund low-income housing.)

Fellow lefty council member, comparative newby Mike O'Brien (elected in 2009) also lives in the 6th. Judging from polling, however, the well-known Licata ("I've seen the polls, honestly I think I would win an election") would have been a strong candidate against O'Brien. O'Brien, who seemed truly sad at the prospect of losing Licata as a colleague ("a mentor") tells me he wouldn't have run against Licata. Licata, asked at this morning's press conference the eternal question about running for mayor ("You never know... you know... it's possible... but I don't see it happening...") would have also been formidable in an at-large race against the comparatively moderate-to-conservative council incumbents who are running citywide, Sally Clark and Tim Burgess, in seats 9 and 8 respectively.

Licata said his biggest outstanding agenda item was "making Seattle more affordable, looking at rent control."

Not going to happen either way. "As soon as we went to district elections it was obvious," he said, "when the music stops there [weren't] enough chairs."

Licata also cited "family matters" (he has a disabled stepson), and said he wants to translate some of the municipal work he's done to the national level (not as a candidate, but more as a facilitator.) He flagged recent wins like his paid sick leave ordinance as national issues. Licata is co-founder and chair of Local Progress, a group of progressive municipal leaders from the around the country. And as Licata proudly noted during his press conference today, Seattle got a shout out at the group's recent meeting in New York City from NYC mayor Bill de Blasio (actually, Licata himself also got the shout out.) "We've got some things done," Licata says, "that a lot of cities have not been able to get done. And I think other cities want to learn from us, and I want to be able to send that message to them and work with them." (Licata said he did not have a specific gig lined up  "at the moment" on that front. But he's been "having discussions" with national municipal policy groups, he said.)

Veteran City Council member Nick Licata, with longtime staff looking on this morning, announcing he won't seek re-election.

Licata is also coming out with a book tentatively titled "How to Change the World" or "A Handbook for Activists" focusing on lessons learned from his activist-to-legislator story.

His story on the council includes some landmark lefty wins "improving the working conditions of our employees in the city," as Licata described it, such as establishing an office of labor standards in the most recent budget; Licata singled that one out this morning. The office will oversee issues like wage theft and enforcing the new $15 minimum wage law. The labor standards office, Licata said, "will ensure that the gains we've made are not lost."

"The marketplace is not going to solve affordable housing. Period. And anyone who believes [it is] is a developer. It hasn't happened. And it's not going to happen."—Nick Licata

Class conscious legislative Licata wins I'd cite are: reining in car impounds (which disproportionately impacted the poor) by not permitting tows on people who simply couldn't pay their tickets—as opposed to people who were actually dangers on the road; changing the rental inspection program from a complaint based one to a mandatory one (which both makes for safer apartments and prevents landlords from retaliating); stopping SPD and city employees, such as city workers managing city funded social services, from questioning people about their immigration status; making unredacted police records available for review by the civilian oversite panel; and again, paid sick leave.

I asked Licata what he felt he hadn't been able to get done during his long tenure. Licata said his biggest outstanding agenda item was "making Seattle more affordable, looking at rent control."

And Licata quickly segued into the current debate over charging developers to put more money into an affordable housing fund; the idea known as the "linkage fee." Developers say it's unfair to single them out for the housing crisis when—supply and demand-style—they're the ones building more housing. As a developer lobbyist Ryan Bayne told me for a Seattle Met article on the linkage fee debate: “To say that by building housing you’re creating a demand for housing? It’s ridiculous. By the same logic, the best way to address affordable housing is to not build housing.”

Licata, a nerdy insurance salesman before he was a nerdy council member, responds: "The marketplace is not going to solve affordable housing. Period. And anyone who believes [it is] is a developer. It hasn't happened. And it's not going to happen. The basic dynamics of the marketplace are determined by how much profit you can make. That's not evil. That's just a given. And you have to have the public sector involved."

After seconding the idea for the linkage fee, he made another pitch for rent control, laughing: "I think it's important to talk about it, but you talk about rent control and it's almost like saying 'I'm a communist in favor of revolution.' It's so crazy."

Eventually, riffing off questions about the lastest political and policy crisis facing the city—Bertha and the tunnel—Licata circled back to a theme that's been at the center off his career since first running in 1997, prioritizing dollars between downtown interests and the neighborhoods. Noting "the $2 billion cost in front of us" (even if we stopped Bertha now), Licata said: "I think the public overall is asking at some point, 'Yeah, we'd like to have a nice new waterfront, but how does that affect what happens in the neighborhoods?' We also need things done in the neighborhoods, and so we can't lose our balance between making downtown an attractive place to visit and making our neighborhoods a better place to live."

Footnote: A seriously impressive aspect of Licata's longtime tenure is  his staff's longevity and loyalty; something you don't see over two terms, much less into five.

The Newell Aldrich/Lisa Herbold/Frank Video trio has been with him since his first term, from the standoffs with former City Attorney Mark Sidran (that was the impound ordinance fight), through his anti-Sonics stadium funding stand (and tone deaf anti-Sonics quote in Sports Illustrated), to his recent elder statesman roll on the $15 minimum wage task force. And the work is not over: Video told me this afternoon that Licata has asked each of them to take on one more big issue during the coming year. (And as I noted in this morning's Fizz, Licata is hot to divest the city from oil company stocks.)

And it must be said: The fastidious, relentless Herbold is a major force at city hall. She's often referred to as "Council Member Herbold." She's definitely the Hermione Granger in the office, to Licata's Dumbledore, anyway.

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