Nick Licata is back!
Since his two-year term as Seattle City Council president ended in January, Licata has become, once again, an activist and odd man out. To heck with consensus-building; it's now about consensus-bashing. In just the past few months, the longtime council member has mounted major attacks on projects being pushed by most, in some cases all, of his colleagues, including surveillance cameras, a streetcar network, developer subsidies, and Mercer Street improvements.
He isn't winning the big votes (not yet, at least), but he sure is making noise. The "Nick Schtick" is back. "Nick has totally marginalized himself," says colleague Jan Drago. "He's fighting alone against the issues that the rest of the council members support." For her, he's Licata non grata.
"It put me in an awkward space," Licata now says of being council president. "I had to restrain my involvement in many of the issues I care about." That's because every time he did step out, especially on issues such as the Sonics and the Alaskan Way Viaduct where he was at odds with most of his colleagues, it left citizens confused. "It's hard to speak for yourself as president," Licata explains. "The public perceives you as speaking for the council."
He admits that he didn't fully appreciate that reality before assuming the leadership post. Some council members even took him aside early on and warned him to tone down his style and turn down his volume on issues where he didn't represent a majority of his colleagues. Licata complied. "I wanted to keep the council comfortable," he says.
Keeping the calm was particularly important given that he wasn't a natural fit for the position in the first place. Licata is an activist, after all, someone who's known more for being a critic of City Hall than a champion of it. His colleagues settled on him as president only after a multi-month impasse when Jean Godden, Richard McIver, and Richard Conlin, the current president, couldn't muster the needed five votes.
Though he knew he didn't align philosophically with a majority of his colleagues, Licata worked hard to be their leader nonetheless. "I didn't change my positions, but I did change my strategy," he says. "I took a lower profile on many issues." Gone were Licata's old ways of rallying community groups and activists agitators to rise up in protest against the powers that be.
If nothing else, it was a chance for Licata to try out a different style, to play statesman — at least for a while. After all, it was only a two-year term. "I knew in my mind," he now says, "that once I left the council presidency I could be clearer and more forthright with the public."
Since January, when he went back to being just another council member, Licata has been on an almost non-stop community-organizing crusade to crack the consensus at City Hall. "He's up to his old tricks again," says colleague Drago, herself a former president. She's felt it first-hand. Licata stirred things up at her recent council-sponsored open houses showcasing a potential streetcar network. Not only did he pass out flyers criticizing the idea, Drago notes, but "he salted the forums with his people who are against the plan." Drago can't remember a time when a council member has tried to influence another member's forums. "He did the same thing recently with the council-sponsored budget meetings," she says.
At the community budget events, Licata's literature included a detailed critique of the $200 million "fix" of the Mercer Mess. Even though all colleagues have given the project a green light, he's working hard to reverse the decision. He argues it won't do anything for travel times in the area. He recently helped persuade the Queen Anne Community Council to come out against the proposal.
Licata also tried hard this past spring to organize opposition to a plan to extend tax breaks for developers of multi-family housing. His office sent out an email to 8,000 citizens, urging them to contact the rest of the council to stop what he saw as a giveaway.
Licata freely admits that this kind of lobbying and organizing is something that he didn't do as council president, although he always voted his conscience. He seems extremely happy to be back in the fight. "I want the community engaged and to know what's going on," says Licata.
So far, it's been a lonely crusade. On the big battles he has waged since January, Licata has been the sole "no" vote. Clearly, it's been harder for him since Peter Steinbrueck, an activist ally, left the council last year. But some of the activists in town love the revived warrior. "It's exciting," observes longtime community organizer John Fox. "He stepping out and being more assertive on issues. And he seems to be relishing the role."
Earlier this year, Licata suffered a political blow when his colleagues denied him the chair of the powerful Finance and Budget Committee, which was offered instead to Jean Godden. Licata was left with what most regard as an insignificant assignment with little jurisdiction, a cobbled-together committee overseeing Culture, Civil Rights, Health, and Personnel.
His colleagues may already be regretting the snub. Giving him a minor committee with a minimal workload has inadvertently handed Licata a potent weapon — free time. Without the responsibility of worrying about the city's budget (especially in a year when controversial cuts will have to be made), Licata has been able to spend much of each day attending other members' committee meetings, analyzing big projects, and provoking the public.
Though Licata wears the outlier role well, not all of his positions are at odds with the prevailing view of the council. Currently, he is working with many of his colleagues on a "cultural overlay district" that could help preserve arts organizations and facilities in places such as Capitol Hill. And he's leading the effort on the council's work to regulate nightlife around the city.
The biggest question is whether Licata's revived activism is affecting how he sees his future. Many insiders think he will step down after his third term is up at the end of 2009, but now many say he's energized to run again and might take on Mayor Greg Nickels next year.
"I would not relish running for mayor," says Licata, but he doesn't rule it out. "I think it's important to have a good debate." Most think his chances, should he run, would be slim, though re-election to the council would be relatively easy. Asked about a fourth term on the council, Licata is a firm maybe. "I have a lot of energy for a lot things," he says, noting that there are jobs outside City Hall that would interest him, as well. He'll decide by next spring.