Change, the voters said. And they are getting it on the City Council

Two veteran council members hang it up. And that fits the hopes for a new council district system.
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Seattle City Councilmember Tom Rasmussen

Two veteran council members hang it up. And that fits the hopes for a new council district system.

The switch to city council district elections is already working like a charm, shaking up the status quo. This week, two council stalwarts, Nick Licata and Tom Rasmussen, announced that they won’t seek re-election.

Licata has served since 1998, Rasmussen since 2004. When they leave office they will have served nearly 30 years between them.

The council has been perceived as too old, too gray, too incumbent-friendly. Though occasionally some incumbents stumble (see Richard Conlin’s loss to Kshama Sawant in 2013), the election dynamics have long and generally favored the status quo.

The hybrid-district system, in which two council seats of nine are elected citywide and seven seats are elected by district, was designed to generate change. The upcoming election, the first under the system approved by voters in 2013, is also the first time council districts have been in place in more than a century. Running for election in the smaller districts, as opposed to having to campaign citywide for an at-large seat, should make it easier for grassroots candidates, who will actually be able to doorbell their districts.

One worry has been that council incumbents, with fundraising contacts and name familiarity, will still be able to dominate in the new system. However, the decisions by Licata and Rasmussen show that the new system itself is enough to convince some incumbents to bow out.

Change is often uncomfortable, it sometimes offers a new opportunity, or a way out.

Neither Licata nor Rasmussen, according to their statements, seem to have the fire in the belly to test the new system, and both expressed a desire for a more normal life and maybe shorter hours. Both have said they intend to stay fully engaged on policy and legislative matters as they enter lame duck status. The turnover is likely to be a positive simply because it will help ensure more new blood on the council, though both Licata and Rasmussen have served well. Still, being a city council member shouldn’t be a permanent career for anyone, as the voters sometimes remind us.

Both candidates have been mavericks of a kind, not really super-establishment types. Licata, a longtime lefty activist, was frequently an outlier on the council, and Rasmussen was the council’s first elected openly gay man. Rasmussen told the West Seattle blog that he was looking forward to a “more balanced life” and advocating for seniors and people with disabilities, and Licata has a new book coming out drawing on his years of activism and organizing.

Licata seems interested in making his mark by taking Seattle’s progressive ways to other cities. He says, “I intend on working to share and promote the progressive legislation that we’ve passed in Seattle onto others.” It’s not unlike grassroots organizer and former Department of Neighborhoods head Jim Diers (the not-dead Jim Diers) who has become a consultant preaching the Seattle way of building neighborhoods in workshops around the world. Licata was an activist before and during his council term, and no doubt will continue to be. He often received more respect nationally than he did locally, though he was re-elected in 2013 by a handsome margin. An angle for Seattle political and policy figures in their “afterlife” is to engage in exporting the city’s progressive agenda elsewhere.

The long-term effects of the new hybrid council won’t begin to be known until after the election later this year, but before a single ballot has been cast, before the full slate of candidates is known, it has already started to deliver on what its proponents promised: change.

Expect more to come.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.