A Life in Grassroots Electoral Politics: Q&A with Nick Licata
William Kornblum May 12, 2016
Seattle’s Nick Licata, the city’s leading progressive city council member for the past two decades, announced recently that he will not run for a sixth term. It’s not that he’s tired of life in the political trenches. He continues to organize and advocate for measures to address inequality in Seattle and elsewhere. He’s also recently published an inspiring and entertaining book about local activism, Becoming A Citizen Activist: Stories, Strategies, and Advice for Changing our World. Published by Sasquatch Books, a Pacific Northwest publisher, it’s a work that deserves attention in all parts of the continent. I met Nick while on the faculty at the University of Washington in the early 1970s. We were among the founders of a successful alternative community there. On the occasion of his departure from the city council and the publication of his new book, I reached out to him for this interview. —William Kornblum
William Kornblum: Nick, when I knew you in the anti-war movement in the early seventies, becoming an elected official was nowhere in your thoughts. What made you take the leap from movement to electoral politics so many years ago?
Nick Licata: When you met me in 1970, I was a graduate student in sociology. I had just moved to the city. I’d been a student activist in Ohio, where I’m from, so I got immediately into Seattle politics. I joined a community council group that was involved in fighting a developer in the university district. We were also active with folks who opposed using public funds to build sports stadiums, a totally thankless effort at the time since Seattle was determined to become a Big League City with expensive stadium facilities. And that was before the rise of Seattle’s new digital economy. I left graduate school for half a year to help organize and run a statewide initiative to start a corporate income tax. I finished my degree but my partner and I wanted to have a child so we needed a more steady income. I became an insurance broker and continued to be active while there until I was offered a partnership. Since it was becoming impossible for me to take on greater responsibilities at work and still be an activist, I turned down the promotion and went on half time.
When a populist councilmember decided to run for mayor in 1996, I took the plunge and ran for his seat. Many of his supporters were people I had worked with for years. I wasn’t sure I could win. The popular incumbent mayor, and all the council members but one, supported my opponent. Both daily newspapers endorsed him. But for over thirty years I had built up a network of friends and allies. With their support and a great deal of hard work I won the election. It was a dream come true—getting paid to organize around issues and pass laws that would improve people’s lives.
Kornblum: Toward the end of your book you tell the story of the PRAG house in Seattle. You lived in that alternative community for twenty-five years with your family. The stereotypical narrative about anarchist hippie communities of the Vietnam War era is that they dissolved into drugs or guru worship, or at best were politically insignificant. Yet PRAG seems to have become a remarkable resource for all kinds of organizing politics in Seattle. How did it figure in your move into progressive electoral politics?
Licata. The PRAG house on Capitol Hill is an old mansion that is held by a nonprofit land trust and run as a cooperative community by the people living there at any given time. It has a very large living room and adjoining library. So many environmental groups and community organizations started there and held meetings and fundraisers there from time to time. It was the basis of my diverse network of people. During the time we lived there we hosted over a hundred parties, at least four a year. I also did radio on the local NPR station and wrote articles for the [now defunct] Seattle Sun about local issues. I got to know Seattle and its activists as well as anyone in the city, which made it possible for me to win that first election.
Kornblum: Over the five terms you served, the council passed a great deal of pioneering legislation that you discuss in Becoming a Citizen Activist. You describe efforts to ban free plastic bags (which we are just getting to in NYC), finding consensus on more humane treatment of the homeless, years of effort on the minimum wage and much more. As you look back, are there structural achievements that you think are making a long-term difference in the effectiveness of local democracy?
Licata: Working together on the council we learned about the potential power of citizen commissions. Early on the city created a Human Rights Commission. Half the members were appointed by the mayor and half by the council. That commission turned out to take a very strong stand on the minimum wage and helped eventually get it through in 2015.
Kornblum: In your book you’re critical of the Occupy movement as you experienced it in Seattle. Have you become more cautious over the years?
Licata: Not really. I was disappointed that more Occupy activists didn’t find ways to remain politically involved. You need to have a dual-prong approach to changing the political landscape. Being in the streets protesting arouses the public, but afterward, quiet, organized efforts are needed to get your supporters elected to office so that they can actually change the laws.
Fortunately, one Occupy movement activist did take that path. Kshama Sawant is an activist of South Asian background and a member of Socialist Alternative. She took on a popular incumbent, a Democrat named Richard Conlin, and won. He was not very strong on social justice issues. She campaigned hard on the $15 minimum wage and for a millionaire’s tax. She ran a serious campaign and won a seat on the nine-person council. There are now five women and four men, with a good deal of racial diversity as well.
And guess what? Just today, for the first time in the city’s history, the Council defeated a proposal to use public funds to build a new basketball arena for an unnamed NBA team. Do you know what the vote was? Five to four. All four men voted in favor. Kshama and the other four other women voted against it. Finally a victory on that issue.
Kornblum: You must feel good about that after working on the issue all these years. But don’t you miss not being in the local political fray yourself?
Licata: I wanted to expand my involvement in politics, not just electoral politics but in thinking more broadly about what works and what doesn’t. I was able to do that in Becoming a Citizen Activist, and I also keep organizing. I loved the politics of being on the council, trying to get good legislation passed or to stop bad legislation. But I also wanted to work on building a national network of progressive municipal leaders who can win local office by campaigning on issues of national importance, like paid sick leave and raising the minimum wage. When I left the council I found that I could take on both a new challenge like the book and also devote time and energy to helping build Local Progress, a national municipal progressive network, now with close to 500 elected public officials as members. I hope groups like ours can become a progressive force to combat the very strong investments the far right is making in local electoral politics.