Nick Licata is done with Seattle City Council, but not with activism
by Mary Ann Gwinn / Lit Life Columnist
Former longtime Seattle City Councilmember Nick Licata retired in December, but he still has plenty to say; he does so in his new book, “Becoming a Citizen Activist: Stories, Strategies and Advice for Our Changing World.”
Nick Licata ran for the Seattle City Council for the first time in 1997. He was outspent 2-to-1; both daily newspapers supported his opponent. Licata won the contest and has been upsetting applecarts ever since.
Energetic, funny and a die-hard progressive, Licata held his seat for 17 years until he retired in December. Son of a Cleveland barber and the first person in his family to graduate from high school, he has always had a writer inside him yearning to breathe free.
While in office, he wrote both a children’s book and an unpublished history of the student movement in the 1960s (Licata was head of a Students for a Democratic Society chapter at Bowling Green University; he says he left the group right before it “imploded”). Now he has taken what he knows and is passing it on to younger progressives — through the old-fashioned vehicle of a book.
“Becoming a Citizen Activist: Stories, Strategies & Advice for Changing Our World”(Sasquatch, $16.95) is a bit of a hybrid — part memoir, part recent history of Seattle politics, part how-to book. Critical opinion: the memoir parts are the most entertaining, but local readers will enjoy the behind-the-scenes back stories of local politicians and causes, and true progressives (and perhaps their opponents) will be interested in the how-to parts.
Licata answered questions about his recent career as a politician and his new career as an author-activist:
Q. Readers are always interested in how a book comes to be. How did this one come about?
A. I had written a history of the student movement. I sat down with Gary Luke (Sasquatch’s publisher) and described it to him. He listened, and then he said, “What else have you got?” I said, how about a handbook for activists? He loved it.
Q. In the book, you describe your first brush with activism in college, when you and your friend Ivan protested the college’s decision to go from a semester to a quarter system without asking students what they thought. You brought the fraternities on board by promising to lobby for beer on campus.
A. Yes, during that conversation with Ivan, a light bulb went on over my head: “No one asked us.” My dad was at the mercy of his bosses, and his advice was always ”do what the boss tells you to do.” That was when I realized I could question things, that things could be better.
Q. You were raised in a traditional Catholic family. How did that shape your activism?
A. The imagery of Jesus Christ is really unique. Mohammed was a military leader, Jesus Christ was a carpenter, a self-sacrificing do-gooder. That really appealed to me.
Q. In “Becoming a Citizen Activist,” you analyze successful political campaigns for a number of progressive causes, from gay rights to legalizing marijuana. The record seems to show that, contrary to current cynicism about politics, things can really change. Are you a congenital optimist?
A. (Laughs). I’m a worrywart. I’m not a congenital optimist, I’m a determined optimist. I see pessimism as resignation, as failure.
Q. One theme in the book is the importance of listening to all sides, something that’s pretty scarce on the ground these days in politics.
A. Even as a kid I was interested in all sides. I read the John Birch pamphlets dropped off in my dad’s barber shop. Then I decided to find a People’s World, a Communist newspaper, so I could read that. I finally tracked one down on the east side of Cleveland.
Q. What are the advantages of keeping the lines of communication open, even to your opponents?
A. We tend to create images of the opposition. They may be legitimate but they create barriers to understanding. You think they’re a one-block mind, but there are always divisions within any group.
Q. How about the “nudge, don’t lecture” rule?
A. Who likes being lectured? No one. I have a much better chance of getting what I want if I listen and figure out what they want and what I want.
Q. You write about the importance of citizen commissions and task forces in pushing for change in government, that they provide a toe in the door for activists. That sounds like a key component of the “Seattle process,” which detractors say is a way of talking an issue to death.
A. Other cities have similar commissions. My gut-level belief is that we have more. We’re very open-ended. It’s unique.
I credit them with a lot of progressive legislation. But they are only as good as the people on them. They played a critical role in issues like paid sick leave, immigrants’ rights and rights for people with disabilities.
I’ve been through four mayors. None of them like these commissions. They’re unique platforms that do not fit any mayor’s political agenda.
Q. Another piece of excellent advice in the book is “seal the deal.”
A. The easiest thing in the world for an elected official to say is 1. I feel your pain and 2. I’m supportive. So many citizen groups have come to me and said, “We’ve got three councilmen that are supportive.” The question is — do you have their vote? You have to nail down the words, and you have to write good legislation that’s effective.
Q. What’s next?
A. In the coming year — a blissful time of talking to folks, writing, strengthening our democracy. I’m excited about leading the next charge over the next hill.
Mary Ann Gwinn: 206-464-2357 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Gwinn appears at 12:30 p.m. Sundays on KCTS Channel 9, discussing books with host Terry Tazioli (go to www.wellread.org/the-tv-show/show-archive/ for archived episodes). On Twitter @gwinnma.