According to estimates from the City of Seattle, more than 200 people relocate to this town every day. Every day. That means there are a lot of folks on the bus, walking the streets and sitting in traffic who are new here – and who likely haven’t heard of Nick Licata. But whether they know it or not, they’re familiar with his legacy.
Licata, who retired in 2015 after 18 years on the City Council, witnessed a lot of change. He was in the front row for some of the city’s biggest turning points and, as the council president, helped craft the policies that came after them. He was there for the so-called Battle in Seattle, a days-long riot in downtown. He was there through candidates who peddled “Broken Windows” policing and tough-love approaches to homelessness. He was there for Nickelsville and the Kingdome demolition and Occupy Seattle. He was instrumental in passing the All Ages Dance Ordinance, Paid Safe & Sick Leave and in getting pedestrian improvements into the neighborhoods. He pushed to get cops out of their cars and onto bike and foot patrols.
Sometimes he was well ahead of his time – perhaps too much so. He led the way on the city’s well-meaning but ultimately doomed public restroom initiative and urged fiscal responsibility with regard to sports stadiums long before that was a popular message. He also supported cannabis legalization and district elections long before either became law.
After that much involvement – that many years at the dais, that many years talking to (and getting yelled at by) constituents – it’s hard to just step away. So naturally, Licata didn’t.
“I’ve been an activist for years,” he explains. “I’m still doing it. Now I also spend a lot of time providing counsel, taking meetings, taking calls. I try to be a kind of conduit.”
He reviews books in his spare time, keeps his newsletter updated and occasionally writes op-eds in local papers. Unlike many councilmembers, who flee the spotlight once their tenure is up, he has, he says, “remained engaged.”
One way he’s staying engaged is with his book, which encourages the next generation to pick up where he left off. Called “Becoming a Citizen Activist,” the little green book has become particularly important for grassroots organizers and first-timers running for office. It was, he says, born out of his own experience and what he learned (and wished others would learn) along the way.
Licata was often touted for being “cool” and somewhat bohemian, but pragmatism has always been at the root of his work. In “Becoming a Citizen Activist,” this pragmatism is apparent. “Activists need more than slogans,” Licata writes. “They need to arm themselves with solid information to move others to join them.”
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The book is full of useful tips – how to organize, how to find more information through public records and how to bone up on big issues. But so is Licata’s tenure on the Council.
Homelessness may feel like a new issue, but Licata knows that it’s been an ongoing struggle. In an article in the Stranger in 1999, Licata is described as being one of the few councilmembers who would actually speak to activists about their work to create more low-barrier shelters and address housing affordability more broadly. Even then, he was urging nuance and a more concrete policy goal that worked within the existing framework.
“Licata seemed to be coaxing advocates to expand their campaign beyond city hall to the corporate and public sector,” the article reads. “He explained how a pie chart he had recently seen showed that only 10 percent of the wealth in Seattle was concentrated in local government. The other 90 percent was in private funds.”
This kind of specificity is, Licata says, one of the most critical elements that young organizers and candidates need to adopt. Too often, new campaigners jump in without the information they need to provide creative, effective ideas. They don’t “think about the steps,” Licata says.
“You have to know more than what the major problems are. You have to educate yourself and know what’s already been done.”
Much of this information, Licata says, is widely available – in no small part because of his own actions. Open meetings, public comment and even sign-ins to document who meets with Councilmembers were all born out of his desire to increase transparency.
“Accountability matters,” he says, because it provides a way for citizens to get more involved and learn about what’s going on.
That, he says, is his ultimate goal: To help regular folks realize that they can have a substantial impact, especially once they work together. In the book, he rejects the notion that organizations or causes are somehow fighting each other. Instead, he says, it’s an “expansive notion.”
“Opening the door for one group of citizens does not mean that others are being denied entry,” he writes. “In other words, gaining access to public power is not a zero-sum game; it is additive.”
Nick Licata will be the keynote speaker at our annual breakfast on Sept. 18, which starts at 8 a.m. at the Washington State Convention Center.
Check out the full Sept. 12 - Sept. 18 issue.
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