How Nick Licata won Seattle politics

Paul Constant

January 04, 2016

Today, Nick Licata is retiring from the Seattle City Council after four terms. He leaves behind a very impressive legacy. Licata was the most progressive member of the council at a time when Seattle was experimenting with a very prickly east coast version of urbanism, exemplified by Mark Sidran’s atrocious civility laws and Joe Mallahan’s dumb corporate paternalism. And the council that is being sworn in today is more liberal, in part, because of Licata’s tireless advocacy for liberal causes. It’s hard to imagine a Seattle City Council packed with left-wingers like Kshama Sawant, Mike O’Brien, and (longtime Licata staffer) Lisa Herbold without Licata getting there first and making city government safe for progressive politicians.

It’s important, too, for a site called the Seattle Review of Books to acknowledge Licata’s passion for the literary arts. Licata’s pro-arts agenda, from the Poet Populist campaign to the reading of poetry before Council meetings, has always been big-hearted and inclusive. He has encouraged the arts community more than every other council member he’s served with, combined. He’s the city councilmember you’d most likely see out at an art event — a reading, a gallery show, a film— when there was no promise of media coverage. Licata doesn’t engage with the arts because it’s politically advantageous; he understands that the arts are what make cities so appealing, not the other way around.

But before we get too funereal, here, let’s acknowledge that today is not the end of Nick Licata’s public life. I’d love to see him run for mayor one day, but even if he doesn’t run for public office again, Licata is not likely to keep quiet in the years ahead. In fact, this could be the very beginning of a Licatassance — tomorrow, Sasquatch Books is publishing Licata’s second book, and his first non-fiction title: Becoming a Citizen Activist: Stories, Strategies, & Advice for Changing Our World. The timing is probably not an accident; coming as it does in the first day of Licata’s life as a private citizen, Activist will bring our most beloved former councilmember on a little tour of bookstores throughout the city, where he’ll engage with Seattleites about how to get involved in civic life.

Activist is a strange book — part memoir, part journalism, part handbook. What it is not is a gossip-filled tell-all. Licata isn’t interested in burning bridges; he earnestly wants to teach you how to build bridges. For Seattle political junkies, that might not be enough to warrant the price of admission — if you’ve kept up on Seattle politics in the 21st century, you’ll probably find very little new information here. In a collection of anecdotes, Licata recounts the fight for same-sex marriage in Washington state, Seattle’s plastic bag ban, our citywide push for paid sick leave, and the rise and fall of Occupy Seattle. He frames them all as teachable moments for prospective activists, and he offers advice in each chapter for aspiring political movers and shakers.

It must be said that Activist is kind of a mess. The book lacks a narrative structure. It’s not a memoir told in chronological order, and it’s not a handbook that walks you through the process of starting your own movement. Instead, it zips from incident to incident, scattering advice around through a mishmash of prescriptive chapters and recollections. This is not a book you will want to read from cover to cover. In fact, as a narrative, it’s a little flat and — unfortunately — boring.

But the advice that Licata offers is invaluable for anyone who aspires to public service. Some of this is the kind of advice that only a successful candidate could offer, and it’s the sort of information that can only be gained through experience. The liveliest and most useful chapter outlines what activists have to do to get their message to the masses, either through posters, advertisements, or the local media.

“Do not rely on influencing a paper’s editorial board,” Licata warns aspiring candidates. “They will be cautious at best to support anything that challenges those who benefit from the status quo.” Instead, he urges activists to reach out to reporters and columnists, which is excellent advice, and the sort of nitty-gritty detail that political consultants likely will not share with their clients. He offers meaningful tips about maximizing coverage on television news, which can be terrifically effective at reaching a wide audience but which you can’t “count on…conveying much more than what could be captured on a poster.”

Aside from those passages where Licata directly addresses the reader with this kind of candid advice, the strongest parts of Activist come when he profiles successful activists and politicians like Pramila Jayapal who rose from anonymity to achieve power and influence. These profiles are generous and encouraging. Less meaningful are the occasions where Licata refers simply to faceless “activists” who try to inspire change in Seattle. The book is full of vague anecdotes that gloss over the particulars of homeless activism, for example. More faces, names, events, and personalities would liven the stories up; instead it feels as though Licata is rushing through to make his point at the expense of important information.

Activist is a frustrating reading experience precisely because Licata is a smart and talented writer. His advice on when petitions are and are not useful tools to effect political change, for example, is canny and pragmatic. But his bloodless account of how marijuana was legalized in Washington state adds nothing to a political story that civic-minded Washingtonians know very well.

Tomorrow, Licata begins an exciting new chapter of his life in public service. Activist, and his speaking tour to promote Activist, will undoubtedly provide valuable information for people who want to get involved with civic life. But a book that encourages people to change the world should do more than guide those who have already made the decision to become world-changers. It should also coax people down off the fence and into civic activism. Where Licata should be inspiring, he is merely useful.

As Licata himself notes, “Opening the door for one group of citizens does not mean that others are being denied entry. In other words, gaining access to public power is not a zero-sum game; it is additive.” This is absolutely true. There are whole armies of Seattleites that are just waiting to be activated and added to the dialogue over public power, and Licata is uniquely qualified to help them join the conversation. His book is not the beginning of that movement; instead, it’s a jumbled and uneven account of the long and significant career of a man who helped change Seattle for the better. Hopefully in the years to come, Licata will continue inspiring progressives to run for office. Once they decide to make that leap, Activist will help them find their way.

Books in this review:
  • Becoming a Citizen Activist
    by Nick Licata

    January 05, 2016
    224 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy on IndieBound

About the writer

Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.

Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant

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