The Making of America’s “Most Valuable Local Official”: An Interview with Civic Activist Nick Licata on His Political EvolutionNews at Home
tags: interview, Nick Licata
Nick Licata is a rare combination of things:
a thinker who knows grassroots activism,
an idealist who can pragmatically wield power,
and a politician who knows how to change culture.
Eric Liu, Author and Founder/ CEO of Citizen University
In 2012, The Nation magazine named Seattle City Councilmember Nick Licata “the Most Valuable Local Official” in the U.S. for his “bold” advocacy of progressive populist ideas. The magazine’s citation read in part:
[Licata] was a sponsor of Seattle’s innovative paid-sick-leave law, and he’s been in the forefront of fights to prevent corporations and wealthy sports team owners from gouging taxpayers. He pursues these tough battles with a sense of humor, once co-chairing a group called Citizens for More Important Things to oppose over-the-top demands from professional sports teams for new taxpayer-funded stadiums.
Mr. Licata was elected to the Seattle City Council in 1997 and retired from that position in December 2015. During his career on the City Council, he created or supported legislation for the $15 dollar minimum wage, paid sick leave, housing for the homeless, Immigrant rights, environmental protection, arts and culture, and police accountability, among other issues. He encouraged citizen involvement at every turn.
Mr. Licata grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, and was the first member of his family to graduate from high school, receiving a BA from Bowling Green State University and an MA in Sociology from the University of Washington. After graduate school, he founded the People’s Yellow Pages, a directory of community groups and social and public services in Seattle, and also founded the Seattle Sun, an alternative weekly newspaper.
Beginning in 1981, Mr. Licata worked as an insurance broker, but he also remained politically active. Among many activities before his City Council term, he co-founded Give Peace a Dance to promote nuclear disarmament; co-founded the Civic Foundation to promote neighborhood issues; served as president of 911 Media Arts Center, an educational organization devoted to using media to communication and art in a democratic society; and served as president of the Metropolitan Democratic Club. And, during his term as a City Council member, he was founding chair of Local Progress, a nationwide organization of progressive local officials.
Throughout his career, Mr. Licata has been passionate about empowering ordinary citizen participation in the democratic process, and has written a new book to promote civic engagement, Becoming a Citizen Activist: Stories, Strategies & Advice for Changing Our World (Sasquatch). Mary Ann Gwinn, Book Editor of the Seattle Times, called the book, “a bit of a hybrid — part memoir, part recent history of Seattle politics, part how-to book.”
The tone of Becoming a Citizen Activist is remarkably positive and brimming with inspiring stories on how people can take charge of their democracy. Mr. Licata offers sage advice on topics from forms of protest and raising awareness through use of media (from newsletters to Facebook), to collaborative techniques, understanding opponents, making allies, the importance of voting, and the great power of knowledge. And his approach to activism in unfailingly hopeful.
Mr. Licata also wrote Princess Bianca and the Vandals, a children’s book dealing with environmental issues.
Mr. Licata sat down at a café in the Greenwood neighborhood of Seattle and talked about his evolution as a civic leader and activist, focusing on the period before he was elected to the City Council. He seemed a modern political “Happy Warrior,” evoking comparison to President Franklin D. Roosevelt who, early on in his presidency, encouraged his advisors to experiment endlessly in tackling the Great Depression. FDR pressed his belief that if one approach doesn’t work, try something else, and if that doesn’t work, try something else. Mr. Licata’s optimistic and energetic manner of addressing both political and personal challenges embodies that same indefatigable spirit.
Robin Lindley: I am interested in how you became such an optimist civic activist and leader. When you were growing up in Cleveland, were your parents an inspiration for your activism?
Nick Licata: Some of my earliest recollections of political consciousness have to do with race. My parents were traditional blue-collar Democrats, but very populist and very anti-government. In the end, my dad supported Nixon and Reagan and other Republicans. My mom was a little more of a Democrat but she was heavily influenced by my dad.
My father didn’t go beyond eighth grade and my mom didn’t graduate from high school, so both had limited educations, but they were very smart. My dad had to quit school because his dad died young and my mom was an orphan. Her parents died before she was conscious of who they were.
Given that background, their attitudes reflected the racism of that day. I grew up in that atmosphere. It was a rough neighborhood, and two blocks over was a black neighborhood. Cleveland was very divided. I was told not to go in their neighborhood, and I’m sure they were told not to go into mine.
One day a black salesman came to our door and I bought something and took the change, when I turned around, my dad who had watched said “Wash your hands.” I’d ask why, and he said, “That was a black man. It’s dirty.” I must have been no more than seven or eight. I said, “What does that matter? It’s not going to come off on me.” And he’d get very angry.
My dad had a barbershop. He wouldn’t take any black customers. It wasn’t because he was prejudiced, though he was, but because he would have lost his customers, which is absolutely true. If there was one black person seen in his barbershop no one would go to his barbershop. He was always on edge. And he was also working two other jobs to support our family. Dealing with that was very difficult.
Robin Lindley: That captures the reality of de facto segregation then in northern cities like Cleveland.
Nick Licata: There was a YMCA that had a lot of black kids because it was near the black neighborhood. And that was one of the few institutions that was integrated in the late fifties, early sixties.
One of the first interactions I had with African Americans was around sport, the sport of ping pong, and I’ve been a ping pong enthusiast ever since.
Robin Lindley: And you later placed a ping-pong table in the Seattle City Hall as a way of bringing people together.
Nick Licata: Yes. I was always very open-minded. That wasn’t a conscious decision but maybe because my parents were narrow minded. They were in a box and barely getting by. They never flew in an airplane. There was one vacation as a family that we took out of state and we drove. Their horizon was limited and tenuous.
With authority, my father’s favorite saying was “Do what the boss says.” He had a lot of jobs, and my suspicion is that he sometimes didn’t do what the boss said.
And I also remember the gender divide. Once a bunch of us were playing in our backyard, and we were concocting an idea to make something, and after a while there were only girls left. My dad said, “I don’t want to see you playing with girls. You should be playing with boys.” There was this fear of not having control and that someone who played with girls would end up being like a girl.
So there was a hostile environment and a very distorted sense of community and very thick walls around that community. Nothing was allowed in that was different.
The irony was that both my dad and mom were Italian, and at gatherings there were people from different parts of Italy—Sicilians versus Naplesese—and so on. And when they got together, they wouldn’t talk to each other because they were from different parts of Italy. That was a lesson for me because even people you think of as in your community versus people on the outside —they can draw the wall closer and closer, narrowing the number of people who are part of that community. I reacted to that, realizing how limiting that concept of community was.
I was also curious about reaching out to people and knowing what they had to say. So I had a somewhat rebellious attitude, to do the opposite and to learn as much as possible about other people.
Robin Lindley: You also had a strong sense of justice as a little boy. You mention interceding for a boy who was being bullied when you were in third grade and the authority figure you asked for help, a nun, did nothing. You learned that, at times, people in authority won’t help.
Nick Licata: I was a very strong Roman Catholic, a true believer of sorts. I was taught in grade school that prayers to the Blessed Virgin Mary [were needed] to overthrow the Soviet Union.
Robin Lindley: But despite a rather limiting world, you had a growing sense of justice.
Nick Licata: Maybe it was because I saw my dad not having much control over his own life and I saw that the values he had were not protecting him and not allowing him to have the freedom he actually wanted. One thing he mentioned early on that stuck in my mind was that he won a contest and the sponsors of it were willing to give him a scholarship to go to Chicago for art school. And his parents said no—stay home and support the family.
I thought he always felt frustrated, that he had the ability to do many things and couldn’t do them. He believed that other people outside his community were getting more opportunity than he got. He was very jealous of the civil rights movement. It wasn’t because he thought blacks were inferior. He just thought they were getting a better deal. And that’s something I heard a lot as I was growing up.
Robin Lindley: Thanks for sharing those memories. You have mentioned that you didn’t learn to read until you were nine years old. What was wrong? Was it your school?
Nick Licata: Dyslexia. To this day I remember I could read individual words but I could not string sentences together. I went for three years to Catholic school and their method of teaching was to yell at you, so if you had a problem, they’d just say, “Read it, stupid.” They put me on probation for the second grade so, if I didn’t make it in the first six weeks, I’d be put back to first grade. The classes there were about 60 people, so I got lost, and passed on to third. In third grade they said, “We shouldn’t be passing you. You can’t read, but we’re not going to hold you back.” They put me on a two-month probation, but I stayed in the third grade; I got lost in the shuffle again.
After third grade, I went to public school where there were some different teaching methods and ultimately I was able to read.
The first book I read was Robert Heinlein’s Citizen of the Galaxy. I guess in some ways that’s what got me to thinking about what being a citizen means.
Robin Lindley: I’m glad you found some help. And you’ve said that early on you also were reading John Birch Society literature.
Nick Licata: That’s what my dad had, as well as Sports Illustrated and Esquire, at his barbershop and at home too. Later on, in junior high school, people talked about books in their homes. It dawned on me that we didn’t have many books. I went back and counted the number of books we had in our house. It was less than ten.
You were very curious and obviously excited about reading and
knowledge. Several times in your book, you write, “Knowledge is
power.” Was there a teacher or someone else who sparked that
Nick Licata: I had some good, very encouraging teachers. I think it’s important for any kid to have a teacher who attaches to them and says, “You’re special. You are someone who can do something.” That’s true. I had some teachers who could have ignored me, but they said I had some good ideas. That’s a big stroke for a kid.
Robin Lindley: Do you recall your earliest experiences as an activist when you took up a cause?
Nick Licata: It’s funny, but looking back on it, I think I was a natural organizer. In the fifth grade a formed an astronomer’s club. I grew up in an Irish area and I was Italian so I got in a lot of fights because there was that division. But we were friends. I started this astronomy club so we could look for UFOs and look at the constellations. We lived next to an airport, so we saw a lot of UFOs.
In forming the club, some of the kids would refuse to go to meetings, which were amazingly once a week. I’d go around to their houses and rap on their doors. I’d ask their mother, “Where’s Mike? We’re having a meeting.”
And I also put out a little newspaper or bulletin in grade school.
Robin Lindley: It’s fascinating that you started with reading problems, but became a journalist within a couple years of getting help.
Nick Licata: I guess it tells a lot about my personality.
Robin Lindley: Were their activities in high school that stand out to you about politics or activism?
Nick Licata: I was not part of student government. I was too embarrassed to be involved. I was one of those quiet kids, and in junior high, I was one of those kids who left school five minutes early to get a running start.
The thing that struck me in high school was the Richard Nixon-John Kennedy race. Even though Kennedy was a Catholic and I liked him a lot better, I thought he was weak on Communism because he was unwilling to defend Quemoy and Matsu, the islands off of China, which belonged to Taiwan. I argued that position in a classroom debate and the teacher said that was pretty good.
Robin Lindley: You have a strong social conscience. Were you involved in civil rights or other activism before college?
Nick Licata: Again, I still had a limited outlook, even in high school, though I went out to seek out the People’s World, the Communist newspaper more out of curiosity, not because I was political.
I had some of my parents’ suspicions, but I had a broad sense of injustice. It didn’t make sense to discriminate against black people or women or the disabled because they are all human beings. That was my common sense approach.
One thing that sticks out is religion. I did not see one Jewish person until high school. That’s how closed my community was. When I met them, my first thought was how unusual, someone from a historic tribe and they are still around. I had no sense of anti-Semitism, but my parents were jealous of the Jewish community because they stuck together, and the Italians didn’t. The perception was that they pooled their money to help each other and we didn’t do that. So they had an advantage over us.
The other thing that struck me was that high school had a tracking system. Everyone got a number from one through seven. Ones and twos were the smartest kids. The threes and fours may have promise. The fives were kids who wouldn’t go anywhere, and the sixes and sevens were lost causes. I was a three and I was so excited that I was a three.
I wasn’t allowed into any of the higher end or college preparatory classes, but I got into one by mistake, a course in history. It was the wrong class, so I told the teacher, and he ignored me and allowed me to stay. It helped me grow confident and with confidence, I had room to disagree with people and to stick up for my beliefs. The class was about a dozen people and, on the final test, I was one of the two people who got the highest score in the class, which I couldn’t believe.
Robin Lindley: Was it a difficult decision for you to go onto college?
Nick Licata: No. My parents really wanted me to go to college, and it was all based on getting a job. Strictly that. Neither of my parents graduated from high school, so college to them was like the gold standard. You go to college and get a degree and you can get a good paying job. When I told them I was majoring in sociology, they had no idea what it was. All they cared about was my getting a job.
That was a great thing about my parents in some ways: they were not sophisticated enough to know that sociology was basically a dead end for getting a job. When I told them I joined the SDS, the Students for a Democratic Society, they had no idea what that was even though it was on the front page often in connection with riots.
Robin Lindley: Becoming involved with the SDS was quite a decision for you. The SDS at the time was seen by most as very radical, and it seems you were almost apolitical when you started to college at Bowling Green. Something must have happened when you got to college.
Nick Licata: My first year was 1965. I wrote a very large memoir on getting involved with the SDS. It’s unpublished.
When we started out, we passed out Quaker material against the Vietnam War. All SDS chapters were independent of each other and there was no central committee and we were very diffuse. One document in common was Tom Hayden’s “Port Huron Statement” on participatory democracy, and that’s what got me. That said everything that I had been thinking for a long time: that we should all participate in decision making. Why be locked out? Why not participate? Why not have that power?
Robin Lindley: What introduced you to the SDS?
Nick Licata: One person. A transfer student from Oberlin, and Oberlin had a lot of beatniks. It was when beatniks were becoming hippies and I saw that transition. He was shorthaired very straight, very sophisticated. He must have been what they called a red diaper baby, i.e., his parents may have been members of the socialist party. He never talked about Marxism and socialism, but he was obviously very attuned to leftist theory. He told me about the SDS and another friend who was a natural-born activist tried to get a chapter started on campus. My best friend Ivan and I said let’s do it. It sounded like a good idea.
Robin Lindley: And weren’t you coming from an apolitical place?
Nick Licata: Yes, but here’s what’s interesting. Most of the people who joined our chapter were not reddiaper babies like many of the East Coast SDS people. The folks at Bowling Green were not of the economic elites, like a lot of the SDS leadership was. We were lower middle class and middle class kids who wanted more authority over our lives. SDS was very much a grassroots movement. The lesson for us was that, if you were different—even a little, you’d get hammered on. So when we set up a table to pass out Quaker pacifist material opposing the war in Vietnam, the table was surrounded and kicked over by other students and some right-wing people from Bowling Green, which then had a very large Ku Klux Klan chapter. And all that time, we were accused of being communists.
Robin Lindley: And you mentioned in your book that Bowling Green was a very conservative campus.
Nick Licata: Yes. George Lincoln Rockwell, the leader of the American Nazi Party, spoke on campus. Not only was there no demonstration against him, but two thousand people turned out—townspeople and college students. His speech was about how whites were the new minority and no one was paying attention to them. And it tapped into all the fears I heard growing up, although my parents were never that crazy.
He tapped into frustrations, which is what a lot of demagogues do. I attended a George Wallace rally, which was really eye opening. I knew people there and I could see how he riled them up and how he touched their emotions.
Robin Lindley: Like Donald Trump today.
Nick Licata: Yes.
Back to the question of working with SDS. It wasn’t because it was so different, but it asked questions nobody else was asking or was even thinking about asking.
The student government at Bowling Green had to approve every organization on campus, and they had a big debate on whether we should be approved. One of the people who ran for student body president was a liberal and said there should be a campus vote on whether we should be recognized. I argued it was a civil right and you don’t vote on a civil right. Making that argument there began to open my mind to rights of minorities, the immigration laws, and other issues.
I’m a strong believer in the power of the people but there always has to be a condition so you don’t take power from people. In other words, you have to protect the rights of the minority because the next go-round, you might be in the minority. I could see growing up that, as you draw the circle closer and closer, you eliminate other people.
Robin Lindley: It was remarkable that you were an SDS leader and you ran and won the office of student body president at this very conservative college.
Nick Licata: Again, I mention this in the book. For one, you have to be strategic. I could have run for student body president and lost if I had just run on we have to stop the Vietnam War. I was an outspokenly opposed to it, but that wasn’t my platform. I didn’t need to make that my platform. People already knew that about me. They wanted to know something new about me. I wanted to turn heads, and I used “Student Power” [as a slogan]. I argued that students do not become citizens in the university unless they have some power over the university structure. How do you expect to have a citizen democracy and have power over that democracy if you don’t start exercising it in college? I would use the example of the Vietnam War. People had to go and fight in a war that they never voted on. So it went back to the idea of democracy and having the vote to make a participatory democracy. By using that approach, I took out the argument that I was being disloyal to be critical of the war, and I argued that the war itself was not conforming to the expectations we had of ourselves.
Then, using “Student Power,” I argued that we should be able to determine what kind of classes we wanted. That got me some play. And I said we also should have some authority over our social lives—what we want to do on the campus where we live.
I was running a race against the most popular fraternity person on campus. There were two very popular fraternity members and they agreed to not campaign against each other so they combined their campaigns because they didn’t want to run against each other and split the vote.
I knew it would be a tough battle. And a week before the election, an independent from off campus entered the race, so he would take another third of the vote. I had to go after the fraternity vote and crack open their base. So I said we should legalize beer on campus, and that worked.
And I talk about this tool in the book: use polls. People like to think they’re in the majority and not alone in what they think. A poll helps people feel confident that they’re not alone. By doing a poll, I could show people that putting beer on campus wasn’t that unusual.
Robin Lindley: What brought you to Seattle?
Nick Licata: I was a graduate student in a PhD program. I studied sociology and majored in poli sci in college and I wanted to go more into theory. The reason I chose Seattle over the University of Wisconsin, which was also very good, is that they offered me a TA position at the University of Washington—and it was farther from Cleveland.
Seattle is a refuge for people running away from home. There’s two ways of looking at it. Seattle offers the most opportunities of any major urban in the country, and you can’t go any farther west.
Robin Lindley: Were you involved in politics when you came to Seattle?
Nick Licata: The first year I wasn’t. I was focused on getting my degree. But I was tracking everything. At that time, I met the infamous Seattle Seven, and particularly Chip Marshall, who was very active. I always thought of him as the leader of the Seattle Seven, but he wouldn’t say so and they wouldn’t say so. He was certainly the most charismatic. And there was Michael Lerner, a professor on campus who now edits Tikkun, a journal of Jewish liberal and radical thought out of the Bay Area.
I knew all of the Seattle Seven, even Jeff Dowd, the Dude who The Big Lebowski is based on. We’d hang around and smoke marijuana and talk. I was much more civics oriented rather than protest although I went to all the rallies and marches.
Chip was very much an analytical thinker, and I enjoyed that. I dropped out of my second year of graduate school to do a statewide initiative for an income tax on corporations. We didn’t succeed but it taught me about how to use information and find allies. That was when I first met Larry Gossett who was at the Black Student Union then.
I then decided to go back to graduate school for another year, and I got my Master’s Degree. Then I took off a year and traveled in Europe with my girlfriend. We hitchhiked all through Europe. And we hitchhiked through Bulgaria and that was fascinating. We arrived in Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria. We had big backpacks and everyone was scared to look at us because we were foreigners, particularly westerners. Only one kid came up to us and he asked if we wanted to buy marijuana. We freaked out. We thought he was a police person trying to set us up. But he wasn’t, and he took us to his apartment to meet his dad who had been stationed in Germany as a journalist for a minor publication. His son wanted to stay in Germany but his dad was told, “If your son doesn’t come back, you’re not only going to lose your job. You’re going to jail.” So his son came back and he was miserable.
That was a lesson about a “workers’ paradise.” Things can go awfully wrong even when you have very good objectives.
Robin Lindley: And since your childhood, you’ve been questioning authority and abuse of authority. That trip to Europe must have been eye opening.
Nick Licata: It was. We ended up marching with the socialists, anarchists and communists in Italy in 1974. We hitchhiked through Ireland, and we were picked up by people on both sides [Catholics and Protestants] at the time of IRA battles. We stayed at the farm of an IRA sympathizer in Ireland and there had just been a police car blown up in front of his farm the day before. Then, we were going for a drink in small village outside Belfast [Northern Ireland] and we decided not to go in when we saw the tavern had sandbags piled all around the front door. It made me think that this bar could be a target.
Robin Lindley: And you returned to Seattle after this European trip?
Nick Licata: Yes. My friends had been looking for a large house since before we left for Europe to set up a collective household. They found a house on Capital Hill that was a mansion built for a Norwegian Jew who made his money off the gold rush selling mining tools. We moved in when we got back and 21 people lived in the house when it first started.
Robin Lindley: From you book, you note how important it was for you to live in a collective arrangement.
Nick Licata: Yes, it was.
Robin Lindley: And that was a sharp contrast to the world of your parents.
Nick Licata: Yes. I told myself I’d give it six months, and if I didn’t like it, I’d move on. My girlfriend and I decided that. It was the same attitude I had before I ran for the City Council. If I got elected, I’d be there one term and see if I wanted to do something else. I ended up there for 18 years. And I lived in the commune for 25 years. I really liked the sense of community. We weren’t interested in an overarching, rigid philosophy. It was a group of people who questioned authority and yet learned how to work with each other.
Robin Lindley: That seems another theme in your life: to bring people of different views together and work collaboratively. Living in a community rather than choosing a solitary life seems a contrast to the version of the American dream of a life of rugged individualism and self-reliance.
Nick Licata: Yes. It was very good. And also the house was not purchased with the idea of being a collective. It was purchased with the idea of everyone living together. We realized that we’d have to do something as people moved away because the bulk of us were students. We had to decide what to do with this house that we purchased for $42,000, and it was soon worth double. Now it’s worth 1.5 million dollars. It’s about ten thousand square feet and 35 rooms, and it’s one of the most prominent mansions on the hill. And it’s still a collective.
So collectively, we decided in this primitive communism where no one would get any of the house’s equity and instead all the value remained in the house in the form of a trust. That way we wouldn’t have to worry about how to divide up the equity with people who moved or who stayed there and what they got. We tried to do a sort of co-op approach where everything remained in the corpus with no division. When you move in, you control the corpus, the house, and when you move out, you don’t. You don’t put any equity in and you don’t take any equity out when you leave. It’s very tricky concept because you’re a renter, but you rent from the trust.
Robin Lindley: In the seventies, you also founded The Seattle Sun, an alternative newspaper.
Nick Licata: Even before that, I published the People’s Yellow Pages. I advertised through the Experimental College that I wanted to put together a directory for charitable services and political activism in Seattle. Five people showed up, and I’m still friends with four of them. We published five thousand copies. We spent a little money on art. Then we published a second issue of ten thousand copies. And we convinced the YMCA and some other non-profits to buy them in bulk and pass them out to workers.
It did more than just identify organizations like the Seattle Tenants Union, various collectives and all the political parties. We made enough money that instead of taking it as salaries we started The Seattle Sun, a weekly newspaper.
I originally talked with people from the Northwest Passage based out of Bellingham, a very big alternative newspaper, to see if they would like to do a local version and work with a small group I had gathered. They weren’t interested. Eventually people like Carol Ostrom and Alec Fisken and others made it happen. Some of the Sun staff became successful and prominent journalists.
Although the newspaper started before I took off for Europe, it was the work of those folks that got it off the ground and made it a success. The Sun started about the same time as when David Brewster started The Weekly with about a thousand times more money than we had. When I got back, I became a columnist, and eventually ended up as chair of the board. The paper lasted about ten years. It broke new ground by promoting and covering performing arts and live theater that the daily newspapers were ignoring. I think the Sun ended up playing a major role in helping the arts and culture scene reach new heights.
Robin Lindley: You continued to do that as a Council Member by promoting arts programs and the People’s Poet for Seattle.
Nick Licata: That was the Poet Populist.
Robin Lindley: So in the seventies and eighties you worked on the Sun newspaper and you were involved with issues like challenging the racially discriminatory real estate practice of redlining. Weren’t you also involved in the Washington Public Interest Research Group (WashPIRG)?
Nick Licata: Yes, I was the co-executive director of WashPIRG. It was already in existence, and it was based on the UW campus. One issue we worked on was getting oil tankers to have double hulls in Puget Sound. And then there were lots of consumer issues too.
Robin Lindley: It seems WASHPIRG offers one model for citizen engagement.
Nick Licata: It is. I’m working closely now with WASHPIRG on this election. There are many graduates of the WASHPIRG work, and I continue to work with them.
Robin Lindley: You continued advancing causes as an activist but you also had a day job as an insurance broker. How did that job work out with your other interests?
Nick Licata: It was fairly easy. I ran for City Council in 1979 and I lost. My girlfriend and I had a baby and I needed a real job. I didn’t want to go the health route because I didn’t want to get typecast in the social-service industry. I wanted to go into business because I wanted to see what the business world was like and I wanted to go into something that allowed maximum freedom. First I thought I’d be an accountant or a tax advisor.
Then someone pointed out to me this thing called an insurance broker. I didn’t want to be an insurance agent. There was a very liberal Democrat, David Sprague, in the legislature who was an insurance broker. I went to him and said, “I want to join your firm. What do you do?” And he said, “We don’t sell insurance. We buy insurance for our clients. We search for what’s out there. Like a real estate broker.” We ask what a client needs and go out and get it.
Robin Lindley: So you would try to find the best insurance deal for your clients? Like a social service?
Nick Licata: Yes, right. That’s how I justified it. I think it is a service if you are a good broker and try to get the best deal for your client. I think I did a good job. I had one of the highest number of clients but almost all of them had small policies. I decided after 15 years of being there, I would work part time. Soon after that, I ran for City Council [in 1997].
Robin Lindley: What prompted your first race for City Council in 1979?
Nick Licata: I had been the campaign manager for Chip Marshall who ran [for City Council] in 1975 and 1977. He was probably the most well-known radical and he lost both times. Unlike Kshama Sawant, he did not call himself a socialist. He was a populist.
Anyway, he didn’t win, and having seen him run and lose, I thought, “Hey, I can run, and if I lose, and I’ll still survive.” And it would be a challenge. I had been organizing by putting together the People’s Yellow Pages. I also helped organize a forum of community councils and did other similar things.
Robin Lindley: So you were also a neighborhood activist?
Nick Licata: Yes. First, I worked with the University District Community Council to stop one of the tallest high rises in University District. That was the Safeco Building. They did build it, but in exchange, they had to comply with a number of conditions. One was that they had to be members of the Community Council and provide money to pursue other issues.
Robin Lindley: How did you decide to run for City Council again in 1997?
Nick Licata: It was right after I had gone half time at the insurance brokerage. I had devoted so much time to activism while being an insurance broker that I felt guilty that I wasn’t spending enough time to bring business in. I also very involved in citywide issues so I decided once again to try it and see what it was like.
After that, Charlie Chong, a very popular populist decided to run for mayor and I ran for his open seat. I ran against a bona fide progressive liberal, Aaron Ostrom, who was working for the City then. He knew of me; I didn’t know of him. We had very a very positive working relationship when we first started running. Being part of city government already probably helped him as Seattle newspapers endorsed him and he raised twice as much money as I did. Then the majority of the City Council endorsed him as well as the mayor and the future mayor, Greg Nichols, who was on the County Council. So things didn’t look very good.
But I came out on top of the crowded primary of seven people, which surprised a lot of people including myself. I had a large network and I had been organizing a lot of groups. I always made sure that I had mailings and sent out bulletins on current issues. I had modeled myself on [independent investigative journalist] I. F. Stone. I had had my own sort of political base.
Although the political cards were stacked against me, like Bernie Sanders today, I was able to raise a decent amount of money and public financing was tremendously helpful. I actually won by a 12 percent margin, which wasn’t too bad.
Robin Lindley: You’ve developed and succeeded with an optimistic form of activism that you detail in your book. You open the book by writing that you don’t need to be Superman or Wonder Woman to make a difference in our democracy. Anyone can be involved. And your own story is a testament to that approach and will certainly inspire others. What do you hope readers take from your book?
Nick Licata: My main objective for the book was to get people to realize they can do something about their political and social conditions. First, people need to understand that the conditions they live under are often being determined by someone other than themselves. Once they come to that realization, then the next step is to look around and determine who is making the decisions and what levers they need to use to change those conditions or to remove them.
Robin Lindley: You seem very hopeful about a reawakening of citizen involvement.
Nick Licata: I think it can be done.
Robin Lindley: Thank you for sharing your story and your positive approach to citizen activism.