Longtime Seattle City Council members Tom Rasmussen and Nick Licata both announced — here and here — last week that they will not seek reelection this fall. As of October, Licata was the Council’s most beloved member, while voters felt much more ‘meh’ toward Rasmussen. Licata says he wants to concentrate on building a national network of progressive city leaders, while Rasmussen says he wants to concentrate on policy rather than campaigning during the coming year.
But before they bow out, CHS asked both councilors: What did you ever do for the Hill?
“This was graffiti covered,” says Rasmussen, pointing at the Sunset Electric building. The top five stories are an exoskeleton of shimmering glass and metal balanced upon two bottom stories of quaint, old brick. “It was going to be bulldozed,” he says. “It was going to be torn down by the developer.”
But the building — which now resembles a titanic computer chip perched atop a frontier supply store — still stands, a physical manifestation of Capitol Hill’s future balanced on the shoulders of its past. This is due, Rasmussen says, to the legislation he championed to give developers a way to add to the Hill, rather than replace it. The result: a fast-growing brick-and-steel jungle which “preserves the character of the neighborhood,” rather than an asphalt savanna which erases it. Pointing out another old/new building on the northeast corner of the Madison/Union/12th intersection, Rasmussen says, “Extra floor on top, beautiful brick; I think it’s just inspiring.”
“I think that Capitol Hill is going to lose someone who is super engaged in the neighborhood,” says local business magnate and longtime ally Dave Meinert. “[Rasmussen is] a really smart guy” who has “been super involved in Capitol Hill… everything from garbage to pedestrian traffic issues.”
When we meet to talk about what he’s done for the Hill during his eleven years in office, Rasmussen takes me on a walking tour of the Pike/Pine area, pointing out landmarks he’s helped save and reminiscing about living here forty years ago.
“The Seventies was extremely exciting,” he says of the Hill’s gay heyday, “because it was the beginning of feeling really liberated.” Living with his then-partner on Harvard Ave E, Rasmussen says the rush of visiting the neighborhood’s thriving bar scene was tempered by the fear of exposure.
“When I went out at first into the bars, I was terrified that I would run into someone I know when I was coming out of a gay bar. I was like, ‘My god, what if I come out of the bar and I run into my mother?” Rasmussen says. “It was pretty scary.”
Today, Rasmussen is about as out as you can get, living with his 24-year partner in West Seattle and making LGBT equality a policy staple.
Seattle City Council’s most-popular and longest-standing member, Nick Licata, is basically an old hippie.
Make of this what you will.
Sporting a snow-white soul patch and braille business cards, the former neighborhood organizer has held his post since 1998. During that time he’s staked out a position as a true-green progressive who knows how to play the political game, writing things like “Every Politician Should Live In a Commune” while also coauthoring a blistering city report on the 1999 WTO protests:
We find that city government failed its citizens through careless and naïve planning, poor communication of its plans and procedures, confused and indecisive police leadership, and imposition of civil emergency measures in questionable ways. As authorities lost control of the streets they resorted to methods that sometimes compromised the civil rights of citizens and often provoked further disturbance.
Meinert again: “[Licata is] very left, very progressive but also a budget hawk. I don’t know if conservative on spending is the right word, but he’s very smart about budgeting…I think not having Nick on Council is going to be a big loss.”
Right now, Licata says, he’s concentrated on enforcement of white-collar laws. In addition to putting together the City’s new Office of Labor Standards (which will deal with things like wage theft), he’s working on creating a registry of rental properties that would enable the city to monitor landlords and collect demographic data. If successful, he says, it would be the “first time in the city’s history that we’ll be able to register all the rental units…Before, if someone had a complaint they’d have to file a complaint themselves”—which doesn’t make for particularly sharp-toothed rental regulations.
On the Hill, he says, he was one of the drivers behind establishing Cal Anderson Park in the early Aughts, pushing back against budget-based objections from city departments. “Initially, [Seattle Public Utilities] wanted to put a cover on it that was perhaps not even sod,” Licata says. “I negotiated with [the Department of] Parks. The community wanted a water feature there, and lighting, and making it an attractive park… We finally got the Parks Department and SPU to agree to an expenditure that was perhaps twice” their original figure. Since then, the park has gone from a condom-littered “shithole” (per The Stranger) to one of the best city parks in the country (per Forbes magazine).
Licata’s influence has mosty recently been felt on the Hill via his work to establish it as the city’s first Arts District (a designation which basically lets developers build more if they include arts spaces). “We want to create a model here that can be duplicated across the country,” he said at the District’s official launch in November.
After he finishes up this year, Licata says, he’ll be building a national network between progressive city leaders, using cities’ increasing influence (more than half of all humanity now lives in urban areas) to pioneer national policy.
With the exit of Licata and Rasmussen, significant forces in shaping the Capitol Hill we know today are stepping aside as the council shifts to new district-based representation. It is time — we can hope — for new leaders to emerge.