The outside's new insider

Judy Nicastro's Cinderella victory suggests new life for an anti-establishment coalition.

IT'S JUDY NICASTRO'S victory party, and that familiar campaign adrenaline isn't in the air. That's because it's more than a week after the election—Nicastro supporters had to save their partying until two absentee vote counts confirmed their candidate's narrow victory over former Seattle City Council member Cheryl Chow.

Cinderella has dressed down for her ball. Nicastro is clad and sweater and jeans, melting into the Capitol Hill casual crowd at the Elysian Brewing Co. There isn't a suit in sight.

The election of Nicastro, the candidate who introduced the pub crawl to Seattle politics, was the major surprise of the election season and a small ray of hope for the city's political outsiders. Call it the Progressive/Populist Movement for short. The populists (think Charlie Chong or the government watchdog Civic Foundation) tend toward pro-neighborhood rhetoric, harsh criticism of government, and talking about the "establishment" a lot. The progressives (think incumbent council member Nick Licata or the Seattle Green Party) support social justice, exhibit concern for the environment, and like to talk about the "establishment" a lot, too.

Nicastro is hardly the poster child of the prog/ pops: Of their three major endorsement organizations (the third being the Progressive Coalition), only the Seattle Greens backed her in her primary race, and that was a dual endorsement with opponent Daniel Norton. But, as the renters' rights advocate became the target of landlords, homeless haters, and The Seattle Times, she became the adopted daughter of the city's political "outs." Nicastro appreciates the help. "The Green Party gave money, tons of time, resources, and volunteers," she says. "And they never bothered us."

But Nicastro's campaign was far more traditional than her brewpub celebration would indicate. Early on, she attracted the attention and support of influential political consultant Blair Butterworth. She battled for every endorsement and notched some big ones, including the King County Labor Council, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and the Seattle Police Officers Guild. Still, voters chose her over a former two-term incumbent less than a year after she had made her first entry into local politics by forming the group Local Housing Needs Local Laws. "That's just incredible that a city is that open and welcome to change," she says.

Call it the Fresh Faces Election: Newcomer Heidi Wills pounded former council member Chong and last-minute entrant Jim Compton trounced ex-state legislator Dawn Mason. Perhaps the outsiders got a little too excited over fielding candidates with political pedigrees. Brian Livingston, Civic Foundation administrator, wouldn't argue the point. The foundation, whose bylaws limit its support to two "outstanding" candidates each election cycle, went with Chong and Mason. "It seemed that Charlie and Dawn, being previously elected officials, had a better chance of being elected," he explains.

The other two council races brought lessons of their own. Incumbent Peter Steinbrueck, backed by the Seattle Greens and the Progressive Coalition, was considered enough of a political powerhouse to avoid any serious opposition. And Progressive Coalition cofounder Curt Firestone ran a spirited but ultimately quixotic race to unseat council member Margaret Pageler.

As the Progressive Coalition was formed, in part, to make sure no nonprogressive incumbent would be without a strong challenger, Firestone's candidacy could be termed a success. The challenger took only 33 percent of the vote but ran 13 percentage points ahead of Steinbrueck's noncampaigning opponent and could be a factor in a future open seat race.

So, based on the election, what will the outsiders need next time?

More money, says Livingston. Both Chong and Mason were outspent, and the Civic Foundation's $60,500 independent expenditure campaign (funded by member dues collected over a two-year period) was almost matched by a pair of last-minute establishment-backed efforts. "We're just going to have to run faster," he says.

More togetherness, notes Seattle Green Party spokesman Robin Denburg. Although populists and progressives have traditionally eyed each other suspiciously, all the major groups worked together in support of Mason. "I'm looking forward to building that relationship with the Civic Foundation," he says.

More coalition building, says Progressive Coalition member Michael Kaufman. His group has managed to bring representatives of organized labor, the gay community, and advocates for homeless and low-income populations together, but much work needs to be done in shoring up relationships and bringing communities of color into the mix.

Better work on issues, says just about everybody. This year's outsider candidates favored amendments to ordinances governing noise, confiscation of automobiles, and exclusion from city parks. Yet, for opposing parts of these so-called "civility laws," candidates were bashed by the daily newspapers as being soft on antisocial behavior. Calls for public restrooms downtown were twisted into the false claim that Civic Foundation candidates favored legalizing using streets as bathrooms. "That was very well thought-out but very unfair," says Livingston. Chong is also dusting off his plans for the Populist Foundation, a think-tank that would aid outsider candidates by studying local political issues.

New candidates, says the voters. The three open council seats were filled by first-time office seekers, none with a significant political track record. "The candidates with the fewest enemies won," adds political consultant Lisa Collins of Moxie Media.

"Nothing is the hope, except a good candidate who can raise money," notes Matthew Fox, Chong's campaign manager and the name most often cited when the topic of future progressive/populist candidates is raised. A short list from the primary casualties: former county Democratic Party chair Daniel Norton, Ballard neighborhood planning leader Thomas Whittemore, and Queen Anne activist Andrew Scully.

In the meantime, progressives and populists alike are relishing the prospect of adding Nicastro to their current council cadre of Steinbrueck, Nick Licata, and (sometimes) Richard Conlin. "You've got three and sometimes four and occasionally five votes" depending on the issue, says Fox.

Nicastro says her first legislative goal is to address the amendment or repeal of the city's Teen Dance Ordinance, a law that virtually shut down smaller musical venues that cater to teenagers. Wills expressed support on the campaign trail for amending the ordinance, and the trio of Steinbrueck, Licata, and Conlin could notch a quick win for the reformers. Nicastro's election on a pro-renter platform over the opposition of the well-funded landlord lobby could position her as an important voice on housing issues. "We need a leader, and maybe Judy is that person," says housing activist John Fox.

Progressives are also targeting the expected 2001 reelection campaign of City Attorney Mark Sidran, a conservative Democrat who has twice run unopposed. "That means finding a progressive lawyer who knows his stuff and can be a politician," says Kaufman.

Chances for future gains will also be limited by lack of council turnover. Three open council seats were on the ballot in both 1997 and 1999—an unusual situation not likely to be repeated two years from now. The prog/pops must also prepare for a possible establishment effort to unseat Licata, their best-known incumbent. But, despite taking a licking, all indications are that the city's political outsiders come out of the 1999 council elections bloodied but unbowed.

 
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