Rent race

City Council candidate Judy Nicastro and the battle for tenant power.

The junkyard of politics is littered with the hulking, twisted wrecks of campaign promises. Our own Seattle City Council is no exception. Before her election, homeless advocates recall, Margaret Pageler strongly supported their efforts. Once elected, she led the charge to sanitize the city by banning sidewalk sitting and other grave threats to the social order. Last winter, Green Party activists became so disillusioned with Richard Conlin’s support for tossing people out of parks, they frequently griped that he only counted as half a progressive vote.

So, in this context, consider the council candidacy of Judy Nicastro and the short-lived battle for renters’ rights she led.

No majority suffers more due to our quiescent political climate than the 52 percent of Seattleites who rent. In the dreary, cold days of last year’s winter, Nicastro burst onto the scene advocating for renters with the brightness and heat of an LA summer. She took on an issue—the state prohibition against rent control—considered to be the third rail of local tenant politics. In just a few months, she founded Local Housing Needs Local Laws, organized hundreds of frustrated renters (many of whom were new to the political process), and got legislators to introduce tenant-friendly legislation in Olympia. But just a couple of months later, Nicastro stepped down as Local Housing chair to run for City Council. Soon after, Nicastro’s allies summarily disbanded the group. The result is that renters are less organized than before, and their advocate is off and running on her own.

Spend time with Judy Nicastro and you know this woman is going places. It’s not exactly clear where she’s headed politically, but she has a turbo-engine mind and mag wheels of charisma to get her there—fast. Currently she’s battling establishment, kid-friendly Cheryl Chow and longtime progressive streetfighter Dan Norton for City Council.

Nicastro first made her mark in student politics when in 1992 she became the first UW student body president to come out of the university’s minority and disadvantaged program. (Nicastro’s poverty placed her in the program.) She went on to UW law school, where she turned some legal heads with her acumen. Eventually she landed a job at Boeing as a parts buyer. She remained politically active, involved with groups like the ACLU and the Northwest Women’s Law Center. She also kept an eye on elective office, training with the Institute for a Democratic Future, an outfit that preps young up-and-comers in campaign skills.

Her politics grow out of her family’s own experience of hardship. Most recently, just in the spring of 1998 in fact, her mom lost her job right before she was due to have open heart surgery. While no one could prove a causal relationship between the two events, Nicastro has her suspicions. Suddenly, Nicastro’s mother was unemployed and had a pressing need for surgery and paid time off to recover. “She was literally two months away from homelessness,” Nicastro says. Judy and her brother were able to provide her mom with the necessary money—but not all children could. “Fifty percent of [my mom’s] salary goes to rent,” Nicastro notes pointedly. It’s no wonder that when Nicastro seized center stage politically, she carried the renters’ standard.

Washington’s ban on rent control goes back to 1980. That year, activists managed to put a rent control initiative on the Seattle ballot. Trouble was, the landlords not only creamed the measure at the polls, they had so much money left over in their campaign war chest that they went to Olympia and had rent control banned statewide. To make matters worse, the prohibition was written very broadly, potentially outlawing even mild tenant protections like the right to a lease.

Nicastro and her Local Housing group mounted the first serious challenge to the ban in 18 years. Part of Nicastro’s success lay in her ability to frame the issue in a way that could fortify the Democrats’ timidity and even keep Republicans’ minds open. She told the Legislature the issue was not rent control, but local control: Don’t use state government to dictate to localities. She judiciously avoided pushing rent control itself with the legislators.

Nicastro is very good at explaining renters’ issues in a commonsense, moderate way. She talks about using leases to stabilize neighborhoods and provide safe communities. A city which mistreats renters creates “a transient population,” she observes. Her smart, soothing rhetoric goes down easy.

Nicastro and the Local Housing group managed to persuade the state Legislature to hold a hearing on the subject and even got Seattle’s legislators to draft and sponsor a repeal of the rent control ban. The repeal died in the House, but no experienced activist dreamed the effort could have gone so far, so fast. Drena Turner, an ordinary renter, was swept up by the current and became a leader. “There was this optimistic hope like I remember from the ’60s. There could be movement—maybe not victory, but movement.”

Probably no one would have predicted the group would crash and burn so quickly, either. Nicastro stepped down as chair of the Local Housing group to run for City Council in March. Drena Turner and John Palmer became the new cochairs and suddenly dissolved the group in May. Their motivation? Complicated, but protecting Nicastro’s political reputation figured high.

After Nicastro stepped down, Local Housing became embroiled in one of those strategic disputes common in grassroots activism. From the outside, the dispute seems minor, even petty, but inside the group it assumes a gravity strong enough to collapse the entire effort. A majority of Local Housing’s members wanted to directly advocate for rent control, not solely stick to Nicastro’s strategy of local control.

Turner explains the consequences if Local Housing had raised the banner of rent control. “There might have been some concerns if Judy’s name was so linked with [the group]—if it became something else and Judy’s name was still attached to it.” Was this small of a strategic difference important enough to fold the group? Turner comments, “It’s like the princess and the pea. It’s just a little pea under your mattress, but somehow you still can’t sleep.”

Kris Weber, a pro-rent control member of the group, was shocked when she received a phone message informing her the group was defunct. “I do question how committed they were to their own limited goal of repealing the law if they were willing to fold the group.”

Nicastro denies responsibility for the group’s demise. She also sees her own candidacy, which includes a renters’ rights platform, as “keeping the issue very much alive.”

But this tactic—sacrificing the potential of a grassroots group to help elect one candidate to advocate for renters—is risky. At the very least, it means if Nicastro wins, renters have less muscle to hold her accountable. All they can do is hope her promises won’t end up at the junkyard.