A chameleon candidate?

Judy Nicastro's bid for Seattle City Council brings together polar opposites.

Imagine the pandemonium at Judy Nicastro's victory party on November 4th. Nicastro, a feisty, charming young woman has come out of nowhere, running passionately for Seattle City Council, and has beaten political veteran Cheryl Chow. The scrappy candidate has defied the odds, something she's been doing her whole life, and her supporters, a diverse lot, are going wild.

In the establishment section of the crowd, Blair Butterworth, quaffing a microbrew, is delightedly accepting congratulations. Seattle's older version of James Carville, Butterworth spotted talent in Nicastro early on and took a chance. He waived his princely fees and gave his political advice gratis; he lent his name to her campaign, providing Nicastro with a legitimacy she otherwise lacked. Butterworth has a long Democratic pedigree in Washington politics. He started out with a gubernatorial victory in 1976, running Dixy Lee Ray's campaign. More recent happy clients include Governor Gary Locke and Mayor Paul Schell.

Over in the activist corner, John Fox, Seattle's version of Emma Goldman, delightedly sucks down a pilsner. He and Nicastro first forged a deep alliance in the heat of the battle for renters' rights. Now he's counting on her to help overturn City Attorney Mark Sidran's "anti-homeless" civility laws. Fox wonders about rent control and how fast and far Nicastro will move to stabilize the housing market, slow redevelopment, and protect cheap apartments all over the city. Gleefully he fantasizes about seizing the discourse on housing, beating back the supply siders like his political archenemy Paul Schell.

Butterworth and Fox finish their drinks and wade through the crowd in search of more libation. They meet in line. They contemplate one another's presence: One of Schell's closest friends and political allies faces an activist who has been fighting the mayor for well over 20 years. Do they recoil in horror, realizing that one of them will be sorely disappointed in Nicastro's performance on the council?

Not at all, they both insist.

While Nicastro's victory in November is by no means a sure thing, her showing in the September primary was fantastic by anyone's measurement. She received 35 percent of the vote to Chow's 38.8 percent, despite the latter's clear advantages in fundraising, name recognition, and experience (Chow served eight years on the City Council before stepping down in 1997 to run for mayor.) Nicastro received the endorsements of both daily papers, labor, and put together a lively campaign drawing on young Dems, hard-core lefties, establishment stalwarts, and political newcomers. Clearly momentum is on Nicastro's side.

What will Nicastro do if elected? Which of the many constituencies that have been drawn to her candidacy will she satisfy?

In large part, we don't know. Nicastro has run a campaign that must delight Butterworth—it's not the issues, stupid, it's the messenger. Nicastro stresses how it's time for a change, it's time to get the city moving, how Seattle needs fresh faces, energetic new leadership. "Seattle can't stand still!" she exclaims. None of which means a damn thing, but it's exactly this kind of pabulum, presented by a bright, beautiful, charismatic candidate like Nicastro, that has become a winner in our impoverished political culture.

Beneath the surface, one finds Nicastro just plain doesn't know all that much about city politics. She didn't even vote in any of the five highly charged city elections in 1996, from the Seattle Commons levy to Charlie Chong's City Council victory. Before running for office, she says, "I wasn't aware that there was a war going on" between downtown and the neighborhoods. Now that she is aware, she refuses to choose sides. On the "anti-homeless" Sidran civility laws, she gives lip service to her opposition to them, but when pressed starts vacillating. Take the parks exclusion ordinance, for instance, which allows police officers to ban people from parks for everything from off-leash dogs to loud music to serious felonies. Nicastro says she would back council member Nick Licata's approach to the issue—but she doesn't know what it is. (Licata proposed that only serious offenses— assault, weapons charges, and felony drug activity—result in a ban. In addition, if someone challenges their expulsion, it would be held in abeyance until a hearing in front of a parks officer.) Reminded of the political realities on the council—strong support for the law from council members Margaret Pageler, Jan Drago, and Richard Conlin—she starts to backpedal. "The parks exclusion law is low on my priority list. I would not lead the charge. Parks exclusion is very contentious and very problematic. It's very complicated. I may not have all the information." Probe on a broad spectrum of issues—housing, municipal finance, transportation—the results are similar.

So why are John Fox and many other progressive activists pinning their hopes on Nicastro? First off, she's not Cheryl Chow. The activists have been burned good by Chow, who voted for every law Sidran offered up, backed drug-war measures like "weed and seed," and is tight with Wes Uhlman and the Apartment Owners Association. Secondly, Nicastro did, nearly single-handedly, birth an exciting campaign to overturn the state ban on rent control. The campaign was short-lived, only about eight months, but Nicastro proved she is tenacious, politically savvy, and one helluva grassroots organizer.

For Fox and many other activists, that struggle convinced them that Nicastro is on their side. Fox readily admits Nicastro's campaign has not excited him. "She's trying to reach out to the broad center," he says. "If I were to look at her campaign and I hadn't had the experience of working with her in the [renters' rights] group, I'd be very wary because of how she has moved to the center and equivocated on the issues." Yet Fox remains convinced that because of her "progressive values," her "heart being the right place," and her toughness, she will prove to be an excellent council member.

Despite Fox's support, Nicastro herself says he and the activists are the ones most likely to be unhappy with her if she wins. "I'll definitely disappoint John because nobody can live up to his expectations. The left expects perfection. Blair's expectation of me is more realistic."

And what is that? Butterworth says what the average voter is looking for is not a lot specific positions but energy, verve, and the ability to get things done. In a word, "they want talent." He also believes her passion for the plight of renters is an asset. "Even us old farts wonder where our kids are going to live," he says. "Everybody has rented. Landlords screw you." Butterworth says Nicastro tempers that passion with a strong pragmatism. "Perfection is elusive and [City Council] policy is five votes." He says Nicastro is a woman of principle and will "stay true to her convictions," but she'll also compromise enough to get things done.

When polar opposites like Butterworth and Fox agree on a candidate, you know the laws of political physics no longer apply. We'll just wait and see how long Nicastro can manage to keep everyone happy.

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