THE ELECTION FOR the next president of the Seattle City Council has come down to two candidates: savvy budget chair Jan Drago and neighborhood progressive Nick Licata. While Drago favors molding the council into a tight, disciplined team, Licata emphasizes a more open, decentralized approach to leadership. Even Licata himself, however, admits Drago will likely win.
The contest comes as the City Council is struggling with some of the lowest public-approval ratings in years. According to the influential Elway Poll, since 2000 the public's approval of the council's performance has dropped 25 points, to just 17 percent. If the council needed confirmation of those numbers, they received it this month as the three Seattle City Council incumbents who had viable challengers went down to defeat in the election. In addition, mayoral-council relations are the worst they have been since Mayor Charles Royer's administration of the 1980s. The next City Council president has to tackle these problems to be successful.
The council president is elected by a majority vote of his or her colleagues. Once in office, the president does not have extensive powers like the speaker of a house of representatives or a senate's majority leader. He or she derives authority from personal leadership.
A 10-YEAR COUNCIL veteran who served as president in 1996-97, Drago is in the mold of an old-time pol, more interested in getting things done than generating headlines. She has been a stalwart defender of Seattle's governing consensus of the past 15 years: keep downtown retail humming, ensure the unions get their share, make the streets as orderly and clean as possible, and use the tax receipts to fund human services whenever feasible.
Drago bemoans the current state of city government. She says of her quest to be council president, "The number one goal is to restore respectability and credibility to the city. The way to do that is to have a city council that works as a team." Drago thinks "maverick" members who don't respect their colleagues are hurting the City Council. She passionately deplores "people who go out on their own before they vet their ideas with their colleagues. People that leak before they talk to their colleagues or leak their colleagues' information. It's a real problem."
While Drago refuses to name names, Licata acknowledges she is probably talking about him, among others. "I've retained enough of my role as an independent outsider to make her feel uncomfortable," he says.
LICATA ORIGINALLY challenged Drago in 1997, before switching to an open-seat contest. He ran as a public-interest critic of downtown trophy projects like the Pacific Place parking garage. On the City Council, he has been a consistent vote for neighborhood and progressive activists. He has also been a press darling, because of his philosophy of open government and his witty, frank quotes. Licata says of the council presidency, "I don't see it as a stern taskmaster. We don't have political parties. Everybody is moving around on the issues. The City Council should be a deliberative body. One of my pillars is transparency in government."
Licata does not place a lot of emphasis on the City Council challenging Mayor Nickels' authority by asserting its own. "You are never going to get a strong City Council response to the mayor, unless the mayor wants to cut the council's budget," he quips.
In contrast, Drago has been very unhappy with the hardball political style of the Nickels administration, much preferring the collaborative methods of former Mayor Norm Rice. Her solution is simple: "If the City Council has an agenda, the mayor's behavior modifies accordingly."
Licata acknowledges that Drago will likely get the votes of former television journalist Jim Compton and genial housing chair Richard McIver. He says of their choice, "It's really psychological. If you are more risk-averse, that leads to a more conservative approach."
WHILE HE LOOKS forward to meeting with his three new colleagues, Licata clearly doesn't expect to pick up votes from former Seattle Times columnist Jean Godden, United Way executive David Della, or senior-citizen advocate Tom Rasmussen, either. "I am really concerned that the new council members will not want to rock the boat. They are going to be looking over their shoulders all the time."
Drago is confident she can attract a majority of votes. There is still some doubt in her mind, however, about whether she wants the job. "I am only interested if council members want to be a team and commit to change. If we continue to have mavericks who don't want to be part of the team, then I have no interest."