In 2011, after years of entrenched fighting between businesses and labor supporters, and months of negotiation in the city council, Seattle’s paid sick-leave ordinance came down to a walk in the park. The bill’s sponsor, councilmember Nick Licata, invited his colleague Tim Burgess, the council’s stalwart fiscal conservative, for a stroll around Green Lake. At that point, few council members were willing to support the bill and Licata was nowhere close to the five-vote majority he needed.
“I figured, in some ways, the swing vote would be Burgess,” Licata explained. “Given his standing in the business community, if he supported it, then other council members would come out and support it. It would have a domino effect.”
Walking side-by-side around the park’s lakeside path, Licata learned that Burgess wanted only minor concessions. Licata brought those back to his coalition of sick-leave supporters, who agreed to most of them. The bill, which had been stuck for years in legislative limbo, began to move. Burgess voiced his support, other councilmembers followed, and Licata wrangled the votes necessary to pass one of the country’s first laws requiring all employers to provide paid sick time to workers.
Laws like this help make Seattle the progressive city it is. In the past five years alone, Seattle has become the first major city to enact a $15 minimum wage; banned the use of plastic bags; sanctioned homeless encampments on city property; helped lead the charge on statewide votes for legal marijuana and marriage equality, and more. To hear most residents tell it, this progressive streak is as inevitable as good coffee or the craggy face of Mount Ranier—the natural outcome of a city peopled by good liberals who want to do the right thing.
But, as the long fight to win paid sick leave suggests, Seattle’s progressive laws are anything but inevitable. The city’s businesses fight tooth and nail against every attempt to improve worker rights and pay, threatening an exodus to friendlier climates. And while Seattle residents say they want the city to be affordable and want to help the rapidly growing homeless population, they also show up in force to protest affordable-housing measures and proposals to open more temporary homeless encampments.
What has fueled Seattle’s progressive victories, then, isn’t some mystery potion or innate Northwestern goodness, but the same hard work that has forced progress in other cities: grassroots organizing, tenacity, and political allies like Nick Licata. For 18 years, Licata has been one of the most reliable forces inside City Hall pushing and prodding Seattle to be a more humane city.
Since his election in 1998, Licata has had his hands in every piece of progressive legislation to pass through City Hall. He fought years of serious opposition to pass the Rental Registration and Inspection Ordinance, championed paid sick leave and the $15 minimum wage, created Seattle’s first lobbyist-registration law, pushed for sanctioned homeless encampments, and much more. He also fought against public funding of sports stadiums, a bill to outlaw panhandling, and plenty of other attempts at city-sanctioned discrimination.