Nick Licata doesn't speak from a throne of expertise. He imparts from the muddy trenches of experience. The longtime Seattle city council member, who in 2012 was dubbed America's "Most Valuable Local Official" by The Nation, has helped to write the manual on urban progressive activism.
He'll be speaking today at 4 p.m. at the University of Minnesota bookstore in Coffman Memorial Union. In light of Minneapolis' failed $15 an hour minimum wage initiative, it's apt timing.
"I'm not coming in to tell [people] what to do," Licata says. "I'm coming in as someone who's already been through similar experiences.…
"One of the things I learned is you want to avoid situations where you corner people and it's a win-or-die situation. Like putting it in the hands of the courts, for instance. By doing that, you take the active ability to mobilize people because it's out of your hands."
Licata's victories are many. As the sponsor of Seattle's paid sick-leave ordinance, he convinced his most conservative council colleague that the measure wouldn't come at the expense of business. Instead, he framed the discussion in terms of mutual benefit. Healthy labor, healthier businesses.
Last year, Licata marshaled the city's $15 minimum wage. Licata helped to cobble varying interest groups, a coalition that included unions, middle class conservatives, and segments of the business community. In the face of Chamber of Commerce resistance, the different parties acted like a moderating force.
"You've got to listen not just to your followers," he says, "but to your opponents, who'll often you'll find are sympathetic, and the work is peeling them away from the hardcore opposition to get them on board.…You have to make room for the passive voices to be heard or least bring them up front so the politicians and the media realize the most vocal aren't the only supporters. Then you can utilize them as spokespeople because it throws the opposition off-base. It shows you have a broader base."
Activist initiatives can crash for any number of reasons, according to Licata. For one, the hardcore base can get so wrapped up in the emotion of the issue it fails to realize that being loudest counts for nil. It can also scare away potential allies.
Turning a cause into actual legislation requires more "one-on-one discussions that's not on the front page with the people who are sympathetic" -- and fewer blowhards. Moreover, taking a go-for-broke stand shouldn't come at the expense of growing the movement.
Licata surmises Minneapolis activists used a sledgehammer — the courts — when the pencil would've been more effective in pushing the $15 wage.
Despite a Minnesota Supreme Court's ruling to keep it off the November ballot, Licata feels Minneapolis is primed for movement.
"It takes some determination to listen to what others have to say," says Licata. "You have to remember what you're trying to do is make elected officials feel what they're doing is the normal thing to do. So as much as you can frame it as a rational, natural course of action, that's more likely to achieve what you've set out to do."