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Wednesday, October 27, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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O. Casey Corr

Nicastro Doesn't Deserve This Political Mugging

Times Editorial Columnist

TO REACH Judy Nicastro's campaign headquarters, go to Wallingford, stop at the rain-soaked couch on the parking strip, step over the recycling bins and descend to a basement storage room.

There you'll find Nicastro at her desk, feeling besieged.

"I feel very beaten up," she says.

Nicastro, a candidate for the City Council, illustrates a truth about Seattle.

Much as we like to pretend this is a nice town, when powerful people feel threatened, they play hardball. The apartment-owners association and others have targeted her as a dangerous radical and are spending big money to defeat her. She's not radical, and she's not dangerous.

"This is the unattractive part of politics that the public is sick of," says Nicastro, who, as a fighter, is far from giving up. She expects to win.

Nicastro should be a welcome presence in city politics, especially in this race, where she faces Cheryl Chow, a mediocre former council member.

Chow grew up in a prominent political family in Seattle, while Nicastro grew up in New Jersey. Nicastro's father died when she was 12, an event that forced her mother to take two jobs. By the time Nicastro reached high school, she was working in a pizza parlor.

She came to Seattle in 1988 as a student admitted to the University of Washington under a program for economically disadvantaged. After class, she earned money by cleaning toilets in people's homes. She served as student-body president and later earned a law degree. Nicastro is on leave from her job as a parts buyer for Boeing.

Nicastro, 34, is articulate, smart, passionate, independent and courageous - the very qualities needed in government. And here's a rarity in city politics: She worries about the tax burden on working families. She thinks some of the city's unanticipated revenue should be rebated to taxpayers. "Working people are just being taxed to death," she says.

Yet, despite Nicastro's qualities, money flows to beat her. People deface her yard signs and leave screaming messages on the campaign answering machine. Some of the callers are so threatening, or just plain creepy, that the Seattle Police have assigned their Bias Unit to the case.

It's not so much a desire to elect Chow as a drive to defeat Nicastro because of one issue: rent control.

No question that Nicastro defined her campaign around that issue, and then bungled it. She has made statements that showed an interest in price regulation, but more recently said she wanted "a discussion" of rent control.

It's fine to criticize Nicastro for the clumsiness of her position, but it's unfair to use that as the sole reason to reject her candidacy. That sort of thinking overlooks her qualities, smothers honest discussion and rewards the banal, me-too utterances from council candidates.

Nicastro as a rookie politician should get a little slack for an idea or two that bombs. The more important measure is the candidate's ability to learn, grow and re-think positions. Paul "Think Aloud" Schell would not be mayor if politicians were condemned for one dumb idea (or for forgetting to check a veto box). Nicastro's other ideas on transit, tax policy and the city's so-called civility laws are well-considered and sensible.

Second, rent control is an issue regulated by the Legislature, so talk at the city level is academic. The city would have more luck freeing Dumbo from a circus than changing state rent laws. The city does have a direct say in zoning, however. And Chow's coziness with developers should alarm citizens who fear block-busting apartments or dubious public-private partnerships.

Developers want to paint Nicastro as a radical and change her first name to Fidel, but a variety of respected civic players support her campaign.

Paul Kraabel, a former city councilman and state legislator, has endorsed Nicastro. "She has potential," says Kraabel. "She speaks well. Her mind works well. She's an intelligent person."

Blair Butterworth, a prominent political consultant who has advised Schell, Gov. Gary Locke, Rep. Jim McDermott and others, is helping Nicastro because he sees her as a new face "in constipated Seattle." Butterworth says the attacks on Nicastro have more to do with discomfort with an unknown than with anything she has said.

"She's stirring the pot and God knows we need that," says Butterworth. "I can't stomach the fact that these staid old farts feel threatened by her because they don't have a connection to her."

To win, Nicastro says she is counting on support from working people, outsiders, renters and people who don't now have a voice on the council.

That storage room? Donated to the campaign by a landlord who has known Nicastro for nine years.

"She's a sensible person," says landlady Tina Floresca. "She's very upbeat, and I think she's working for the people."

Nicastro is the better choice.

O. Casey Corr's column appears alternate Wednesdays on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is: ccorr@seattletimes.com

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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