United States: Seattle socialist Kshama Sawant defeats Democrat incumbent
KEXP Interview with Kshama Sawant.
Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal congratulates Kshama Sawant and US Socialist Alternative on their important and inspiring success in the Seattle City Council election.
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November 15, 2013, Seattle, Washington -- Vote Sawant -- Today’s King County elections ballot count saw the Socialist Alternative candidate for Seattle City Council, Kshama Sawant, pulling further ahead of 16-year Democratic Party incumbent, Richard Conlin. The socialist candidate has now won 88,222 votes compared to Conlin’s 86,582. After today’s count was released, Richard Conlin announced he was conceding the race.
[Washington state votes by mail, and a majority of ballots typically come in after election day and will be counted until November 26 as long as they are postmarked November 5 or earlier.]
Kshama Sawant replied, “While I do not agree with Richard Conlin's political positions, I respect that he served on the city council for 16 years. He ran a strong campaign, and I commend him for his willingness to participate in numerous political forums, openly debating the issues with me... I will reach out to the people who supported Richard Conlin, working with everyone in Seattle to fight for a minimum wage of $15/hour, affordable housing, and the needs of ordinary people”, continued Sawant.
“These exciting results show a majority of voters are fed up with the corporate politicians who have presided over the widening chasm between the super-rich and the rest of us. The turnaround of the ballot count in my campaign’s favor is a stunning mandate to move ahead with raising Seattle’s minimum wage to $15/hour. A majority of voters cast ballots for my campaign which did not take a dime of corporate money, yet succeeded through grassroots activism.”
Since the signatures on thousands of votes have been challenged, the Sawant campaign will continue to make sure that every vote is counted until the election results are certified on November 26, 2013. “Every additional vote for our campaign shows the broad support for a $15/hour minimum wage, rent control and a tax on the super-rich to fund mass transit [public transport] and education. We need people to donate to fund our voter protection work, and we need volunteers to help correct the challenged ballots so that every one of these votes will count”, says Sawant.
Kshama Sawant is inviting all supporters to a rally this Sunday, November 17 at 2.30 pm to discuss the way forward in the fight against corporate politics and for democratic socialism. Afterwards, volunteers will be trained to knock on doors to correct challenged ballots. Speakers include Abdi Mohamed from the Somali American Public Affairs Council and Nicole Grant from the electrical workers union local 46. Geo from the Blue Scholars will also perform. The forum will be at the SEIU local 775 NW auditorium at 215 Columbia St.
Sawant’s election, alongside the promises of mayor-elect Ed Murray, demonstrates the strong public support that exists for a $15/hour minimum wage. Sawant and her Socialist Alternative organisation are working to build a coalition to organise a mass rally for a $15 minimum wage in early 2014. Sawant intends to introduce an ordinance or, if necessary, place an initiative on Seattle’s November 2014 ballot.
Sawant is urging trade unions, Greens and socialists to use her campaign as a model to inspire a much broader movement of 100 independent candidates across the country in 2014. “We need a movement to break the undemocratic power of big business and build a society that works for working people, not corporate profits - a democratic socialist society”, declared Sawant.
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Seattle public radio Kuow.org reported on November 5:
Branding herself as a socialist – still a dirty word in many corners of American politics – may have helped her rake in the primary vote with little money. (She had raised about $110,000 as of November 4.)
City council member Nick Licata, who has been on the council for 16 years, said Sawant’s message resonates because a section of voters are tired of risk-averse Democrats and Republicans. Sawant, he said, has managed to make socialist ideas appeal to voters.
“We don’t have a mature socialist political movement in the country, and probably the last time we did was literally 80 years ago”, Licata said. “To Sawant’s credit, she has been able to craft a message that is understandable, simple and eschews most of the rhetoric.”
Conlin appeared to be winning when polls closed on November 5, with 54 per cent of the vote when King County released its first results. Sawant had received about 46 per cent of the vote at that point.
Sawant stayed on message throughout her campaign, using dry, academic language to discuss the issues she wants addressed. The roots of homelessness are within the roots of our capitalist society itself, she said at the October debate.
Later, on the social media site Reddit, she addressed rent control:
What rent control would do is provide housing security for tenants, who are at present continually forced to move due to rent increases demanded by price-gouging real estate companies. It would also address the serious income and race segregation in Seattle housing and enable low-income people, people of color, and immigrant communities to not be red-lined out of the city.
It appears that Sawant, 41, won support on the strength of her message alone. She is a Mumbai-educated economics professor who rarely strays from her platform and who avoids discussing her private life...
Sawant’s political campaign director, Philip Locker, an organiser for the Socialist Alternative party, said that by running for office, Sawant pushed neglected issues into the spotlight. “We’ve gotten an enormous response – we’ve even forced both Mayor Mike McGinn and Senator Ed Murray to discuss the $15 minimum wage”, Locker said of the mayoral candidates. “That’s powerful.”
When Sawant speaks, her supporters cheer. The Stranger newspaper has endorsed her enthusiastically, and The Nation magazine, based in Washington, D.C., wrote about her this week in equally glowing terms.
The Nation noted that Eugene V. Debs, the socialist candidate for president in 1912, received more than 10 per cent of the vote in the western states, including Washington.
Sawant’s campaign in Seattle speaks to a similar sense of disgruntlement with the two-party system, The Nation wrote, saying that a “bold rejection of austerity has significant popular appeal”.
But even a century ago, when Debs won more than 1 million votes nationwide, no socialist was this close to winning a city council position in Seattle, Scott Cline, the city’s archivist said. City council elections have been non-partisan since 1910, Cline said, but “I have never seen any records that indicate a city council member has self-identified as a socialist or belonged to a socialist party.”
Cline said that before 1910, a number of socialist candidates ran, but none seem to have made it out of the primary elections. “It is certainly possible that after 1910 there might have been a serious socialist challenge”, Cline said in an email to KUOW. “However, no name from general elections stands out as a strong socialist candidate; certainly not on par with Kshama Sawant.”
Cline searched through the available voters’ pamphlets dating back to 1983 and found there has been just one other socialist candidate for Seattle City Council who did well – Yolanda Alaniz. Alaniz came in second among four candidates in 1991. She lost to Sue Donaldson, 131,872 to 27,991.
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According to the blog I Acknowledge Class warfare Exists on November 15, Seattle, the most progressive city in the United States just got even more progressive as it officially elected its first socialist member to their city council in 100 years. Kshama Sawant, an college economics professor and prominent figure in Seattle’s Occupy Wall Street movement, has surged past the 16-year Democratic incumbent Richard Conlin to win a seat on the council in a move that surprised even Seattle political commentators.
The continued growth of her lead in the election over the past several days caused Conlin to concede defeat on November 14, making Sawant the first [known] socialist member of Seattle’s city council in the past 100 years (as well as being an immigrant, female and person of colour; this is definitely a landmark victory).
“Seattle has become a really unaffordable city and overall, not just in Seattle but everywhere in the country, people are fed up, angry and frustrated with the political system. They’re fed up with the political dysfunction and they’re hungry for change.” – Kshama Sawant on her strong finish, quoted in The Nation.
The rest of her platform outlines an explicitly socialist vision for Seattle, a position that would spell near-certain electoral defeat in other parts of the United States but which is finding a more receptive audience in the state of Washington.
A former software engineer who now teaches economics at Seattle Central Community College, Sawant ran a Socialist Alternative “Fund Human Needs, Fight Corporate Greed” campaign that argued: “We live in one of the richest cities in the richest nation on earth. There is no shortage of resources. Capitalism has failed the 99%. Another world is both possible and necessary—a socialist world based on the needs of humanity and the environment.”
Sawant pulled no punches in her platform, which began with her signature proposal to raise the minimum wage to $15 and hour and then promised to:
- Seek “a millionaire’s tax to fund mass transit, education and living-wage union jobs providing vital social services”. She proposes to “end corporate welfare. Tax freeloading corporations. Reduce the unfair tax burden on small businesses, homeowners and workers.”
- Support efforts to “unionise Amazon, Starbucks and low-paid service workers”.
- Commit to “no layoffs or attacks on public sector unions!”
Sawant has also called for rent control in the city, another popular policy amongst voters since Seattle rental prices keep climbing, and her platform seems to be resonating in the city. While on election night, November 5, Sawant was losing by four percentage points, ballots counted after election day skewed heavily toward her, and as Sawant’s lead over Conlin grew in the following days it slowly became apparent that Seattle voters have decided on change for their city.
“There is nobody in the political leadership in Seattle right now who comes into work every day with a sense of urgency to really fight for people’s standard of living. That’s why voters are engaged in our campaign, because they are hearing a voice that they have been wanting to hear for years”, reported The Stranger.
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The November 14 Socialist Worker, newspaper of the International Socialist Organization, wrote that even while trailing on election night, it was clear that Sawant and Socialist Alternative candidate Ty Moore, who lost by just 229 votes in an election for city council in Minneapolis, have scored breakthroughs. Well before election day, Danny Westneat, a columnist for the mainstream Seattle Times daily newspaper, summed up the electrifying impact of these campaigns: "The election isn't for 10 days, but we can already declare the big winner in Seattle. It's the socialist."
Westneat pointed out that Sawant was responsible for Democrats like Seattle mayor Mike McGinn and his victorious challenger in last week's election, Ed Murray, suddenly declaring their support for left-wing initiatives such as the "Fight for 15" [$15 an hour minimum wage] organising drive for low-wage workers. As Westneat concluded:
You can't look at the stagnant pay, declining benefits and third-world levels of income disparity in recent years and conclude this system is working. For Millennials as a group, it has been a disaster. Out of the wreckage, left-wing or socialist economic ideas, such as the "livable wage" movement in which government would seek to mandate a form of economic security, are flowering.
Sawant's edge in the late-arriving ballots is another indicator of the grassroots energy that made her campaign stand out, as David Goldstein, writing in The Stranger, an alternative weekly newspaper, explained:
Part of [the reason Sawant is winning in each day of counting after Election Day has] to do with demographics; younger voters tend to vote late and more lefty. Part of it has to do with hard work; Sawant's impressive grassroots campaign had a couple hundred volunteers calling voters and knocking on doors to get out her vote, while Conlin had little ground game at all. And part of it has to do with momentum; voter preferences shift over time, and her surprisingly strong campaign clearly moved support in Sawant's favor.
The success of the Socialist Alternative campaigns is directly connected to their roots in grassroots struggles.
In Minneapolis, Ty Moore made the Occupy movement -- with its call for a moratorium on foreclosures and a ban on police carrying out evictions -- central to his campaign for a city council seat representing an area under assault by gentrification.
In Seattle, Sawant, an economics professor and respected activist, focused on several key issues to galvanise support from working people and the left. Building on the energy of the national Fight for 15 campaign to organise low-wage workers in restaurant and retail, Sawant positioned herself as the candidate who supported a living wage for all.
The popularity of the Fight for 15 demand was dramatised in SeaTac, a Seattle suburb where the regional airport is located. A union-backed ballot measure -- bitterly opposed by business interests -- that would mandate a $15-an-hour minimum wage for airport and hotel workers was winning as of November 13, though by only 19 votes at the latest count.
Sawant also focused on proposals for rent control in a city where rents have risen by 6 per cent in just the last year alone, on top of increases year after year, according to Reis, which compiles and sells data to the commercial real-estate industry.
She also advocated for a tax on millionaires, in a state with no income tax, to fund mass transit and other infrastructure improvements. This call is especially timely with the local public transit agency, King County Metro, planning to cut bus service by as much as 20 per cent next year.
Gaining the endorsements of several unions and social justice organisations, as well support from prominent local activists, the campaign was able to mobilise several hundred volunteers, who covered the city with distinctive "Vote Sawant" posters. Though far outspent by her opponent, Sawant did raise more than $100,000, mainly from small contributions.
Sawant and those who worked for her ran an effective campaign, but her success is the result of tapping into voter discontent with the political status quo, particularly in a liberal city like Seattle.
According a recent Gallup poll, Democrats and Republicans have reached an all-time low in public opinion -- only 26 per cent of Americans believe the two mainstream parties do "an adequate job of representing the American people". Some 60 per cent said there was a need for a third major party.
In Seattle, where the Democrats predominate, this discontent translated into heavy press interest in Sawant. She won an endorsement from The Stranger before her strong showing in the August primary election -- the alternative weekly wrote in an article headlined "The Case for Kshama Sawant": "Sawant offers voters a detailed policy agenda, backed up by a coherent economic critique and a sound strategy for moving the political debate in a leftward direction."
After coming in a close second in August, Sawant continued to pick up broad support, including a small group of "Democrats for Sawant" -- a stark symbol of the bitterness with the incumbent Conlin, who has a long record of pandering to business interests. Sawant won backing from local hip-hop artists and several prominent local activists, notably left-wing journalist Geov Parrish. Sawant also got support from immigrant political organisations, including the Somali American Public Affairs Council. In the final weeks of the campaign, volunteers made a push to hold "100 rallies for Sawant".
As a socialist challenger in a liberal city against a Democratic opponent, Sawant was able to avoid one of the key difficulties that third party candidates typically face: the so-called "spoiler effect". Without a Republican in the election, the Democrat Conlin wasn't able to browbeat his party's much more liberal base into supporting him as a "lesser evil".
Now, Sawant stands a good chance of taking a seat for four years on the nine-member city council. This will open up a new opportunity for the left -- both Sawant and Moore pledged that they would use the resources of their offices to assist grassroots struggles involving workers, the oppressed, immigrants and the community.
There will be more days of vote-counting to come, but the Sawant campaign has already accomplished an enormous amount by proving that there is a thirst for an alternative to the status quo -- and that socialists can confidently put forward a different vision for society, knowing it will connect with the aspirations of more and more people.