In the August primary election for Seattle City Council, Socialist Alternative candidate Kshama Sawant won a stunning 35% of the vote in a three-way race against two Democratic Party candidates. Over 44,000 people voted for Sawant, more votes than the incumbent Seattle mayor or any of his opponents.
A majority of primary voters voted against 16-year Democratic incumbent Richard Conlin, who despite a massive fund-raising advantage and name recognition, received less than 48% of the vote, with the remaining votes going to Sawant and Democrat (and Amazon manager) Brian Carver. Sawant will move on to the general election campaign facing a vulnerable Conlin in a two-way race.
This follows on the heels of Sawant’s first election campaign last year, when she received over 29% with almost 21,000 votes running against the Democratic Washington State House speaker Frank Chopp – one of the highest votes for an independent socialist candidate in decades.
With her clarion call for a citywide $15/hour minimum wage, rent control, and a tax on millionaires to fund mass transit and education, Sawant had been written off as “too hard left for Seattle” by The Seattle Times, the region’s largest daily newspaper, and portrayed as a fringe underdog by other corporate media.
In defiance of the corporate punditry, the race has been catapulted into a serious contest between Sawant and Conlin. The flurry of media coverage following election night demonstrates the shake-up that has occurred. As Tom Barnard, a long-time Seattle political commentator wrote, “Certainly, the facts themselves are amazing. But what happened conceptually was even more revolutionary, if you will excuse that word applied to the run of a socialist.”
“For what Kshama did was to simply overturn the common wisdom of how to succeed in local elections in general and City Council races in particular. She took what were viewed as two immutable political laws [the need for big money and Democratic Party endorsements] and essentially threw them out the window … It’s nothing short of an earthquake … Kshama has shown a new path for independent candidates who directly advance working people’s interests and issues.”
The significance of the primary result is even greater given the context of a low voter turnout (34%) and a primary electorate which is significantly more conservative and higher-income than in general elections – the most unfavorable terrain for left-wing and socialist candidates.
Independent Working Class Politics
Sawant’s working-class message and bold campaign for an alternative to corporate politics has had an electrifying effect. “A majority of workers and young people face an increasingly unaffordable city. Most are disgusted by the endless parade of politicians who play with progressive rhetoric at election time, then pander to big corporations and the super-rich while in office,” said Sawant.
“It is a scandal that Seattle councilmembers pay themselves $120,000 a year, second only to Los Angeles. Meanwhile, the majority of the workforce in the city struggles with low pay,” continued Sawant. She has pledged that as a councilmember, she will only take the average worker’s wage, and donate the rest to building social justice movements.
When Richard Conlin launched his political career, he laid claim to progressive and green credentials, yet in his 16 years in power he has been consistently pro-corporate, with a long record of advocating for billionaire real estate developers like Paul Allen. He was recently the sole city council vote against paid sick leave for Seattle workers.
He has presided over an exponential rise in rental costs, and publicly argued that affordable housing for low-income workers should be pushed to the fringes of the city. His record on the homeless is also abominable – he has piled obstacles in the path of providing shelters and voted to criminalize panhandling.
Sawant called out Conlin on these points and more throughout the primary, using them to illustrate the rotten pro-corporate record of Seattle’s Democratic Party politicians and the need for workers and youth to organize their own independent movements and political campaigns. But a correct message, while essential, is not enough. Her campaign was successful in no small part due to its systematic organizing and outreach.
The Sawant campaign has been a constant and visible presence at Seattle area protests. “If there’s a working class protest somewhere in Seattle, Socialist Alternative council candidate Kshama Sawant is always seems to be there,” was how The Stranger (Seattle’s second-largest circulation newspaper) summed it up.
Sawant posters were plastered throughout the city, and 25,000 leaflets were distributed. Thousands of doors were knocked on, along with street corner tabling and phone banking. Over 100 people played an active role as volunteers in one capacity or another. Sawant refused to take any corporate money, instead relying on the support of workers and left-wing activists, raising $26,000, a majority of which were donations of $25 or less.
Sawant was also endorsed by The Stranger newspaper, four Seattle unions representing over 9,000 workers (AFT Local 1789, IBEW Local 46, AFSCME/WFSE Local 1488, and CWA Local 37083), the Green Party of Seattle, the Transit Riders Union, and the Freedom Socialist Party, as well as many prominent community activists.
Political Context and Implications
The stunning results show Sawant’s 29% vote in 2012 was not a flash in the pan. Both races demonstrate the opening that has developed for left-wing challenges to the Democratic Party, a space created by the ruptures developing within US capitalism.
Since the Occupy movement brought to the fore the seething anger and resentment of millions, political debate among ordinary people has dramatically shifted. Young people are especially objecting to what they correctly perceive as a bleak future of student debt and low-wage jobs, instead of the promised American Dream. Workers all over the US have started to question the status quo of cuts to social services and attacks on unions, while watching the bi-partisan assault on whistleblowers and the commitment of the Obama administration to an expanding surveillance state.
Polls from last year show around 60% of Americans disapprove of the job done by Democrats in Congress, while more than 67% disapprove of the job done by Republicans (pollingreport.com, 6/6/2013). Unfortunately, this sentiment did not immediately find a clear political expression in the electoral arena. With the exception of the Sawant campaign in 2012 the Occupy mood largely was diverted behind Obama and the Democrats as many were fearful of a Republican election victory and because of the failure of the leaders of the left to put forward a serious political challenge to both parties.
As Socialist Alternative predicted, Obama in his second term has systematically betrayed the hopes of millions of people on virtually all the burning issues of our times – from budget cuts to women’s reproductive rights to the dismantling of the public school system to drone attacks, NSA surveillance, and the persecution of truth tellers like Bradley Manning.
The collapse of Obama’s support has not translated so far into a surge of support for the Republicans. Both the corporate parties are discredited and rife with internal crises. Rarely has the US political system so clearly cried out for a genuinely working class and left-wing alternative to the Democrats and Republicans.
The Sawant campaigns show both the need and potential for serious alternatives to the corporate parties and the creation of a mass party that will fight unreservedly for the interests of working people. Sawant and Socialist Alternative intend to use her campaign to popularize and spread the idea – in Seattle and nationwide – of independent anti-corporate, working class candidates for the 2014 elections and beyond as a step towards such a party.
If the left doesn’t break from the Democratic Party, who control the federal government and most major cities, there is a serious danger that it will open the space for the Republicans and the Tea Party in 2014 to exploit working-class people’s legitimate frustrations and misdirect them at women, minorities, and environmentalists.
Fighting for a $15/hr Minimum Wage
“We don’t promise that … one electoral campaign is going to shift everything dramatically. We’re activists, and ultimately, this space has to be occupied by mass movements and grassroots struggle, and this is something we have to do together. And that is the most empowering message that any electoral campaign can take to working people,” said Sawant.
Socialists recognize that elections are unfavorable terrain for the working class and insufficient by themselves to carry out real change. The power of corporate money and media dominates politics under capitalism, and history shows that all real victories for working people have been won by mass movements.
Passing a $15/hr minimum wage – the signature issue of Sawant’s campaign – will require massive and active support, with major protests on the streets and low-wage workers carrying out coordinated strikes in their workplaces. Sawant is using her platform to help build just such a movement, mobilizing for the protests and actions called by fast food workers against their dismal pay and conditions, and putting the issue of raising the minimum wage to $15/hr on the political agenda and exerting pressure on all the candidates running for city office to clarify where they stand on this vital issue for working people and youth.
At her primary night election party, Sawant called for labor and organizations on the left to jointly build mass rallies to fight for a $15/hour minimum wage in Seattle and pledged to hold Town Hall meetings throughout Seattle this fall to build the Fight for $15.
The city of Sea-Tac, neighboring Seattle, has placed an initiative on the November ballot for a $15/hour minimum wage, paid sick leave, full-time work, and union contracting for airport workers. Kshama Sawant is actively campaigning for the Sea-Tac initiative, which will be a victory for workers in Seattle and across the country.
Next Steps and Prospects
The Sawant campaign plans to organize over 300 volunteers and carry out a massive door knocking campaign to popularize the $15/hour minimum wage and to elect Kshama Sawant, along with a drive to raise $100,000. ($30,000 has been raised so far.) If these goals are met, the campaign will have a real shot at seeing Sawant elected.
What position the labor movement and other progressive organizations take will be crucial in determining the outcome. If Seattle unions were to throw their weight behind Sawant – with endorsements, mobilizing their members, and donations – there is no doubt Sawant would win. However, this would require a break from the union leaders’ longstanding policy of supporting the Democratic Party and avoiding independent working-class and socialist campaigns.
While Sawant picked up the endorsement of four unions in the primary, the majority of Seattle’s unions, including the King County Labor Council, endorsed the corporate politician, Democrat Richard Conlin. Labor leaders indicated that while they recognized Sawant was a real fighter for working people, they had doubts about her “viability” as a candidate.
Now that the primary election has thoroughly demonstrated the popularity of Sawant’s pro-worker message, will labor leaders break new ground and mobilize behind a genuine workers’ candidate? The next few weeks will see a vigorous discussion and debate on these questions, with plans underway to establish a “Labor for Sawant” campaign.
Another key factor in determining the general election outcome will be voter turnout. While general elections are usually more representative than primaries, they still tend to under-represent low-wage workers, youth, and people of color. Despite the disingenuous “everyone should vote” refrain from establishment politicians, this race will give a clear demonstration that the political elite – including liberal Democrats – rely on a low voter turnout and a disengaged electorate. In contrast, the Sawant campaign depends on an informed and politically-engaged public and the maximum voter turnout.
But most important will be the development of social struggle this fall. The “viability” of Sawant’s politics depends on workers and youth moving into mass action. An upturn in protests, strikes and other actions would be decisive. Sawant has made clear she will use her campaign to help spur on any such movements.
Win or lose in the general election, Sawant and Socialist Alternative have already seriously shaken up the formerly sleepy political landscape in Seattle. Sawant’s campaign has already helped to build support for a series of radical demands, especially the need for a $15/hr minimum wage, raising the sights and confidence of Seattle’s workers and activists.
Crucially, Sawant has succeeded in putting socialism on the map in Seattle. Her campaign has fueled a public debate on capitalism and socialism and demonstrated the growing support for socialist ideas.
Richard Conlin will face a serious run for his money and will be under intense pressure to give reforms to shore up his base. The Sawant campaign will provide a living demonstration of how workers and the left can run a serious independent election campaign which will serve as a model to spread throughout the country. It is a harbinger of the coming wave of political upheaval and challenges to the two parties of big business.