Don’t Let Corporate PAC Money Buy Seattle City Hall
Re-elect Kshama, kick out Council President Tim Burgess, and build a new political movement for working people!
On the eve of elections for every seat of the Seattle city council, big developers and slumlords are on the retreat. Brett Allen of Triad Capital Partners was caught threatening the anti-corporate candidate Jon Grant, who is running against the Council President Tim Burgess in a hotly contested city-wide race. In text messages published by The Seattle Times, Allen told Grant a $200,000 corporate PAC dedicated to attacking Grant and supporting Burgess could “go away” if Grant helped settle a lawsuit brought by his former organization, the Tenants Union of Washington.
Just a week earlier, Socialist Alternative City Councilmember Kshama Sawant, together with the Tenants Union and Councilmember Nick Licata, helped tenants organize against the notorious slumlord Carl Haglund. Within 24 hours of tenants asking Sawant for help with appalling living conditions, including cockroaches, mold infestation, and broken heat, Sawant mobilized the community and pushed the Department for Planning and Development into action. Their investigation found 225 violations in one building! Haglund was forced to promise tenants a month of free rent and had to back off rent hikes of 100% until he finally deals with the horrific conditions. Not coincidentally, Haglund gave max donations to his “dream team” of candidates including both Tim Burgess and Sawant’s opponent.
These episodes highlight what is at stake in the coming elections. Working people in Seattle have been at the forefront of winning progressive change over the past two years. Now, hundreds of thousands of dollars have been raised by the corporate elite to try and buy the election. We can’t let them. We need to re-elect Kshama Sawant, kick out Tim Burgess, defeat the corporate candidates, and build an even stronger movement in Seattle that can win more decisive gains for working families.
Re-elect Kshama Sawant
In just two years, Socialist Alternative City Councilmember Kshama Sawant has had a major impact on the political landscape in Seattle. Elected without a dime of corporate cash, Sawant helped lead the way in winning the highest minimum wage in the country in her first six months in office. Along with raising the wages of 102,000 workers, Seattle was the first major city in the country to set a pathway to a $15/hour minimum wage, which is now spreading across the country at lightning speed.
And it wasn’t just the minimum wage. Last year, when the Seattle Housing Authority proposed a draconian rent increase of 400% on 7,000 low-income families, Sawant helped organize tenants, and together they defeated it. When most City Councilmembers left Seattle in October 2014 to discuss the City budget at a luxury resort hosted by the Chamber of Commerce, Sawant stayed in Seattle and brought together unions and community organizations to win millions of dollars in additional funding for a women’s shelter, city workers’ wages, and essential services for the homeless.
Sawant would not have been able to achieve any of this without the grassroots support of thousands of people in Seattle, movements of fast food workers, the impact of Occupy Wall Street, growing anger about income inequality, and the search by thousands of ordinary people for social, economic and racial justice.
Socialist Alternative members provided the backbone of Sawant’s election campaigns, along with the building of 15 Now and the various fights that Sawant led. As an outstanding and tireless advocate for working people, Sawant is the first to explain that she cannot do it alone. She has had the support of an organization that helped get her elected, and seized on the potential to build a movement for the $15/hour demand. The pressures on those elected to office are all too real, and Socialist Alternative provides political support to help resist the attacks from the corporate establishment.
It is absolutely critical for working people, for the fight for 15, labor unions, the socialist movement, and the broader left that we make sure Kshama Sawant is re-elected in District 3. This will be an important step forward in laying the basis for a new broader political force made up of working people, drawing together socialists, unions, and progressive activists that can really challenge the corporate establishment.
Conservative Majority on the City Council
With opportunities to build on the progress made by working families, unions, renters, and progressive groups over the past two years, the question of who will make up the City Council next year especially matters. And big business knows it.
Already in the primary election in August, more than $200,000 of corporate PAC money poured in to candidates from notorious groups such as the Chamber of Commerce, the Washington Restaurant Association, the National Association of Realtors (a national lobby group for real estate interests), NAIOP (a commercial real estate industry lobby group), and the Rental Housing Association (the biggest Seattle landlords lobby).
On just a single day, October 9, corporations poured more than $130,000 into business PACs in Seattle, including: $25,000 from Amazon.com, $30,000 from Vulcan Inc., $20,000 from the landlord lobby, $18,000 from the retail industry lobby group, $20,000 from the real estate lobby, and $5,000 from Alaska Airlines, and $2,500 from AT&T (RunForTheMoney.org).
Council President Burgess has so far raised $300,000 more than his opponent, tenants’ rights activist Jon Grant. Still, the fear of the establishment that they will lose their most loyal servant is big enough to bring two PACs into that race, including Triad’s PAC pledging to spend $200,000 for Burgess against Grant.
Kshama Sawant’s opponent has received more than $140,000 in donations from a whole litany of slumlords, corporate executives, developers and business interests. (RunForTheMoney.org)
Ironically and laughably, Burgess and other opponents of Sawant have claimed Sawant has no accomplishments to point to over the past two years. Are corporate executives donating all this because Sawant and the progressives she has worked with have achieved nothing? Of course not. They are going all out against Sawant to attempt to stop the historic progress she and our movement have achieved in just two years.
Kick Out the Conservative Majority!
The present conservative majority on the City Council, led by Council President Tim Burgess, who The Stranger called “Seattle’s Tywin Lannister,” has played a key role in enabling big business to dominate City Hall. Burgess (Citywide Position 8) along with Sally Bagshaw (District 7), and Bruce Harrell (District 2) – who are all running for reelection – most definitely deserve to be kicked out of office this fall.
They represent everything that is wrong with the Seattle political establishment: wealthy, arrogant, but with just enough “progressive” rhetoric to mask the fact that they serve the huge corporate and real estate interests that dominate Seattle.
They all voted in favor of the Bertha Boondoggle (Seattle’s disastrous tunnel project), wasting billions of our tax-dollars. Despite an urgent housing crisis, these councilmembers have worked to water down an essential measure (a “linkage fee”) to make developers immediately pay for affordable housing through a fee on new development.
The conservative majority has fought tooth and nail against virtually every progressive gain we have won, in the end voting for some only when it became too risky to vote against. They opposed progressive funding proposals for transit moved by Councilmembers Licata and Sawant. They opposed the unions’ initiative to pay pre-school teachers a $15 minimum wage. They’ve been apologists for the Seattle Police Department’s abusive, racist policies and resisted the federal government’s efforts to step in and reform the SPD.
During the minimum wage debate, they pushed through all the loopholes that benefited business, including the long phase-in and the establishment of a “tip penalty,” which allows employers to pay sub-minimum wages by crediting tips toward restaurant workers’ minimum wage. The tip penalty was outlawed at the state level long ago. It disproportionately affects women and will widen the gender pay gap, even though Seattle already has the worst gender pay gap in the nation.
There are a number of progressive candidates running for council positions this year on a broadly anti-corporate, anti-establishment basis. Progressive workers and youth in Seattle will understandably vote for them, along with Councilmembers Kshama Sawant and Mike O’Brien, in an attempt to elect a City Council that will finally stand up against big business. There is no doubt their election would be a big step forward and would be a welcome relief from years of conservative domination of the City Council.
These progressive candidates have agreed to join Sawant in pushing for a number of important reforms to begin to address Seattle’s affordable housing crisis. Citywide candidates Jon Grant (Position 8), and Bill Bradburd (Position 9) as well as Lisa Herbold (District 1), Tammy Morales (District 2), Michael Maddux (District 4), all joined Sawant to support a package of progressive housing policies they pledged to pass in the first year of the new council if they have the majority:
- Pushing the state government to lift the ban on rent control
- Making big developers pay for the creation of more affordable housing by passing the maximum linkage fee – a fee on new private developments that the City Council has the ability to pass immediately – to generate over $1 billion for affordable housing over the next ten years.
- Passing a Tenant’s Bill of Rights.
- Using the City’s bonding capacity to build tens of thousands of high-quality, City-owned affordable housing units.
- Preserving existing affordable housing, including requiring one-for-one replacement when homes are demolished to make way for new projects.
- Implementing a principal reduction program to help homeowners facing foreclosure.
A number of these candidates have also come out in favor of Sawant’s call for a millionaire’s tax.
A council majority prepared to pass these policies would be a major step forward. While we are eager to work together to support a common agenda on progressive change, we politically believe they are not going far enough. Too often they have been timid, and have not presented a clear enough contrast with the corporate-backed candidates, which has weakened their appeal to workers and youth in terms of donations, volunteers, and votes.
Standing up to the Pressures of Elected Office
Too often left-wing Democrats have deeply disappointed their supporters after being elected. Here in Seattle the example of Richard Conlin stands out. When Conlin was elected in 1997 he highlighted his progressive credentials including his Green Party support, but he went on to become a reliable councilmember for the establishment until Kshama Sawant unseated him in 2013.
Capitalism is a flexible system with numerous tools to batter and bring back into line politicians who attempt to present an alternative. Without having a clear strategy for offering a real counterweight to the pressures of corporations and their media, politicians, and intellectuals, left Democrats are almost always blocked from carrying out a clear program that addresses the needs of working people. In addition, the corporate establishment can try to co-opt left challengers and blunt their fighting edge.
Will the progressive city council candidates be able to stand up to these pressures? It will require clearly basing themselves on building toward an alternative based on the the independent social power of working people.
It is critical that all progressive candidates reject donations from corporations and business. Jon Grant, to his credit, has boldly campaigned on the promise to not accept donations from developers and big business. Unfortunately, Michael O’Brien, Lisa Herbold, Michael Maddux, Tammy Morales, and Bill Bradburd have not been willing to take this step.
We would also urge them to take only the average wage of a Seattle worker and donate the rest of the $120,000 councilmember salary to help build social movements. This would help ensure they represent working people and not become co-opted by the ruling elite.
Above all, we urge them to use their campaigns, whether elected or not, to help us strengthen grassroots movements and generate renewed interest in left-wing politics, particularly among young people.
That is why we strongly disagree with the decision of these progressives to run for office as Democratic Party candidates. While they may understandably see this as an easier road to take than independent politics, the huge support Kshama Sawant has been able to garner in Seattle demonstrates it is possible!
A New Kind of Politics Needed
Sawant’s two years in office gives a hint of what would be possible with more socialist, or at least independent left-wing, councilmembers. Seattle’s historic $15 minimum wage was won not because of the skillful negotiations of politicians in backroom deals, but primarily because of the massive pressure from ordinary people outside City Hall.
It was Occupy Wall Street and then fast food workers’ strikes that thrust inequality and the $15 demand into the mainstream of U.S. politics in the first place. Sawant used her position to help build this movement, always reminding people that what could be achieved inside City Hall depended on the strength of social movements outside City Hall.
While Sawant participated on the mayor’s minimum wage task force, worked together with labor, and tried to find agreement with other councilmembers, she also helped launch the 15 Now grassroots organization and led the way in creating the decisive backup option of an independent ballot initiative. It was this ballot initiative that put enormous pressure on the establishment to pass a $15 ordinance rather than face the prospect of a stronger $15 law being approved by voters.
As Sawant’s engagement with the mayor’s task force has shown, remaining independent of the Democrats does not prevent us from working together with Democrats on issues that help working people. And as Sawant’s close collaboration with members of the Democratic Party within 15 Now has shown, she and Socialist Alternative are eager to fight together for working-class interests.
The Democratic Party
A common reason usually given for running as a Democrat in elections is that the Republicans are worse. And very often, they are worse. The Republicans’ right-wing agenda, with its climate change denial and homophobic and misogynist stances, promotes the needs of the most rapacious wing of the billionaire class and its attempts to divide the working class.
However, the Democratic Party itself is dominated by Wall Street interests. In Seattle the Republicans are practically a fringe group. Like many major urban areas, Seattle has long been a one-party town, dominated by the Democratic Party. Yet, the Democratic Party’s leadership in Seattle has had a consistent record of serving the corporate establishment.
In our view, the far-reaching change working families need cannot be done through the framework of the Democratic Party, which is dominated by a leadership tied by a thousand threads to big business.
A decisive task to begin building a powerful challenge to the corporate establishment is for working people, unions, and other progressive organizations to take the step today of laying the groundwork for a new organized political force, independent of the Democratic Party and its corporate-dominated leadership.
Such a new force, based on the social power of working people, would represent a huge step forward by strengthening the level of organization, class consciousness, and unity of the working class and all others oppressed by capitalism – an economic system that puts corporate profits before people and our environment. To be successful, a full discussion would be needed to develop a political program that does not limit this new party to what big business and their capitalist system claim they can afford, but instead is based on a democratic socialist outlook.
Transforming the Democrats from Within?
We recognize that there are many rank-and-file Democrats in Seattle, and some progressive elected Democratic Party politicians, who agree with us on many issues and want to see bolder action against corporate politics, but who do not agree that a new party is needed or possible.
Many Democrats in Seattle are working to elect Sawant, who calls for a new party. These left-wing Democrats aim to transform the Democrats into a party that firmly opposes the agenda of big business.
However, in our opinion, what can be achieved with this approach is severely limited. It is an approach that has been tested again and again for decades, and it has not worked.
History shows that what really advances progress for working people is not the actions of the Democratic Party leaders, but mass movements independent of them. It was millions of workers joining unions in the 1930s, striking in huge numbers, and occupying workplaces that won our limited rights at work. The civil rights movement and mass civil disobedience actions like the Montgomery bus boycott are what smashed Jim Crow.
Moreover, the main effect of supporting the Democrats as the lesser evil to the Republicans has been to demobilize progressive workers and youth when the Democrats are in power, enabling the corporate leadership of the Democratic Party to get away with policies that harm ordinary people and the environment.
For example, the labor movement and progressive activists made major efforts to elect Washington State Senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, yet they were two of the thirteen Democrats that voted in the Senate to approve fast track authority for the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal.
The TPP was opposed by the Martin Luther King County Labor Council and other progressive organizations locally because, if passed, it will have a devastating impact on workers. Nationally, over 2,000 unions and progressive organizations “who spanned the base of the Democratic Party,” according to The Guardian, oppose the legislation.
Yet the corporate leadership of the Democratic Party was able to ignore this opposition because there was no real threat that they could be challenged by left-wing independent candidates at the ballot.
Imagine if the 2,000 organizations that opposed the TPP could come together to run hundreds of independent candidates, rallying the vast majority of people for policies like free college education, single-payer universal healthcare, and a major increase in taxes on the wealthy to pay for social programs. With such a powerful social force, we could also decisively challenge Big Oil and win a massive jobs program to rapidly move toward clean energy. We could challenge the rule of Wall Street and the rotten system of capitalism, helping to bring about far-reaching changes to improve the lives of millions.
Seattle is positioned to play a leading role in this process for the U.S. left over the next years. Right now, the key task is to re-elect Kshama Sawant. If she is elected again as a socialist who rejects corporate cash, it will raise confidence and speed up the process of building a completely new kind of politics that fights unapologetically for working people. We hope more people will join with us to begin laying this essential foundation for a political movement for working people, not corporations.