A thousand celebrants packed into Seattle City Hall on January 6—the building's largest crowd ever—as the city swore in its first openly gay mayor. But Mayor Ed Murray's oath of office wasn't the main attraction.
Socialist city council member Kshama Sawant drew the loudest cheers and the most sustained applause as she denounced "international capitalism" while proclaiming from the center of this bastion of big-D Democracy that "working people need a new political party... accountable to themselves." T-shirted, sign-waving Sawant loyalists raucously cheered as well-dressed, grim-faced Democratic Party regulars shifted on their heels, wondering what to do with their hands. Sawant herself displayed no such uncertainty, closing her speech by raising a fist in the air and declaring: "Solidarity."
All that was missing was the mic drop.
Fortunately for Murray's turn in the spotlight, City Attorney Pete Holmes's measured speech was a much easier act to follow. Armed with a rented teleprompter, a cranked-up sound system, and a well-crafted (if non-policy-specific) speech, Murray delivered one of his better performances. It was a speech targeted directly at the heart of the Democratic establishment, replete with the obligatory FDR and JFK references and chock-full of appeals to progressive values.
But even at his most optimistic, Murray managed to subtly go on the attack. "Government can function again, and Seattle can lead the way," proclaimed Murray—a promise that implies Seattle city government didn't function under his predecessor. "I see government not as a place for political posturing, but a place for pragmatism," Murray continued, a declaration understood by many as an effort to draw a distinction between himself and the brash newcomer upstaging his coronation.
It was a distinction pundits were eager to pick up on. "Murray talks innovation; Sawant raises defiant fist at inauguration," screamed the Seattle Times headline. "Murray pledges collaboration—Sawant: 'No rotten sell-out,'" scowled SeattlePI.com blogger Joel Connelly.
Omigod! Kshama Sawant is the new Mike McGinn! Whereas Ed Murray is a white, gay Norm Rice, or something.
Of course, there are major distinctions in style and substance between Murray and Sawant—never more on display than at their respective after-parties.
Murray's supporters celebrated in the lush lobby of Benaroya Hall, under the watchful ocean-monster gaze of those ginormous Chihulys. The buzz there was not revolution, but day-to-day politics. Consultants and city hall staffers glad-handed each other over cheese plates, musing about how the new city council districts will change their politics as usual.
Meanwhile, Sawant supporters gathered down the street in a spare auditorium at SEIU 775 headquarters, drinking cheap wine from paper cups as visiting Irish Socialist Party politician Joe Higgins delivered a fiery speech.
But for all the differences in style and ideology, the real tension behind the scenes between Sawant and Murray is much more mundane. For example: The Murray camp was reportedly furious at Sawant for telling her supporters to show up to the inauguration with T-shirts and signs, accusing her of turning what should be a genteel celebration into a political rally. The day before the inauguration, Murray posted a defensive open letter to Sawant on Facebook, taking issue with a quote she gave the Seattle Times about "pressure from below" causing him to act on the minimum wage. And the mayor was no doubt miffed when, at the end of the ceremony, the local, national, and international news media mobbed Sawant at an impromptu press conference on City Hall's steps, leaving him to wander off to Benaroya.
This isn't about how to pass a $15 minimum wage. It's about who gets the credit. And that's a battle that will be fought in the press.
Additional reporting by Anna Minard.