Let's be honest: People have been waiting for Seattle's city council races to heat up ever since last fall, when the city's voters approved a new hybrid district system. Starting in 2015, we'll elect most of the council by geographic districts and only two of the nine members citywide. West Seattle, North Seattle, Southeast Seattle? You'll now have direct representation at city hall—if the activists who commissioned that map over there on the right had the correct idea.
And while a couple of people have thrown their hat in the ring, no one has yet challenged a sitting council member the way Alison Holcomb did this week.
Holcomb, an attorney, ACLU criminal justice director, and pot-legalization activist who lives in Capitol Hill, kicked off a potential campaign for the council seat from the new 3rd District (Capitol Hill, Central District, Madrona, Madison Park, Montlake) not with an argument for why she's right for the position, but with a barrage of criticism for the current council member in the district: socialist and minimum-wage activist Kshama Sawant.
"You don't effect change without a broad coalition," Holcomb told the Seattle Weekly of Sawant's work on the council, "and her rhetoric is all about 'you are a capitalist pig,' no matter what the size of your business." Of the $15 minimum wage debate, Holcomb told PubliCola she was "dismayed by the shrill tone, and by the oversimplified analysis." Her husband, who owns the bar Witness on Capitol Hill, felt business owners were "unfairly demonized" during the wage debate, she added.
It's not the pro-business, anti-socialist language that's surprising here—surely Sawant has been expecting that from challengers. But the fact that it's coming from Holcomb, who is also seen as a progressive activist, is a bit of a shock.
Sawant, whose name is often associated in the media with adjectives like "brash" and "uncompromising," responded to Holcomb's attacks pretty damn politely.
"All the work that was done on the marijuana legalization front was very admirable," she said in an interview. "I supported that initiative, and I really appreciate all the activists and people who worked on it, including Alison Holcomb."
However, she continued, it doesn't make sense for "someone who's progressive to run against the progressive members of the council... If [Holcomb] wants to work on a progressive agenda, then I invite her to work with those of us who are already working on it." As for Holcomb's claims that Sawant's not a coalition-builder, the council member dismissed that with a simple retort: "If we hadn't built strong coalitions, we wouldn't have won $15."
Holcomb, for her part, is already walking back her initial aggressiveness, but only slightly. Her "capitalist pig" comment, she says via e-mail, "was poor shorthand for my frustration with being represented by someone who views 'business' as monolithic, uncaring, and unaccountable... As frustrating as I find [Council Member] Sawant's approach to governance, though, I could have, and should have, found a better way to express myself."
And her seeming frustration with the $15 minimum wage? "I don't have any problems with the $15 minimum wage law," she says, "and haven't expressed any dissatisfaction with it." Her problem instead was with "the process" and "the conversation" around the wage hike, a conversation she calls "unnecessarily and unfortunately divisive, pitting progressives against progressives."
But that's exactly what she'd be doing by running against Sawant: pitting progressive against progressive.
Holcomb has yet to formally file for a council race; she just says she's "seriously considering" a run in the 3rd District. But while the district system limits who she can run against, she's welcome to run citywide. (As is Sawant, though she's already filed to run in the 3rd.) And the council members who have so far declared for those citywide races—Sally Clark and Tim Burgess—are miles further toward the center than Sawant. Holcomb could take on either of them if her goal was to swing the council to the left. But a Holcomb-versus-Sawant race would be a showdown in which one lefty would have to lose.
Why did Holcomb choose a district over a citywide race, ignoring the council's big-name moderates who currently stand unopposed? She answers with a paragraph of Capitol Hill bona fides, from getting married at All Pilgrims Christian Church to watching her son play in Cal Anderson Park. "This district is our home, and I feel a strong loyalty to the diverse constituents who make it such a wonderful place to live and raise a family," she says.
But while it may be her home, it's Sawant's territory so far, electorally. In her race against Richard Conlin in 2013, Sawant won with 50.7 percent of the city vote. But broken down by the precincts in the boundary of Capitol Hill's new District 3, Sawant garnered 58.5 percent of the district vote to Conlin's 40.5 percent, a much more impressive victory. (It's not a landslide, but let's remember: She was an out-and-proud socialist with no elected experience, and Conlin was a well-known four-term incumbent.)
Not all of District 3 skewed for Sawant, however.
As in much of the city, wealthier precincts with waterfront views—think Montlake, Madison Park, and Madrona—went as dramatically for Conlin as Capitol Hill and the Central District did for Sawant.
Perhaps those are the voters at whom Holcomb's red-baiting rhetoric was aimed.