Kshama Sawant arrived in our office last week wearing a T-shirt that blared "Capitalism has failed the 99 Percent: Vote Sawant." It was swag from her last run for office, when she challenged the state legislature's most powerful Democrat, Speaker Frank Chopp, and carved out an extraordinary 29 percent from his general-election winnings—not bad for a capitalism-smashing Occupy Wall Street activist.
This election cycle, Sawant—a university instructor who holds a PhD in economics—is announcing that she will run for Seattle City Council against four-term fixture Richard Conlin (who didn't know that Sawant would be challenging him when this article went to press). She says that Conlin exemplifies the council's cozy relations with business lobbies, while he has personally voted against helping workers and the impoverished. "As a council member, I will use every inch of space as I am using it now—which is as an activist who is advocating on issues that affect the working class," Sawant explained. But if she wins, Sawant would make a salary of more than $120,000. Would it be ironic, I asked her, for a populist champion of the working class to make a six-figure salary, just like the corporate overlords she taunts?
"No, not at all," she said. "If I was to be elected, I will take home only the average worker's salary." Sawant said she would donate most of her paycheck to her Socialist Alternative party. In fact, she estimates she'd keep $40,000 or less.
In targeting Conlin, Sawant says she is tackling everything that is wrong with the Seattle City Council. Under Conlin's leadership—he served as council president for the two immediate previous biennial terms—most of the council has coagulated as a conservative bloc that scuttled meaningful policy reforms while backing mega-projects that benefit the wealthy (such as real estate and highways). Conlin himself was the lone council member to oppose paid sick leave, and he backed a controversial measure to fine panhandlers, against the unanimous recommendation of the city's human rights commission.
So if there's any council member ripe for an incendiary leftist opponent, it's Conlin.
"The city is dominated by the Democratic Party elite, who are in cahoots with the Downtown Seattle Association and the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce, along with the very powerful construction industries and Paul Allen's Vulcan, which is a shark devouring real estate while we are having continued problems with homelessness and skyrocketing rent," said Sawant.
But she has an uphill battle, for sure.
"I don't think an avowed Socialist party candidate can win a citywide council race," says veteran campaign consultant Sandeep Kaushik. He says it's hard enough for a liberal Democrat to raise the money and marshal the votes to oust an incumbent, but, he adds, "Sawant could make some noise in a council race, and perhaps draw heightened public attention to the issues she cares about."
Sawant plans to do exactly that: She is proposing a citywide income tax on millionaires to fund schools, an outright ban on drones, rent control to cap the booming costs of apartments, an elected civilian oversight committee to run the police force, and a citywide minimum wage of $15 an hour. Not all of those things are within the council's legal purview (for instance, an income tax would likely require the legislature's authorization first). Sawant recognizes that she's using a bully pulpit to advance discussions that, without her voice, aren't happening at all on the council.
But running against Conlin is a very different type of challenge from her previous campaign. Rather than reaching voters of the 43rd District in the liberal core of Seattle, Sawant must appeal to voters citywide; instead of taking on the Democratic Party, council races are nonpartisan; and unlike the few thousand dollars spent in legislative district races, she'll be facing big money. Conlin raised an average of $226,000 in his last two runs, and he already has banked $53,000 for this year.