The Case for Kshama Sawant
A Proud, Brilliant, Unapologetic Socialist Is Exactly What Our City Council Needs
Third-party candidates are a joke, right?
I mean, have you met a third-party candidate? They range from harmless goofballs like Goodspaceguy, who wants to colonize space, to angry, conspiracy-fueled antifluoride crusaders like James Robert Deal. And the socialists? They can be the worst—for example, there's the stereotypically dour, rhetoric-spewing Socialist Workers Party candidate like Mary Martin, who ran for mayor this year on a vision of transforming Seattle into a new Havana. Viva la revolución!
But if you are still laughing at the electoral prospects of Socialist Alternative Party city council candidate Kshama Sawant, the joke is on you. Sawant is the real deal. She kicks ass. And she could actually win in November.
An immigrant woman of color, an Occupy Seattle organizer, and an economics instructor at Seattle Central Community College, Sawant offers voters a detailed policy agenda, backed up by a coherent economic critique and a sound strategy for moving the political debate in a leftward direction. She is passionate but thoughtful. She speaks comfortably on noneconomic issues. She is likable. And most important, she's winning over voters.
Despite being far outspent by both her opponents in August's three-way primary, Sawant grabbed 35 percent of the vote, leaving city council member Richard Conlin at less than 48 percent—a shocking rebuke for a four-term incumbent. It was not only proof that Sawant's aggressive ground game could get her message out—her volunteers plastered the city with posters and flyers—but that her lefty message was striking a chord with voters. Compare that to the primary fizzle between well-funded establishment favorite Albert Shen and supposedly vulnerable first-term incumbent city council member Mike O'Brien. Shen won only 34 percent of the vote to O'Brien's 59 percent, despite outspending both O'Brien and Sawant combined.
The November electorate will be younger and even more progressive than the primary electorate. And in a two-way race, with her growing name recognition, even Conlin admits that Sawant is giving him a run for his money: "We need to ramp up our efforts and get our message out," Conlin urged supporters in a recent fundraising e-mail.
So no, Kshama Sawant is no joke. She's an underdog, sure, but she's got Conlin running scared. Unlike most third-party candidates, she's got dozens of enthusiastic volunteers campaigning on her behalf. She's even raising a little bit of money ($40,000 to Conlin's $183,000). And as more voters understand what she stands for—and, more importantly, what she would bring to the council—Conlin has every reason to be worried.
The truth is, despite her "Socialist Alternative" label and her unapologetically lefty perspective, there is nothing particularly radical when it comes to the core of Sawant's councilmanic agenda. Sawant was advocating for a $15-an-hour minimum wage a year ago, back before it was cool, before it was widely embraced by mainstream Democrats like US representative Adam Smith. As for the rest of her platform, at the risk of offending her, it is reasonable to say that on transit expansion, on building more affordable housing, on taxing the rich, on blocking coal trains, on expanding paid sick leave, on increasing civilian oversight of the police, and on many other issues, most of Sawant's policy positions fit comfortably within the mainstream of Seattle's progressive values.
Sure, if you really push her on the subject, she'll make a cogent economic argument for, say, collectivizing Amazon, so I guess there's that. But she's not running on it, and she freely acknowledges that it's not going to happen, so it's not like "seizing control of the means of production" makes Sawant's list of legislative priorities. And when it comes to the issues that might actually come before the council, Sawant can be downright wonky: On the campaign trail, she has advocated for universal preschool, city-sanctioned homeless encampments, principal reduction for foreclosure victims, and higher "in lieu of" fees to incentivize affordable housing in South Lake Union. Sawant supports a joint resolution condemning Russia's anti-LGBTQ policies (Socialist Alternative's Russian sister party, CWI, has been at the forefront of opposing its nation's antigay laws), and she opposes tougher panhandling ordinances. Some of her positions might place Sawant in the minority on the council, but rarely in a minority of one person.
And even on Sawant's signature issues, the policy demands that have some establishment types rolling their eyes—a $15-an-hour citywide minimum wage, a millionaire tax, and rent control—there is a deep-seated political pragmatism. Sawant says she's in these battles for the long haul, citing same-sex marriage as an example of a policy that seemed outrageously unobtainable 30 years ago, but that has finally been achieved after decades of struggle. And she emphasizes that her focus is on the underlying problems that her policies are intended to address—poverty wages, regressive taxation, lack of revenue, and unaffordable housing—not some rigidly ideological agenda.
"I would consider any improvement in people's standard of living a victory," said Sawant when asked if she could accept, say, a $12-an-hour minimum wage. But "starting out from a weak position, that's not good strategy" she explains. "Any chess player will tell you that."
That's the sort of savvy realpolitik Seattle could use more of.
Which brings us to the strongest argument for electing Sawant—an argument perhaps best illustrated, ironically, by the Seattle Times, a paper that has accused Council Member O'Brien of "stray[ing] beyond the leftward boundary of the reasonable too many times," and that has denigrated Mayor Mike McGinn's opposition to a West Seattle Whole Foods Market as "vaguely communistic." Really.
Absent an actual socialist like Sawant to anchor the left, it is progressives like O'Brien and McGinn who are ridiculed as extremists. And for what? Phone book opt-out, deep bore tunnel opposition, and defending the livelihoods of unionized grocery workers from low-wage competitors? But by widening the ideological spectrum, Sawant's election would make this sort of absurdist red-baiting impossible, creating room for traditional progressives like O'Brien and Nick Licata to operate more effectively. No, we wouldn't want a council filled with Sawants. But we wouldn't want a council filled with Richard Conlins, either—which is pretty much what we have now.
"There is nobody in the political leadership in Seattle right now who comes into work every day with a sense of urgency to really fight for people's standard of living," argues Sawant. "That's why voters are engaged in our campaign, because they are hearing a voice that they have been wanting to hear for years."
The argument for Sawant is an argument for balance, for putting just one member on the council who feels no need to pander to the interests of developers and other business "leaders" who would still have eight other sets of ears on the council eager to hear out their concerns. It is an argument for electing just one council member who is dedicated to bringing working people to the table—just one council member who is willing to question our nation's fundamental economic assumptions.
"The roots of homelessness are in the roots of our capitalist economy," proclaimed Sawant at a recent candidate forum. Smirk at her if you want for her Marxist language, but it's an uncomfortable assertion with which even the famed free-market economist Adam Smith wouldn't disagree. Unless we are willing to acknowledge that the same economic system that generates our city's awesome wealth is also responsible for our awful poverty, we can never effectively address the latter. That is the sort of balance that Sawant promises to bring to the council.
And that is why progressives ought to support Sawant—not just because she can be an effective advocate for working-class Seattleites, but because her very presence on the council would help make other council members more effective, simply by adding a little goddamn context to the public debate.