No, Kshama Sawant is not running for mayor.
At an event announced in a cryptic email to reporters last night, Sawant and her party, Socialist Alternative, will endorse Nikkita Oliver for mayor and Jon Grant for a citywide seat on the Seattle City Council. This morning, the group will also unveil a three-part housing affordability plan that Sawant and the two candidates are pledging to pursue.
Sawant's backing of Oliver and Grant marks the first time she has formally endorsed candidates in local races since her underdog election to the council in 2013. That’s largely because most candidates with a shot at winning in this city run as Democrats—and Sawant isn’t a Democrat. In 2015, Socialist Alternative ran print ads supporting Grant when he unsuccessfully ran for City Council as a Democrat, but Sawant stopped short of endorsing him.
Now, Grant is running as an independent democratic socialist. (He’s not formally associated with Democratic Socialists of America, though he did get the local chapter’s endorsement last week.) Oliver is running with the newly formed Peoples Party.
“We’ve seen how impactful the strategy of having a voice inside city hall that truly and unambiguously represents social movements and the people of Seattle can be,” Sawant said, citing the passage of a $15 minimum wage. “I personally—and Socialist Alternative—don’t want a copyright on the idea of independent politics.”
Oliver’s and Grant’s campaigns have “energized a whole generation of millennials,” Sawant said, presenting an opportunity to draw in young people who’ve not previously participated in local politics.
In this year’s Seattle elections, the backing of Socialist Alternative could prove significant. It will very likely translate into fundraising for Oliver and Grant. Sawant out-fundraised her opponent in 2015 despite that opponent's support from establishment Democrats and business interests. The endorsements are also likely to result in the same kind of full-court press, door-knocking strategy for Oliver and Grant that we’ve seen from Sawant’s red-shirted army of loyalists in the past. It could also turn business, developer, and landlord interests even more heavily against Grant and Oliver.
The trio of Seattle leftists also plan to announce a three-part housing affordability platform, which Grant and Oliver will highlight in their campaigns. That platform calls for:
1. Rent control, which is currently illegal under state law. (Sawant has asked the city's lobbyists to push for a change to this law in Olympia.)
2. Taxes on large businesses or the wealthy to fund publicly owned housing for low-income people. The group will not release a formal proposal for this yet, but it could eventually be funded through higher business and occupation taxes or a return of the so-called employee head tax. (The city has already begun investing public dollars in affordable housing through the housing levy, which doubled property taxes for affordable housing last year. In a recent interview with Erica C. Barnett, Oliver did not know what that levy was. Oliver told The Stranger today she is familiar with the levy and supported it, but believes it was not sufficient to meet the city’s housing needs.) This would mark a shift from asking residents to fund affordable housing through property taxes to requiring businesses to pay.
3. Increased affordability requirements for developers building new buildings in upzoned areas. Currently, the mayor and city council are pursuing a series of changes to the city’s zoning code to allow developers to build taller buildings in some neighborhoods. In exchange, those developers will be required to set aside affordable units in their new buildings or pay into a fund for affordable housing. Today, those set-aside requirements are between 2 and 11 percent, which the mayor and a majority of the city council say is a level that requires some affordable housing but isn’t so high that it will discourage developers from building at all. Grant has advocated for 25 percent instead.
“This is a proposal that challenges free-market thinking,” Grant said in an interview. “It challenges the idea that the market is the answer to our problems. We have seen time and again that the market is good for consumer products. It’s good for better, faster cell phones. It’s not so great for basic needs—housing, healthcare.”
Oliver said the housing platform is part of a vision for a “healthier, more diverse Seattle as opposed to just a wealthier and more homogeneous Seattle.”
The three ideas in the platform are not entirely new. For one, Sawant and others on the council already failed in an effort to increase the affordability requirements. An electoral victory for Grant would change only one seat on the nine-member city council, but he argues it “could be really pivotal in transforming the city council.”
On running as a democratic socialist, Grant said he has a “great deal of respect for the work Socialist Alternative does,” but "wanted to cast as wide of a net as possible,” engaging people from the local Green Party and Democratic Party as well as Seattle’s various brands of socialism*.
Oliver said she grew up as a Democrat, but ran separately in order to focus more on campaign issues than “allegiances to a party.”
“My genuine hope is that us winning as independents would actually push the Democratic Party further toward what the Democratic Party says their values are,” Oliver said.
Sawant said victories for Oliver or Grant would “show there is a real opening for independent politics, not just in Seattle but everywhere.”
“There has never been a better time to push back against corporate politics," Sawant said, "to push back against business as usual and demand a sweeping transformation in politics.”
UPDATE: In a dramatic and unsolicited email response, King County Labor Council Executive Secretary Treasurer Nicole Grant—who's backing Teresa Mosqueda over Jon Grant in the city council race—slammed Socialist Alternative's decision. Among other things, Nicole Grant criticizes Jon Grant for living in a house purchased on foreclosure.
"Teresa is a working class, power-femme positioned to win the race, but Socialist Alternative would rather turn their back on the very unions and workers who have helped Sawant get elected twice because suddenly Jon Grant says he's a socialist," Nicole Grant wrote. "Tragedy."
Mosqueda, who previously worked for the state labor council, has already won significant labor union support in her race for council.
"Socialist Alternative's decision to ignore the candidate who workers have overwhelmingly chosen to endorse and instead go with a privileged man, who has already lost this race once, is an insult to the same labor movement SA clings to for credibility," Nicole Grant wrote.
Check here for our latest coverage of the 2017 mayor’s race.
*The differences between members of Socialist Alternative and people who call themselves democratic socialists are nuanced. Generally speaking, they agree on more than they disagree on. Socialist Alternative is a third party built on the belief that neither the Democrats or Republicans can adequately serve working people. The Democratic Socialists of America is an activist group that believes that because "we are unlikely to see an immediate end to capitalism tomorrow, DSA fights for reforms today that will weaken the power of corporations and increase the power of working people." (In my experience, DSA members are also much more fun on Twitter.)