CNN posted an article today declaring nine politicians across the country "who figure to make themselves known in 2016."
First on the list: Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant, whose photo ran under a version of what has become the national media’s favorite way of mentioning her: “A Socialist to watch, and it's not Bernie Sanders.” (Bernie Sanders isn't the only American socialist?! What! Yawn.)
Here’s the blurb on Sawant from CNN’s Gregory Krieg, whose beat is “buzzy political news”:
Seattle City Councilor Kshama Sawant won a bitter, expensive reelection fight in 2015, cementing her place as a power player in this increasingly progressive metropolis.
"We have shown that not only can a socialist win in the US, a socialist can drive the political agenda of a major city," Sawant wrote in a recent editorial for the Guardian.
In the coming year, the Socialist Alternative Party member will work alongside her fellow council members to implement the city's first-in-the-nation "democracy voucher" campaign finance reform plan.
Yes, her fight for reelection was bitter and expensive, and yes she explained her win in the Guardian recently as a sign that voters are more willing to actively embrace socialism (at least in a city like Seattle).
But democracy vouchers? While Seattle voters' passage of a first-of-its-kind campaign finance system this year was a very big deal, it's not the city council that will be handling most of the implementation of that system. It's the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission. The SEEC will also be responsible for policing the other rules written into Initiative 122, like limits on former city employees and city contractors lobbying the city. Most of the work ahead to build out this never-before-tried system is not in the hands of Sawant or any other council member.
That doesn't mean Sawant isn't a "politician to watch," though. It's just that there are lots of other, more relevant reasons to pay attention to what she does in the new year.
First, she's dealing with a brand new council makeup that could test her efficacy in new and surprising ways. This new council (which will be sworn in on January 4) is more progressive than the old one, but it's not a roster of Sawant devotees. New members Rob Johnson, Lorena González, and Debora Juarez did not directly align themselves with Sawant on the campaign trail. Take Johnson's pro-development/pro-density stances, for example, or Juarez's iffy stance on Shell Oil. They may disagree with Sawant as often as they help her out.
And, while Lisa Herbold is expected to be a Sawant ally, she was also careful to de-Sawant her messaging during the campaign and isn't totally sold on Sawant's call for rent control. In other words, none of these new members are guaranteed "yes" votes on every effort Sawant will undertake next year. Of the returning incumbents, Mike O'Brien is Sawant's most reliable ally, but the others—Tim Burgess, Sally Bagshaw, and Bruce Harrell—all endorsed Sawant's opponent Pamela Banks. Plus, seven of the nine members, Sawant included, will have to represent their districts instead of the whole city. In this new landscape, no one is quite sure where the fault lines will emerge.
Second, Sawant made some high profile promises during the campaign season that she'll now have to get to work making a reality. Among them: Small business rent control and portable benefits for small business employees, a landlord-opposed law banning rent hikes at buildings with housing code violations, employer regulations guaranteeing fair scheduling practices for low-wage workers, and public and private sector parental leave. That's all on top of pushing for meaningful work to increase affordable housing, which will be center stage in the council's work next year. (And, which may get dicey with Sawant's council nemesis Tim Burgess chairing the council's affordable housing committee next year.)
In her first term, Sawant proved she can pack a room and amplify the political pressure on her more moderate colleagues, but they also showed how willing they were to write her off as "divisive" and "grandstanding."
With a new makeup on the council, a few wildcards, and a lot of promises hanging in the balance, Sawant will be a "politician to watch" in 2016—just not because of democracy vouchers.