Within a few minutes of Richard Conlin conceding defeat last Friday, his socialist challenger, Kshama Sawant, issued a statement. First she politely acknowledged Conlin's 16 years of service on the Seattle City Council, and then she twisted the knife: "These exciting results show a majority of voters are fed up with the corporate politicians."
She's right, of course.
Sawant's refreshingly blunt rhetoric about "corporate politicians" (career incumbents backed by wealthy donors)—combined with specific proposals to raise wages, lower rents, and tax millionaires—was exactly what catapulted her to a surprising victory. Agitprop yard signs, communistic red T-shirts, and even her Twitter avatar all blazed with Sawant's ubiquitous theme: Pass a $15-minimum-wage law now. She was also brash. When announcing her campaign in March, Sawant called Paul Allen's Vulcan a "shark devouring real estate," and her spokesperson recently wrote that Conlin is "a cancer on the council." Then last week, as late vote tallies showed Sawant eking out a lead, she responded to mayor-elect Ed Murray's support for a $15 minimum wage by saying, "We were calling for that before it became cool."
She's right again—sorta.
But the same cutting language a candidate uses on the campaign trail can come back and cut the candidate off at the knees once she's elected. Those "corporate politicians" she's talking about? They are Sawant's future council colleagues. And uncool Murray? Sawant now needs him to sign that wage bill into law. As a lawmaker, Sawant's statements don't exactly scream, "Let's work together." Some of them actually seem kinda shitty. Especially when dealing with politicians in Seattle, whose egos bruise like pears.
A few offensive statements from Sawant may be enough for critics to brand her as divisive and ideological, the sort of tarring and feathering that helped sink Mayor Mike McGinn. And being painted with that reputation would not only burden her as a council member, it would be used by critics to sink wage-reform legislation.
"Our campaign is as close as you can get to a referendum on a $15-an-hour minimum wage in Seattle," Sawant says. "I think there are lots of big business and corporate interests, and people in the political establishment who represent those interests, who will want to create distractions by focusing on personal characteristics. I don't expect them to be happy about what we are talking about. But they may not have a choice if they see a groundswell of support for these ideas."
Indeed, many politicos believe that if Sawant can introduce her wage bill—packing hearings with supporters and union workers—the council will feel mandated to pass it. Which is why the best way to stop such a bill is to kneecap her credibility first.
Already, rumors are swirling about stymieing Sawant. Some pundits view her leftist rhetoric, and her penchant for holding rallies, as narcissistic. One such pundit is Joel Connelly, columnist for Seattlepi.com, who said Monday in a public Facebook post that Sawant was "self-intoxicated" and compared her to a "show horse." Meanwhile, city hall insiders tell me that some may try blocking Sawant's appointment to any council committee on which she could actually introduce a wage bill.
"I think they are going to be unconsciously thinking of her as archetypal and a stereotype," says Nick Licata, a four-term council member, about the rest of the council. To win them over and get the five votes needed to pass a bill, Licata offers some advice: "It's really important to stick with the facts and not be personal."
Many will be champing at the bit to be offended by something Sawant says, eager to argue that Sawant must gingerly use polite language. The New York Times recently wrote about the "War of Umbrage" during the 2012 presidential election, in which Obama's and Romney's camps feigned episodes of indignation at slights from the other side. Likewise, many will gasp—as Connelly already has—at Sawant for being impolitic, for holding rallies, for being a socialist.
So it stands to reason that she must avoid stoking the flames with incendiary rhetoric.
Everything I have written so far is sort of true, but it's also bullshit. That framing is designed to put Sawant on the defensive, and it assumes that Sawant must behave like a "Seattle Nice" politician. It's also questionable to criticize a woman politician for being aggressive—men don't generally get that treatment (McGinn notwithstanding).
"We did not run this campaign to be yet another cog in the machine but with slightly shinier moral credentials," says Sawant. "We are here to make real change happen in a highly unequal society in which a tiny elite holds the power, so clearly you cannot be worried about them being against you, because they are going to be."
If she only holds rallies and refuses to work with her colleagues, yes, that's also a problem. However, she hasn't even been sworn in.
What should be offensive to Seattle is not rough language. It should be offensive if some folks attempt to undermine a candidate—and the voters who elected her—before her first day on the job. What should be truly offensive is fabricating umbrage over personality to distract from policy—a living wage that a majority of voters seem to support.
Already, the mood among the council is "apoplectic," according to an inside source at city hall. Conlin's unexpected defeat unravels a knot of plans for the New Year. Council members had already jockeyed close to their committee chairmanships for 2014, but with Conlin leaving the land-use committee, we can expect Machiavellian jostling for committees all over again. Next, there's the thorny question of who will be council president (everyone previously assumed it would be Council Member Tim Burgess). And finally, there's the question of what Sawant will do if she actually disrupts the council's orderly universe, in which consensus and politesse have been a religion. They're afraid she'll be like a mountain lion set loose in a grocery store.
For his part, Burgess says Sawant "will be welcomed" and he doesn't "anticipate any problems." Asked about her committee appointment if he is council president, Burgess says council members "usually" get some of their committee preferences and he doesn't "see any reason why that practice won't hold with council-member-elect Sawant." But if Sawant can't sit on human rights or budgetary committees, she may be unable to introduce a wage ordinance within two years. [UPDATE: Although it is standard practice for bills only to be introduced into a committee by one of the members of that committee, council staff say that, technically, any council member can introduce a bill. However, it would be anomalous for a committee to consider a bill introduced by a council member who is not on that committee. Furthermore, the council president can block any bill from being referred to a committee.]
Perhaps unfairly, Sawant will be tested on short-term efficacy. Voters this year approved a new system to elect council members by districts, which mandates an all-council-member election in 2015. If Sawant fails to land a victory on her own within the next two years, she'll be vulnerable. Democratic Party operatives are already fielding candidates to challenge Sawant in her native District 3 (which includes Capitol Hill, the Central District, and several lakeside neighborhoods)—with a plan to take advantage, no doubt, of her acrimonious style.
One donor to those future challengers' campaigns? Vulcan, almost certainly. After all, Vulcan and its employees gave more than $6,000 to Conlin's last reelection campaign, city records show. Sawant refuses to curry favor, however, saying that she is not going to "run an exciting campaign that galvanizes mass support and then go quietly to city hall and sit inside my office and meet with Vulcan executives."
But business cannot be her enemy—she must compromise (Sawant acknowledges that "compromise is inevitable").
Ironically, the biggest booster of her socialist agenda is among the city's most unrepentant capitalists. Nick Hanauer, a venture capitalist at Second Avenue Partners, says Sawant's victory "is awesome." Hanauer was a leading backer of a $15-an-hour-minimum-wage initiative that appears to be passing in SeaTac, but he comes from the opposite perspective as Sawant. Hanauer contends "that the most pro-business thing we can do in America is raise the wages of low-wage workers." And if Sawant wants to collaborate on her primary issue, it requires her working with unlikely business bedfellows.
"I don't know Sawant," Hanauer says, "but if her politics are anchored on the idea that we all are better off when we all are better off, she will be a highly constructive force on the council."
This article has been updated since its original publication.