On Thursday morning at Saba Ethiopian Cuisine, a restaurant in the Central District she's trying to save from displacement, two-term incumbent Seattle City Council Member Kshama Sawant announced her re-election campaign. Little hints of a run have been popping up the last few weeks, but now it's really official.
"The race I‘m running will be a referendum on one fundamental question," Sawant said in an interview with The Stranger. "Who gets to own Seattle and run city hall? Is it going to be Amazon and big businesses and corporate developers, or is it going to be ordinary working people?"
Sawant was first elected in 2013, after narrowly defeating 16-year incumbent Richard Conlin. She was reelected in 2015, beating challenger Pamala Banks by over 12 points. She holds a PhD in economics from North Carolina State University, and taught at Seattle Central, "One of Seattle's Colleges." She rose to prominence during the Occupy movement, and belongs to the Socialist Alternative, a political party that seeks to dismantle Capitalism and build working class movements. The movement has come under scrutiny recently for its financial opaqueness and its influence on Sawant's voting and staffing decisions, but we'll get to that later. First:
What has she even been doing all these years?
Sawant still claims the fight for a $15 minimum wage, which passed in 2014, as one of the movement's biggest and most important wins. (Former city council member and interim mayor Tim Burgess will roll his eyes and say disgraced former Mayor Ed Murray actually greased the wheels on that one to get it passed, but if we start playing that game we'll be here all night.) Sawant says the movement has since added a few more victories.
Working with Washington Community Action Network, last year she helped pass a new move-in fee law, which allowed renters to pay for any fees beyond first month's rent in installments. "It's not enough by itself, but it's a good example of where the movement had to build itself strong enough to overcome the pressures and threats from the corporate landlord lobby," Sawant said.
Along with the Tenants Union and East African immigrants living in the southend, Sawant also chalks up 2016's "Carl Haglund Law" as a win, which says that landlords can't raise rents when they have housing code violations.
She also worked to #BlocktheBunker, #SavetheShowbox (though it's not saved yet, and maybe it shouldn't be?), and most recently to protect the Halcyon Mobile Home Park from being bought up by a developer. (However, according to the C Is for Crank, Council Member Deborah Juarez said the homes weren't in immediate danger of being bought up.) Council Member Lisa Herbold credited Sawant's introduction of the 1,000 homes proposal as the catalyst for securing $29 million for affordable housing in the 2016 city budget. Sawant ended up voting against that budget at the time, but she counted the money for housing as a win during our interview. In this year's budget, she got the city to add an eviction lawyer to defend renters who've gotten the boot, though she originally wanted six, according to the Seattle Times.
Sawant says her movement strategy is the driving force behind these wins. Recalling a committee meeting about the move-in fee law, she characterized the other council members' attitudes as being "quite oppositional to these basic rights for renters" and said they only voted yes once "they saw the movement was so strong that they could not possibly vote no without a real political price for their own future election campaign."
Moreover, Sawant claims that she runs into people every day "at grocery stores, in the streets, and at Goodwill," who tell her not to back down because she makes them feel as if they have a voice in City Hall.
"That’s my message to working people," Sawant continued. "If you want to change this status quo of economic injustice, skyrocketing rents, barely sustainable lives, then we’re going to have to fight collectively, build an organized resistance, and elect our own candidates, like myself. Though I’m not enough. We need more."
And she may get them. Shaun Scott and Tammy Morales, two members of the Democratic Socialists of America, are running for city council this year. In a recent interview with The Stranger, Morales said she wasn't sure if she'd call herself a socialist, which I think caused a stir among the roses of Twitter. Sawant told me she hopes Morales will use her campaign to fight for working people, regardless of whether or not she ends up calling herself a socialist.
What about her failures. Has she failed?
Sawant and Council Member Teresa Mosqueda were the only two people who didn't totally embarrass themselves by voting to repeal the head tax they'd passed less than a month before. Sawant called the repeal of the tax "a setback," and said the most important thing to learn from that whole ordeal was that the city council members who voted to repeal that tax "betrayed" working people. "If an elected representative doesn’t have the courage to stake their political career on what people need, they are not serving us," she said.
Her proposals are also regularly shot down in council meetings. But, you know, what else do you expect from the corporate politicians who are in the pockets of the Chamber of Commerce and big business lobbyists, etc.
What about all that shit about Socialist Alternative controlling her mind or whatever?
Earlier this month SCC Insight posted several internal documents from SA, along with some frothy analysis of those documents. The big shocker for SCC Insight was that SA—a dues-paying political party that doesn't disclose their finances because they're not technically a political party—votes on how Sawant will vote on council. They also vote on the hiring and firing of her staff.
People who dislike Sawant took this story as hard evidence of Sawant being mind-controlled by shadowy socialists and unaccountable to the voters of her own district. People who like Sawant laughed at idiots who were surprised that a member of a socialist party shares her power with other members of that party. Sawant defended the accountability structure of SA in a long post, saying "the real issue the political establishment has is that my accountability is to working people and social movements, instead of to the corporate agenda."
Her response did not directly address the real issue I had, which is the fact that SA doesn't have to be transparent about how they're receiving/spending their money. When asked if SA would consider voluntarily disclosing their finances like every other political party has to do, Sawant said SA has "nothing to hide," and the organization "may even consider" it. But she wanted to emphasize that SA doesn't even need to be transparent because they're always working for the working people and never not working for the working people. "The proof of the pudding is in the eating. If there is any evidence in my track record to show that I've not stood with working people, then let's talk about that. But you won't find that," she said.
The report from SCC Insight also seemed to reveal a serious split within SA. When I asked Sawant’s campaign manager, Chris Gray, whether SA was a party in tatters, a group that won’t be able to get its shit together in time to run a successful campaign, he said “absolutely not.”
“This is part of the reality of existing in a democratic organization,” Gray added. “There are disagreements, debates that come out—that’s true of DSA, that’s true of the Democrat and Republican parties. It’s unfortunate when people leave, but that’s part of what it means to have a truly democratic organization.”
In response to this whole fiasco, Beto Yarce, an entrepreneur and non-profit director who's the most visible of Sawant's opponents so far, said the revelations reflect "a council member non-responsive to local needs and priorities."
When I asked Sawant what she's done for D3 lately, she pointed to her long list of accomplishments and added a few more, citing the $650,000 in mitigation fees she helped to secure for the small businesses impacted by construction on 23rd Avenue in the Central District, and also fighting to save Saba.
Okay but what does she want to do with the Movement?
The biggest challenge facing her district at the moment, Sawant says, is still affordability. In order to tackle that problem, she wants to pass residential and commercial rent control. Both of those policies are illegal in Washington, though Sawant believes the language might be a little more forgiving with commercial rent control. How does she plan to surmount that obstacle? You guessed it: build a movement in the streets.
Sawant is also calling for an independently elected office holder to combat sexual harassment in the workplace. In September of 2018 Mayor Durkan and Council Member Mosqueda worked together to create an Ombuds Office for City Employees to do just that, but the director of the program will be appointed by the mayor and confirmed by city council, a process that doesn't exactly promote independence.
She also wants to "massively expand" publicly owned housing, and she wants to tax big businesses in order to pay for it. Sawant says she intends to use her campaign as "a vehicle for a movement" to try and pass an Amazon tax again, adding that she feels heartened by a group of taxes on big tech companies that recently passed in California.