The race to represent central Seattle's District 3 on the city council has become the priciest contest in town, and has pitted big business-backed Egan Orion against anti-establishment socialist Council Member Kshama Sawant.
In part, this has become the race to watch because Sawant, a well-known incumbent and movement leader, appears in danger of losing; she earned just 37 percent of the vote during the primary and in the past, incumbents in similar positions have had their seats taken by energetic challengers.
But there's something else working against Sawant: history.
Although a lot of Sawant critics like to act as if Seattle has never, ever experienced a loud socialist before, this city and Washington state both have a deep history of politicians fitting exactly this description. The problem for our current socialist city council member: historically, this region's elected socialists have, for various reasons, sputtered out.
So far, Sawant has avoided that fate. She's the first socialist elected in Seattle in just under a century, and has served longer in elective office than any Washington socialist before her.
But she and the prominent local socialists who came before her have a lot in common: the issues they've championed, their fights against big business, and the enmity of the Seattle Times editorial board, to name a few.
So as this city waits to see if Sawant can beat Orion, we're also waiting to see if Sawant can continue to beat the tendency of history to repeat itself. And to make that wait more interesting, it helps to understand the history of Seattle area socialists that's still echoing in the present.
The Evergreen State Has Been a Hotbed of Red Before
Present-day Seattleites could be forgiven for not remembering this, since it happened almost 100 years ago, but from 1895 to 1925 Washington was a socialist stronghold. A real hotbed of red.
A socialist utopian colony, Equality Colony, was intentionally started in Washington because of "its climate, natural resources, and sparse population." The vision of the colony organizers, the National Union of the Brotherhood of the Cooperative Commonwealth, was to start with this one colony as a demonstration project, then convert the entire state to socialism, and then, from there, convert the nation.
It didn't quite pan out that way.
A leadership split and the emergence of a new philosophy led to the dissolution of the colony. So the movement went another route: getting directly involved in the existing political structure of Washington.
From 1910 to around 1916, Washington had dozens upon dozens of elected socialists in office. The Eastern Washington city of Pasco elected six socialists in 1914: the mayor, the treasurer, and four council members. There were five in 1915 (the mayor didn't get reelected, I guess).
Bremerton, Burlington, Camas, Edmonds, Hilyard, and Tukwila also had socialist mayors. Everett had four socialist newspapers. While the overall numbers weren't staggering, by any means, according to "They Are All Red Out Here": Socialist Politics in the Pacific Northwest by Jeffrey A. Johnson, the movement gained fervor in the lead up to the Great Depression.
At the time, the socialist movement was gaining attention on a national scale because of a broader societal trend of "increasing industrialization, economic volatility, and a changing relationship between laboring people and the products of their work."
In Washington especially, the discontent of laborers was rooted in a "resource-based economy that subjected workers to the whim of global markets for commodities they extracted." Compared to the capitalists who owned the mines, the mills, and the land they worked on, the laborers—the "99 percent" of their day—could clearly see they were getting the raw end of the economic bargain.
In the Northwest, Johnson writes, "socialists' optimism about effecting real change grew."
One of the most vocal socialist figures during this time rose to power in Seattle.
Anna Louise Strong
Anna Louise Strong was the last socialist elected in Seattle before Kshama Sawant in 2013. Unsatisfied with capitalism's failure to help children and the working class, Strong ran for Seattle School Board. She was elected in 1916 and was the only female on the board.
"I do not feel that I am running as an individual but as one of the long succession of women who believe that the school board should be controlled not by the business interests alone," Strong said in her statement announcing her election, as quoted in the Seattle Daily Times (now the Seattle Times).
Her appetite for championing liberal causes was a stark contrast to the rest of the school district leadership, but the broader political climate—"pro-labor and progressive," according to HistoryLink—was ripe for Strong's activism.
She devoted her time during board meetings to issues like establishing a program to give social services to underprivileged children in Seattle's public schools. The other members wanted to address "more practical matters, like fixing plumbing fixtures," according to HistoryLink.
Strong was vehemently opposed to militarizing schools, a new program that was implemented by the school board without her vote. All of Seattle's high schools had military drill programs starting in 1916. They were, however, "wholly voluntary."
The same year as Strong's election, the Everett Massacre happened. Strong, focusing more on journalism at the time, reported on it for the New York Evening Post. The massacre happened when two boatloads of Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, often called "Wobblies") went from Seattle to Everett to hold a demonstration backing shingle mill workers. The mill had cut wages after the price of cedar fell, and then failed to restore wages after the price recovered.
A peaceful stand-off—Wobblies in boats in the water, the Sheriff and deputies on the shore—turned deadly when someone Han Solo/Greedo'd the whole thing. No one knows who fired the first shot but when a gun went off, chaos ensued. Five Wobblies and two deputies died.
After the massacre, Strong became an impassioned supporter of workers' rights. She wrote a call to action in the lead up to the Seattle General Strike of 1919, which shut the city down for four days: "We are undertaking the most tremendous move ever made by LABOR in this country, a move which will lead — NO ONE KNOWS WHERE!" You can read her takeaways from the strike here.
Seattle was in a panic in the lead up to the strike. Riots were expected. It was the end of the world. Some of that fear was attributed to Strong's editorial. But the strike itself was completely peaceful.
After a months-long campaign, Strong was eventually recalled from the Seattle School Board for her stance against World War I; she was a pacifist, she protested the war and the draft, and she stood behind convicted seditionists.
Veterans of the Spanish War filed the petition against her, calling her anti-American.
"I have certain convictions and have taken part in certain actions which seem to many of my fellow citizens unpatriotic," Strong said, according to a Times report from 1917.
She went on to explain those convictions: opposition to the war and the draft, peace on all sides—even for the Russians!
In the face of accusations, Strong was defiant.
"Many people are hotly at variance with these views," Strong wrote. "Many people believe that the holding of them and the proclaiming of them constitutes me an enemy of this country. All such persons should sign the recall petition and vote against me. All others should support me."
The opposition against Strong was vast. The Times issued its own sexist, non-endorsement of her. It begins:
Had a recall campaign been directed against a male member of the school board for the reasons that have led to the attack on Miss Anna Louise Strong The Times would have had a great deal to say about the main issue involved…
Additionally, the Times editorial board could not comprehend Strong's resolve:
Miss Strong seemingly welcomes a contest. Her attitude in this respect is as peculiar as are some of the views she has expressed in the past. What has she to gain from a contest waged on the issue of whole-hearted as against half-hearted loyalty?
Ultimately, Strong was recalled. Her time left in Seattle was short-lived. She and the rest of her socialist newspaper colleagues were arrested on charges of conspiracy to violate the espionage act. The charges were later dropped.
Two years after she was recalled, a bill she had championed that would give school directors a livable salary was debated in the state Legislature. It was looked on favorably until one lawmaker connected the bill to Strong and her "unpatriotic acts" and said the "House was wasting time considering it."
Eventually, Strong moved to Russia, but ended up living in China after a brush with being banned from the USSR for being believed to be an American spy and having her passport revoked by the U.S. After that whole mess was cleared up, Strong lived out the rest of her days in China. She was one of the few Americans who had "the admiration of Mao Tse-tung."
Some other Washington Socialists
Strong was by no means the only uproar-causing socialist in Washington at the time. Here are a few other rabble-rousers who fought for the little man and tried to stick it to capitalism:
On February 18, the Tacoma Tribune published a letter by Haffer, describing George Washington as an "owner and exploiter of negro slaves. ... a profane and blasphemous man and an inveterate drinker" and suggesting that citizens should "take the tales of nobility of these so called great men with the proverbial grain of salt" (The Northwest Worker).
Haffer went to jail. Later in life, he continued participating in resistance movements. There was a lumber-workers strike in 1935 that brought Tacoma under de facto martial law. Down in Tacoma, he taught people how to really protest and used a "leather-face glove" to pick up "the hot tear-gas and nausea shells and [tossed] them back to the militia."
The socialism movement back in the early 1900s in Washington ultimately lost steam due to internal party conflicts in the midst of World War I. The party virtually dissolved after World War II because of the Red Scare. Some members went more radical and took up the mantle of Communism, others turned moderate and joined the Democratic party.
Today, Kshama Sawant, the first socialist elected in Seattle since Strong, is fighting for re-election. Her fight for the working class is emblematic of the fights her predecessors faced in this same city.
“She has her own special brand of politics of division, derision, and demonization,” Egan Orion, Sawant's opponent in the District 3 race, said in an interview this summer on Q13's "The Divide."
Orion, in contrast, is a candidate funded by corporations with deep pockets. Which means that in a lot of ways, this is the same fight all over again, one hundred years later.
In that same Q13 segment, Council Member Mike O'Brien stepped to Sawant's defense:
Kshama is a strong woman of color who stands up to big business,” O’Brien said in a statement released by Sawant’s campaign. “I refute the negative attacks on her, attempting to paint her as divisive because of her courageous positions. I find her to always be upfront, principled, and reliable, even if I don’t always agree with her theory of change or criticisms of other elected officials.
Sawant is not malleable. She is stalwart in her politics and unswayed by corporate money. She is following in the footsteps of the socialists before her and paving a new path in the process. It's the only way to change the status quo, Sawant believes.
Which places her right in line with her predecessors.
“The problem they have is that I did not bend to them,” Sawant said on "The Divide." "But they won’t tell you the truth, which is that, ‘I don’t like her because she doesn’t represent my endless corporate greed.'"