Over the summer, anti-ICE protesters stormed into the city council chambers as Council Member Lisa Herbold was introducing a bill to recognize Seattle Channel for its commitment to broadcasting with integrity.
The response from the council members perfectly reflected their politics. Council Member Teresa Mosqueda clapped politely in support of the protesters. Council President Bruce Harrell tried to bring the meeting back to regular order. But Council Member Kshama Sawant stood up with her fist raised in the air in solidarity with the protesters.
The kind of movement-style leadership Sawant displayed in that moment (and in countless others) appeals to people who don’t mind interrupting official proceedings to voice the demands of the marginalized on their own terms—even if it’s a little annoying, even if it takes time away from the regularly scheduled program, even if other courses of action would do more to “actually” advance the polices around which she rallies.
But for the nuanced thinkers over at the Seattle Times editorial board, Sawant's leadership style is Trumpian. To her political rivals and big business, she's “not listening.” To true believers of incrementalist governing, she's “ineffective.” And to the people of District 3?
Well, right now at least, it doesn’t look like they’re that into Sawant, either. With thousands of votes still left to count, she’s trailing Egan Orion by more than 8 points. Judging by the primaries, that number will likely bump up to between 3 and 5 points in Sawant's favor as more ballots are counted, though it could well be more since the general election skews more progressive.
Sawant overcame a similar deficit in 2013 when she ran against Richard Conlin, but that was a citywide race, so it’s hard to compare. Also, Orion isn’t Conlin, and it seems as if the unprecedented amount of PAC money spent on Orion’s behalf is likely to win this one. But who knows!
Sawant's team certainly isn't calling it. "This race is still too close to call," her spokesperson said. "But regardless of what the final outcome is, we have run a historic grassroots campaign, with working people and community members rejecting Amazon and billionaire attempts to buy this election."
Why Is the Socialist Incumbent Behind?
Sawant could be behind for a number of reasons. Maybe people “really just don’t like her,” as I’ve heard now twice from Orion supporters. Maybe she wasn’t as good as Lisa Herbold at selling herself as the voice of her district. Maybe the heart of a gentrified district in a capitalist playground doesn’t beat that hard for socialists. Considering that Sawant was the only candidate who actually told you how she was going to pay for her big progressive dreams, maybe people prefer nice candidates who lie to them.
But one thing is clear: The big money in the race wanted to overturn progressive control of the city council. To do that, they took a page from Republican state legislators and made Sawant the face of it.
They bet that lily-white Seattle would cringe at the sight of a brown woman angry about “Amazon,” a corporation that delivers their groceries, their packages, and their premium television shows. They tapped into the feeling that “divisiveness,” not unbalanced power structures, is the real problem in politics. And they bet all the new money in District 3 would vote for the business-friendly guy who runs PrideFest over the socialist incumbent who appeared to welcome that “divisiveness,” and whose mind was controlled by a shadowy socialist organization.
That bet seems to have paid off against the socialist candidates, but it doesn’t look like it’ll pay off in District 6 or District 7, where two candidates big business opposed, Dan Strauss and Andrew Lewis, will probably win. If Sawant ends up losing by only a point or two, I’m not sure how good a deal Seattle's business class really bought itself. (Though I'm also sure Seattle's business class will celebrate her defeat, if it happens, for a long time coming.)
Structural, Cultural, and Organizational Forces Working Against Her
While we’re unsure about final numbers, turnout is looking a little low. That’s likely because Seattle voters didn’t have a chance to poke Donald Trump in the eye during this off-year election, and so they may have not bothered to participate. Conventional wisdom is that older voters vote more and more conservative than younger voters, which didn’t help Sawant. The rhetoric coming out of the Sawant campaign late in the race was about fighting “apathy,” so they seemed worried about that.
Moreover, many Sawant voters live in apartments. Renters move around more, and it’s harder to knock apartments than it is to knock houses with a view of the lake, so Sawant suffered some problems there.
But there were other forces working against her, too.
Political action committees working to unseat Sawant outspent the few PACs that were supporting her by a ratio of 600 to 1.
One PAC that did spend on behalf of Sawant was the Civic Alliance for a Progressive Economy (aka CAPE), which spent a little over $1,000 on text banking. Rachel Lauter, cofounder of CAPE and executive director of Working Washington, said the PAC put more resources in the other races because “[Sawant] had raised the most money” when compared to the other candidates, and so their money was better spent elsewhere.
But Sawant wasn’t only iced out by PACs. There were fewer union logos on her flyer this year compared to 2015, and that’s because her colleague, Council Member Teresa Mosqueda, used her influence on the Martin Luther King Labor Council to advocate for Sawant’s rival in the primary. Though a number of union workers knocked on doors for Sawant, the MLK Labor Council didn’t play much in the district.
Colleagues and progressive rivals weren’t much help, either. Though Council Member Mike O’Brien came out early in support of Sawant, Mosqueda and Lorena Gonzalez only endorsed her after Amazon made it absolutely clear that they weren’t just targeting Sawant—they’d be coming for all progressives in the next elections, too. Seattle Public School Board member Zachary DeWolf, one of her primary opponents, only endorsed Sawant a few days before the election, and only on his Twitter feed, which is set to private. His tweet garnered six hearts.
Though Sawant boasted more individual donors than any candidate in city council elections history, a coveted endorsement from The Stranger, and endorsements for the first time from local Democratic clubs, and although her red shirts were out in force, it all didn't add up to enough to make up for the isolation, for the structural disadvantages (save incumbency, which is a pretty big advantage when people aren’t smearing your name in mailers all day), for a general cultural milieu more pessimistic about the possibilities of government than ever before.
All this consternation over Sawant was always been confusing to me. As one of nine council members, she never held much power. Though she hasn’t passed tons of legislation over the years, her movement-style governing has won legislative gains (raising the minimum wage to $15, passing renters protections, getting a post office in the Central District), and also led to some losses (the Showbox). But you don’t elect a socialist revolutionary to the council to be a savvy bureaucrat, and you shouldn’t be disappointed when she doesn’t act like one.
She called out corporatist bullshit coming from the other council members. Along with Mosqueda, she stood by her vote on the head tax. She was the only council member to vote against the bad police contract, and a federal judge vindicated that vote. Having a council member who would do that—call out the bullshit, join the protesters storming city council chambers rather than try to shut them out—is a service.
And it’s that sort of service the people of District 3, and the rest of the city for that matter, will probably miss if it's gone.