I was reminded of this excuse-making over the past couple of days as the supporters of Kshama Sawant have spread the blame on her performance in the general election. Sawant still may pull off a win—we won’t know until the final ballot drop on Friday night—but at this point, she’s trailing challenger Egan Orion by 8 points. It does not look good for the incumbent, and clearly (clearly) Amazon has something to do with it. Jeff Bezos is the Vladimir Putin in this narrative—a force so rich and so powerful that he can just buy the election outright. And just like in 2016, there’s bigotry to blame, too. Not only is Sawant a woman, she’s one with brown skin. Obviously, the racists in Seattle’s most progressive district could not let this woman of color win.
There could be some truth to these assumptions. Sexism and racism are forces that exist in this world and Amazon did put $1.45 million into the race. Then again, it would be a little strange if voters became vastly more sexist and racist since she was elected in 2013. It’s also possible that Amazon’s injection of cash backfired—it was widely covered (and derided) by the local and national press, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren both tweeted about it, and there were actually protests outside Bezo’s Balls in response to this injection of cash. In a town where Sanders and Warren are widely popular and Amazon is not, it’s not hard to imagine that Amazon’s support of Egan Orion was actually bad for his campaign: As my colleague, Lester Black pointed out, in four of the Seattle City Council races, the “Amazon-approved” candidate lost and one is still too close to call. If the company is buying city council seats, they aren’t very good at it.
So here’s an alternate theory—and hold on to your butts because this one will really blow your mind: Kshama Sawant’s performance in this race isn’t due to Amazon or racism or sexism; it’s due to Kshama Sawant.
I know, I know. Impossible, right? But while Sawant may have an impassioned group of supporters (you know the ones—they wear red t-shirts and clog up the sidewalks outside QFC) her broad appeal in the district has waned, even among people who may agree with her on many matters of policy. You can think a $15 minimum wage is good and still not like Kshama Sawant. You can want more affordable housing and still not like Kshama Sawant. In fact, you can want both of those things and support Egan Orion, who is in favor of a $15 minimum wage and more affordable housing, too.
Kshama Sawant is a polarizing figure in Seattle politics. What started out looking like passion seems to have evolved into an intractable dogma. At the Stranger Election Control Board (SECB) endorsement meetings, for instance, she said that if Bernie Sanders doesn’t win the 2020 Democratic nomination, she may campaign for Jill Stein, just like she did when he lost the nomination last time around. (We endorsed her nonetheless, although there was some heated debate in the office about it.)
Voters may also be turned off by Sawant’s inability to get along with her colleagues, as evidenced by the fact that two of her progressive allies on the Seattle City Council—Lorena Gonzalez and Teresa Mosqueda—endorsed her opponent in the primary.
“I think I agree a lot with many of her policies," Gonzalez said in an interview with Lester Black at the time, "but unfortunately I have found that there is almost a non-existing working relationship between her and myself and, frankly, anyone else on the floor.”
Sawant also lost valuable endorsements from labor leaders in the primary. She refused to use Democracy Vouchers, unlike her opponent. And she is less available to her constituents than she is to the activist group and nascent political party Social Alternative. As Kevin Schofield wrote at SCC Insight, Sawant “handed over her Council responsibilities to Socialist Alternative—including deciding how to vote on items before the Council, and even the hiring and firing of government employees working in her office in City Hall.” I don’t have any polling on this, but I’m willing to hazard a guess that voters actually don’t want a representative who ignores them while handing over power to a group of activists they didn’t elect.
Sawant may still eke out a victory here. Although the returns on Wednesday weren’t exactly encouraging for her supporters, she was behind in 2013 and it was later ballots that sealed her victory. But if she does lose, there’s a valuable lesson here: Likability matters, maybe even more than policy positions or money. Should it be that way? Maybe not. But it is that way, and it’s a reality that the media, political decision-makers, the SECB, and everyone who votes in primaries—both local and national—should both accept and consider.