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  • Kelly O
"Richard Conlin is finished," Kshama Sawant announced to a crowd of cheering supporters in lieu of a concession speech last night. It might seem an odd statement to make, given that King County ballot results had Sawant trailing Conlin 46.13 to 53.56 percent, with one-third of ballots counted. Conventional wisdom is that a spread like that is insurmountable. Nevertheless: "He may collect his salary for another two years, but he has no political future," Conlin's Socialist challenger stated. And in many ways, she's right.

Sawant may not win a cushy leather seat at the city council dais this time around, but there’s no question that she won everything else: the spirit award, a dedicated base of Seattle progressives who are committed to helping her run again (and again, and again, if need be), and most importantly, the public debate. She framed the discussions that dominated both her own race and the mayoral race (such as raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour), forcing incumbent council members to at least feign allegiance to working-class voters instead of just the business bigwigs who routinely fund their reelection campaigns. Conlin may have out-fundraised Sawant two-to-one and had 16 years of name recognition from his tenure on the council, but voters are now quite aware that he’s also had few memorable legislative victories—and they’ll expect Conlin and his colleagues to prove their progressive bona fides before the next election. Not bad for an outspent outsider who turned Socialism from a pox to a pistol. Here’s how she did it.

For all the hype over her Socialist label, Sawant’s greatest strength has proven to be her focus on policy, putting forth a specific and relentlessly lefty agenda that helped her build momentum among union members and even some district Democrats—two denominations that normally vote en bloc for whomever their overlords recommend. She protested with striking fast-food workers. She waved signs with picketing taxi drivers. She got arrested while protesting bank foreclosures in South Park. She didn't do any of these actions to score political points—she’s an activist by nature, and these are the issues she cares about. In focusing on platforms instead of platitudes, she not only framed her race against Conlin—forcing him to run on the defensive, both with reactive mailers and talking points—but she also managed to inject her primary cause, a citywide $15 minimum wage, into the mayor’s race. In fact, last night Sawant vowed to run a $15/hour minimum wage initiative in Seattle in 2014.

During her campaign, she also:

• Campaigned for rent control. While Conlin has correctly noted that “we can’t do rent control” because it’s illegal at the state level, Sawant is smart enough to know that if legislators are going to change state law, it’s because Seattle’s leaders pressure them into it (and in the meantime, she wants to explore other ways to address the affordable housing crisis). Sawant put that issue back on the table.

• Proved that a true grassroots campaign can be successful in Seattle. Sawant raised around $110,000 from roughly 1,200 donors, for an average contribution size of about $87 (Conlin raised $238,196 with an average contribution size about $100 more than Sawant’s).

• Put a four-term incumbent on the defense. “A True Progressive Democratic Voice,” bleats one Conlin mailer. “Some talk change. Richard Conlin makes it happen,” bleats another. Throughout the election, Conlin was obligated to defend his sparse record.

• Advocated that developers build affordable housing in South Lake Union when buildings are constructed, not pay into a fund that kicks affordable housing down the road (and out of the neighborhood).

• Pushed for universal preschool in Seattle—an idea that’s been embraced by Tim Burgess, the council’s most conservative member.

• Changed the balance in Seattle by shifting the conversation to the left of the council’s most progressive member, Mike O’Brien. Sawant has made it impossible for centrists like Sally Bagshaw to continue to claim the progressive mantle, now that such a huge percentage of the city has proven that they’ll vote for a hard-left candidate. This helps ensure that, say, if Council Member Nick Licata tries to establish a city department to enforce progressive labor laws (like paid sick leave), he’ll be taken seriously by his colleagues.

Still think we’re crazy leftists? Even the Seattle Times has acknowledged Sawant’s total dominance this campaign season—albeit months behind the curve (hey, at least they saw the curve this time!). In declaring Sawant the “big winner” 10 days before the election, columnist Danny Westneat stated: “What’s most notable about Seattle politics this year is that nearly her entire agenda has, over the course of the campaign, been embraced by both candidates for mayor to lead the Northwest’s largest city.”

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Sawant’s campaign means that, following years of council members appealing to the downtown business agenda, for once incumbents will head into the 2015 election with a fear of being attacked from the left for their milquetoast agendas and suit-heavy donor list. Those attacks are warranted: Incumbent council members have already raised campaign contributions of almost $131,000 from the same set of familiar big-donor names—for races that won’t happen until 2015.

Some of her positions might place Sawant in the minority on the council, but the votes cast for her in Seattle prove she is not a lone voice shouting at the tide. She may not have won her push to get a plaque at city hall, but she’s changed the discussion, and that’s what matters most. She’s reminded Seattle what an issue-driven, grassroots campaign looks like.

And if you think this is the last you’ve heard from Kshama Sawant, then you haven’t been paying attention. "We are coming after Conlin in 2015," Sawant vowed last night. And chances are, on her home turf in the newly formed Capitol Hill voting district where both she and Conlin live, next time she'll win.