SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 171 September 2013

Seattle socialist election breakthrough

In the August primary election for Seattle City Council, Socialist Alternative candidate Kshama Sawant won a stunning 35% of the vote in a three-way race against two Democratic Party candidates. Over 44,000 people voted for Kshama, more votes than the incumbent Seattle mayor or any of his opponents.

A majority of primary voters voted against 16-year Democratic incumbent Richard Conlin. Despite a massive fund-raising advantage and name recognition, he received less than 48% of the vote. The remaining votes went to Kshama and Brian Carver, Democrat (and Amazon manager). Kshama Sawant will move on to the general election campaign, facing a vulnerable Conlin in a two-way race.

This follows on the heels of her first election campaign last year, when she received over 29%, almost 21,000 votes, running against the Democratic Washington State House speaker Frank Chopp. That was one of the highest votes for an independent socialist candidate in decades.

With her clarion call for a citywide $15 an hour minimum wage, rent control, and a tax on millionaires to fund mass transit and education, Kshama had been written off as "too hard left for Seattle" by The Seattle Times, the region’s largest daily newspaper, and portrayed as a fringe underdog by other corporate media. In defiance of the corporate punditry, the race has been catapulted into a serious contest between Sawant and Conlin. The flurry of media coverage following election night demonstrates the shake-up that has occurred.

Tom Barnard, a long-time Seattle political commentator wrote: "Certainly, the facts themselves are amazing. But what happened conceptually was even more revolutionary, if you will excuse that word applied to the run of a socialist. For what Kshama did was to simply overturn the common wisdom of how to succeed in local elections in general and City Council races in particular. She took what were viewed as two immutable political laws [the need for big money and Democratic Party endorsements] and essentially threw them out the window… It’s nothing short of an earthquake… Kshama has shown a new path for independent candidates who directly advance working people’s interests and issues".

The significance of the primary result is even greater given the context of a low voter turnout (34%) and a primary electorate which is significantly more conservative and higher-income than in general elections – the most unfavourable terrain for left-wing and socialist candidates.

Kshama Sawant’s working-class message and bold campaign for an alternative to corporate politics has had an electrifying effect. "A majority of workers and young people face an increasingly unaffordable city. Most are disgusted by the endless parade of politicians who play with progressive rhetoric at election time, then pander to big corporations and the super-rich while in office", she said. "It is a scandal that Seattle council members pay themselves $120,000 a year, second only to Los Angeles. Meanwhile, the majority of the workforce in the city struggles with low pay". She has pledged that, as a council member, she will only take the average worker’s wage, and donate the rest to building social justice movements.

When Conlin launched his political career he laid claim to progressive and green credentials, yet in his 16 years in power he has been consistently pro-corporate, with a long record of advocating for billionaire real estate developers like Paul Allen. He was recently the sole city council vote against paid sick leave for Seattle workers.

He has presided over an exponential rise in rental costs, and publicly argued that affordable housing for low-income workers should be pushed to the fringes of the city. His record on the homeless is also abominable – he has piled obstacles in the path of providing shelters and voted to criminalise panhandling. Kshama called out Conlin on these points and more throughout the primary, using them to illustrate the rotten pro-corporate record of Seattle’s Democratic Party politicians and the need for workers and youth to organise their own independent movements and political campaigns.

However, it was not only the campaign message which led to her success. The campaign kept up a constant and visible presence at Seattle area protests. "If there’s a working-class protest somewhere in Seattle, Socialist Alternative council candidate Kshama Sawant always seems to be there", was how The Stranger (Seattle’s second-largest circulation newspaper) summed it up.

Sawant posters were plastered throughout the city, and 25,000 leaflets were distributed. Thousands of doors were knocked on, along with street corner tabling and phone banking. Over 100 people played an active role as volunteers in one capacity or another. Kshama refused to take any corporate money, instead relying on the support of workers and left-wing activists, raising $26,000, mainly from donations of $25 or less.

Kshama was also endorsed by The Stranger, four Seattle unions representing over 9,000 workers (AFT Local 1789, IBEW Local 46, AFSCME/WFSE Local 1488, and CWA Local 37083), the Green Party of Seattle, the Transit Riders Union, and the Freedom Socialist Party, as well as many prominent community activists.

Calvin Pope, Socialist Alternative


The challenge in Minneapolis

Alongside other Green Party endorsed city council candidates, on 12 August, Ty Moore filed to stand for election for the 9th Ward in Minneapolis in what appears to be a six-way race. Ty, a member of Socialist Alternative (CWI supporters in the USA), said: "This election will come down to maintaining the status quo [by voting Democrat] or supporting our socialist and green challenge to politics as usual. People are fed up with the DFL [state-level Democrats] letting the Chamber of Commerce and downtown corporations dominate city politics. It looks more and more like Ward 9 voters will surprise many by electing the first socialist to city council in decades".

The new 9th Ward is widely considered the most progressive in Minneapolis, with a strong independent streak opening space for candidates to the left of the DFL to succeed. "We’re running to win. We’ve built the strongest volunteer base in this race, with over 75 active supporters canvassing, phone-banking, organising concerts, house parties, and a host of other activities", said campaign manager Kelly Bellin. "With nearly 150 yard signs up, our campaign is by far the most visible in the ward, and we are on pace to meet our fundraising target of $30,000".

"I’ve been organising other community leaders behind Ty’s campaign because we believe he will fight to ensure working people have a voice in City Hall", said Ward 9 resident, Veronica Mendez, executive director of the Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en Lucha, who led the strike of low-wage immigrant workers who clean Target stores in July. "Ty Moore is clear that we need to build long-term social movements that go beyond any one candidate to make the changes we seek".

Shortly after Ty Moore began his campaign in February, he was arrested while participating at a civil disobedience action protesting foreclosures outside Wells Fargo Home Mortgage, alongside leaders of the Service Employees International Union (one of the biggest and the fastest growing trade unions in the US), Minnesotans for a Fair Economy, and Occupy Homes MN. If elected, Ty has pledged to accept the wage of the average Ward 9 resident instead of the $80,000 salary which city councillors pay themselves, donating the rest to social justice work.

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