Socialist Kshama Sawant’s Win Signals New Openings for Political Change
The city of Seattle has long benefited from the fresh ocean breezes that flow in from Puget Sound. Now, a different kind of breeze is sweeping through the state of Washington. It’s the air of political change represented in economist Kshama Sawan’ts new position as the first elected socialist to the Seattle City Council.
Sawant, a member of AFT Local 1789, is a part-time economics instructor at Seattle Central Community College. In a dramatic upset, the independent candidate garnered some 93,000 votes last November to defeat long-time Democratic councilman Richard Conlin.
What’s remarkable about Sawant’s victory is that her campaign did not downplay her openly socialist politics. Just the opposite. As a socialist, she championed raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour and implementing a new “Millionaire’s Tax” on the very wealthy to expand funding for public services, including mass transit and education. In media interviews and elsewhere, she also made clear her support for unionizing low-paid service workers, rent control, support for women’s and minority rights, and other progressive causes.
A Grassroots Campaign
Significantly, the newly elected city council member, who began to make a name for herself locally during the Occupy Wall Street protests in 2011, had the backing of a majority of unions in the M.L. King County Labor Council. This included her own AFT local, as well as CWA Local 37083, AFSCME Local 1488, IBEW Local 46, and the American Postal Workers Union-Greater Seattle Local. (A two-thirds “super-majority” vote would have been required to earn the Labor Council’s official endorsement.)
It’s a sign of a changing political climate that an avowed socialist, a member of the Socialist Alternative organization, could win election to citywide office in a major American city. In fact, Sawant is the first socialist elected to city office in Seattle since Anna Louise Strong, who later earned fame as a writer, won election to the school board in 1916.
Not surprisingly, her election has generated quite the media buzz. Despite the local nature of the election, news reports of her election victory went worldwide, including coverage in her native India. Even at the Jan. 6, 2014 swearing-in ceremony for the new city government, which included inauguration of the city’s first gay mayor, Ed Murray, much of the news coverage centered on Sawant. The swearing-in included a record crowd for such an event, most of them Sawant supporters with more than 1,000 in attendance.
Sawant is cut from a different political cloth in other ways, too. With a salary of $120,000 a year, Seattle City Council members are among the highest paid elected city officials in the country. Sawant has pledged not to take more than the average Seattle income, donating the rest of her salary to social justice campaigns.
But beyond any demonstrative measures, Sawant’s election appears poised to give a concrete boost to progressive activism in Seattle. Buoyed by a grassroots, volunteer base of hundreds of supporters, Sawant is pledged to build a new grassroots Fight for 15 campaign to raise the minimum wage in Seattle. It’s a proposal that’s already won voter approval in nearby SeaTac, where Seattle’s international airport is located.
The new living wage campaign got underway at a packed January 12 organizing rally, where 300 plus supporters of the Fight for 15 initiative met at the Seattle Labor Temple. There plans were unfurled to educate and train a small army of activists to begin organizing what is described as Neighborhood and Campus Action Groups to win support for the proposal throughout Seattle. The goal is to hold a week of political events, marches, and rallies from March 7 to 15th, with a large mass demonstration planned for May 1.
Of course, there’s strong business opposition to this living wage proposal, and a fight ahead, but the fact that the new mayor has come out in favor of the raise (as well as three other council members) testifies to which way the winds of grassroots change are currently blowing in Seattle.
It’s a refreshing turn of events to see a dedicated, pro-union activist elected to an important city position. In no small part Sawant’s election is a reaction to the dismal reality of long declining real wages and benefits for many working Americans, with cutbacks in public services and education resources having devolved into a kind of default setting for bipartisan politics in the United States today.
As Sawant herself noted in her January 6 inauguration speech, “This city has made glittering fortunes for the super wealthy and for the major corporations that dominate Seattle’s landscape. At the same time, the lives of working people, the unemployed and the poor grow more difficult by the day. The cost of housing skyrockets, and education and healthcare become inaccessible.”
Where is the Economic Recovery?
As a teacher, Sawant wants to increase corporate taxes to ensure schools and colleges get all the money and resources they need. With corporate profits at record levels, this should be an obvious solution. Instead, most politicians talk as if austerity and cutbacks and “no new taxes” (by which is usually meant taxes on the super wealthy) are our only viable choices. Why? The economic “recovery” has benefited the very rich, but the rest of us—not so much. Sawant is reminding us that the country is not poor; it’s just that wealth is hoarded in fewer hands than ever before.
Will Sawant’s election prove to be the first sign of new opportunities for independent activist politics in other cities? That remains to be seen. For now, it is certainly a promising development. As Kraig Schwartz, membership chairman of AFT Local 1789, remarks in a recent Seattle Times op-ed, “Sawant is a smart, articulate, fresh voice for the 99 percent. Her campaign, and the activism it has brought to the fore, has already enlarged our political space, offering new ideas with hopes of bringing a more balanced power equation to our city and country.”
Indeed. The ground-level activism that swept Kshama Sawant into office reflects the desire by many to challenge the austerity mind-set that has come to narrowly define mainstream politics. Her campaign both as a candidate and now as an elected official instead puts its hopes in the twin forces of grassroots activism and independent political leadership to reshape the American political landscape. Most important, the political message of her election victory is that it is possible for ordinary working Americans to get organized and make this country a better, more prosperous place to live.
Originally published in The Advocate (Feb. 2014), newsletter of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) Local 1493 in San Mateo, California.