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The Improbable Victory of Kshama Sawant


Sunday was a well-deserved victory party.  Her challenger, Richard Conlin, a four-time incumbent with all the money of the 1% behind him, had officially conceded .  To celebrate the remarkable come-from-behind win, 300+ of the hard-core faithful – campaign volunteers, activists, veterans of the anti-war movement and other past struggles made some noise at a local union hall for our candidate, Kshama Sawant, a socialist with a 99% platform .  And she made sure we knew what the score was.  “The power lies in our hands – we make the change.”  The crowd responded with roars, cheers, whoops of joy.  For most of them understood that in this election, they’d overturned the Seattle electoral model of corporate toadies masquerading as nice-guy liberals.

Seattle is a one party town if ever there was one, the blue center of Washington State.  There are tried and true ways to get elected here, invariably by making yourself useful to those in power while mouthing some progressive platitudes.  There are two consistent liberal council members, but the model of consensus voting by the council keeps them polite in the face of corporate power.  A hearing here, a contested vote there, and business as usual rolls on – until now.

But now we have a socialist as City Councilperson, and she’s not beholden to any of the usual suspects.  Not Paul Allen and his aptly named Vulcan, not Burlington Northern Sante Fe, the railroad promising 18 coal trains a day, not commercial construction giants like Wright Runstad, all major Conlin contributors.  No, the only people this Kshama Sawant is beholden to are the poorly paid, the foreclosed, the unemployed, and the overly indebted.  All of who helped her to smash the conventional rules of Seattle politics, and gain a seat on the Seattle City Council with a current vote tally of 51%-49%, despite the election night predictions of defeat by her opponent and the corporate press.

So how did she do this, and what can we learn from it?  Here’s some of the best take-aways:

In a Democratic Party-run town, you can successfully run against the Democrats. 

This seems odd, almost counterintuitive.  Since it’s a one party town, you would assume they’re stronger, not weaker.  Yet Kshama defied that wisdom not once, but twice.  And how did she do it?  By simply pointing out in a one-party town, that party must by its nature serve the interests of the corporate elite that runs the place – and then proving it.  She stated  “the Democratic Party machines…totally run these cities in the interests of the rich and powerful.”…declaring Conlin to be a “corporate-pandering politician.”  Which in fact, as the campaign wore on, became increasingly obvious.  Conlin garnered donations from every single corporate real estate interest, downtown law firm, commercial construction magnate, railroad honcho, and so on.  And the more money he raised from them, the more her central argument was made flesh. In the final month of the campaign, with corporate cash tapped out, and small donors surging for Kshama, she actually raised more money than he did.  Which brings us to the second lesson:

Defense wins battles – offense wins wars.

Other candidates have campaigned on social justice issues, some quite good.  But for the most part, they’ve been defending the political turf they’re given.   More money for homeless shelters. Tax breaks for developers so they might build a smidgen more of affordable housing.  A budget that doesn’t cut social services too much.  A little better environmental policy, reinforced with carrots not sticks. Making the current economic and political realities a bit more palatable through Potemkin-style public input exercises.

Kshama blew right through that by setting her own agenda, and then going on the offensive with it every chance she got.  A $15/hour minimum wage.  A tax on millionaires.  Rent control.  A platform that was thought to be “unrealistic” and “too hard left for Seattle.” She didn’t care, she didn’t budge, she didn’t moderate her platform, and every debate she had with Conlin, every speech, every media article was laser focused on that platform, especially the $15/hr.  It paid off.  By the end of the campaign, Conlin was forced to at least pretend he was in favor of it, and, incredibly, both mayoral candidates had to sign on as well.

Traditional endorsements no longer make much difference. 

Conlin got the usual endorsements that all incumbents usually get: Democratic Party district committees, the Seattle Times, several labor unions, and “big green” organizations like the Washington Conservation Voters, along with a raft of endorsements from other elected officials.  Kshama got two union locals, and the Stranger, a community newspaper that appeals to the young, the radical, and the gay.  But like sapping a castle, the longer the campaign went on, the more traditional support was undermined.  First came the defection of some key Democrats, people who had spent decades running and supporting the machinery of the Democratic Party at the district level.  Nor were they cowed when Conlin’s allies cried foul.  Then  the endorsement vote at King County Labor Council , normally a shoo-in for liberal incumbents, came up with a 28-21 vote for her – not enough for the 2/3 endorsement, but enough to make yet another set of headlines, and prove Conlin’s impotence.  By election night, nobody was predicting anything but a very close race.

Money only gets you so far. 

Although Conlin still outspent Kshama in the general election, his advantage faded as she was able to use the combination of a small-donor $120,000 war chest and massive media attention to keep her campaign front and center, and Conlin on the defensive.  If you’ve been marked as a servant of the corporations as he was, at a certain point, paying for another mailing only reminds people of who you really are.

Occupy is dead; Long Live Occupy!

We all remember after the encampments ended that the mainstream politicians and press gloated that the Occupy activists had no lasting impact, fading away like dew in the morning sun.  Apparently not.  In Seattle, these are the people who formed the base not only for the Sawant campaign, but a host of other fronts as well, including work against coal trains and anti-foreclosure work.  They may be working on several issues at once, but they’re plenty busy.

Party organization tied to mass enthusiasm wields results

As the campaign wore on, several analysts tried to point out either that her steadily mounting support had nothing to do with her organization, Socialist Alternative, or that she was popular in spite of it.  The truth is somewhat more complicated.  On the one hand, Sawant ran on a platform that any working person could identify with – you certainly didn’t have to be a socialist to support a $15/hr minimum wage, rent control, or taxing millionaires.  And she used every bit of good will she could generate among the broad ranks of political liberals, ordinary trade unionists, and youth.

At the same time,  having a party behind her enabled her campaign to be well organized and disciplined at its core.  Key SA members held important positions in the campaign, and performed well in the face of steep odds early on, pulling in volunteers, strategically using electronic media, and soliciting early donations.   That core became 50, then 100, and eventually 200 + activists of all stripes.  But the early SA core was at least partly responsible for that.

The Struggle Ahead

So now what?  Well, here’s what’s not going to happen.  The new Mayor has said he would take action on the demand for $15/hr – by the end of his four-year term.  Nobody’s waiting for that, especially given that his “transition team” has, at its core, the Seattle 1%.  Kshama told them she’s happy to write the ordinance for it. They’re planning on studying the issue.  Yeah, thanks.

What’s actually is going to happen is an historic mass campaign for a $15/hr minimum wage in Seattle.  Starting off with a rally this Spring that will be the kick-off for an initiative, passed in November of this year, by  vote of the people.  This will take a lot of work, by a lot of people.  As good as the volunteers that elected Kshama were, we’ll need ten times that.  The people that run this town will throw everything at us they have.  From personal attacks on Kshama, to similar sounding counter-initiatives, to pleas of bankruptcy by every small businessperson they can lay their hands on.  Because they understand the stakes.  Which is not only paying the thousands of working poor in this town something close to a living wage.  It’s something even more important.  Which is having the working people decide what should happen, and when.  See you at the rally.

Tom Barnard has been an activist and organizer in Seattle for many years, especially the movement against the war in Iraq.  He donated time and money to the Sawant campaign.

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