No More Mr. Nice Guy

The Jess Spear campaign for WA State House had been hopeful. Volunteers were growing. Money was coming in at a strong enough pace to pay for door hangers and flyers. Door knocking, especially in working class neighborhoods, was getting a good reception. Neighborhood corner standouts were enthusiastic and well attended. Though no one inside Socialist Alternative was uttering the word “win” it seemed nonetheless that momentum was building, and her 20% primary total would increase. But on election night, Rep. Frank Chopp, the Speaker of the House in the Washington Legislature, easily defeated her, and even lowered her tally to 16.5%.

So what happened? First, let’s call out four obvious factors, and then do a deeper dive on a couple of strategic elements.

Chopp struck early and hard

In the last legislative election, Chopp virtually ignored Kshama Sawant’s run against him, not realizing the threat an authentic working class candidate could pose. He paid for it, with a tally not seen against a sitting Democrat of his stature in decades. The lesson was hammered home when Kshama took out 3-term incumbent Richard Conlin after he ran an old-school campaign that at times made him look like he was sleep-walking.

In this race, Chopp took his opponent very seriously. He locked up endorsements early, including some union locals that Sawant had received in her City Council race. He spent lavishly, putting out a series of early mailers. He got the requisite media attention and endorsements, including the Stranger, which had endorsed Sawant. Whenever possible, he tried to paint himself as progressive, who had worked for affordable housing and other issues dear to progressives. And he made sure he stayed out of the clinches with Spear, avoiding one-on-one debates whenever possible.

The result was a primary vote of roughly 80% for Chopp. That figure is not necessarily discouraging to a Left accustomed to being shut out of serious contention, but for the general public, the message was received as “Spear is a nice candidate who can’t win.” Broad–based momentum failed to build after the primary. Chopp did not let up in the general either, doing more mailers, spending more money, doing everything he could in the two debates he was forced to take part in to minimize his challenger.

Media attention

The media defined her early on as an earnest young progressive climate scientist, long on ideas, but short on ways to bring them to fruition. The sharp element of class vs. class that was so prevalent in the Sawant election was a story that had to be built by the campaign against the prevailing media image, not with them.

The endorsement of Chopp by the Stranger, which had earlier endorsed Sawant, hit hard. Despite an almost incoherent Editorial Board endorsement of “we don’t like Chopp but vote for him anyway”, the failure to endorse Spear, and the depiction of her as a non-serious candidate gave voters pause.

Unity among the Democratic Party and its labor adherents

No major Democrats on the state or local level broke with their organizations and endorsed Jess. No major unions endorsed her, and the few locals that did couldn’t contribute much money or muscle. In a way, this is totally unsurprising, as one of the benefits of being a power at the state level is the ability to enforce discipline and call in favors, which Chopp certainly did.

This is also more than just a case of issuing orders. In the Sawant campaign for City Council, the defection of well-known Democrats like Jeanne Legault and others, labor’s assistance to Kshama or their partial refusal to endorse Conlin were important. Those acts essentially “gave permission” for voters to break from automatically vote for Democrats and consider the election on its own merits. Spear had no such assistance. In fact, Councilman Nick Licata, an ally and endorser of Sawant, endorsed and even did robo-calls for Chopp.

Low Voter Turnout

Voter turnout was historically low all over the country, with records set from Hawaii to Vermont. Only one third of registered voters voted nationally. But what is even more striking is who voted, and who didn’t. Overall, an older, whiter, more conservative electorate decided the election. An NBC exit poll found voters under 30 made up 19% of the electorate in 2012 but only 12% this year. At the same time, voters 60 or older increased from 25% to 37% of the electorate. As Socialist Alternative pointed out: “The overwhelming sentiment among more progressive workers nationally and in Seattle was a fear of a Republican victory, while at the same time being disgusted and disillusioned with Obama and the Democrats…In Seattle, this went along with a strong desire to see the Democrats take back control of the Washington state Senate which reinforced a tendency to vote Democratic down the line.”

Now let’s look at some of the less obvious issues.

What’s the message?

Rent control? Oil trains? Is she a climate scientist who happens also to believe in affordable housing? Or a working class candidate who happens to be a climate scientist? This may seem like splitting hairs, but it’s not. The early media depiction as youthful but naive climate scientist made it difficult to clearly define her message as working-class warrior who was aiming at rent control. The campaign was unable to bring a laser-focused message. This was a problem Sawant’s campaign never faced.

What change can be expected?

Kshama made it clear that there was one change that she would work for if elected, and that could happen: a $15/hr minimum wage. The voters believed in that, believed she could deliver it, and it gave thousands of voters who would normally ignore a socialist a very practical reason to vote for her.

The Spear campaign focus on rent control was necessarily different. There was no way anyone could expect a Spear victory would result in any practical efforts towards rent control at the state level, nor could there be local progress as long as the state law prohibiting it existed. All her opponents had to do was add a few doubts about the efficacy of rent control as it is currently practiced, and that approach was blunted. Voters are upset about rising rents, but not willing to back general opposition with a newcomer to politics unless they can see a path forward.

All politics is local

We live in a neighborhood, we live in a city; we don’t live in a state. If people ask you where you are from when traveling, do you answer “Washington” or “Seattle”? Olympia and the Legislature is a faraway place for a lot of people, and it is expected by many that politicians “down there” are far removed from ordinary voters’ concerns. This can translate into voter apathy on candidates, unless they are well known incumbents like Chopp.

The failure of the Boeing anti-corporate messaging

Beyond the typical anti-corporate messaging that goes on in progressive circles, the Spear campaign has a poster boy for corporate greed and politicians willing to assist it: the $8.7 billion dollar tax break that Boeing got from a special session of the Legislature, which Chopp helped stage manage. On top of that, since the passage of that measure, ostensibly passed to create and retain jobs, Boeing eliminated a total of 6,000 jobs directly, and probably induced several hundred more amongst their subcontractors. How could that fail to generate outrage?

But it didn’t, except among those already opposed. It generated no new headlines, no special union support for Spear. From my direct experience at door knocking, it was not greeted among ordinary voters as an outrage, nor Chopp’s shepherding it as a betrayal. Sure, among some, it was positive proof Chopp was in the pocket of Boeing, but that’s hardly news for any Olympia politician. It was acknowledged, people didn’t necessarily like it, but frankly weren’t up in arms. Possible reasons abound. It was past history. It directly attacked blue-collar industrial workers, whose presence in Chopp’s district is minimal. But mainly it was typical of Boeing and the Legislature, who have danced this dance many times before, which eliminated any emotional resonance it might have had among ordinary voters, and did not bring fresh forces into battle.

This does not mean that it shouldn’t have been a major theme. What it does suggest is that the way to make attacks like this more effective is to tie it to a very specific demand, like a measure that would roll back the tax hike, or something that strikes directly at the corporation’s bottom line. The demand, not the outrage itself, then becomes the main vehicle, and one that can potentially get allies on board, and one that voters will see is something that can win if they become involved. Ideology has only so much attraction to those outside of its frame. Specific policy, on the other hand, can appeal to a much broader swath of voters.

So now what?

Democratic Party leaders, centrists, and corporate leaders of all types are probably quite gleeful.   They think those damn lefties were crushed. They will no doubt use this to claim that that Spear or any other potential radical candidate is too outside the mainstream, and unelectable. And that will be the opening salvo to take out the real thorn in their side, Councilmember Sawant, in the 2015 City Council races, painting her “too radical” while they back mainstream candidates that will allow them to get back to business as usual.

Good luck with that, but don’t hold your breath.

First, Kshama has a proven track record of doing exactly what she said she was going to do. The $15/hr minimum wage victory pretty much settled that. She has forced a number of other pro-corporate practices into the public eye, from her defeating the $100k pay raise to an incompetent Public Utility Director to spotlighting an annual taxpayer-paid retreat between several City Council members and other local politicians and Washington’s corporate1%. She is enormously popular in her district, by a roughly 2-1 margin, and she is just getting going on her People’s Budget platform. And then there’s her support and assistance to housing activists who are taking on the Seattle Housing Authority’s “Stepping Forward (off a cliff)” proposal.

Second, when presented an opportunity, Seattle voters backed initiatives with a pronounced progressive, working-class agenda. Increased funding for mass transit passed with almost 60% support, and pre-school funding was widely supported. And despite the National Rifle Association running a confusing alternative, Washington State voters approved an initiative to strengthen background checks, the first time gun control measures have passed in a popular vote.

Third, if you think you’ve seen the last of Jess Spear, think again. The truth is, she did the best she could for a first-time candidate, and probably made less than the usual rookie mistakes. Next year the 2015 City Council elections provide another opportunity for independent candidates to raise working class issues in a race where, because of the introduction of districts, every single City Council member must run for office. Including, the very nice but really, really, due to retire Jean Godden. Guess whose district Spear lives in?

And guess what else? You know all those Spear campaign people that rang doorbells, passed out leaflets, waved signs, manned tables, phone banked, etc.? They’re not going anywhere, and they’re definitely not going home depressed to sit on their couches, eat Twinkies and watch reruns of “Two and a Half Men.” Nope, they will be out in force to back independent candidates in 2015. They may be feeling a little morose, but they are definitely not cowed. My guess is they might even be looking for a little payback next year.

Two looming questions

The Chopp/Spear race proves once and for all that as far as the Dems are concerned, it’s no more Mr. Nice Guy. They are going to throw everything they have at Sawant, Spear if she runs, or anyone else with the temerity to question their one-party dominance. That means they are going to spend lots and lots of money. Independent candidates who don’t take corporate contributions are already at a disadvantage monetarily. So how many independent candidates can realistically run with the limited resources available?

Second, and more importantly, what’s the issue(s)? A host of choices exist: affordable housing, homelessness, police reform, the budget, funding of mass transit, etc. are on the plate. Which one can provide the best vehicle for independent candidates to run? Which one provides the largest opportunity for working class people to take up politics, to join in struggle, to become activists? Which issue can generate enough ferment to build a movement that can present a chance for a clear win? Because that next opportunity exists. This is, after all, the city that passed the first $15/hr minimum wage. And we’re just getting started.

Tom Barnard lives in Seattle and volunteered for Spear campaign.