During the 1,500-strong kick-off event to re-elect Socialist City Councilperson Kshama Sawant, the Green Party’s Jill Stein called her race “the next battle for Seattle.” Although it may have sounded like political hyperbole, Seattle’s City Council elections were exactly that. The elections pitted not only Socialist Sawant, but a number of other progressive candidates with far-reaching proposals on tenant rights, LGBTQ needs, affordable housing, unplugging cable monopolies and better mass transit against an all-out push to defeat them by corporate interests, especially those tied to the real estate industry. The elections were also a chance what effect the new district-based elections, which reduced the nine council at-large seats to two at-large and seven separate districts, would have on voter turnout and money spent.
Here are some of the major takeaways:
* Running as an independent is not only possible, but can be highly effective.
Elections, after all, are more than just the person with the best ideas wins. Resources, strategy and tactics, organizational strengths all matter. How did the Sawant campaign use these tools to win? First, organizational dominance. A local longstanding columnist, tallied the ground game that Sawant’s organization put together; “Over 600 active volunteers; over 178,000 phone calls; knocked on 90,000+ doors throughout the campaign, resulting in over 16,000 Voter IDs; 9,236 doors knocked on in the final weekend, and 7,500 the previous weekend.[i]”
Added to that is another element: political training. As volunteers were brought in, they were instructed thoroughly in the issues of the campaign, and the politics that lay beneath Kshama’s positions. They were paired with people who had prior outreach experience. They were encouraged to be knowledgeable and to engage politically with voters. All of that produced a litany of conversations at the door, which were studied carefully to further craft responses to voters’ questions and concerns. Paired with electronic tools that recorded campaign activity, the close attention to responses helped further identify likely supporters, who could be followed up on with more visits or calls.
* Identity politics as a campaign strategy has its limits
In order to beat Sawant, the corporate establishment knew it had to produce an opponent who liberal voters in the 3rd District could identify with. Using the time honored strategy of identity politics, they produced two candidates they thought had the necessary winning personal and professional characteristics.
The first was Rod Hearne, a gay candidate and former Executive Director of Equal Rights Washington, the largest statewide LGBTQ advocacy organization. With a high percentage of LGBTQ people residing on Capitol Hill in the heart of District 3, it seemed a plausible strategy. Unfortunately for them, it was quickly revealed that Hearne was lacking in both charisma and skills on the stump.
Midway through the primary season, another candidate emerged. Pamela Banks, a black woman largely credited with turning around a troubled Urban League office in Seattle, began to develop a network of favorable conservative press and donors. She ended up second in the primary race, with 38%, making her Sawant’s opponent in the general election. Given the high proportion of minority voters, the prominence of the Urban League, and her willingness to accept donors from any corporate individual, company or PAC, the elite figured they had found their giant killer.
The problem with this approach was no matter how much Banks protested she was not a captive of corporate interests, on position after position, she was unable to formulate a single position that did not mark her as their candidate. From rent control to homelessness, mass transit to protection for transsexuals, Banks gave the answers agreeable to the corporate mainstream. In the end, politics mattered, not identity.
* Megaphones beat telephones, or confrontational politics beat the “Seattle nice” model
Banks basic approach was that she could would be more effective, and bring more people together, by not being so confrontational in her opposition to other City Council members, or using Sawant’s movement-based tactics of rallies and demonstrations. Coupled with a claim that Sawant was hard to reach and only paid attention to her supporters, Banks hoped to portray herself as the reasonable candidate who could get more done through back channel negotiations. Hence her oft-quoted comment, “I’d rather use a telephone than a megaphone.”
The problem was that Sawant actually got more done in her two year tenure than most Council members accomplish in two terms, if at all. Preventing the Seattle Housing Authority from an outrageous 400% rent hike; opposing a slumlord that not only brought him over 200 housing code violation notices, but stopped him from raising the rents on his tenants; replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous People’s Day; championing the public safety and housing needs of Seattle’s transsexual community; stopping in its tracks a $100,000 pay raise for the then-current head of Seattle Public Utilities; and getting arrested on behalf of airport workers demonstrating on behalf of the Sea-Tac $15/hr. raise, just to name some of them. She was everywhere, and her campaign showed an acute understanding of how to use the media to maximum effect. In the process, Sawant polarized the City Council, forever killing off the “Seattle nice” approach of never seeming to directly oppose other elected officials.
* Running as a “left” Democrat can be riskier than running as an independent
One of the two city-wide races matched incumbent conservative Democrat Tim Burgess against Jon Grant, a strong progressive who was the former head of the Tenants Union. He took positions similar to Kshama on housing issues, and like her, refused corporate donations. But he chose to run as a Democrat, rather than as an independent, which meant he underwent the usual process of seeking endorsements and donations from Democratic district organizations and their members. Result? His opponent was endorsed by some districts, and Grant’s fund-raising efforts were not supplemented by the usual Democratic Party leadership money machine. Meanwhile corporate PACs rained money on his pro-business opponent. It is impossible to know what the results would have been had he run as an independent, perhaps as an ally of Kshama’s from the beginning. But it is clear that the perceived political wisdom of running as a Democrat is up for debate.
* District-based elections neither lowered the overall amount of money spent, nor increased voter turnout.
As one example, the hotly contested District 3 race between incumbent Socialist Kshama Sawant and Urban League president Pamela Banks drew in direct contributions of over $900,000! The main difference separating the two candidates was the source of the contributions, the number of donors, and in tandem with that, the average contribution size. Sawant refused any corporate donations, so her almost $500k was from over 3500 individual small donors, with an average donation of $120. Banks raised over $450k, largely from business interests, with 50% of her donors giving the maximum amount allowable of $700, for a total of 1400 donors donating an average of $261.
And turnout, despite district elections and despite important initiatives and levies also on the ballot, actually fell. Two years ago, turnout averaged 52%, whereas this year, it was just below 40%.
* Money still ruled in most cases.
Reform candidates Jon Grant, Lisa Herbold, Michael Maddux were all outspent by their opponents, who received both individual corporate donations and large amount of “independent” PAC money. These were all races that pit candidates who favored strong housing affordability measures, including echoing Sawant’s pitch for rent control and tenants’ rights. The real estate sector went all out to defeat them, and they succeeded. Hundreds of corporations and their leadership maxed out in $700 donations to their corporate candidates, amassing war chests of hundreds of thousands of dollars.
As part of this onslaught, “independent” PACs broke all records for spending in City Council elections. PACs spent over $200,000 to defeat tenants-rights advocate Jon Grant, who was running in one of the two open seats, against incumbent and conservative Tim Burgess, and progressive candidates Herbold and Maddux faced PAC spending of over $130,000 and $80,000 respectively. This likely influenced every race but the 3rd District, where Sawant was able to use her door-to-door volunteers and electronic media to oppose and expose the roots of a late Republican-linked PAC that spent $65,000 against her in the last two weeks of the race.
* Public Campaign Finance passes.
Perhaps the surprise of the evening was that a campaign finance measure that would offer $100 in vouchers for voters to give to the candidate of their choice breezed by with around a 60% approval rate. That’s high for any initiative that involved new taxes, let alone an untried method of public financing. It may be a sign of the electorate’s disgust and displeasure with corporate money in political campaigns, or of campaign finance methods in general. Either way, it could well impact the 2017 City Council races, where the two at-large candidates have to face re-election. Let’s hope so.