Originally published in the Central Circuit.
Remember the face on the cover of this magazine. This is the woman who has changed Seattle politics.
Seattle Central economics professor and avowed Marxist Kshama Sawant has mounted a credible campaign for City Council position #2. Running against 16-year incumbent Richard Conlin, Sawant is already the first socialist to make it into the Seattle City Council general election since 1991. Against a backdrop of rising inequality and social unrest, the very fact that Sawant might win signals an unprecedented shift to the Left in Seattle politics.
Raised in Mumbai, India, Sawant says she grew up in a largely apolitical, middle-class family. “We weren’t facing any dire problems of homelessness or starvation. At the same time, we weren’t rich,” she says. After getting her BS in computer engineering, she immigrated to the US in 1996. Motivated to understand the causes of poverty and inequality, she began a PhD program in economics at North Carolina State University in 2000, where, according to her advisor, she was “the star of the class.” In 2006 she moved to Seattle and began her involvement in radical politics. “When I came to Seattle, I started going to all these activist meetings and protests,” she says. In 2008 she became involved in Socialist Alternative (SA), a minority political party based on the ideas of Karl Marx. She recalls hearing an SA member speak about “capitalism and the need to fight for socialism, and I remember hearing that and thinking, ‘That’s exactly what I’ve been looking for…Now my real work as an activist can begin.’”
She completed her doctoral thesis in 2009 and began teaching at Seattle Central in fall of 2011. This was during the height of the Occupy Wall Street movement, which practices civil disobedience in protest against income- and wealth-inequality. Through SA, Sawant became an organizer with Occupy Seattle, which had established an encampment at Westlake Plaza. “We were under constant attack from–not constant attack, but constant intimidation and harassment from the Seattle police,” she says. After police ousted Occupiers from Westlake, the encampment regrouped at Seattle Central’s campus, where Sawant recalls that Occupiers camped, held teach-ins, and cooked meals in a makeshift kitchen. She speaks of faculty support for the Occupiers: “The moving of the encampment to Seattle Central would not have been possible had the teacher’s union not stood against pressure from the administration, which was dead-set against the encampment.”
More recently, Sawant has been making waves within the electoral process. Last year she surprised everyone by taking 29% of the vote in her run against Frank Chopp, the Speaker of the House in the WA legislature. This year, she and SA have set their sights on the November 5th Seattle City Council election. Her grassroots campaign garnered 35% of the vote in August’s primary election.
(Disclosure: this reporter has volunteered for the current Sawant campaign.)
Her opponent for City Council position #2 is Richard Conlin, a 16-year incumbent. When asked in interview to describe the main planks of his campaign, Conlin said, “The main thing that I’m working on right now is transportation and land-use. We want to make sure that we get the kind of housing that people need. We need to continue to improve our transit, as well as maintain our roads and bridges. Education: we are working toward universal preschool for all three and four year olds.” Conlin’s campaign is backed by local Democrats, and has garnered endorsements from the Seattle Times, the Sierra Club, and several unions. A spokesperson for SEIU 775 said in interview, “Richard has been a strong supporter of long-term care workers for a long time.” In debates with Sawant, Conlin has emphasized his competence at building consensus and operating within the city government, where he is, as his city council blog proclaims, “Making It Work.”
In a September interview, Conlin declined to directly answer a question about whether Sawant is competent, saying that voters should look at her record and decide for themselves. However, he has more recently suggested that Sawant has shown a “lack of civic engagement” because she did not register to vote immediately after becoming a US citizen in 2010. (See The Stranger’s take on this “smear campaign” here.) Other city council candidates hold different views. Albert Shen, a local entrepreneur and Seattle Colleges trustee who is running against incumbent Mike O’Brian, said, “I think she’s running a great race. It’s always good to have people from the community colleges, as far as being involved in local politics. My hat is off to her.” Sam Bellomio, a populist challenger to incumbent Sally Bagshaw, said “I want a citizen to win this [race], and Sawant is a pretty good citizen. She’s been involved actively.”
While Conlin hardly mentions Sawant, his reticence is not reciprocated. She and The Stranger (which is strongly backing Sawant) have attacked Conlin as a “greenwashing” puppet for corporate interests. Conlin’s donation disclosure report is brimming with legally-maximum donations from real estate developers, venture capitalists, and large corporations such as Comcast and Microsoft–and BNSF, the railroad company that wants to ship coal from Montana and Wyoming to China via Seattle. VICE reports that the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal, to be located just north of Bellingham, would double US exports of “the world’s dirtiest fossil fuel” with the help of nine mile-and-a-half-long, coal-dust-leaking trains per day. Sawant, in addition to accepting $0 in corporate donations, has pledged to fight the coal train, even to the point of putting her body on the tracks. Conlin’s website appears to make no mention of the train.
Other criticisms Sawant and The Stranger levy against Conlin include his decision to have the city attorney sue to keep Seattleites from voting on a citizen referendum relating to the contentious deep-bore Alaskan Way tunnel, and the fact that he was the sole vote against a 2011 ordinance guaranteeing sick-leave to Seattle workers. Conlin says that he voted against the ordinance because he “thought we could do better” by making the law apply more evenly and by reducing its red tape. Sawant also chastises Conlin for voting in favor of a 2010 ordinance that would have allowed police to issue $50 tickets to panhandlers engaging in “intimidating” conduct, effectively “criminalizing panhandling,” she says. In interview, Conlin described the ordinance as allowing police to stop aggressive behavior without going so far as an arrest. “We’re not talking about people who are sitting there asking for money. We’re talking about people who are being aggressive and threatening people,” Conlin said. However, as Dominic Holden reported in The Stranger, the law did not require a complaint before a ticket was issued, essentially letting police decide for themselves what counted as “aggressive and threatening.” Further, the Seattle Human Rights Commission found that because the poor and homeless are unable to pay the $50 and aren’t entitled to representation by an attorney to contest tickets in civil court, the law could funnel poor and homeless people into “a multi-step criminal process.”
Perhaps the biggest bone to be picked in this race is the minimum wage. Literally marching alongside fast-food workers in a nationwide campaign, Sawant has called for a $15/hour minimum wage in Seattle, plus the right for workers to unionize (which is technically already protected, but rarely enforced). The proposal is controversial: Washington already has the highest state minimum wage in the country at $9.19/hour, though California will soon raise theirs to $10 and San Francisco’s is already $10.55. (Switzerland, by contrast, will vote next month on a proposal to limit CEOs’ salaries to a maximum of 12 times the pay of their companies lowest-paid employees.) Critics say that a $15 minimum wage will kill jobs by making labor too expensive for employers. Advocates of the raise point out that the current minimum wage falls below the poverty line, so that state welfare services effectively subsidize low-wage businesses, and that productivity and profits have risen for decades while wages have stagnated. They also argue that raising the minimum wage will boost the economy by increasing consumer spending, since low-wage workers spend a larger proportion of their income than high-wage workers. SeaTac has already put the $15 minimum wage on its November ballot. Conlin says he supports higher wages, but has explicitly declined to endorse a $15 minimum wage.
Other issues central to Sawant’s campaign are rent control, a millionaire’s tax to fund education and mass transit, and police brutality. Sawant has proposed rent control as part of a response to soaring rental prices which threaten to price the working class out of the city. Municipal rent control is illegal in Washington, but Sawant and supporters point out that gay marriage and marijuana were also illegal until recently. Outlawed, too, is a municipal income tax, but Sawant says that the city council can use its authority to levy a “privilege tax,” to tax the super-wealthy in order to fund education and transit. (When asked whether the city does indeed have this tax authority, the Department of Finance and Administrative Services replied to the Central Circuit that they could not “give an advisory opinion” on the subject.)
The city’s police department has come under heavy criticism in recent years for brutality: in 2011, the US Department of Justice found widespread excessive use of force among SPD’s officers, and earlier this year The Stranger’s Dominic Holden was threatened by city and county police for taking photographs of them. While courts, the Department of Justice, and the Mayor’s office have been haggling with one another over how to address this, Sawant has proposed an independent citizen’s review board with the power to hire and fire police. Sawant says this would put Seattle residents in control of their own police, though Councilmember Mike O’Brien has said that “elected positions [are] largely volunteer because the pay is so low…I worry about a system where we’re gonna rely on elected volunteers to do something as important as that.”
Sawant has won the endorsements of anti-war activists Noam Chomsky and Cindy Sheehan, SCCC student and labor activist Carlos Hernandez (see pg. !!), and several unions, though not as many as Conlin.
Beyond any particular issue, though, Sawant’s campaign is significant for bringing criticism of capitalism–a form of economic organization, based on private property backed by state force, that rose to power during the Industrial Revolution–into Seattle’s mainstream. Regardless of the outcome of this election, Sawant has changed this city’s politics. Before her campaign, a $15 minimum wage was a progressive pipe dream; now, city council candidates are scrambling for excuses for not supporting the increase, and the mayor is asking whether $15 is high enough. By concentrating on systemic inequality and the palpable influence of corporate money on politics, Sawant has redefined the terms of Seattle’s political debates.
As a state-funded publication, the Central Circuit is prohibited from endorsing individual candidates–so we won’t. But it is within our purview to encourage student civic engagement (see pg. !!), and the importance of this election cannot be understated. Sawant has made critical discussion of the relationship between private property and inequality more publicly acceptable than it’s been in almost a century, and she’s built her campaign around the interests of the working poor and middle class. Whether you agree with Sawant or not, she has changed the city you live in.