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.  font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:"Times New Roman";
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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 font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:"Times New Roman";
mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”>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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