A socialist on the Seattle City Council?

Kathryn McGhee reports on a strong socialist election campaign underway in Seattle.

Kshama SawantKshama Sawant

KSHAMA SAWANT is a revolutionary socialist who is shaking up politics in Seattle with her campaign for a City Council seat. The Socialist Alternative candidate is still considered the underdog in a two-way race against 16-year incumbent Richard Conlin, but Sawant has shifted the political discussion in Seattle and given people looking for an alternative to the status quo something to get excited about.

Sawant is an organizer with Socialist Alternative, an immigrant woman of color, a participant in Occupy Seattle and other struggles, and an economics instructor at Seattle Central Community College. She is well known and respected as an activist in the city. Her strong commitment to working class and social struggle has struck a chord with people, as has her critique of the pro-business, anti-worker policies of local political leaders.

It helps that she's running against Conlin, who represents so much that's wrong with the local political and business establishment.

Conlin began his time on the City Council during the previous century as a Green Party member known for progressive stands. "But over the arc of his 16-year term," wrote Seattle's alternative newspaper The Stranger, "Conlin's base became the wealthy figures that lobby city hall, and Conlin himself became among the council's most bullish advocates to build more freeways, scuttle transit spending, and impose laws that penalize the poor."

Conlin was the only City Council member to vote against a 2011 ordinance guaranteeing paid sick leave. That's about all you need to know about him to know he's no friend of the working class.

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EVEN THOUGH Sawant was outspent by Conlin in the three-way primary race in August, she won 35 percent of the vote, compared to 48 percent for Conlin. The biggest reason for Sawant's success has been the enthusiasm of left-wing volunteers who have built campaign rallies, talked to people in the streets and neighborhoods, and covered Seattle with neon "Vote Sawant" posters.

According to a mid-October appeal for funds, the Sawant campaign has raised $70,000 and hopes for another $50,000--by contrast, the Conlin campaign had already banked $183,000 in campaign funds by late September.

But Sawant's message of "making Seattle Affordable For All" seems to hold more value for residents. The campaign has tapped into the discontent so many people in Seattle feel toward mainstream politicians who offer no solution to the growing problems of out-of-control rental costs, lack of quality public transportation, low wages for workers, and overall lack of support for working class families.

The sentiment for Sawant was evident at a King County Labor Council meeting in mid-October, where--despite a previous vote to support Conlin--28 delegates voted for a resolution to endorse Sawant, versus 21 against. That margin fell just short of a required two-thirds majority for the council to formally endorse a candidate, but it was "a very strong signal of the impact the Sawant campaign has had within the labor movement," said campaign manager Ramy Khalil.

According to the campaign, Sawant has won the endorsement of six local unions--International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 46, the American Postal Workers Union's greater Seattle local, American Federation of Teachers Local 1789, Washington Federation of State Employees Locals 1488 and 304, and Communications Workers of America Local 37083--along with the Transit Riders Union and other activists.

Representatives of the Seattle Education Association singled out Sawant as the only City Council candidate they would send a letter of support to, because of her call for a tax on the rich to fund education.

The mainstream media's recognition of the campaign has given Sawant even more momentum. The Stranger made "The Case for Kshama Sawant" in a feature article that called the socialist candidate "the real deal": "Sawant offers voters a detailed policy agenda, backed up by a coherent economic critique and a sound strategy for moving the political debate in a leftward direction."

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STRANGELY, SOME of the commentary in the Seattle media has emphasized that Sawant's political platform isn't all that radical after all.

It is true that the issues Sawant emphasizes--support for the Fight for 15 demand of a $15-an-hour minimum wage, transit expansion, more affordable housing, taxing the rich, blocking coal trains and increasing civilian oversight of the police--are embraced by many working-class people in Seattle.

But these positions certainly aren't commonplace in mainstream local politics, even in a city with a progressive reputation. If conventional Democratic politicians like Mayor Michael McGinn have talked more left--McGinn actually told a reporter he'd support more than $15 an hour for a minimum wage "if the Council proposed [it]"--it's at least partly a response to Sawant's success in mobilizing support for an unapologetic radical campaign.

The Sawant campaign--along with Socialist Alternative candidate Ty Moore, who is running a strong race for City Council in Minneapolis--is having a national impact. Last week, they were endorsed by two leaders of the Green Party--2012 presidential candidate Dr. Jill Stein and former San Francisco Board of Supervisors President Matt Gonzalez:

Politics in this country is not going to change by complaining about it if that isn't also coupled with action...The election of independent working class city council candidates in Seattle and Minneapolis would be an enormous step forward, providing an important platform to popularize the idea of more independent anti-corporate candidates running in a time of tremendous upheaval.

If she wins, Sawant would be only one of nine members of the City Council. As The Stranger pointed out, "developers and other business 'leaders'...would still have eight other sets of ears on the Council eager to hear out their concerns." But it would be a tremendous achievement for an outspoken socialist candidate to knock out a 16-year establishment incumbent and have a new platform to speak out.

The International Socialist Organization, publisher of this website, has endorsed Kshama Sawant. If she can win, Sawant will have four years to make her City Council office a center for activist organizing to promote the interests of labor and social justice. If she doesn't, the Sawant campaign will have nevertheless contributed to the project of mobilizing the frustration and anger with the political status quo in the U.S. today.

Alan Maass and Chris Mobley contributed to this article.