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This was published in a slightly different version by Jacobin Magazine.
In a razor-tight race, the nation’s only full-fledged socialist city council member, Kshama Sawant, beat off a recall attempt by Seattle’s business interests. She won by just over 200 votes in a race that went right down to the wire. The outcome wasn’t determined until two days after the election, as mail-in ballots streamed in after election day. 600 ballots have been challenged and could still be counted, but they are not expected to change the outcome.
Sawant won largely based on a concerted effort to get out the youth vote. Among all demographics, the 18-25 cohort was the only one which increased its turnout from the most recent election (held only one month earlier). 300 more voters in that age group voted in this election compared to last month. That was largely the margin of victory. To indicate the level of interest in the race, last month’s general election turnout was 43%. The Sawant Recall turnout was 53% for a single-candidate special election!
In 2013, Seattle voters elected Sawant for the first time. Since then, she has been by far the most radical member of council. Bernie Sanders endorsed her, but she is even to his left politically.
Though she has collaborated with fellow progressives on various legislative issues, she is known for her take-no-prisoners style. She does not triangulate. She does not compromise for the sake of legislative success. She puts forward her politics without fear or favor. Though this makes her a target for conservative business interests who continually brand her as a dangerous extremist, it also earns her the passionate support of the city’s progressive voters.
In celebrating passage of a resolution taxing Amazon and other major companies per new employee in order to build low-income housing, she confronted Jeff Bezos as if it was a gunfight at the OK Corral:
We were clear-eyed about naming the real force pulling the strings: Amazon. Many argued that we should not “antagonize” big business and instead try to broker a deal, but we know that our power comes from working people getting organized, not from any negotiation with the elite. For those watching from outside Seattle, don’t let anyone tell you in your fight to tax big business in your city that you’re being divisive, because class struggle is what gets the goods.
The private, for-profit housing market has utterly failed working people. Not just here and now, but everywhere and always. Because capitalism is completely incapable of meeting the most basic needs of working people.
Internationally, the working class needs to take the top 500 corporations into democratic public ownership, run by workers, in the interests of human need and the environment, not billionaire greed.
I have a message for Jeff Bezos and his class. If you attempt again to overturn the Amazon Tax, working people will go all out in the thousands to defeat you.
And we will not stop there.
Because you see, we are fighting for far more than this tax, we are preparing the ground for a different kind of society.
And if you, Jeff Bezos, want to drive that process forward by lashing out against us in our modest demands, then so be it.
Because we are coming for you and your rotten system. We are coming to dismantle this deeply oppressive, racist, sexist, violent, utterly bankrupt system of capitalism, this police state.
We cannot and will not stop until we overthrow it and replace it with a world based instead on solidarity, genuine democracy, and equality – a socialist world.
She is an Indian immigrant who earned a degree in computer science at the University of Mumbai and began her career as a software engineer. She currently teaches economics at two local community colleges and is a leader of the Socialist Alternative.
Sawant is a fiery speaker known for her speeches at local protests. She has championed several issues beloved by local progressives including demanding that local companies pay their fair share in taxes to support housing for the homeless and education. She was also the leading force behind the nation’s pioneering $15 minimum wage law which was enacted during her first term. She has also championed renters’ rights and an eviction moratorium during the COVID epidemic.
While there are other progressive council members, Sawant alone is unsparing and unrepentant in espousing her radical views. For that reason, she serves as a third-rail in local politics. Her colleagues may join with her on some issues, but they often steer clear in order to avoid being tarred with the brush of “radical socialist.”
She is the bane of Big Business. Landlords, real estate developers, and Big Tech hate her and routinely recruit candidates and donate large sums to unseat her. So far, they’ve failed in two previous elections. Last year, they decided to take a different tack. Since they could not defeat her in a general election, they decided to attempt a recall.
They cleverly determined that scheduling the recall during a regular election would tend to increase turnout, which would not be to their advantage. So they delayed registering their campaign in order to force a special election in which this single issue would be on the ballot. They also raised over $1-million to fund TV commercials, glossy mailers and radio spots targeting her as a law-breaking extremist who would encourage mobs to attack City Hall and the homeless to take over the city stately neighborhoods. They even created a separate PAC enabling donors to give unlimited funds to support the recall. A Better Seattle raised $200,000 from its largely corporate donor base. To give a sense of how much money they spent: in the last election in which Sawant was re-elected, the Chamber of Commerce PAC spent a then-unprecedented $1-million on all four of the Council races (including Sawant’s). This time they spent that much just to defeat a single candidate–her.
What the Recall campaign had in well-heeled donors, the Sawant campaign made up for in committed small donors. And she matched her opponents virtually dollar for dollar. As Bernie Sanders proved in his very first run for president: the 1% doesn’t always win in politics. If progressives espouse their views fearlessly and without compromise, enough working and middle-class voters will rally to the cause. Their combined giving can more than make up for the corporate financial advantage enjoyed by candidates supported by Big Business.
There are also more subtle, unsavory currents of misogyny and xenophobia in the anti-Sawant camp. She eschews all the trappings of female political candidates. Where many of them promote conventional feminine images of collegiality and wholesomeness, Sawant offers a fire-breathing persona, laser-focused on promoting her political agenda. And in a city that is quite racially segregated, she is a person of color and an immigrant. These identities threaten the equanimity of the largely white, male corporate titans at Microsoft, Amazon, Boeing, and the city’s major developers.
Despite Sawant’s victory, we should not expect the backlash threat of the corporate elite to decline. We saw this in California with the (failed) campaign to recall Gov. Newsom. We saw it in the write-in campaign against Buffalo’s Democratic Socialist mayoral candidate, India Walton, which restored to office the Democratic machine mayor who’d lost the primary. Make no mistake: capital does not like losing and it will retrench and return once more into the fray.
The victory over the Seattle recall takes some of the sting out of the defeat of progressive candidates for mayor and city attorney in November’s general election. It confirms that an avowedly progressive socialist message still resonates among Seattle voters.
The Backlash Against Black Lives Matter
To some extent, those defeats were a backlash against last year’s Black Lives Matter protests, in which activists occupied the heart of the city’s Capitol Hill in June 2020. They demanded an end to police killings of poor, African-American, Native American and mentally-ill individuals. In fact, they demanded the defunding of the police department entirely.
Two of the incidents employed by the recall proponents against Sawant were her participation in a march on City Hall, in which she used her key to open the building for the protesters. Separately, the local DSA chapter organized a march on Mayor Jenny Durkan’s home for which Sawant was blamed. As if the city’s voters did not have the right to make their voices heard before their elected officials, just because it’s their private home.
Concurrent with the CHOP occupation, the city’s corporate power structure was running a competing campaign portraying the city as “dying” due to crime, vandalism, and homeless encampments “invading” schools and neighborhoods. The city’s Sinclair Broadcasting affiliate, KOMO, produced a special with the death-rattle title, Seattle Is Dying, which drew national attention to these right-wing talking points.
As the attention of Seattle residents receded from the Black Lives Matter protests, the competing agenda of the anti-homeless coalition slipped into the city’s consciousness. The TV evening news showed hundreds of stories of gang violence, shootings, and murders. They produced stories about fires, drug dealing and murder at homeless encampments. The Seattle Times, owned for 130 years by a single wealthy Republican family, slanted its news coverage and editorial page to highlight these failures and demand “change,” by which it meant a return to the status quo, the comfortable status quo of the corporate elite.
During the year between CHOP and the November election, the onslaught of doubt promoted by the anti-homeless camp had a major impact. The city council, which never endorsed the police abolition demands of demonstrators, did pass a 20% cut to the police department budget. But the mayoral candidate who ultimately won in the November election opposes any cut at all. By November, the enthusiasm and commitment which CHOP had infused into Seattle had dissipated. That explains the electoral defeats mentioned earlier.
The good news is that Sawant’s victory has arrested the momentum of the corporate elite. There will be no stampede to rid Seattle of its homeless population. The left still has a strong voice in this town.