Seattle: Socialist City Council Member Kshama Sawant to Face Off Against Amazon’s Candidate

By Ty Moore, Socialist Alternative (CWI in the US and the sister organisation of the Socialist Party.

The initial results for Seattle’s city council primary elections will greatly sharpen the class divisions in Seattle. Led by Amazon, big business in Seattle is waging a ferocious campaign to defeat every candidate who isn’t firmly aligned with them. Through a record-breaking infusion of corporate PAC money, business-backed candidates made it through the primary in all seven of the council districts, set to face off against more progressive candidates in the November general election.

However, more than any other race, “The Chamber of Commerce’s Eye of Sauron is laser-focused on District 3 and its quest to beat incumbent Kshama Sawant,” as Seattle’s influential weekly, The Stranger, put it. The Chamber has already spent $245,000 on Egan Orion’s behalf, who came in second in the August 6 primary to face off against Sawant in the general election. In total, corporate PACs have amassed a war chest totalling $1.5 million and counting.

The bitter election in Seattle is making national news. The Hill recently commented: “[I]n a potential preview of the choice Democratic voters face in picking a presidential nominee… A seemingly intractable struggle between the business-friendly progressives[?] and the far-left has consumed Seattle politics” 7/28/19).

The Guardian then published an article titled, “Is Amazon taking revenge on a Seattle Socialist…?,” which quoted Sawant explaining: “This race and indeed all of the city’s elections this year will be a referendum on one fundamental question: who gets to run Seattle? Big businesses like Amazon and real estate corporations, or working people?” (8/5/19).

In the six-way race for District 3, initial results have Kshama Sawant beating Chamber of Commerce candidate Egan Orion by 9 points with 33% to 24%, with the other four candidates all below 15%. Only about 60% of votes were counted on election night due to Washington State’s mail-in voting system. Kshama’s total will likely climb a couple percentage points in the next two weeks, as late-arriving votes come in – disproportionately from working-class and young people.

In the context of all the forces arrayed against our grassroots campaign, “[s]tomps and cheers from Sawant backers greeted the results at Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute” among the 200 gathered there, according to the front-page Seattle Times article this morning. At the same time, it was also clear to all that a very uphill fight lies ahead. The District 3 results should be a wake-up call to working people and the left in Seattle. Winning over 50% for Kshama in November, and blocking Amazon-backed candidates in other races, will require a united, all-out fight against Seattle’s business and political establishment.

Reporting on our election night party, KUOW commented:

“Councilmember Sawant told her supporters that while the business community was unified during the primary, labor unions were somewhat divided… ‘We need to work for unity of left candidates around a fighting strategy,’ she said. ‘To unite around a fight for rent control and social housing, unite around a movement for a Green New Deal, and unite against the corporate PACs.’”

We welcome the successes of Democratic Socialists of America candidate Shaun Scott in District 4, as well as progressive Tammy Morales in District 2. Morales won 45% despite red-baiting attacks from Mayor Durkan and big business. Scott took second place in the primary with 19%, and faces an uphill battle against Amazon-backed Alex Pederson who won 45% of the initial primary vote.

Primaries generally are skewed toward a higher percentage of wealthier and older voters, this election was no exception. The wealthy waterfront neighborhoods of District 3 saw the biggest turnouts, with far lower voter participation in Capital Hill and the Central District where renters, people of color, and lower income residents predominate.

Low voter turnout among working class, poor, and oppressed communities is a persistent problem built into the fabric of the U.S. political system, and is one of the reasons elections are not the most favorable terrain for working class and socialist politics. While voter participation in the November 5 general election will likely be higher, with more renters and working-class households tuning into the election, a huge effort will be needed to mobilize more working-class people to the polls to win in November.

Jeff Bezos “Is Getting His Revenge”

Fueled by the booming tech industry, over the last decade Seattle became the fastest growing city in the country. Rents are rising even faster. Seattle is now the most expensive rental market in the country outside of California. Working-class communities are being displaced and pushed out of the city. This is especially true in Kshama’s District 3, where renters are a majority. Black people made up 73% of the Central District in 1970, but under the forces of gentrification the total number of black residents has fallen by two-thirds since then and the black share of the population is projected to dip below 10% in the Central District by 2025.

Seattle’s rapid development and dramatic cost increases are ripping apart communities and have led to the largest per-capita homeless population in the country. The many tent encampments are a jarring contrast to the construction cranes and glittering new luxury apartment buildings dominating Seattle’s landscape.

The Hill further explained: “An effort to pay for a response to the [housing] crisis with a tax on large businesses, a so-called ‘head tax,’ failed last year when the council reversed itself in the face of heated opposition from the business…” Kshama helped lead the fight to win the tax on Amazon and big business, and was one of just two “no” votes when Mayor Jenny Durkan engineered the shameful repeal. Mayor Durkan had only taken office six months earlier, after Amazon helped buy her the election with a $350,000 PAC contribution.

“After the fight over the head tax, Amazon and other large corporations funneled hundreds of thousands of dollars into a political action committee run by the city’s Chamber of Commerce, and a former council member has formed his own PAC aimed at boosting more business-friendly Democrats,” The Hill continued. “Amazon founder Jeff Bezos… is getting his revenge.”

The real motivation of big business is, as always, about protecting their profits. After nearly six years in office, big business is very familiar with Kshama’s record of building successful movements to win major victories over their opposition, from the $15 minimum wage to landmark renters rights legislation.

“Amazon fears that re-electing Kshama will breathe new life into a movement to tax them,” explained campaign Political Director Calvin Priest. “The fight for rent control and a massive expansion of publicly-owned affordable housing, which is at the center of our re-election platform, strikes fear into the hearts of the big developers and real estate industry. Growing calls for a Green New Deal for Seattle are bitterly opposed by Puget Sound Energy, the largest polluter in the region. Big business wants a city council who will stand firm against these popular demands.”

Anti-Incumbent Mood

Over the last few Seattle council elections, voters upset with corporate Democrats elected council candidates promising progressive change. This anger at corporate Democrats also fueled Kshama’s 2013 and 2015 victories. However, despite the important victories we’ve won, the complete failure of the current City Council to deal with the housing and homelessness crisis is fueling a sharp anti-incumbent mood.

Big business and right-wing groups were able to capitalize on the humiliating reversal of liberal councilmembers on the Amazon tax to further discredit them. Despite Kshama’s clear public disagreements with the liberal councilmembers and her vote against the repeal, the corporate media was partially successful in connecting Kshama with the anger at the status quo and “head-tax debacle,” as they characterize it.

“Seattle voters have a clear choice this fall between new leadership or more of the same,” Seattle’s chamber President Marilyn Strickland said in a statement following their primary victories.

At the same time, the intense pressure from Amazon and big business exposed the very real political differences between the dominant liberalism of most Seattle city councilmembers and socialists who base themselves on building social movements. Angered at Kshama’s refusal to offer them left-cover following their capitulation on the Amazon tax and other votes, liberal politicians and some union leaders joined with big business to oppose Sawant’s reelection.

Especially among lower-information voters, these attacks on Sawant by so-called progressives and labor leaders clearly had an impact. Liberal leaders’ attacks on socialists, which many voters see as divisions and dysfunction “on the left,”  helped the corporate media and politicians whip up further anti-incumbent sentiment. Most incumbents simply decided against running for re-election. None of the remaining three incumbents got over 50% of the primary vote, a rare phenomenon in Seattle political history.

While the primary elections also revealed deep divisions between the more liberal and pro-corporate wings of Seattle’s political establishment, many are likely to unite with Amazon and the Chamber of Commerce to back Orion against Sawant in the general election. The stage is set for the most expensive, hard-fought city council election in living memory, giving sharp political expression to the increasingly clear class divisions shaping Seattle.

Debate on Seattle’s Left

A large majority of workers and self-described progressives don’t want a city council dominated by big business. At the same time, a major debate is dividing the Seattle labor movement and progressive activists over how to address this threat.

Socialists have always argued that, under capitalism, businesses’ competitive drive for profits inevitably deepens class inequality and divisions. When workers demand higher wages, or renters demand lower rents, that threatens the profit margins of capitalist class. Throughout history, every step forward for social justice has come when working people and oppressed communities recognize that the only path to better their lives is sharp struggle with the capitalist elite.

While this understanding has animated Socialist Alternative’s approach to Seattle politics, most liberal politicians alongside many labor and non-profit leaders are completely opposed to this fighting strategy. In the primary, the more liberal wing of Seattle’s establishment correctly feared Orion’s open alliance with big business would repel many progressive-minded voters District 3 voters. Liberal Councilmembers Teresa Mosqueda and Lorena Gonzalez energetically backed Zachary DeWolf, who presented himself as a progressive.

DeWolf also picked up support “from the more conservative union leaders who were threatened by Kshama’s support for rank-and-file opposition voices,” said Labor for Sawant organizer Ian Burns. “Among other disagreements, her vote against the illegal police union contract that rolled back police accountability pissed them off.”

Kshama is already endorsed by 15 unions and now, with the Chamber threatening to extend their domination of City Hall in November, “we expect rank-and-file pressure will lead to more unions endorsing us,” said Burns, “despite the hesitancy of some labor leaders to back an unapologetic socialist.”

Explaining the Labor Council’s decision to endorse Zachary DeWolf over Sawant, Construction Trade Council Executive Secretary Monty Anderson said: “You’re supposed to help facilitate business in the city, and we felt that [Kshama] was doing the opposite.”

This followed Anderson’s and other conservative union leader’s public opposition to the Amazon Tax (“head tax”) the year before, which played an important role in helping big business win the repeal and provided political cover for the liberal councilmembers who capitulated to Amazon’s pressure.

These attempts to curry favor with big business were, predictably, not repaid in kind. Instead one of the corporate PAC’s sent out mailers across the city attacking other labor-backed candidates, attempting to smear them as “divisive” and “extreme” and equating them to Kshama Sawant! One of these mailers even went out in District 3 against Zachary DeWolf, despite DeWolf and Anderson attacking Kshama as “divisive” themselves and promising to “bring business to the table” if DeWolf is elected.

Describing this mailer in The Stranger, the second most widely read paper in Seattle, Rich Smith explains:

“Running the mailer through a standard undergrad visual analysis shows a PAC run by a self-appointed champion of civil discourse using [homeless people’s] tents as shorthand for filth and squalor, and then juxtaposing that filth and squalor with photos of Zachary DeWolf and Council Member Kshama Sawant…

Demanding civility is a rule corporate centrists invented to impose on their critics, one they’re apparently not obliged to follow themselves… Every candidate talking about “bringing big business to the table” is just saying they want big businesses to willingly fork over the cash to pay for a problem they helped create rather than pay a tax. They’re never going to do that, as they’ve shown us time and time and time again.”

In reality, the strategy of most liberal politicians and many NGO and labor leaders to find common ground with big business has always failed to deliver. Unless working people and the left learn this hard lesson – in Seattle and nationally – we will not be able to push back big business and right-wing forces.

Unifying the Left and Labor Against Big Business

Amazon and the Chamber of Commerce now have a clear slate of corporate Democrats in all the general election races. They are prepared to spend millions in a centrally coordinated deluge of online ads, mailers, and a media strategy to re-shape the political debate in Seattle in their favor.

There is a crying need for an alliance of working-class and socialist candidates, or at least a common platform, that could offer a united challenge to big business in this election. It is not sufficient to simply oppose corporate influence, given the broad discontent with the failure of the current City Council to resolve the burning problems in our city. Big business is trying to tap into the anti-incumbent mood by cynically calling for “change” and blaming the so-called “activist wing” of the council for the political gridlock.

An alliance of left candidates calling for rent control, taxing big business to fund affordable housing, and a Green New Deal for Seattle – among other demands – could provide a clear working-class and socialist vision for transforming Seattle in the interests of the majority. Instead, most progressive and labor-backed candidates have made failed attempts to dodge a direct fight with Amazon and big business, hoping that taking a less combative approach than Sawant would spare them from corporate attacks.

When the Democratic Socialists of America and Socialist Alternative united earlier this year to host a “Socialists Into City Hall” rally, only the DSA-backed District 4 candidate Shaun Scott joined Kshama on the stage. Similarly, our appeals to other progressive candidates to work out a joint platform, or even a joint rally or press conference to promote rent control, were not meaningfully taken up.

Despite this, just as the PACs launched a deluge of attacks on Tammy Morales, Mayor Jenny Durkan went to the media with her own red-baiting attack: “Adding another socialist like Tammy Morales… will cause more division in our city,” the Mayor said. The bitter primary election shows the lengths that big business and Seattle’s political establishment are prepared to go to defeat even their softer critics. Working and middle class people, the labor movement, socialists and progressives in Seattle will lose more ground if we don’t come together in the general election around a fighting program that unites working people, communities of color, immigrants, LGBTQ people, the poor, and everyone facing displacement and attacks from big business.

A Powerful Grassroots Campaign

The aggressive, naked attempt by Amazon and big business to bully and buy their way to political domination has shocked most people. In District 3 it has also helped inspire the largest grassroots city council campaign in modern Seattle history.

“Over 4,000 individual donors have pitched-in to Kshama’s campaign to help us fight back,” said Eva Metz, the Finance Director for Sawant’s campaign. “We’re very proud to report that’s three times as many donors as any of our competitors. The corporate media has tried to smear us, saying we’re funded by big out-of-state money, but we have 2363 donors from Seattle, 1602 from District 3. That’s roughly twice the number of Seattle donors and three times as many District donors than any other campaign. We have a $20 median donation, and with that we’ve raised nearly $290,000 in the primary, shattering all records [not including PAC money].”

Over 350 people volunteered for the campaign, “knocking on doors, hanging posters, making buttons, doing data entry, you name it,” said Matt Maley, a math teacher at Nova High School in the heart of District 3. “I was really proud that my union endorsed Kshama and a lot of teachers helped out.” Maley, who is also the Capital Hill branch organizer for Socialist Alternative, emphasized that “the back-bone of this campaign was Socialist Alternative members. We understand what’s at stake for working and middle class people, not just here in Seattle but around the world if we let billionaires like Jeff Bezos run things. Members really stepped up and gave it everything they had.”

Greyson Van Arsdale is the 20-year-old Sawant Field Team organizer who tirelessly managed canvassing turf assignments. “While other candidates rely primarily on paid advertisements, mailers, and the corporate media to communicate their attacks on us, we’ve answered their negative red-baiting campaign through tens of thousands of conversations at the doors,” explained Greyson, “We’ve knocked over 90,000 doors since June 1!”

At the election night party, Kshama summed up what politically motivates the tireless determination of many Socialist Alternative members: “Mayor Jenny Durkan says we don’t need more socialists in City Hall. We respond by proudly and unapologetically building the socialist movement. Most fundamentally, lets explain to people that capitalism is unable to solve the crises facing working people, whether it’s the climate catastrophe or the housing crisis. We need to get organized to build the forces of socialism. I hope to see you all on the streets with us in the coming months. Let’s tell Jeff Bezos we won’t let him turn Seattle into a company town. When we fight, we win!”