Kshama Sawant is adamant: This isn’t about her.
Challenging longtime incumbent Richard Conlin for a spot on the Seattle City Council, Sawant is running as a Socialist Alternative candidate. Her platform is built on many of the hot-button issues that have erupted in Seattle over the past year: She has championed the fight for a $15-an-hour minimum wage, crusaded for rent control and affordable housing, and called for a “millionaire tax” on the wealthy to fund major improvements in mass transit and education. The part-time economics professor and Capitol Hill resident considers her candidacy part of a much broader movement of the people for social and economic justice, saying “I’m just playing one role.” True to this spirit, Sawant uses “we” instead of “I” when discussing her run.
She’s also convinced her City Council target is vulnerable.
First elected to the council in 1997, Conlin has served four terms and is hoping for a fifth. Having raised nearly five times as much money than the Sawant campaign, and with the name recognition that comes only from having spent nearly a quarter of your life in elected city office (he’s 66), the safe money is on Conlin besting his third-party challenger and keeping his bike parked outside City Hall for at least four more years. But that’s by no means guaranteed, with Sawant arguing that Conlin has lost his progressive cred.
At the very least, Sawant’s candidacy is the most interesting thing on a local ballot defined by a mayor’s race void of substance and a handful of seemingly predetermined council contests. An immigrant from India who holds a Ph.D in economics and teaches at Seattle Central Community College, Sawant says she loves Seattle’s clouds, culture, and open-minded, progressive people. Politically Sawant emerged from the Occupy Seattle movement, and with the help of a vocal endorsement from The Stranger garnered almost 30 percent of the general-election vote in challenging state House speaker Frank Chopp for his District 43 seat in 2012. This year’s City Council primary yielded an even stronger showing: Sawant captured 34.8 percent of the vote to Conlin’s 47.9, nearly 43,000 votes—more than Ed Murray or Mike McGinn received in their quests for the mayor’s office.
“I think what I find so appealing about her is that she’s so different,” says Lucy Porter, a 17-year-old senior at The Northwest School who is volunteering for Sawant. According to the Sawant campaign, Porter is one of more than 200 volunteers working for the cause.
“[Sawant] just seems like a very honest candidate,” Porter tells Seattle Weekly. But she admits that even her liberal parents were skeptical upon learning their daughter would be volunteering for a socialist. Come election time, Porter thinks her mom and dad will vote for Sawant, but she’s not sure.
Sawant does have detractors. The Seattle Times editorial board calls her “too hard-left for Seattle.” Socialist Workers Party spokesperson and former mayoral candidate Mary Martin says Sawant isn’t doing enough to inspire a revolution and take power away from the “bourgeois” capitalist class. PubliCola has written at least two posts critical of Sawant’s campaign, most recently calling into question the validity of her fight for the poor and working class while her personal financial disclosure reveals a husband earning $100,000 a year as Microsoft engineer. (That post, by PubliCola’s Erica Barnett, led Sawant to issue a statement in response, clarifying that she’s been separated from her husband for “close to six years,” and, while the two are still legally married, she shares in none of his income.)
Conlin, meanwhile, has taken to questioning Sawant’s record of “civic engagement,” arguing that she didn’t register to vote soon enough after becoming a US citizen. He calls Sawant’s critiques of his record meritless, and insists he’s “very progressive.”
In spite of all this, perhaps the biggest question Sawant faces in this year’s election is whether a candidate with socialist ties (albeit with a platform not too far to the left of many mainstream candidates) can be seen as human—and a viable electoral option—rather than just as an avatar for fringe dissent.
Even in liberal Seattle, according to University of Washington political science associate professor Matt Barreto, Sawant’s strong party affiliation is likely to give many voters pause. Noting that city council races are nonpartisan and thus party affiliation won’t be listed on the ballot, Barreto says “Any candidate that makes an issue [of being third-party] does so at their own risk.”
Given Sawant’s socialist ties, her relative lack of campaign experience, and, especially, her fundraising disadvantage, Barreto says he expects Conlin to win easily in November. However, he allows that a large pool of devoted volunteers and a substantial get-out-the vote effort could have a “pretty big impact” on a down-ballot race like this. Whether it will be enough remains to be seen, but there’s no questioning Sawant’s devoted base, a progressive group drawn to her unabashedly liberal assessment of the modern economy.
Asked how she arrived at her worldview, Sawant says, “Growing up in India, the experience of seeing the deep contrast between extreme wealth in the hands of a tiny elite and massive poverty and misery on the other end, I think it was inevitable for me to ask the logical question of: ‘How can it be that we have so much poverty and misery when it’s clear that from a standpoint of wealth and technological innovation we are perfectly capable of eliminating it?’
“I think it’s a logical question that should occur to everyone, regardless of whether they consider themselves socialist or not. Just by virtue of being human you should ask that question.”
Sawant has questioned the progressive record Conlin touts—a record that’s earned him endorsements from the likes of the Sierra Club, the Cascade Bicycle Club, and the Affordable Housing Council. Pointing to his lengthy list of campaign contributors, which includes plenty of real-estate and development interests, Sawant says Conlin is “doing the bidding of his corporate sponsors” and that his progressive credentials are overblown.
Naturally Conlin disagrees, saying he feels unfairly attacked, that the campaign has been “kind of dispiriting.” He says it’s “ridiculous” to think he supports everything his donors do. Among other qualms, Sawant attacks Conlin’s support of the Highway 99 tunnel project and his vote against Seattle’s paid sick-leave law—the lone “no” vote the bill received, and one Sawant calls particularly “inhumane.”
“I really think we have to examine what our meaning of the word ‘liberal’ is,” she continues regarding the man she’s trying to unseat. “If that’s where we set the bar for being progressive, that is a very low bar. . . . The bar for progressive values needs to be far higher than that.”