Sign of the times: Kshama Sawant of Socialist Alternative unseats Seattle Democrat

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Seattle is a town that Microsoft billionaires and Democratic Party politicians assumed was their own. Well, the 2013 elections proved them wrong.

In a game-changing upset, socialist Kshama Sawant won a seat on Seattle’s City Council, defeating 16-year incumbent and Democratic Party stalwart, Richard Conlin. While the election will be certified after the Freedom Socialist goes to press, Conlin has conceded.

In nearby SeaTac, Proposition 1 was also winning. The measure would establish a $15-an-hour minimum wage for 6,300 transportation and hospitality workers. It holds a razor-thin margin and will likely face challenge. Yet like Sawant’s victory, Prop. 1 even getting to this point is amazing in a system where big business buys elections.

Sawant ran as a candidate for Socialist Alternative (SA), a Trotskyist party. Her campaign attracted more than 300 volunteers and $110,000 in donations. Throughout summer, her colorful posters dominated city streets, broadcasting key demands: a $15 an hour wage, rent control, and taxing millionaires to fund mass transit and education. Union rank-and-filers, including Freedom Socialist Party (FSP) members, helped secure union endorsements and donations, and near support from the King County Labor Council, typically a stronghold of the Democratic Party.

Sawant’s win has spurred interest in socialist ideas, especially among young people. It also raises the question, what does this mean for the socialist movement?

Political climate change. Pundits for the establishment media describe her victory as an anomaly, the product of a savvy candidate, and voters’ desire for someone new in City Hall. But this upset goes deeper, reflecting a sea change in U.S. attitudes.

The only other socialist to make it out of the Seattle primary election in modern times was Yolanda Alaniz, who ran as an FSP candidate for city council in 1991.

When this writer campaigned for city council on the FSP ticket in 2005, the call for a $17-an-hour minimum wage was considered “out there,” though low-wage workers loved it. Today, $15-an-hour is becoming mainstream enough that Seattle’s two Mayoral candidates embraced the idea — during the election, anyway.

In New York City, voters chose a lefty liberal mayor to follow multi-millionaire Mike Bloomberg. In Minnesota, SA candidate Ty Moore almost prevailed in his Minneapolis ward. And in Seattle, two Socialist Workers Party (SWP) contenders, Edwin B. Fruit and John Naubert, made historic gains compared to their usually low numbers. This is noteworthy given their perfunctory efforts.

Clearly, five years of unrelenting poverty, joblessness, budget cuts, and union busting have polarized people. By tapping into discontent, Sawant pushed the discussion in all races to the left — just as the Tea Party has pushed rightward elsewhere.

Prospects for socialist collaboration. On election night Sawant’s supporters, including this writer, gathered to watch returns. More than 200 people packed the room. Young people and those new to politics were numerous. So were socialists of all stripes: independents, the FSP, SA, and International Socialist Organization (ISO). In the electoral arena, such collaboration is historic in recent times.

While the FSP has a long tradition of endorsing campaigns of other socialist parties and running for office, ISO does not. SA has a mixed record, backing Greens over socialists in the 2012 presidential race. But in this race, socialist collaboration was a boost to Sawant. And in Minneapolis, Socialist Action helped Socialist Alternative candidate Ty Moore by co-sponsoring an event to help him raise money and publicity.

Still, sectarianism — putting one’s political party above the interests of the class — will be a challenge. Throughout the campaign, SA down played their socialist endorsements, favoring the Greens, even though this party promotes the illusion that capitalism can be made kinder and gentler. On the other extreme, SWP mostly ignored endorsements from FSP, and castigated Sawant as a sellout, rather than offering constructive criticism and engagement. Whether ISO will endorse future socialist campaigns remains to be seen.

Yet clearly, the time is ripe for anti-capitalist electoral alliances, and the potential for a quantum leap forward is there if the Left can learn to respectfully debate and work together.

Where to next? The challenges that come with being the only socialist at City Hall should serve as a powerful motivation for collaborating with other socialist parties. In fighting for the platform she championed, Sawant and SA will confront head winds and demands to go slow — including from her Democratic Party and Green allies.

In the halls of capitalist power, opportunism is a slippery slope to hell. The temptation to subordinate program for popularity was a weakness of the campaign. At times, Sawant hit hard on capitalism, such as at a fast food strike rally where she blasted an economic system that won’t pay workers a living wage.

But the campaign was weak overall in raising socialist demands that clearly confront private property and class forces. The call for public ownership of key industries under workers control was not prominent. Yet imagine such a demand coming from City Hall, in a state where Boeing has just won $8 billion in tax breaks, making Washington the top provider of corporate welfare.

Is this going too far, too fast? No. It is talking honestly about the problems and solutions the working class must seek to save humanity and the planet. And after all, this is the most important job of socialists in office. To do this will require the forging of an anti-capitalist mass movement. The good news is that 2013 showed it is what a growing majority of people want — in Seattle at least. Watch out Microsoft, here come the socialists!

Linda Averill, an FSP candidate for Seattle City Council in 2005, won 18 percent of the vote in a four-way primary race. She can be reached at

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