SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 174 Jan/Dec 2013/14

Socialist victory in Seattle

Socialist Alternative and its candidate, Kshama Sawant, have made history, becoming the first open socialist elected to a major city council in many decades. The victory in Seattle will send shock waves through both the establishment and the left by showing how much of an impact socialist ideas can make. As the votes are totted up, well over 90,000 votes have been registered for Kshama. There still could be legal challenges against this dramatic success, although that threat seems to be receding.

Meanwhile, in Minneapolis, Ty Moore lost out by only 230 votes. Earlier in the year, in a preliminary election for a councillor at large seat in Boston city, Seamus Whelan won over 3,000 votes, also as a Socialist Alternative candidate.

In the August primary election for Seattle city council, Kshama Sawant won a stunning 35% of the vote in a three-way race against two Democratic Party candidates. This was the best showing for a socialist in decades, and our campaign picked up tremendous momentum as we entered the final stretch of the general election. In the final weekend we held ‘100 rallies for Sawant’, supported by a growing coalition of labour activists, Greens, immigrant community leaders and socialists.

The campaign translated a socialist programme to the immediate pressing concerns of Seattle workers and youth. We put forward three main demands and connected them to the need to build a working-class political alternative while holding our socialist banner high. The three key demands were a $15 an hour minimum wage, a rent control ordinance to make housing affordable, and a tax on millionaires to fund transit, education and other public services. This message gained a tremendous echo.

Our demands resonated so well that we completely shifted the debate. "The election isn’t for ten days", wrote Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat, "but we can already declare the big winner in Seattle. It’s the socialist…

[W]hat’s most notable about Seattle politics this year is that nearly [Sawant's] entire agenda has, over the course of the campaign, been embraced by both candidates for mayor". (26 October)

Both mayoral candidates vaguely said they supported a $15/hour minimum wage. Other parts of our platform, like rent control and taxing the super-rich, were the focus of debates in all the city races. In August, the Seattle Times dismissed Socialist Alternative’s campaign as "too hard left" for Seattle. Now they acknowledge the resounding impact of our campaign!

In October, Kshama was featured twice on the front cover of Seattle's second-largest newspaper. Our active volunteer base surged to more than 300 people, with dozens of high-schoolers and immigrant workers getting involved. Six unions endorsed us, and Seattle Weekly labelled Kshama as "Seattle's best politician of 2013".

Support came from musicians such as Tom Morello from Rage Against the Machine and Serj Tarkian, formerly of System of a Down. The local hip-hop community rallied around Kshama with a fundraiser involving the best-known local performers. Obafemi Martens, a local and Nigerian soccer star, prominently endorsed the campaign. The Seattle Somali community supported it, as did disaffected basketball fans.

Seattle has been controlled by Democrats for decades, and there was no Republican challenger in this race. Without any of the pressures of ‘lesser-evilism’, this openly socialist campaign became a pole of attraction for many people disillusioned with the Democratic Party.

Cheryl Bersch, a lifelong activist and a volunteer with the campaign, shared this message with us when she joined our organisation: "I've been a Democrat and a member of other activist groups such as the National Organisation for Women for 47 years. Paid my dues in many, many protests, letter-writing to representatives, and money, money, money only to watch the Democratic Party move further and further to the right. I have recently found the answer: it's the system itself. The problem is capitalism".

The real opening for socialist politics is exemplified by the way our campaign has strained ties between long-time allies and the Democratic Party. For example, the county-wide labour council, which has consistently endorsed our opponent, voted 28-21 in favor of a dual endorsement for Kshama Sawant. Unfortunately, this did not reach the two-thirds majority needed for an official endorsement. Dozens of top labour and environmental leaders have told us privately that they are supporting Kshama even though the organisations they lead endorsed our opponent.

Groups like Labour for Kshama Sawant and Small Business for Kshama Sawant worked hard to break the unconditional support that the Democratic Party often receives from these constituents. But the most striking example of strained relationships – and political confusion – was the formation of Democrats for Sawant. We accept the support of Democratic Party voters and activists, but we are clear about our socialist ideas and the need for independent working-class politics, while we refuse to take a single dime in corporate donations. This patient approach combined with a positive alternative can effectively break the base of the Democrats away from the party's corporate masters.

We have popularised socialist ideas, further exposed the Democrats as beholden to big business, helped build local movements from below, and demonstrated the huge potential for independent politics in local races. We hope this victory inspires others to run independent left challenges all across the country in 2014 and 2015, as an important step toward the formation of a new, genuine political alternative for the millions, not the millionaires.

Clay Showalter, Socialist Alternative

Minneapolis milestone

In Minneapolis, Socialist Alternative candidate Ty Moore came within 230 votes of victory in another remarkable result. The campaigns of Kshama Sawant and Ty Moore stood out nationally as "the two most high profile and exciting candidacies" of left independents in 2013, according to Bard Professor John Halle in (7 November).

With bold demands to raise up working-class communities and a clear socialist profile, Ty Moore’s campaign built a powerful coalition of labour and community organisations, including the SEIU union’s Minneapolis state council, Occupy Homes, the Green Party, immigrant rights organisers and neighbourhood leaders. In a six-way race using ranked-choice voting, Moore lost by only 229 votes, with 42% of the total votes against 47% for the Democratic Party candidate.

"I've organised a lot of election campaigns", said Brian Elliott, executive director of the SEIU MN state council. "The team around Ty's campaign put together something amazing, a model of how to build a volunteer-driven grassroots challenge to big business politics". Since August, the campaign mobilised over 150 volunteers, culminating in a final get-out-the-vote effort of 70 volunteers per day. They knocked on 24,000 doors over the last four days leading up to the election.

The dynamic grassroots coalition supporting Ty Moore campaigned for a $15/hour minimum wage, a moratorium on foreclosures, taxing the rich to fund basic services, and an end to corporate welfare projects.

In a letter published in the three main Spanish language papers, 20 prominent Latino community leaders signed a letter supporting Ty Moore, pointing out that "he is the only candidate with a platform to advance immigrant rights at a city level", including a moratorium on deportations and voting rights for all residents in city elections, regardless of immigration status. Latino support for Moore was especially significant because the Democratic Party candidate, Alondra Cano, campaigned heavily on her immigrant background.

Cano moved sharply to the left in response to the echo our message received in Ward 9. At the same time, she appealed for support from the political establishment. In his analysis of Socialist Alternative’s campaigns, Professor Halle wrote in CounterPunch that "strong third-party challenges have shown, as did Occupy Wall Street two years ago, that they can force a shift in the political agenda, requiring Democrats to get on board or expose themselves as the servants of capital which their business model requires them to be".

The campaign’s strong showing indicates the huge potential for a socialist to win a seat in a corporate-dominated election process on a platform of demands around working-class issues. Initial coverage of the results has elevated the national conversation around future initiatives to channel the post-Occupy, anti-party mood into strong third-party challenges to corporate politics.

The Democratic Party establishment had dismissed our campaign initially. Then, in the final weeks, it recognised we might win and mobilised heavily. In particular, backed by Occupy Homes, our campaign was linked to the struggle against foreclosures and police evictions. In a direct attack, sheriffs executed a 5am election day raid on Jaymie Kelly, a lifetime Ward 9 resident whose high-profile struggle against eviction was a central feature of our campaign. Sheriffs responded in less than 24 hours after posting the writ to evict Kelly, a very public supporter, in a politically motivated attempt to send a message of intimidation and to disrupt our election day efforts to get out the vote.

The establishment’s fear of our campaign was seen when the National Association of Realtors (NAR), a major fund-raising PAC (political action committee) with close ties to Wall Street, sent two mailers and conducted robo-calls to every resident in Ward 9. NAR spent an estimated $12,000 in support of Cano, who didn’t distance herself from the corporate interference. NAR is a major corporate lobby which spent $64 million in 2012 to influence and skew elections, supporting candidates from both corporate parties. Across the country, it has fought efforts to stop foreclosures, most recently in a lawsuit and public relations crusade against the city of Richmond, California. There, the Green mayor has been trying to support homeowners under threat of foreclosure.

The mayor and top leaders in the legislature organised fundraisers for Alondra Cano. Voters received robo-calls from Senator Al Franken. Keith Ellison, chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, and other party leaders held a rally on the eve of the election. Yet Ty Moore’s campaign raised $55,000, out-fundraising Cano three to one in the final two months, in a swell of donations from community supporters. This was achieved while refusing any corporate donations. But the combined weight of the Democratic Party machine and the NAR intervention mobilised the dwindling Democratic Party base and secured Cano a narrow majority on election day.

"We are confident that a simple poll at the doorsteps of Ward 9 would have given us a solid majority", said Kelly Bellin, Socialist Alternative member and manager for Ty’s campaign. "We talked to nearly 5,000 registered voters in Ward 9. Our supporters outnumbered our opponents’ by a two to one margin. We pushed Ward 9 turnout up to 33%, higher than the citywide average. Unfortunately, we were not able to decisively break through the demoralisation that most working-class people feel toward official politics, which for so long has only delivered disappointment and betrayals. In the end, the wealthier base of the Democrats showed up and we didn't bring out enough fresh voters to win this thing".

However, getting as close as we did to winning the seat in Minneapolis, along with the victory of Kshama Sawant in Seattle, will send shock waves through the political elite and serve as a baseline achievement in the struggle to build a new party for the working class. The support we won will enable us to ramp up struggles on the issues identified by the campaign and to expand it to build an independent political movement to represent the 99% in Minneapolis.

Ginger Jentzen, field organiser for the election campaign

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