SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 178 April 2014

How a socialist won in Seattle

In November, nearly 100,000 voters elected Kshama Sawant to Seattle city council – as an open socialist. The victory sent shockwaves through the political establishment and even around the globe. She is the first independent socialist elected in a major US city in decades. RAMY KHALIL, Vote Sawant campaign manager, explains how Kshama and Socialist Alternative succeeded in unseating a well-connected, 16-year incumbent Democrat.

The success of other progressives in November 2013 suggests that this is not just an isolated event. "In fact, it’s the bellwether for what’s going to happen in the future", said Kshama. Democratic candidate Bill de Blasio was elected by a landslide as New York city’s mayor by promising to fight inequality and racist police brutality – although he is by no means a socialist. Ty Moore, another Socialist Alternative candidate, ran for Minneapolis city council and came within 230 votes of being elected. The labour movement in Lorain county, Ohio, got fed up with the Democrats’ betrayals and succeeded in electing two dozen Independent Labor candidates, though some maintained ties with the Democratic Party. "It’s a sign of the times", argues Kshama Sawant. "The great recession has provoked a backlash from the 99%. People are fed up with losing their jobs, homes, and pensions".

A University of California, Berkeley, study found that the richest 1% captured 95% of the income gains of the economic ‘recovery’ in the US while working-class people saw their incomes decline. Student debt has surpassed $1 trillion, more than the total accumulated credit card debt in the country. Meanwhile, corporate politicians continue their austerity agenda of tax breaks for corporations and the richest 1% while slashing social services and jobs for working people and the poor.

In response to this growing inequality, a groundswell of resistance from working-class people keeps erupting across the globe: revolutions in the Middle East, general strikes in Europe, a labour uprising in Wisconsin, Occupy Wall Street, movements in Turkey and Brazil. It’s only a matter of time before the next mass struggle breaks out.

Everyone is talking about inequality – and lots of people are eager to do something about it – but only a few activist movements in the US have been able to give a popular expression to this burning desire. Occupy Wall Street was extremely successful in thrusting the issue of inequality into the mainstream but, eventually, the movement began dwindling with no clear way forward. As Occupy activists got drawn into the 2012 corporate-controlled elections, Socialist Alternative argued that the movement could be rebuilt by running 200 independent Occupy candidates across the country. Unfortunately, very few activists took up this call, and discussions about challenging inequality were drowned out by the corporate media, which refocused political debates around Barack Obama, Mitt Romney and other corporate politicians’ agendas.

One exception was the tremendous response Occupy activist Kshama Sawant received in her first election campaign in 2012, when she won 29% of the vote against the Washington state House speaker, Frank Chopp, the most powerful state legislator. This demonstrated the potential that existed if Occupy had run more independent candidates.

Around the same time, fast-food and Walmart workers captured people’s imaginations by organising rolling one-day strikes across the country demanding a $15/hour minimum wage and decent working conditions. In 2013, Kshama’s next campaign linked up with the fast-food strike movement in Seattle, and Socialist Alternative recognised that the demand for a $15 minimum wage was gaining a tremendous resonance.

After many meetings and discussions, we decided to focus our campaign around a call to ‘make Seattle affordable for all’, and three specific demands: rent control and affordable housing, a tax on the super-rich to fund mass transit and education and, above all, a $15 minimum wage. We linked the demands for basic improvements in workers’ day-to-day lives with the need for a fundamental restructuring of wealth and power in society along socialist lines.

Growing openness to socialism

Despite universal demonization by the corporate media and political establishment, Kshama’s and Ty’s campaigns demonstrated that socialism is no longer a dirty word. Multiple polls, including by Gallup (18/19 November 2012), have found that a third of Americans react positively to the idea of socialism – a historic increase from decades ago, and a 3% increase from 2010 to 2012. The Merriam-Webster online dictionary declared the words ‘socialism’ and ‘capitalism’ together to be its Word of the Year in 2012 due to the high number of searches for the words.

The working class of the US has not experienced bitter betrayal by social democratic or Stalinist political parties like in most other countries – parties that claimed to fight for socialism but ultimately sold out or even implemented austerity attacks on the working class. In the US, socialism increasingly sounds like a new attractive idea, an appealing alternative to Americans suffering from unemployment, low wages, and growing debt under capitalism – despite much confusion about its real meaning. According to the Pew Research Center (7-11 December 2011), there is more support for socialism than capitalism among both African Americans and young people (ages 18-29) – a sign of things to come.

This helps explain in part why the results from our 2012 and 2013 campaigns revealed that our strongest votes were among low-income voters, youth and people of colour. It was important to have a correct analysis of the political consciousness of different sections of the population. Although we understood that only a small number of people consciously identify as socialists, we had concluded that there is quite a broad section of the population, especially youth, who are very open to socialist ideas, an even larger section who question capitalism, and a huge swathe that is angry at Wall Street and corporate ‘politics as usual’.

Our electoral campaign tapped into the growing disgust with the political establishment (despite widespread political confusion), and we raised class consciousness, and popularised socialist ideas. For example, Kshama popularised the idea that large corporations such as Boeing should not be run for the profit of a few people but should be taken into public ownership and democratically run by workers and the wider community.

However, the working-class anger at corporate politics simmering beneath the surface would never have been channelled in a progressive direction in 2013 had we not taken a bold electoral initiative. That is why it is vital that labour and other progressive movements not only organise rallies, strikes, etc, but also run independent candidates. Otherwise, political discussions and debates throughout society will be controlled and limited by the two corporate parties.

If working-class activists and progressive organisations do not build a strong left-wing political alternative, then the vacuum of growing anger will be filled either by right-wing demagogues or populist Democrats, who will attempt to contain our movements within the ‘safe’ channels of the corporate Democratic Party.

To build on the momentum of Kshama’s 29% of the vote in 2012, Socialist Alternative appealed to Occupy, labour, civil rights groups and left-wing parties to join together in running a slate of vigorous independent candidates for Seattle city hall the following year. Unfortunately, they declined, and many continued to bang their heads against the wall of the Democratic Party.

In Minnesota, in contrast, the state council of SEIU unions not only endorsed Ty Moore’s Socialist Alternative campaign but contributed considerable financial and human resources. If more unions and progressive organisations would direct their resources to run and/or support independent candidates like this, there is no doubt we could run many successful campaigns and begin to build a new political party of the 99%. Kshama’s tremendous impact demonstrates how candidates and a political leadership are absolutely necessary to give a visible expression to the underlying anger and desire for change in society – and to channel that discontent around a clear agenda.

Shifting the political debate

The Seattle labour and progressive organisations’ failure to recognise the huge opportunity in participating in a coalition slate of independent candidates largely stems from their lack of a class-struggle, socialist perspective. Many on the left blame the country’s conservatism on the confused consciousness of working-class people, often underestimating ordinary people’s desire for progressive change.

Marxists realise that there is a lot of political confusion among the working class, but the source of the political conservatism comes from the ruling class and its media, political, and cultural institutions. The majority of the working class wants progressive change, but workers need fighting organisations and a political party to educate, harness and express their latent power.

The missing ingredient in building a progressive movement is not primarily workers’ consciousness, therefore, but the lack of a political leadership that can give voice to workers’ interests. A workers’ party and independent candidates will play an invaluable role in shifting the whole terms of debate, debunking the propaganda of the ruling elite, and educating workers about their real interests. We can already see how much having Kshama Sawant in office has been able to shift the political debate in Seattle – and, to some extent, nationally – in favour of raising the minimum wage to $15/hour.

How much more could be accomplished if we had hundreds of independent candidates and our own mass party fighting for workers and exposing the Republicans’ and Democrats’ corporate agenda? A new political party of workers, people of colour, women and environmentalists would unite various movements together, and significantly raise workers’ consciousness about our real interests.

Despite the Citizens United supreme court ruling that legalised unlimited corporate spending on election campaigns, the Kshama, Ty and Ohio labour campaigns shattered the myth that candidates have to accept corporate money to run for office. When more labour, civil rights and environmental organisations sever their ties with the Democratic Party and fund independent candidates, there is no question we can build a mass political alternative – an essential task today.

Many progressive activists have argued that building a party such as Socialist Alternative is sectarian and a distraction from building a broader movement. Although Socialist Alternative is still a small, though rapidly growing, Marxist organisation, it is clear that Kshama Sawant would not have won if we had not built up our socialist organisation in the years before 2013. Socialist Alternative’s political analysis enabled us to identify the historic opportunity that existed for independent left-wing candidates. And it was only the existence of our activist organisation that allowed us to implement our tactic and test out this perspective in practice.

While Kshama’s campaign relied on much broader forces than Socialist Alternative alone, Socialist Alternative served as the backbone of the campaign, politically and organisationally. Without a core of experienced, dedicated socialist activists it would not have been possible to organise a grassroots campaign of approximately 450 volunteers and pull together a broader alliance of The Stranger newspaper, six union locals, civil rights and immigrant organisations, progressive parties and many others.

Kshama could not have won if we had not spent years building Socialist Alternative, against all the odds, painstakingly developing our organisation practically from scratch. For years, we organised and educated workers and young people around Karl Marx’s ideas that the capitalist system is wracked by crises. That the system is increasingly unable to meet the basic needs of ordinary people, and that the working class is the revolutionary force which can build a new society

Principled class position

Another lesson from the success is that the majority of people don’t want bland moderate candidates who compromise with big business. Most people are dying to see something different, a political leadership that will stand firm against the corporate onslaught. The Green Party has run some good left-wing candidates, but when third parties run middle-of-the-road candidates, who are only marginally different from the corrupt establishment, they really limit their appeal. Kshama’s popularity stemmed from her relentless attacks on the Republican and, especially, Democratic politicians as tools of big business.

Her pledge to live on the average worker’s wage and donate the rest of her salary to building social justice movements made her stand out. Kshama did not try to appeal to both the left and the right, or try to straddle the fence between the working class and the ruling elite. She stood on the side of the working class. She inspired tremendous enthusiasm by not pulling any punches and arguing boldly (though tactfully) for her principles.

The campaign was based on the logic of the class struggle. We did not moderate our demands to make them appear reasonable and acceptable to the corporate elite or upper-middle-class professionals. Rather, we fought for far-reaching reforms that spoke to the day-to-day needs of working-class people, even though it would put us in conflict with the political establishment.

Workers who are busy working and commuting will not make time to volunteer for a campaign that is not going to make a real difference in their lives. But approximately 450 people were inspired to volunteer thousands of hours to Kshama’s campaign because we were fighting for concrete reforms, like a $15/hour minimum wage, that would dramatically improve their lives.

While the campaign argued clearly that progressive social change won’t be initiated by either Republicans or Democrats, we also took a non-sectarian approach to voters who supported Kshama but had not yet fully broken with the Democratic Party. We welcomed many activists who were excited to volunteer for our campaign but were also volunteering for Democrats in other races. In October 2013, a group even formed called ‘Democrats for Sawant’, expressing rank-and-file Democrats’ discontent with their party leadership.

Unlike some ultra-lefts, we did not put up artificial barriers that would obstruct people beginning to move in a positive direction from getting involved with the campaign. As long as people supported our core demands and our candidate – who persistently critiqued the Democratic Party and capitalism – we welcomed their support. While working with these activists, we offered them our newspaper and pamphlets, trying to convince them to break with the Democratic Party and capitalism.

Crucially, we used a friendly, patient tone to explain our positions. A condescending, impatient attitude would have been counter-productive. At the same time, we did not opportunistically bend to the intense pressure to lower our socialist banner or endorse Democratic candidates. We consistently advocated the formation of a new independent party of the 99% and democratic socialism.

This approach was essential for convincing a number of trade unions to endorse the campaign. At first, practically all the labour leaders dismissed our electoral campaigns and endorsed our Democratic opponents – Frank Chopp in 2012 and Richard Conlin in 2013. But eventually our transitional approach and bold class appeal won more and more support among rank-and-file union activists. By October 2013, there was a surge in support for our campaign, which won a strong majority for an endorsement in the King county Labor Council. Unfortunately, the 28 to 21 vote fell shy of the two-thirds required for a formal endorsement.

Fundraising and outreach

We could not have won without taking a serious approach to fundraising. Conlin raised $242,000, but we built a powerful war chest of $141,000. Our donations were overwhelmingly from working-class people and activists – 1,400 donors with a median donation of $40. Without them, we could not have afforded crucial necessities such as 50,000 glossy professional handbills, 140,000 mailers, five banners, over a dozen organisers, robocalls, and a few newspaper ads.

Around 450 volunteers throughout 2013 blanketed the city with 7,000 posters and 1,350 yard signs, and knocked on over 17,000 doors. We phone-banked thousands of voters, set up literature tables at farmers’ markets, and participated in protests and parades. Our staff worked tirelessly, gaining broad attention with around 150 media articles throughout the campaign.

We were extremely fortunate to have the support of The Stranger, a liberal weekly which is the second-largest newspaper in Seattle. The Stranger had grown fed up with the inequality created by the economic crisis and the complicity of the Democratic Party establishment in aggravating the social crisis. It made the unusual decision to use its influential publication to publish story after story promoting a radical socialist challenger in hope of tilting the balance of local politics away from corporate interests for once.

This doesn’t mean independent working-class candidates cannot run successful campaigns without a major corporate media outlet on our side. The labour, civil rights and environmental organisations have plenty of money and resources to set up our own independent mass media. The key task is to build support within these mass organisations to break with the submissive approach to politics – supporting the Democratic Party at all costs – and commit resources to building our own independent mass media and electoral campaigns.

The support from The Stranger and liberal voters who make up the majority of Seattle’s population was partially due to our careful selection of which seat to run for. A major factor in 2012 and 2013 was selecting races where there would likely be only one, or at most two, other opponents, and especially no Republican in the race. Having only one other opponent would practically guarantee a decent vote. Having no Republican in the race prevented Democrats from scaring people into voting for ‘the lesser of two evils’. (In most urban areas, the Democratic Party has a monopoly over local politics, so other independent candidates can find similar races to run in across the country.) In both 2012 and 2013 we also ran against incumbents who had been in office for at least 16 years – plenty of time to expose their corporate connections and anger their working-class supporters.

Last but not least, we had Kshama Sawant, an intelligent, eloquent and passionate immigrant woman of colour, running against stale, establishment white guys in 2012 and 2013. She is an impressive speaker and a determined fighter. She is also an ordinary person who happened to attend a couple of public forums in 2008 and was impressed with Socialist Alternative’s political clarity. She decided to dedicate her life to fighting for a socialist world. Most ordinary people gravely underestimate their own potential to play a role in changing the world. Yet nothing is more meaningful than fighting alongside other working-class people to end inequality, oppression and environmental devastation.

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