Clueless in Seattle

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My hometown, Seattle, has probably elected a Marxist to the City Council.

I write more than a week after election day, and the outcome is still not certain. Washington votes entirely by mail, and counting ballots goes on for days. But the outcome seems more and more likely.

Seattle is the “bluest” part of King County, which is the bluest county in a blue state. The city’s longtime representative in Congress is Jim McDermott, apostle of single-payer health insurance. The city votes 85% Democrat.

Seattle does have a hard-left heritage, if you go back to the General Strike of 1919. More recently, it was in Seattle that anti-capitalist protesters tried to shut down the 1999 ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organization, though not all the demonstrators were from here. They chanted the slogan, “This is what democracy looks like,” but it was a false claim. Democrats were what Seattle looked like, for years and years and years.

This is a city of mandatory recycling, of bike lanes and a ban on plastic bags. It was the center of Washington’s push to legalize marijuana. It tried, against state law, to ban guns in city parks. It has just elected as mayor Ed Murray, the Democratic leader in the state senate who pushed through the state’s same-sex marriage law and subsequently married his partner.

None of this quite prepares the city for a councilwoman the likes of Kshama Sawant.

Sawant appeared on the political radar a little more than a year ago. An immigrant from India, she was teaching economics at Seattle Central Community College, which had been a hotbed of anti-WTO activity in 1999. She filed for office as a Socialist Alternative candidate against state Rep. Jamie Pedersen, Democrat.

She held out the egalitarian ideal, he would hold out moves toward it, which she would depreciate as crumbs from the corporate cupboard.

Seattle’s alternative weekly, The Stranger, picked up her cause, suggesting that she also run as a write-in against the other representative in that district, Frank Chopp, Democrat. That was a brassy move: Chopp is the speaker of the House in Olympia, and at the time (when we had a female governor) he was the most powerful man in Olympia. He had a totally safe seat; Republicans had given up running candidates against him.

We have a top-two primary in Washington. Anyone can file for office and identify himself as “preferring” a party, or no party. The top two votegetters, however they identify themselves, go on to the November ballot.

Sawant made the top-two cut against Pedersen and Chopp. The law didn’t allow her to run against both, so she chose the speaker.

She challenged him to a debate. At this debate she blamed him for presiding over all the cuts to social programs the legislature had made during the recession. Chopp is a defender of those programs, and he responded that he had done his best to protect them. He had saved the funding for this one and that one; it was because of him, he said, that 95% of the children in the state had health insurance. Sawant replied that the speaker shouldn’t boast until all children had health insurance. Chopp invited the audience to work with him to provide for that 5%. On it went: she held out the egalitarian ideal, he would hold out moves toward it, which she would depreciate as crumbs from the corporate cupboard.

Chopp debated as a gentleman, an older white man careful of what he said about the younger woman. She was edgier. She had a brassiness alien to Seattle’s let’s-be-nice politics. Her followers, who dominated the debate audience, loved it.

Seattle has no Socialist party that amounts to anything. “Socialist” was a label she pinned to herself. Against the Speaker she took 29% of the vote, which is better than any Republican had done in several decades.

That was 2012. In 2013 she filed against Councilman Richard Conlin. It was a citywide race, because all council seats were at-large (though that has just changed).

Conlin has been a progressive. City government has an Office of Sustainability and Environment largely because of him. He pushed the ban on free plastic bags. Recently, though, he was the one holdout against the city’s ordinance mandating paid sick leave in private-sector employment — not because he disagreed with it in principle, he said, but because he disagreed with the details of it.

Council seats in Seattle are nonpartisan, but everyone knew Conlin was a Democrat; they were all Democrats. Conlin had the backing of most of the important unions, including the politically active Service Employees locals that were pushing a $15-wage ballot measure in the airport city of SeaTac. Conlin was backed by the Asian paper, the black paper, and the Seattle Times; by the Washington Conservation Voters and the Sierra Club; by just about every elected Democrat in the city.

Sawant’s most prominent endorser was Dan Savage, sex columnist at The Stranger. She had a few union locals (postal workers, school employees) and some organizations that sounded like unions (e.g., Transit Riders Union).

And she had grassroots support.

It wasn’t the socialism. Seattle has had plenty of socialists run for office — three others this year, if you count the communist who ran for the Port of Seattle commission. Mostly they just file and sit, raise no money and lose.

I talked to the communist. He said he had gone to hear Sawant speak, and was disappointed that her message was “pure populism.”

“She’s a Marxist,” I said.

“She says she is.”

Sawant wasn’t marketing workers’ revolution. She was advocating specific things: rent control, a tax on millionaires’ incomes (in a state with no income tax), and a $15 minimum wage.

In the richest county in Washington state, she raised more than $100,000 for her campaign. Of her largest donors, the most common occupation was software engineer. Her donors included engineers and other tech types at Boeing, Microsoft, Amazon, and F5 Networks.

Conlin more than doubled her amount. His war chest was to be expected. Hers wasn’t.

Her red yard signs far outnumbered his. An old political rule is that a yard sign should have no message other than the candidate’s name — a rule that never made sense to me, because such a sign would give no reason for supporting the candidate. Sawant’s signs broke the rule. They said, “$15 minimum wage.”

The gap between top and bottom earners makes a political difference, whether you think it does or not.

Washington already had a $9.19 minimum wage with a cost-of-living provision that would push it to $9.32 on Jan. 1, 2014. This is the highest minimum wage of any state. But the Seattle metro area also has one of the lowest unemployment rates of any US city and some of the highest costs. The economy is strong here. Median house prices have been rising strongly since the beginning of 2012, and have almost cracked $500,000 again. In the neighborhood of the Amazon headquarters a new studio apartment costs $1,500 a month. Obviously, prices are that high because some people can pay them, but there are many who cannot.

The income-equality issue doesn’t ring loudly to libertarians, who are content to respect whatever the market says. But the gap between top and bottom earners makes a political difference, whether you think it does or not. If that gap is not too wide, people will accept it. But it widens, decade after decade, and neither Republicans and Democrats do anything to stop it. The progressives talk about the middle class going away, which a gross exaggeration, but the proportion of new jobs that are middle-income is less than it was. Among recent graduates the technical ones do fine, some of them better than fine, but the political science and English lit grads are working in coffee shops and grocery stores, and they resent it.

They look to the left for political rescue, and in Seattle, the Democratic Party is not the left. It would feel like the left to most Americans, but here the Democratic Party is the establishment. Kshama Sawant is the left. Her cry is to “break the Democratic Party’s corporate domination of Seattle.”

Apparently, she has.


Editor's Note: On November 15, Sawant was declared the winner, with just over 50% of the vote.



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