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The election of Seattle's first socialist city councilor


January 7, 2014

Yesterday Kshama Sawant was inaugurated as the first socialist in Seattle City Council. As she said in her speech, "I will do my utmost to represent the disenfranchised and the excluded, the poor and the oppressed – by fighting for a $15/hour minimum wage, affordable housing, and taxing the super-rich for a massive expansion of public transit and education. But my voice will be heard by those in power only if workers themselves shout their demands from the rooftops and organize en masse." Socialist.ca's Kevin Brice interviewed her campaign manager Ramy Khalil about her historic election victory and the prospects for radical change in the US.
 
What is the significance of this election victory?
The result in Seattle – the election of Sawant an open socialist to city council with 95,000 votes, 51 per cent of the total – is historic. The result in Minneapolis of Socialist Alternative city council candidate Ty Moore, barely losing by 230 votes and gaining 42 per cent of the vote compared to the winner’s 47.5 per cent was also an historic breakthrough. These results show a profound shift of mood of people in the US, especially the working class. This shift is rich in opportunities, and challenges, for socialists and real progressives. There is a powerful desire for change, change that ends the domination of US society, politics and life by the corporations and their lackeys.
 
Of course to win in elections, not the most favourable of spaces for socialists, requires specific circumstances as well as a powerful mood. Seattle is a one-party city, so the argument of “lesser evil," voting Democrat to stop the Republicans, did not apply. The desire for change was encouraged by important commentators who are not socialists, such as The Stranger (Seattle’s alternative weekly newspaper), that supported Sawant to provide a new, fresh, radial voice on city council while not challenging the overall liberal politics of the city. The ties of US workers to the Democrats are much weaker than the ties to the former workers’ parties of Europe, who now are as pro-big business as the Democrats, such as New Labour in Britain, the SPD in Germany, or the French Socialist party.
 
Nonetheless this victory was the result of the real mood for change, which flowed from the change in class understanding exposed by the Occupy movement, and the seriousness of Socialist Alternatives’ campaign. Grasping this changed mood came from both a clear political analysis of US society and an understanding of how to campaign. Our campaign demands were vital to gaining widespread support. The demands connected to everyday life, articulated the anger at the present deep inequality and linked to a vision of a better – socialist – society. The victory also took an enormous amount of hard work.
 
The core message of these results, coming on top of Occupy, the battle of Wisconsin and the struggles for $15 an hour, is that the US workers are stirring.
 
When was the last time a socialist was elected in the US, and what does this say about the appetite for change in the US?
In the last five years a huge shift has taken place in US society. Since the recession started, ordinary people have seen time and time again that the ruling class, and their political parties, operate not in the interests of the voters, but in the interest of corporate profits. Be it bailing out Wall Street and leaving main street to be evicted, incessant attacks on unions and working people’s benefits, and a “recovery” filled with poverty wages. In addition, Obama was elected in 2008 on the back of a mass movement that believed in “Hope” and “Change” and millions have been sorely disappointed by the president they got.
 
Huge anger against the system has built up and was given some expression by the Occupy movement – which pointed out the outlines of class division, the 99% and the 1%. Meanwhile, right-wing pundits used the term “socialist” as a dirty word to attack Obama and others – effectively doing a better job of normalizing the term than the left could possibly have done.
 
Our campaigns (we ran candidates in Minneapolis and Boston as well), started from that perspective. Everywhere we found a huge response from people who were angry about how the system worked and eager for a change. In Seattle, due to our high-profile run last year, Kshama was seen by more and more people as a viable candidate, and not just as a protest vote.
 
From a historical perspective, Kshama Sawant is the first ever open socialist elected to Seattle City Council. In recent years, a handful of people elected in the US have called themselves socialist, for example Bernie Sanders in Vermont, although he runs as an independent and often acts as a left Democrat rather than a campaigning socialist. There were dozens of socialists elected across the country in the early years of the 20th century.
 
The reason this result is historic is because it represents the turn of working people away from the two parties of big business and shows that it is possible to run on a principled program, independent of corporate cash and the Democrats, and WIN.
 
Third party candidates in the US, like Nader in the past, are often accused of "dividing the progressive vote" by challenging the Democrats. How has the experience of life under Obama, and movements like Occupy, the Chicago teachers strike and the fast food and retail worker strikes changed people's attitudes to alternative candidates, and how did this shape your campaign?
 
The election of a Socialist Alternative candidate and the excellent results of our other candidates are historic and show the space that has opened up for radical politics. However, there’s more evidence: in Ohio, after facing union-busting Democrats for too long, the central labor council ran independent candidates and took over the city councils in a few smaller towns; and in Jackson, Mississippi, Chokwe Lamumba was elected, still as a Democrat, but on a very radical platform.
 
As mentioned earlier, Occupy was a crucial development in US society. The framing of the recession as a struggle between the 99% and the 1% blew the ruling class narrative of attacking “privileged public sector workers” out of the water. This created space to the left of the Democrats, but it was mostly unfilled.  We learned quickly through these elections that working people were not excited by independent left candidates unless they thought they had a chance to win. In Minneapolis and in Seattle, where we waged high profile and serious campaigns, we convinced people that voting for a socialist was voting for a candidate who could win.
 
Most elections in the United States are effectively single party elections, especially local elections. Seattle, Minneapolis, and Boston are all Democratic Party strongholds. In these places there can be no talk of “dividing the vote” or lesser evilism, as the Republicans have no chance. There has not been a Republican elected to Seattle city council since 1991. This takes away the argument that most union leaders use to put huge resources behind Democrats – they’ll be better than Republicans and they are the only candidates with a real chance to win. We’ve made an initial foray into puncturing this myth.
 
This “lesser-evil” approach results in union leaders and others refusing to criticizing the Democrats from the left. Demands are limited to what is considered acceptable to corporations and their interests. Socialist Alternative candidates rejected this and instead based our demands on what working people need.
 
‘Lesser-evilism’ means the interests of the working class are tied to a party that represents big business. Accepting this argument would have meant that the CCF would never have run against the Liberals in Canada.
 
What did you campaign on, what roots do you have in social movements, and what kind of support did your campaign receive from labour and social movements?
 
We put forward an extensive program of demands, all related directly to the actual powers that the city council has (www.votesawant.org/issues). However, we focused on three main demands: the fight for a $15/hour minimum wage, affordable housing and rent control, and funding mass transit and education by taxing the super-rich. We also highlighted that our candidates, if elected, would not take the inflated wage of councillor but would take the average workers’ wage.
 
Our tireless campaigning and push on these main issues affected the entire political discussion around elections in Seattle. Both main mayoral candidates felt pressured to support $15/hour and did so publicly. There was more excitement around our campaign than any other race in the city. One part of this was that we were able to choose our opponent, Richard Conlin, who had become a dependable servant of corporate interests. He was the only city council member who voted against paid sick leave for workers!
 
Our campaigns were supported by many community activists, union members and environmentalists. Sawant was endorsed by 6 union locals and the majority of King County Labour Council. Moore’s campaign in Minneapolis was supported by the state-wide SEIU.
 
In elections, progressives are often divided between those who place their faith in traditional social democratic parties, and those who dismiss voting altogether based on the results of social democratic parties in power. The only alternative in Canada so far is Quebec Solidaire, which sees itself as a "party of the ballot box and of the streets", which can act as a megaphone for the movements, like its support for the Quebec student strike. What role did you see the election playing with respect to social movements, and how is this different than the traditional approach to elections?
 
The division between supporting social democratic candidates or not participating in elections is a false dichotomy. There is a long tradition of parties (both social democratic and communist) around the world that contested elections and were also campaigning parties rooted in communities and workplaces. Elections and campaigns were seen as part of the same struggles, strengthening each other. The Seattle election was a continuation of political campaigns and in turn the election strengthened the campaigns.  
 
The election campaign in Seattle came out of Occupy, where Socialist Alternative and Kshama Sawant played a leading role in Occupy Seattle, putting forward a strategy to deal with police harassment and avoiding being used as an extension of the Democratic mayor of the city. After Occupy, Socialist Alternative put forward the idea of 200 independent Occupy candidates across the US to build on the momentum. Unfortunately as that idea was not taken up, we decided to move beyond advocating for independent left working class candidates by testing the water and demonstrating in practice that it was a viable strategy. The success of the election campaigns in Seattle and Minneapolis demonstrated significant support for socialist candidates and the wider potential.
 
The key election slogan was for $15 an hour, a demand already being fought for by low-paid workers in Seattle and across the US. The campaign actively supported the demand with solidarity actions and made the demand more widely popular. By the end of the election campaign most candidates in Seattle were forced to at least make polite noises in support. Now that Sawant is elected, we are organizing to make this demand a reality in Seattle.
 
Sawant, and Socialist Alternative, have also been very active in opposition to the plan to run coal trains through Seattle to a proposed coal export terminal in Bellingham. She will use her position on Seattle city council to stop the terminal.
 
In the Minneapolis election, where Ty Moore lost by just over 200 votes, the campaign came out of Occupy Homes. This grew out of Occupy and worked to protect people against home foreclosures by the banks. Ty was a leader of that campaign and helped establish an “Eviction Free Zone”. Earlier this year in a civil disobedience protest he was one of the people arrested, although he was not convicted of any crime. Sawant was also arrested in July for her participation in a protest against the eviction of a construction worker from his home to satisfy the banks.
 
The roots of the campaigns, their connections to struggles and the candidates own actions all show that these campaign are very different from the usual campaigns of social democrats today.
 
Our election campaign in the US was rooted in the growing mood of anger and for change in the US and also from the international situation, with radicalism in the air, and the wide experience of elections and elected representatives of the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI), the international organization which Socialist Alternative is in solidarity with. Almost all of our elected representatives have come out of struggles and once elected have helped to build social movements. Perhaps the most significant was Liverpool City Council in the 1980s. Then the CWI in Britain was the Militant tendency and part of the Labour Party. The Labour majority on council and the District Labour Party, which gave guidance to the councillors, both had a powerful Militant influence. The council defied Margaret Thatcher’s Tory government and passed a needs’ budget – a deficit budget – around the slogan “Better to break the law than break the poor”. The council built more council housing in one city than in the rest of England (over 5,000 homes in total), created new parks, refurbished older houses, opened nurseries and community centres and provided thousands of jobs. In the end the Labour leader Neil Kinnock attacked the councillors, not the Tories, and expelled many of the councillors from the Labour Party, part of the rightward shift of Labour to Tony Blair’s New Labour. With the councillors expelled, the courts then removed them from office, surcharged and bankrupted them, and a huge witch-hunt was launched on the city council.
 
There have been other elected representatives who were CWI members and have taken principled stands in solidarity with struggles. Terry Fields, a British MP from Liverpool, went to prison for not paying his poll tax. Tommy Sheridan while in prison over the poll tax was elected to Glasgow Council in 1992. Joe Higgins, a member of the Irish Parliament (Dáil) and Paul Murphy, Irish member of the European Parliament, come from a long history of struggle going back to the water tax and earlier. Joe was elected to Dublin council in 1991 and was sent to prison in 1996 for opposing the water tax. Paul, facing re-election in 2014, has been an outspoken champion for struggles internationally – including going on a solidarity boat to Gaza in 2011 and being arrested and deported by the Israeli government.
 
As you say in Canada at this stage the only party which combines election candidates and public campaigns is Quebec olidaire, which our Quebec colleagues (Alternative Socialiste) are active participants in. In the US at this stage there is no broad-based left or workers’ party that contests elections or mobilizes in campaigns of struggle. That is one of the large tasks ahead for the US workers. The election in Seattle we hope will contribute to building that party, by demonstrating it is a practical strategy and raising awareness of the opportunities.
 
Social change primarily comes through movements; most of the important gains of the past came from mass movements. Having elected representatives who solidly support these struggles can be a big help. Also elections can have an important supporting role to building movements, raising political awareness, and challenging capitalist politics. Sawant will play a major role in helping to build movements.
 
Canada is in the midst of a senate scandal at the national level, and municipal scandal in Toronto, with many seeking to reform these capitalist institutions with minor changes. What role do you for see for socialists as elected officials, and how does this connect to the vision for broader change?
 
The antics of Conservative Prime Minister Harper’s former friends in the Senate and in Toronto no doubt feed the cynicism most people feel about politics. Here in the US the federal politicians are less popular than cockroaches. Most politicians are now simply elected servers of big business, giving away tax cuts to the rich and corporations while slashing jobs and services. We note in Canada that your government has become a sales rep for the oil and gas industry disregarding climate change and the environment.
 
There is of course a long history of corruption in politics – including Canada’s first Prime Minister’s deals around building the railway across the country. This trend has increased with neo-liberalism, as government has openly become a servant of big business and "get rich policies" – and some politicians want some of that action now.
 
In contrast, there is an honourable tradition of workers’ representatives who fought for progressive and socialist policies. Here in the US one of the greatest is Eugene Debs who gained over a million votes for president while in prison for opposing the First World War. One of his statements, which answers all ‘lesser evil’ arguments was, “It is better to vote for what you want and not get it, than to vote for what you don't want and get it. This answers those in Canada who argue to support the Liberals to stop Harper, ignoring the Liberals’ own track record of massive cuts under Martin and Chrétien.
 
As well as self-seeking politicians there is also a tragic history of sincere workers getting elected and being corrupted or overwhelmed and ending up conforming to the system. One of the safeguards we have is that our representatives (both in politics and the unions) only take the pay of an average skilled worker. This was popularized in Britain and Ireland as a “Workers’ MP on a Workers’ Wage” and is a pledge we made in Seattle. Of course another safeguard is being a member of socialist organization rather than being an individual representative.
 
Tommy Douglas, often voted the greatest Canadian, argued in his Mouseland speech that mice should vote for mice rather than cats. Socialist Alternative in the US and our co-thinkers internationally have been working to build workers’ parties. As the social democratic parties, especially in Europe, were transformed from bourgeois-workers parties to openly pro-capitalist parties it raised the issue of whether to continue to orientate to the traditional party or to start building a new one. In a number of countries, a central task for the workers’ movements is to build new mass workers’ parties, that both challenge in elections and campaign. This is urgent, but requiring patience to build trust and shared ways of working.
 
This process has been difficult but there have been partial successes in Germany with Die Linke, Brazil with PSOL, Greece the Syriza (although the recent decision to end ‘components , which was the nature of Syriza when founded is a setback to struggles and may pave the way to the leadership compromising with the Troika), and the newly formed Workers and Socialist Party in South Africa. Others have had a more difficult process, such as the various setbacks in Britain. We see this as a key issue internationally and hope the victory in the US will encourage others here and around the world to build mass democratic campaigning workers’ parties. 
 
The Seattle victory flowed from a Marxist analysis of the political opportunities combined with a determination to fully grasp that opportunity. Alongside building mass workers’ parties we are working to build a strong Marxist party in the US and internationally as Marxist analysis and method are crucial to the victory of the working class.

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