By Patrick Ayers, Socialist Alternative, Seattle, USA
Initial election results give Kshama Sawant 8,197 votes (52.56%) and her Republican backed Democratic challenger Pamela Banks 7,349 (47.12%)
Not only can socialists get elected, we can get re-elected. At the time of writing, and with about a third of the votes counted, 52.6% of voters in Seattle’s District 3 have chosen Kshama Sawant to serve another four years on the City Council. Since late votes tend to trend in our favour, we can safely claim victory.
In Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighbourhood tonight, hundreds of campaign supporters are celebrating at our election night party. People arrived confident due to Kshama’s outstanding work in the council and our ferocious ground game.
The night before, on Monday, Socialist Alternative member and Boeing IAM machinist Jeremy Prickett addressed volunteers gathered for the last doorknocking effort of the campaign. “Brothers and sisters,” he began, “it’s a privilege for us to be here today because for so long politics have been out of the hands of working people. Socialist Alternative and Kshama Sawant are changing that.”
Over 600 volunteers, more than 30 union organisations, and dozens of progressive organizations had Kshama’s back against our opponent who had the support of CEOs, the Chamber of Commerce, the real estate lobby, the landlord lobby, Amazon.com, slumlords, six conservative members of the city council, and even a handful of Republican millionaires who created their own PAC to attack us and support our Democratic Party opponent in the final weeks.
Against this powerful establishment opposition, along with their echo chamber of vitriolic anti-Kshama attacks and their exorbitant bank accounts, we knocked on 90,000 doors and made 170,000 phone calls. We talked to thousands of people about affordable housing, inequality, taxing the rich, and working class politics. It was an unprecedented grassroots effort for local Seattle politics.
A New Kind of Politics
As Jeremy’s words above suggest, for many people, this campaign was about far more than re-electing Kshama. It was about building a whole new kind of politics that fights unapologetically for working families, and not corporations. It was about showing what was possible if working people get organized.
In the age of unlimited corporate election spending following the 2010 Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision and in a year when corporations in Seattle spent five times more than ever before on City Council elections, we shattered fundraising records for a council race and defeated corporate cash. We raised nearly $500,000 from almost 3,500 individual donors. Our median donation was merely $50 and more people donated to our campaign from Seattle and our district than for any other candidate running for City Council across the city. Like Bernie Sanders’ campaign which also refuses corporate money and raised $28 million in three months, Kshama’s campaign is a demonstration of the huge potential for independent working class politics in the US.
“The degree to which [Kshama Sawant] blows everyone out of the water in some funding categories, and her ability to rely on many small donors, is this election’s clearest sign that the old guard is being shaken.” – Crosscut.com
Nobody in Seattle has caused more headaches for the political establishment over the past two years than Kshama Sawant. “I wear the badge of socialist with pride,” she declared in her January 2014 inauguration speech after upsetting a 13 year incumbent. She promised at that time: “There will be no backroom deals with corporations or their political servants. There will be no rotten sell-out of the people I represent.”
And Kshama delivered. Her office became a centre for working class resistance, helping tenants, workers, people of colour, LGBTQ people, immigrants and indigenous people. Kshama pushed the political debate in Seattle to the left. “Affordability” has become one of the most repeated buzzwords. Nevertheless, she was blocked many times by a conservative majority on the council that was tied by a thousand threads to the corporate establishment. But Kshama never relented in her unapologetic fight for the interests of working people, explaining again and again that what could be won inside city hall largely depended on the strength of movements outside — and actively doing everything she could to help build those movements.
This same spirit imbued the election campaign. While we knew we were in a strong position with a visible sea of red posters and yard signs blanketing the district, we nonetheless took nothing for granted given the way democracy is warped by capitalism, where cash buys votes and the corporate media narrows and distorts the discussion.
Instead, we relied on building up our own independent force that could reach thousands of voters by activating working and young people to talk with thousands of people on their doorsteps.
When $60,000 was dumped into our race by three different corporate PACs in the last weeks of the campaign, our grassroots movement was prepared. Within days, we were able to get a leaflet to thousands of doors across the district alerting voters to the flood of PAC money. And when our opponent sent two negative attack mailers in the last week, we again got another leaflet out to thousands of doors exposing the dishonesty of the attacks.
An Example to Build On
As the first elected socialist in Seattle in a century, Kshama’s re-election campaign took on far more significance than the average local election. Al Jazeera called it one of seven elections in the whole US to watch this year. The campaign took place against the national background of surging support for Bernie Sanders’ campaign for president as a socialist and his call for “a political revolution against the billionaire class”.
Undoubtedly, the experience of the last two years in Seattle has provided a wealth of lessons for socialists and working people everywhere. Kshama would be the first to say that what has made the key difference in Seattle has been the existence of an organized socialist movement and Socialist Alternative in particular.
We have provided key political support to Kshama to help navigate the pressures of elected office and movement building. Together, we were able to give a successful lead and turn the growing anger at inequality, skyrocketing rent, and out-of-touch establishment politicians into a movement that relies on its own strength, its own organizations, and its own resources.
The opportunities to build the socialist movement across the US are only getting bigger. Capitalism has completely failed working families. People are fed up with the corporate establishment and there is a growing interest in socialist ideas reflected in the intense interest when Bernie Sanders explained why he considers himself a democratic socialist in the debate with Hillary Clinton. The movement for a $15/hour minimum wage has won a number of key victories around the country, students are beginning to fight back against student debt, and a whole new generation of young activists has been activated by Black Lives Matter. The world is changing and there has never been a better time to join the socialists.
By no means does our work end tonight. We need to use this opportunity and build on our victory. First of all that means we need to get even more organized. It has been movement building that has gotten us this far. People should join Socialist Alternative and help us build an even stronger movement that can win more victories over the next years.
And tonight in Seattle, now that Kshama’s seat is safe, our hard-working volunteers are enjoying a well-deserved celebration that will likely last late into the night. We’re proud to know that many people around the country and the world are celebrating with us. This victory belongs to socialists and working class people everywhere. Together, we have a world to win.