When journalist James Fallows was in town a few weeks back to speak at the Crosscut Courage Awards, he had an optimistic message about our current political era. We are in a second Gilded Age, he said, with a wealth gap as bad as or worse than the robber baron era. But he reminded us that what followed that age was an incredible blossoming of citizen-led reform, from women's suffrage to the Progressive movement that reshaped our democracy for the better.
We still enjoy the benefits of those reforms, which included anti-trust laws, the vote for women, direct popular election of senators, the right of referendums, initiatives and recalls, conservation and protection of public lands, consumer protection laws, labor reforms, help for the poor, and much more. The reform era was one of tumult — the changes didn't come easy and the politics of the era were scrambled. Democrats bolted to support populists, Republicans bolted to support Progressives, labor unrest stirred the pot and Socialists gained traction. The main political parties morphed and shifted.
Here in Washington, we were a hot-bed of all of the above. We elected a Populist governor in 1896 who helped enshrine equal access to public education in our state. In 1910, Washington state elected its first Socialist mayor, W. B. Cook, in Edmonds. Spokane elected a Socialist city commissioner in 1911.
In 1912, former president Theodore Roosevelt, who had abandoned his own party to run for president on a reform ticket, came to Seattle to speak at the Dreamland Pavilion to the state convention of the Bull Moose Progressive Party. He was greeted by a throng of red bandana-wearing Seattleites who heard him rail against the unfettered rich and powerful. Only a national government, he said, can regulate the national economy and keep Wall Street reined in.
That same year, Socialist Eugene V. Debs came to town and accused Roosevelt of co-opting his party's platform during a speech at the Moore Theater. That year, Socialist candidates had strong showings, though no victories, in Seattle's city council elections, but the turnout did help Democrat reformer George Cotterill win the mayor's office, according to the anti-Socialist, anti-Cotterill Seattle Times. Teddy Roosevelt carried the state. Another progressive victory in 1912: Seattle passed a minimum wage of $2.75 per day for laborers doing work for the city.
Flash forward to 2013, with Socialist city council candidate Kshama Sawant (below, right) unseating a four-term, progressive incumbent Richard Conlin on the strength of her aggressive campaign for a $15-an-hour minimum wage, taxes on millionaires and rent control — and the apparent eked-out victory for the $15-an-hour minimum wage measure in Sea-Tac. With her unexpected victory — Sawant began her campaign hoping only for a decent showing and a chance to steer the debate leftward — the new city council member found herself the subject of national stories, a poster child for her national party, Socialist Alternative.
Seattle is a Democrat's town, and even Democrats seemed pleased at the Socialist. At the 20th annual post-election fundraiser in the 36th District, hosted by Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles last week, Sawant's victory was applauded by many Democrats in the crowd. It was a warm welcome to the return, small though it might be, to two-party politics in Seattle.
It is a ritual for candidates, even for non-partisan offices, to make the rounds of all the Democratic groups and prove their party credentials and loyalty. They fight fiercely for endorsements. Those candidates who have in the past demonstrated a lack of yellow-dog commitment have been deemed suspect: Tim Burgess for having once donated to John McCain, or Peter Steinbrueck for his flirtation with Ralph Nader and the Greens.
Those days are over. Now a genuine, capital-letter Socialist is welcomed with genuine enthusiasm into the political fold. Her appeal was broad enough to attract the likes of Crosscut columnist Ted Van Dyk, which aligned him with his critics at The Stranger. Sawant nearly tempted Bruce Ramsey, the Seattle Times' conservative libertarian editorial board member, to vote for her, and he wrote admiringly of her pluck and for her challenge of the Big D machine.
The conventional wisdom is that Sawant was helped by Mike McGinn's turnout efforts, even if those same efforts couldn't get the mayor out of the popularity hole he'd dug for himself. That could be true, but it is also true that there must have been a fair number of Murray-Sawant voters out there. One explanation is that people wanted change — in the mayor's office and on the council.
That change scenario is well supported by the passage of a hybrid system that will elect most council members by district and likely scramble the current council's make up. District elections had been rejected before, at one time seen as a right-wing conspiracy to get Republicans back into city politics. Now they are seen as precisely the opposite: an opportunity for grassroots candidates, perhaps even the launchpad for progressive slates.
If Sawant represents radical activism, Murray is the instinctual opposite. He's not Occupy Seattle's mayor. His transition team already shows the classic steady, inclusive Seattle approach of "pragmatic progressivism," meaning liberal yet business-friendly and insider-oriented. Those who represent the Democrat's "right," if it can be called that, were almost all in Murray's corner.
Sawant will be critical of the cozy alliance between Seattle Democrats and business. In an interview this week with Salon, Sawant laid out both an economic and generational critique. "In reality," she said, "what has become a dirty word is capitalism. Young people can see that the system does not offer any solutions. They can see that a two-party system is not working for them. But what is the alternative? We have to provide the alternative…."
All the more reason that Sawant can play the left's public conscience. Keep the mayor and council moving on the minimum wage; press on affordability and fairness; ensure that the coal trains don't roll; keep the social justice banner waving even when inconvenient; maintain pressure on police reform.
Sawant faces a number of challenges.
One, she needs a staff that knows the city and she must reach beyond the Socialist circle for steady support. Two, she needs to avoid being another Judy Nicastro, a young, progressive fresh council face who stalled before becoming established. Sawant will have to run a second campaign in only two years, not much time to get acclimated, catch her breath and deliver on promises. Third, she'll have to avoid being seen as either an obstructionist or irrelevant to the council's mainstream majority. She'll also have to avoid becoming one of the gang, one of Emmett Watson's "maple bar" council members, all stuck together in a bag. She has a tricky (sticky) line to walk. Supporters believe she's up to the task: otherwise, she wouldn't have done the impossible and won.
Does her election mean that we're all Socialists now? We can enjoy the thought of giving Bill O'Reilly apoplexy, but more interesting will be to see if Sawant, perhaps Mike O'Brien and Nick Licata before her, can shift the council's center. Commentators like Danny Westneat at the Seattle Times and David "Goldy" Goldstein at The Stranger contend the city's whole center of gravity has moved leftward.
Some potentially difficult issues for Sawant are where the left splits.
Take the SoDo arena, for example. Will she fight to stop such corporate welfare, or stand on the sidelines? The subjects of growth and density are others where progressives sometimes disagree. Some would like see see fewer controls on developers so that more housing can be built rapidly to help with affordability, the idea being that we need to dramatically increase supply. Others are more skeptical of developers, the market, indeed capitalism.
Sawant wants rent control and doesn't trust landlords, and Licata would like to see developers shoulder more burden for financing affordable housing and ameliorating displacement and other negative impacts of development. The affordability dilemma has to be wrestled with if one wants a city where people of every class can live, and Sawant made that central to her campaign.
On the larger Jim Fallows question, what role will Seattle play in ending the new Gilded Age? A $15-hour wage and new power for labor could be one thing, combined with the state's libertarian movement on legalized pot and gay marriage. Murray sees Seattle showing all of America that government can work. He said on election night that he wants our city to be a model for the nation. (Have we ever had a mayor who didn't?)
If Murray wants to prove that pragmatic liberal government is the answer, Sawant is more focused on proving that capitalism is failing us, especially the young, and that solutions will have to be found outside the Democratic box. Those two worldviews have some overlap, but they also collide. Writing in Washington Monthly, Samuel Knight warns Democrats to pay attention: " [T]he Democratic Party itself — or, at least, the centrist wing of it — should be most haunted by the specter of a socialist alternative (lowercase) in places where the party's establishment has taken support for granted."
As of now, Seattle has become a national petri dish for progressive politics. You never know what such experiments will produce, but everybody's watching.