As of Tuesday, Kshama Sawant was beating incumbent Richard Conlin by 41 votes. Credit: Photo: Bill Lucia
Even before the final vote count (and probable recount) takes place, Kshama Sawant's surprisingly strong City Council candidacy is the biggest news coming out of Seattle's electoral results. Her showing — and the passage of the City Council elections-by-district measure — will make our governance more responsive if sometimes disputatious.
I don't support Sawant's basic three-point agenda for the city and cannot imagine that many well-educated and informed voters do. But I voted for her, probably for the same reason so many others did; namely, to send a message to a complacent, go-along City Council seemingly responsive only to the city bureacracy and a handful of downtown developers and corporate players rich in influence and campaign money.
Analysts would be mistaken to credit Sawant's Socialist platform for her success. Her success, instead, should be attributed mainly to voter impatience with incumbents and to the fact that she was the only challenger who ran a vigorous, credible campaign. (The other four City Council incumbents up for re-election, unlike Sawant's opponent Richard Conlin, drew lucky straws and got a pass.)
Sawant's three-point program is as fresh as New York City circa 1933. The rent control, she champions, would hopelessly distort the housing market and, over time, result in wholesale deterioration of housing stock. Her advocacy for an increase in the minimum wage is admirable, but the $15 level she wants would kill jobs, especially the entry-level jobs available to the poor and unskilled. Her talk of a Seattle "millionaires tax?" Sounds good. Trouble is, local millionaires can avoid it by employing tax shelters or simply moving out of the city.
If Sawant manages to win her Council election, none of her program is likely to be enacted, except perhaps for a more modest minimum-wage increase than she proposes. She will, however, bring a challenging, critical voice to a body which has okayed multimillion- and billion-dollar capital projects, financed by regressive taxes, with few questions asked. Sawant, if elected, will not shut up or allow herself to be shut out.
Expect more shakeups when Council members hereafter are forced to live in the districts they represent, and get their votes only in those districts. That will make Seattle like many major U.S. cities where public officials are forced to pay attention to public safety, transportation and other neighborhood and community issues. Some City Council incumbents may opt out of the next electoral cycle, one suspects, because they dread the hard work involved in relating to constituents on a personal level. Easy, when you are elected at-large, to rubberstamp the agenda in front of the council. Harder, when you represent a defined constituency, to stand up actively for the interests of the voters who sent you there.
Sawant is a standup person and a disturber of the status quo. More power to her and to others of a similar mindset who may follow. Power, too, to ordinary voters who too often have endured local taxation without representation. We need Sawant, not because of what she proposes, but because of who she is. Go, Kshama, go.