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Seattle Peoples Party is first U.S. manifestation of global trend

Nikkita Oliver, mayoral candidate of the People's Party of Seattle, speaks to hundreds during a rally for her on primary election night at Washington Hall in Seattle, Wash. on August 1, 2017. Credit: Karen Ducey for Crosscut

A fiery female activist with serious street cred achieves a surprise mayoral election victory in a progressive city at a time of conservative national leadership, running on a platform of affordable housing for the most marginalized. Sound like a storybook ending to Nikkita Oliver’s longshot quest to be mayor of Seattle?

It’s actually the true story of Ada Colau, the first woman mayor of Barcelona, who upended the political establishment in Spain’s second largest city. She’s become a global icon who now gives speeches at the United Nations — and namechecks the 1999 Battle of Seattle in the process.

Colau swept into office on the strength of a new kind of political party that has parallels to the Seattle Peoples Party, whose banner Oliver is running under. If precedent in Barcelona and elsewhere holds true, a local political party that focuses on hot-button municipal issues like housing affordability and social justice could have a future here, no matter the final results of the mayoral election.

Oliver’s campaign is hanging on the results of late primary ballot counts, where she is currently in third place. But even if she is eliminated from the two-person November runoff for mayor, Oliver and the Seattle Peoples Party may be right back in the campaign spotlight. On election night, Cary Moon, the candidate running just ahead of Oliver, told another reporter for Crosscut that she looks forward to working with the Seattle Peoples Party, whatever the primary results. Business-backed candidate Jenny Durkan, the former U.S. Attorney for Western Washington, has a lock on first place in the primary and a spot in the general election.

The movement that made Colau mayor of Barcelona was just 10 months old on election night in May 2015. It’s the most successful example yet of this new kind of progressive, locally based party — operating outside of the hierarchy of traditional established parties.

Barcelona's Ada Colau on election day, May 25, 2015. Credit: Marc Lozano
Barcelona’s Ada Colau, right, on election day, May 25, 2015. Credit: Marc Lozano

From Berlin to Buenos Aires to Montréal, these “network parties,” as Barcelona-based political scientist Maria Haberer calls them, are using a combination of youth energy, social media and digital technology to forge an alternative to politics as usual. She characterizes these parties as opposing the rich white male politicians “who don’t have any idea of what’s going on.”

The Seattle Peoples Party — with its efforts to center its platform around the needs of women, people of color, the LGBTQ community, renters and the cash poor — is the first U.S. manifestation of this global trend. That makes sense, given the city’s progressive but non-partisan politics that are far from the ironclad grip of Democratic machines like Chicago.

Housing issues helped drive Barcelona’s creation of a local party. With Spaniards facing foreclosure left and right during the country’s 2009 mortgage crisis, Colau became the passionate spokesperson for the Platform for People Affected by Mortgages, which like Seattle’s No New Youth Jail movement, was not afraid to protest outside of government officials’ homes to push their calls for relief.

Barcelona simultaneously suffered from the national mortgage crisis and, as Seattle knows all too well, a local housing affordability crunch. Instead of techies, the Catalan capital must contend with tourists. Landlords are opting to rent to short-term visitors over leasing to full-time residents, further drying up the housing supply and drawing in rowdy bachelor parties to once quiet neighborhoods like seaside La Barceloneta. Imagine if Ballard surpassed Vegas as the No. 1 destination for pre-nuptials debauchery and you can envision the impact on quality of life. Colau has successfully delivered on some campaign pledges, like fining Airbnb for unlicensed listings and “speculative” banks who own empty apartments.

Oliver and Colau share a reliance on a grassroots network of supporters that operate horizontally and outside the bounds of traditional political structures like the Socialists’ Party of Catalonia or the Democratic Party. Barcelona en Comú — which prefers to be called a “movement” even though legally it’s a political party — draws its ideas from neighborhood assemblies, which arose during Spanish anti-austerity protests in 2011.

Similarly, the loose group of educators, artists, activists and attorneys that coalesced into the Seattle Peoples Party selected Nikkita Oliver as their candidate through a series of meetings over successive lists of potential challengers to Ed Murray. Oliver accepted reluctantly, and in her first foray into politics, she didn’t come with signature proposals, like Bob Hasegawa’s municipal bank or Cary Moon’s speculators tax. Instead, she hosted several listening sessions, such as one in the Chinatown International District with translation in five languages that focused on public safety and the new Navigation Center homeless shelter.

“Many of the elders expressed how grateful and surprised they were because they haven’t had any opportunity to have this kind of dialogue [from] any other candidate,” said Oliver campaign coordinator Bana Abera.

It’s unclear if, under a Seattle Peoples Party mayor, such listening sessions might evolve into a main conduit between Seattle citizens and City Hall, as was the case in Barcelona. While hailed by advocates for participatory democracy, they are by no means perfect. Barcelona-based political scientist Haberer, who sat in on many assemblies for her research, calls the idea that these Occupy-style meetings would democratize city governance a “utopian vision” and argues that “hierarchy is inevitable,” with a core group of 10 or so people ending up as the main decision makers. Haberer said that the reality of governing has led Colau to compromises.

After Colau’s election, Barcelona en Comú went so far as to release a manual, “How to Win Back the City en Comú”, stressing mantras like “listen to the people” and “never forget who you are” that square with the Seattle Peoples Party playbook. Other global examples have had more mixed results. The German Pirate Party, for instance, held nearly 10 percent of the seats in the Berlin legislature, only to sputter last year. The urbanist-driven vision of a family-friendly city behind Projet Montréal has won seats on city council but never captured the mayor’s office.

While the Seattle Peoples Party insists it is here to stay and plans to run candidates in future races, the all-consuming Oliver for Mayor campaign has left it little time for long-term strategizing, leaving the party’s exact future unclear.

“This election is really going to dictate how that plays out,” said campaign coordinator Bana Abera in the final days before the election. “There’s going to be a lot of momentum when she wins, but if she doesn’t, there will still be a lot of momentum. We really need to be strategic about how we move forward and utilize all this momentum and this huge network that we built of over 1,500 volunteers.”

In a moment of global political upheaval, Colau’s municipal movement seems to have its finger on the pulse, one that has radiated all the way to Seattle. “We’re living in extraordinary times that demand brave and creative solutions,” she said on the anniversary of her election. “If we’re able to imagine a different city, we’ll have the power to transform it.”

Nick Turner contributed election night reporting to this story.

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