Disenchantment and dismay - unless you're Kshama Sawant

At yesterday's polls, Seattle voters found many ways to say 'I'm fed up.' Their frustration has been a long time building.
Crosscut archive image.

Kshama Sawant joins Seattle's City Council.

At yesterday's polls, Seattle voters found many ways to say 'I'm fed up.' Their frustration has been a long time building.

Kshama Sawant’s election-night party seemed more like a rent party or a rally. The venue, Capitol Hill’s Melrose Studios, was a cement-floored basement, not a hotel ballroom. There was not a TV screen in sight, just many, many posters and vinyl banners. Two featured the iconic image of Che Guevara that once graced so many dorm rooms and head shops. One bore a classic inscription: “Trabajadores del mundo, únanse” — “Workers of the world, unite!”

Fresh-faced young greeters along the long table at the entrance insisted that arrivees sign both a sign-up sheet and a name tag, and implored them to contribute $15. “This party is costing us $1,200,” one explained — big money for a socialist running for city council.

Once I entered the party a pleasant woman in an enormous furry cap and fingerless gloves paused to check out my name tag, and I checked hers. “Meow,” it said. “Woof,” I naturally replied. She laughed and said, “It’s the anarchists versus the socialists,” and we both got it. Cats are anarchists, dogs are socialists, though not necessarily democratic ones.

A little over a century ago, in the ferment of the early labor struggles, anarchists and socialists were often bitter rivals, shouting and swinging and occasionally shooting at each other. Since then, anarchism has retained some of its power to alarm but “socialism” has become a term of nostalgia or mild contempt — unless you come from Vietnam, Cuba or the ex-Soviet Union and take it more seriously. In Seattle, home of Red Square and the Lenin statue, it has acquired a chic patina, but no one posing for pictures in front of Vladimir Ilyich pauses to think about what deeds the guy actually committed.

How then to explain the rise of Kshama Sawant, an economics instructor at two local colleges, a University of Mumbai-trained former software engineer and a stalwart of the Marxist, Trotskyist Socialist Alternative?

With 46 percent of the early returns, Sawant came closer to winning than even her supporters expected, closer than not only all the other three city council challengers but than Mayor Mike McGinn himself. And that was running against an incumbent widely regarded as able, earnest and solidly mainstream-Seattle progressive. Richard Conlin had won by wider and wider margins since 1997, when he himself unseated a City Council incumbent.

At the Sawant party, the warm-up speakers proclaimed victory an hour before the first results. Not because they expected their candidate to have a new job in January, but because they’d made their points and made them loudly: The $15 minimum wage she championed had gone from blue-sky dream (or, for some employers, darkening nightmare) to something like political orthodoxy: Both Seattle mayoral candidates had embraced it, and SeaTac voters were at that moment passing it.

Crosscut archive image.Their message, photogenically staged with big bold banners, had gone out around the country and the world: “In Spain, there’s a Kshama Sawant support group!” the emcee proclaimed, and the crowd cheered. Even the Seattle Times was aboard: The slide show flashed this story from nine days earlier: “We can already declare the big winner in Seattle. It’s the socialist.” The clip didn’t note that this was a column by Danny Westneat, not an institutional view.

There were a few incongruities to this victory lap. “Some parties say they’re grassroots,” the emcee continued. “I look around room and I see what Seattle looks like.” I looked around the sea of 200 or so white and occasionally Asian faces and saw three black ones. “It’s not just in Seattle. Many people have come from the East Coast to work on this campaign. Many people have come from internationally to work on this campaign.” Those are Seattle’s grassroots?

You can chalk Sawant’s strong showing up partly to her own charisma, and Conlin’s lack thereof: She’s engaging and energetic, brainy and emphatic but with a disarming smile. But I think timing has even more to do with it. The social, political and, especially, economic planets had lined up to create an opening on the left. First, the financial collapse of 2007-2008, exposing the contradictions of  hyper-financialized, globalized, boom-and-bust capitalism. Then the bank bailouts and the missed opportunity to exact fundamental reforms.

The too-big-to-fail banks emerged bigger and richer than ever, despite the recent federal extortion of a few billion bucks for the sins of the failing institutions they took over at the feds’ urging. See how fast they step up the next time a WaMu or Countrywide tanks.

Naïve homeowners lost their homes, watched flippers and speculators snatch them up, and then saw rents rise to punishing levels. Workers get not exactly a jobless recovery, at least in prosperous areas like Seattle, but a low-wage one. The productivity gains in the recovering economy go to profits, not wages — to capital, not labor, in the language of the movement.

And the two mainstream parties have never looked worse. The Tea Party insurgency has moved the Republican goalposts so far to the right that John Boehner and Mitch McConnell, former partisan scourges, are now the great hopes for moderation and conciliation.

From D.C. to Olympia to deep-blue Seattle, the Democrats seem more feckless than ever. Barack Obama, far from being a transformational figure, orders more drone strikes than Bush but can’t make a health-plan website work. Senate Majority Leader Ed Murray presides over the fracturing of his caucus with the defections of senators Rodney Tom and Tim Sheldon. (Funny how that didn’t seem to tarnish his rep as a self-proclaimed uniter and coalition-builder, and how the McGinn campaign didn’t try to make it stick.) Seattle’s streets are crumbling and its buses bursting while Democrat-in-all-but-name mayors and council members promote flashy new streetcars for yuppies and help Paul Allen and Jeff Bezos build a towering new downtown on Lake Union.

You don’t need to be a socialist to be mad as hell.

That points to an essential driver in all yesterday’s votes: varying degress of disenchantment, dismay and disgust with politics as usual. That might not seem the case with Seattle voters’ rejection of public financing of City Council elections, a measure touted as getting moneyed interests out of races and leveling the field for incumbents and challengers. But considering that seven current and two retired councilmembers plus McGinn, Murray and a phalanx of other local eminences endorsed the measure, it hardly seems a threat to the current power structure. I suspect the voters just didn’t want to give local politicians more of their tax dollars, especially for politicking.

Disenchantment with the status quo certainly drove Seattle’s embrace of by-district council elections, a perennial idea that used to only get traction in West Seattle. Be careful what you wish for. Southeast Seattle, the district that now feels most neglected, even abused, by City Hall, has two residents on the City Council. With districts it may have only one.

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Sawant supporters hoping to shake up the status quo. Allyce Andrews

That disenchantment also drove the vote against McGinn. Contrary to what John Carlson wrote on this site, I don’t think it was so much that voters didn’t like him. He’s actually quite engaging in person, and less wooden and thin-skinned than Murray. And he’s proven a surprisingly good manager — on which score Murray is unproven and maybe unprepared. But they didn’t trust him. He seems too much the cagey litigator splitting hairs, springing surprises (a seawall initiative out of the blue), wrongfooting friends and foes alike.

It started with the waterfront tunnel, which he said wouldn’t oppose as mayor when his opposition became a stumbling block. Then he tried to block it, on a lawyerly pretext about cost overruns.

At Murray’s party, I got an earful from two former McGinn supporters. They were organizers of Seattle’s Somali and Ethiopian communities, seedbeds of support that McGinn seemed to have carefully cultivated. “He promised a lot,” said one — filling the immigrant commission, a say for their communities in spending Families and Education Levy money. “But he didn’t keep his word. After he was elected — pffft. In our culture, you have to keep your word.”

Of course, even when McGinn did keep his word, pushing bike lanes and a new light-rail line, he got slapped down for it. And the disenchantment didn’t begin with him. From the 1970s till the late ‘90s, Seattle was famously complacent about its mayors. Wes Uhlman survived the Boeing Bust, severe cutbacks and a union-backed recall election to win a second term and achieve elder statesman status. Charles Royer survived a rocky start to serve three terms. Norm Rice served two but, like Royer, probably could have had more if he'd wanted. Since then, Paul Schell and Greg Nickels got bounced out in primaries. At least McGinn survived his.

In the only seriously contested Seattle School Board race, the business establishment’s annointed candidate, Susan Dale Estey, trails anti-testing champion Sue Peters. The Seattle Port Commission’s most environmentally minded maverick, John Creighton, swamped Auburn mayor Peter Lewis, a well-regarded challenger with establishment (e.g. Seattle Times) support.

But how do you square an anti-establishment mood with the trouncing of I-517, Tim Eyman’s bid to make the world much safer for his sort of initiative drives? Perhaps because, after nearly two decades of rocking the system and blocking taxes, Eyman is politics as usual; voters know he has no new ideas to offer, and they’re tired of getting hounded by petition peddlers. (One enterprising young woman even snuck her clipboard into Neumos to collect signatures for gun-buyer background checks at Murray’s election party.) Unless nearly half of them were grossly misinformed about what it means to vote for socialism, they’re hardly opposed to taxes and activist government — if it delivers.

Of course, Sawant’s strong showing may be a flash in the pan. But they said the same thing about Occupy Seattle, the movement she emerged from. Through her, it’s still on a roll.

Afterword: One unsung winner is Capitol Hill, specifically Pike-Pine,whose bars seem to have decisively stolen the campaign-party action from the downtown hotels. In this McGinn was the pioneer: He returned to 95 Slide, formerly the War Room, site of his previous parties. Murray, Sawant, County Executive Dow Constantine and Port Commissioner-elect Courtney Gregoire all gathered their troops at venues a few blocks away. Nothing shook at the Edgewater Inn, site of innumerable previous parties including 2009 mayoral contender Joe Mallahan's. One more blow against the downtown establishment.

Photos by Allyce Andrew.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Eric Scigliano

Eric Scigliano

Eric Scigliano's reporting on social and environmental issues for The Weekly (later Seattle Weekly) won Livingston, Kennedy, American Association for the Advancement of Science, and other honors. He has also written for Harper's, New Scientist, and many other publications. One of his books, Michelangelo's Mountain, was a finalist for the Washington Book Award. His other books include Puget SoundLove, War, and Circuses (aka Seeing the Elephant); and, with Curtis E. Ebbesmeyer, Flotsametrics.