Murray and Sawant: Allies or antagonistas?

If Seattle's Democrats and Socialists can get along, the time is ripe for getting things done.
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I promise to play nice with Kshama Sawant.

If Seattle's Democrats and Socialists can get along, the time is ripe for getting things done.

Ed Murray is a practicing Catholic, and we learned this week that he wears a rosary bracelet. Murray is proud of his active Catholicism. Our last three mayors have been Catholic — Murray, Mike McGinn and Greg Nickels — but Murray pointed out to me recently that he's the only *practicing* Catholic of the trio.

He'll no doubt have to draw on his faith for support in the coming $15-dollar-per-hour wage discussion. Already a mini-spat has broken out.

The Stranger's Dominic Holden reported that Murray sent a tart note to Socialist City Council member Kshama Sawant refusing to cede to her credit for his speedy Day 3 move to ensure city workers get the proposed minimum wage immediately. Sawant indicated that it was her bottom-up movement that lit a fire under Murray. Murray took exception, pointing out that his deep values and political commitment are what's driving him.

If Murray and Sawant are already fighting over an act on which they agree, how does that bode for what lies ahead when they will undoubtedly disagree? Not well. Murray can be touchy, though whether his note is really a testament to that is a matter of opinion. A mild rebuke can sound like screaming in civil Seattle, but still, the mayor is letting it be known that he won't concede the moral high ground to Sawant.

Sawant, on the other hand, has let it be known that she's pushing ahead and is not afraid to hold the threat of a citizen's initiative over the process. She's willing to be part of the task force getting the minimum wage adopted, but she's on the team only so far, ready to step off if the effort gets a case of the Seattle slows. She's playing a role that activists often play, and this is a concern for Murray.

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It is common for activists to attempt, or appear to attempt, to work with the establishment, then find cause for a break that will fire up the base and amp up the outrage of betrayal. That's a longstanding tactic, and Murray would be wise to recognize that at some point. The liberal hand that reached out to Sawant might just get bitten. He wouldn't be the first Seattle mayor to fall prey to that. Occupy protesters were enraged at Mike McGinn for backing the use of pepper spray against protesters. And then there was Paul Schell, who was politically pantsed by anarchists during WTO.

Despite the fact that there must have been a coterie of Murray-Sawant voters in the last election, the mayor and the council member come from very different political backgrounds and temperaments. Murray is a pro-business, mainstream, incrementalist, progressive Democrat. Sawant comes from a party that admires Leon Trotsky.

It Sawant were a Christian conservative fundamentalist, we would be pulling out the Bible to see which crazy passages she believes in. I will leave it to you to read the tracts of Marx, Lenin and Trotsky. But if you scan the website of her movement, Socialist Alternative, you will find that the core beliefs are a combination of things many progressives agree on ($15-hour wage, more public assistance, more taxes on the wealthy, pro-union) and stuff that should worry Seattle Democrats.

For one thing, Sawant’s party considers Democrats to be as bad or worse than Republicans. Ok, standard lefty stuff. But they also argue for nationalizing the nation's Fortune 500 companies, which includes the likes of Boeing, Microsoft, PACCAR, Starbucks, Nordstrom, Weyerhaeuser and Expediters International. They believe in global, worldwide Marxist revolution and putting an end to capitalism — not as we know it, but altogether. In other words, Sawant's socialism is the antithesis of Seattle's — let alone the nation's — power structure, and thus the pillars of the local economy. The hearts of Seattle's lefties might be with Sawant, but their paychecks are from Amazon.

If you voted against McGinn because he was too radical, Sawant is in another league. McGinn complained about the elites, but he wasn't seizing control of Microsoft or Boeing and turning them over to workers' collectives. Many voted for Sawant precisely because she wouldn't wind up in charge, but would play the role of spark plug and lefty conscience. That means conflict.

Seattle's Democrats and Socialists can get along, but only so far. Their ideas of pragmatism will inevitably diverge. Sawant will need to mobilize the masses. Murray will need to steer a progressive middle course that delivers what Democratic Seattle wants without seizing the assets of the business community that funds it.

The stakes over who is most effective at getting things done, and who controls the urge to under-reach and over-reach, is important. Murray is the mayor of the whole city; Sawant is one council member. The upcoming struggle is starting to be framed as a battle between two politicians and the different world views they represent.

The left is notorious for schisms, circular firing squads and infighting. Hey, I went to Evergreen so I know. It would be a shame if Seattle politics devolved into that. Especially since the chance of getting things done is really ripe if Democrats and Socialists work together. But inevitably, sparks will fly in a two-party town. And once again we have one.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.