Asking Councilmember Kshama Sawant to talk about herself feels strange, sort of like finding your teacher at a bar or watching your dad cry. The Sawant name has ballooned into a symbol — of socialism and Seattle’s ultra-left surge, of hope for some and frustration for others. To find a person behind all her labels is somehow surprising and, frankly, a little awkward on both ends of the line.
Sawant’s new breed of politics is both the basis and potential downfall of her challenger Pamela Banks’ campaign. The seed on which Banks decided she’d run is built around the feeling that Sawant is always at 10,000 feet, never at her desk or in her neighborhood where Banks says she ought to be. Banks’ campaign slogan is “Your progressive voice,” implying that Sawant is someone else’s.
It’s precarious territory to convince the public that they worship a false idol — it did not go well for John McCain in 2008 — but that’s become the battle playing out in District 3. In the Seattle Weekly, Christian Sinderman, the political consultant representing Banks, recently compared Sawant to the Wizard-of-Oz, the ultimate symbol of an empty facade. The attacks have put the Sawant backers on guard and as a result, the highly publicized campaigns have entered into an arms race, with unprecedented money pouring in to either destroy or defend the gospel of Sawant.
Although purely anecdotal, there does appear to be some truth to one of Banks’ chief complaints with Councilmember Sawant: She is hard to nail down for a meeting. In City Hall she is quite willing to host press conferences — responding to Mayor Ed Murray’s budget or the HALA recommendations — but getting an interview over the phone or in person can be a slow affair. In the course of reporting for a mini-series on some of the council races, she is the only candidate — incumbent or no — I did not speak with in person. I was instead given 15 minutes over the phone that I stretched to 20. (By contrast, a conversation with Debora Juarez from District 5 in a Lake City Starbucks lasted two-and-a-half hours. By the end, I’d had so much coffee that I was shaking.)
And yet, the affinity for Sawant among her base — on a political and personal level — is unparalleled. When Sawant hosts an event, expect at least 200 people, most draped in red, to line up for hours in advance to sign up for public comment. Few of her supporters refer to her as Councilmember Sawant, opting instead for just Kshama. Where the enthusiasm and hype fades for most candidates as they transition into the positions they were elected to fill, it’s like no one told Sawant’s base the campaign ended in 2013. Team Sawant doesn’t have an off-season.
Her support base, her reluctance to talk about herself, and her silence on ambitions for future political conquests are all Sawant-by-design. Over the phone, she almost exclusively uses the pronoun "we," unwavering in painting herself as part of a larger “movement,” as she calls it. Even more than her early calls to nationalize Amazon and Microsoft, more than her posters that read “Tax the Rich,” and more than her war on corporate interests, the heavy streak of Bolshevik red that runs through Kshama Sawant is brightest in her insistence that she is just one among the crowded masses and it happens to be her turn to hold the megaphone.
Sawant has a PhD in economics from North Carolina State University. But her formal education had little to do with her identity as a socialist. “It’s not like my professors were socialist,” she says. “They were an intellectual defense of the status quo. [Graduate school] helped me cut my teeth in my arguments.”
Although she would not declare herself a socialist for many years, the seeds were sewn as Sawant grew up in Mumbai, India, surrounded by the caste system. The daughter of a school principal and a civil engineer, Sawant’s upbringing was middle class. As only she can do, when she speaks of her childhood, she makes no mention of hobbies or meals or the tactile details of her home. “My earliest memories,” she says, “are wondering why there was so much poverty and underpaid workers who worked extremely hard and made the city run and got so little.”
Sawant’s mother fanned this flame in her daughter. “My mother is a feminist,” says Sawant. “She raised me on the stories of activists organizing against the status quo and for the right to have a decent wage.” Although her family was neither politically active nor especially public, Sawant nevertheless credits them with shaping her political consciousness.
With her former husband, Sawant came to the United States in 1996. The two were techies – Sawant a software engineer, her partner a new employee with Microsoft. But the reality of economic inequality weighed on Sawant and she shed the desktop computer for her PhD program.
The councilmember-to-be landed in Seattle in 2006 where she became a part-time economics professor at both Seattle Central and Seattle University. It was here she found the label for her longtime hunches, becoming a member of the Socialist Alternative. The group stops shy of using a hammer and sickle, but the blood red colors and chiseled portraits of workers mimic the Soviet art leftover in Moscow metro stations and in the decaying statues of Lenin across the Russian countryside. While the group’s branding may turn off the mainstream, when it’s tied to a young woman of color in a city as willing to experiment as Seattle, the danger in the group’s bold statements and nostalgia for images of revolution is exciting.
But unlike Lenin, Sawant became SA’s voice through a vote. “What does a candidate that unapologetically stands up for working class look like?” Sawant says the group asked. “For the most part what we see in politics in Seattle is individuals who run because they want to advance their own political career. … That model we know has failed.”
Running for the state Legislature, Sawant lost in a landslide to Speaker of the Washington State House Frank Chopp in 2012. But it was enough to give her name recognition. As Barack Obama was re-elected President, gay marriage was approved and marijuana legalized, Sawant stood on a car on Capitol Hill, megaphone in hand. It was as if she had won.
The next year, her momentum was enough to topple Richard Conlin from the Seattle City Council and the era of Sawant had begun.
In Seattle’s non-partisan elections, the de facto parties become money. In lieu of Republican and Democrat, it’s Chamber of Commerce and Tenants Union. Pamela Banks has been a lot of things — a jewel salesperson in Pike Place Market, a neighborhood outreach coordinator in the City of Seattle, a transportation program manager under Mayor Greg Nickels, the CEO of the Urban League. But as she aligns herself with Northwest Passage Consulting, as money from hospitality and development organizations pour in, Banks is defined by what is quickly becoming a dirty word: “Establishment.” In fact, money has become so important in the definition of a candidate that Councilmember Sawant’s campaign recently sent out a press release following a thread of Banks money back to — a Republican.
In her small campaign office above Little Uncle, the hole-in-the-wall Thai restaurant on Capitol Hill, Banks puts her head in her hands. “The money thing is really surprising for me,” she says. “I was very naïve about how much money it would take.” District 3 has blown every other race out of the water for dollars raised. While most other candidates hover somewhere between $100,000 and $200,000, both Sawant and Banks are creeping up on $400,000 apiece.
To a certain extent, Banks is caught in the crosshairs. Sawant is the nightmare candidate for people in real estate and business. In fact, one owner of a well-known restaurant told me if Sawant ever came through the doors, she’d be thrown out. As a result, it’s hard to separate out money for Banks from money against Sawant. Publicola’s Josh Feit went as far as to imply Banks is getting the support she is because big money sees an African American woman as the best chance to knock off Sawant.
“I disagree with that,” says Banks. “That diminishes the work I’ve done in my career and how much I value service. I would hope that people would really believe I can bring about change.”
When Banks took the 23andMe genetic test, it turned out she is majority Asian, then African American, then white and with a bit of Native American. Her mother was half Chinese and half Japanese, an unusual heritage during and after World War II. But Banks hardly knew her; she died just weeks after Banks’ first birthday. Her father was mostly African American from Tulsa and owned a gas station in Portland. They lived in a small duplex. Banks says Church was their community.
For college, Banks traveled north to the University of Washington for her undergraduate studies. When she graduated, she stayed, thinking that maybe she’d get into gemology. But as the then-roofless Pike Place Market, where she sold another man’s jewelry, fell victim to Seattle’s wet winter months, Banks reached out to friends she knew in city government where she hoped to pick even an administrative job. Anything to get out of the cold.
She found work in a new City program to weatherize the houses of low-income seniors — a sort of energy conservation effort. She applied to be an assistant, but was bumped straight into outreach. The mayor then was Charlie Royer. She’d be with the city, first as a district coordinator, and then doing business mitigation for the new light rail, until Mike McGinn.
In her time with the Urban League, where she’s still the CEO, she is given credit for growing its budget and pushing forward Career Bridge, a program to help people leaving jail to find work. It was while she promoted this program that she got the idea to run for council. As she tells it, she was able to get a meeting with every council member to discuss Career Bridge except Sawant.
Although she was skeptical of district elections, Banks’ campaign has now become contingent on them. Remember: “Your progressive voice.” No doubt, Banks has watched as the Central District has changed. She bought her 3-bedroom home on 23rd and Jackson in 1996 for $169,000. She reckons she could sell it for more than $400,000 now. Her cred as a longtime CD resident gives some extra sharpness to her barbs against Sawant as being removed and light on public safety. She has stepped into being the voice of the black community, suggesting at one point that Sawant does not understand its history or its struggles. She is quick to point out that she has received more money from within the district than Sawant. (Sawant would be quick to hit back that she has more donors who are making smaller donations while Banks’ money is coming from the wealthier parts of the district. To that Banks says, regardless, “I know that money is going to go to help the whole district.”)
But at the base of this race — and others, like position 8 between Council President Tim Burgess and Jon Grant — is the argument between what’s practical and what’s bold. For example, among Sawant’s solutions to Seattle’s affordable housing issues is to use the city’s bonding capacity — its credit card, essentially — to build publicly owned affordable housing. Banks dismisses that as unprecedented and damaging to other parts of the city. Sawant calls for taxing the rich, while Banks questions whether and how the city could actually do that. When it comes to discussions of rent control, a Sawant passion, Banks rings the supply bell, arguing that rent restriction kills development.
On a deeper level, the question is, perhaps, what does it mean to be an elected symbol? For Banks, it means that Sawant is a shadow, all bark and little bite. Burgess recently wondered aloud how much Sawant had actually accomplished on the council. Even her signature $15 minimum wage, he says, was ultimately the result of Mayor Murray’s task force. Banks, by contrast, says she would be grounded, cooperative and alway open to a meeting.
But what makes Sawant so scrutinized, loved and hated, is she’s asking — demanding even — that success be measured differently for her. The noisy meetings and the annoyed council members are part and parcel to the movement she’s so committed to, as much a part of progress as the legislation itself. Even over the phone, one gets the sense she is more committed to the Socialist Alternative than she will ever be to the Seattle City Council. When asked about her overall effectiveness, Sawant looks back to the "movement." "It’s very easy to measure," she says. "It’s up to you as media to decide whether you’re going to recognize the entire process."
Join Crosscut at Civic Cocktail on Nov. 4 for a post-election wrap-up with political consultants Chris Sinderman and John Wyble, and former Seattle mayor Charley Royer. Then, Sen. Pramila Jayapal will discuss race, rent control and more.