Seattle's grassroots candidates must be real with voters

Nikkita Oliver speaks at a press conference inside Washington Hall announcing she would exit the Seattle mayor's race on Aug. 15, 2017, after a strong primary showing came just short of putting her in the general election. (Photo by Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

For some political candidates, authenticity is a nice asset. For others, especially those trying to bring more grassroots and progressive perspectives into elected offices, it’s absolutely critical that they be straightforward with the people to whom they want to give voice.

This is something that will be a factor in determining whether Seattle votes for progressive candidates as voters fill all seven of the district-based positions on the city council this year. It’s an especially important election in a city enjoying a strong economy but facing a homelessness crisis, concerns about inequity and gentrification and questions about how to help people with substance use disorders. And the city’s actions increasingly create national discussion, as has happened with a short-lived tax on big corporations like Amazon or its response to what is a national affordability crisis.  

Unlike local political candidates, people with bigger platforms in the arts, entertainment or politics often have room to take their base for granted. Consider Kanye West, who at times seems to bridge all three categories.

From claiming slavery was a choice to siding with alt-right apologist Candace Owens, even the most die-hard Kanye fans were forced off his bandwagon (like myself, after he showed up in Oval Office wearing his MAGA hat). He stopped showing up for them and decided his “hot takes” were worth more than his fans. Ruining Taylor Swift’s award speech and calling President Bush a racist should’ve granted him immunity with woke Twitter. But his recent flirtation with the right, a base Kanye does not belong to, caused him to lose all the clout he took more than a decade to build.

Of course, he had a way to recover that grassroots candidates would never enjoy: Keeping Up with the Kardashians, the reality TV show. He’d made such a conscious effort to avoid the E! Network cameras since he and Kim got together in 2012. But now, in the show’s 16th season, Kanye can be seen participating in the show’s “confessionals.”

One of the country’s progressive political stars, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, understood the need for authenticity even going into the 2018 New York House Democratic primary. When her candidacy for Congress took off, she was thrust into the national spotlight. I sat with Ocasio-Cortez last summer, two days before a primary election in Hawaii, and asked her to make sense of her success. She was there trying to give fellow Justice Democrats candidate Kaniela Ing his own Cinderella victory story in his run for a congressional seat. Ocasio-Cortez was a little over a month removed from upsetting 10-term incumbent Joseph Crowley and had started to campaign for other young social democrats.

“For me as a first-time candidate and not a career politician, and also frankly as a woman of color, I needed to overcome this hurdle of people not seeing me as legitimate," she said. "And so when I was able to tell my story in a way that resonated very strongly, that articulated the needs of our district, that show that I've been here and that I've organized here, that’s really what helped me blow up and become viral. It helped people who literally overnight one day say, maybe there's something here.”

Conservative anti-homeless group Safe Seattle recently noted that I have a history of running media and communications for a small handful of Seattle campaigns. Seattle now has over 50 candidates battling for seven city council seats, with this year’s filing deadline yet to come. I just got through helping one candidate launch a campaign — I won’t be writing about that race —and have also worked for different political campaigns, including those of Nikkita Oliver, U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal, and the late King County prosecutor candidate Daron Morris. My job for each was simple: Win them the internet. The neoliberal left often talks about political representation. But what I quickly learned working on these campaigns was that even in our liberal city, constituents still are alienated from traditional politics.

These campaigns have activated nontraditional voters, and true progressives are recognizing accessible engagement is actually the most substantial kind of engagement they have between constituents and politicians. As Ocasio-Cortez put it, hers was “a story that resonated very strongly, that articulated the needs of our district.”

Like Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign, Nikkita Oliver’s mayoral campaign had to focus a lot of its energy on proving to people that she was a “viable candidate.” Oliver’s credentials should’ve spoken for themselves — a law degree and a master’s of education from the University of Washington, teaching artist and case manager with Creative Justice (an arts-based youth diversion program that provides alternatives to incarceration for youth who are court involved). Plus she had a handful of awards, including the 2015 recipient of the Seattle Office of Civil Rights Artist Human Rights Leader Award. But even with her stacked resume, the traditional voter continued to have a hard time seeing her as “legitimate.” It wasn’t until the skeptics learned about her decade long work within grassroots communities of color that that community started rallying behind her. It’s what prevented people from giving up on her and made her finish a close third in the mayoral campaign.

Politicians like Oliver and Ocasio-Cortez knew that if they didn’t have their communities validating their work on a daily basis, all of the momentum they worked to build would also be in jeopardy. They knew that it was their bases that needed to show up on voting day.

“We operated our campaign outside of the traditional institutional party machine and built it around grassroots activist organizing,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “We really depended on everyday grassroots organizers and activists to not just support us in a superficial way, but to actually be the people knocking on the doors. Those type of supporters don’t come out for you unless there is a full kind of accountability. They need to trust you.”

She also said, “Social movements and activist movements should be the north star of our politics, especially for the Democratic Party. It's not just about being held accountable by groups, but also when they start debating and having conversations about really next-level things that tell me what the horizon is in terms of what's next on policy.”

Shaun Scott, a member of the Seattle Democratic Socialists of America, is someone to keep an eye on in the Seattle City Council race for District 4, which includes the University District, Northgate, Wallingford and Magnuson Park. He is one among the 50 city council candidates who has gained legitimate online momentum. But will it translate into victories come August primary elections? Scott is a first-time candidate running in a district with a lot of wealthy white homeowners. But he is also running in a district with younger college students who are used to their voices not mattering in the electoral process. Will this base be the north star of Scott's campaign? A quick look at his social media will show you that he is making efforts to activate the often-overlooked base. But will it be enough for him to push past primaries? Will Scott’s base show up for them enough to push him through? Or will they face the same disappointment as Hawaii’s Ing faced last year, gaining just 6% of the vote.

Unlike Kanye West, candidates like Ocasio-Cortez, Oliver and Scott have only one chance to earn the trust of their constituents. And once it’s gone, so is their ability to represent. But if they stay true to their goals and constituents, we have begun to see that they have chances to shake up politics at every level.

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