Trotsky vs. Bezos: Seattle's race for District 3 echoes throughout local history

The contest between Kshama Sawant and Egan Orion is the latest manifestation of the city's perennial conflict between the left and big business.

Kshama Sawant and Egan Orion

In the District 3 race between Kshama Sawant, left, and Egan Orion, Knute Berger writes, "I find myself confronted with this general dilemma: Trotsky or Bezos? Whose town do I want to live in? The Soviet of Seattle or a Seattle underneath a vast Amazon Sphere?" (Seattle CityClub)

For more than a century, the eternal conflict in Seattle politics has been a power struggle between the business community and the left. The Potlatch Riots of 1913, the General Strike of 1919, the labor unrest on the waterfront in the ‘30s, the Civil Rights era in the ‘60s and even the confrontations over globalism and free trade during the WTO protests of 1999 have all reflected the ongoing wrestling match. In one corner: the chamber of commerce; in the other: the socialists and labor of one flavor or another.

And the match continues with the current Seattle City Council elections. Business groups are pouring funds into district races in hopes of electing a more business-friendly city council. Amazon alone has dumped nearly $1.5 million into this election cycle via the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce's political action committee, an unprecedented financial outpouring. The battle lines are largely defined by downtown business-endorsed candidates and the so-called far left city council incumbents.

Starting in 2013, Seattle began electing council members by districts. That was supposed to reduce the need for spending, but the diversification of influence has made it expensive and somewhat difficult for downtown business interests to gain citywide influence. It’s become more expensive and less certain. The recent Crosscut/Elway Poll suggests a widespread dissatisfaction with the City Hall status quo, and I have little doubt that if this were an election under the old at-large system, there would be a substantial housecleaning.

But with districts, larger citywide trends matter less than what’s going on in them. A district’s results could largely reflect general trends, but might also reflect — despite all the spending — political microclimates that will see the reelection of some folks who might be popular as local representatives. Some have strong grassroots support and are delivering for their voters. One insider told me that only three districts are really in play at this point: Districts 3 (Kshama Sawant vs. Egan Orion), 6 (Dan Strauss vs. Heidi Wills) and 7 (Andrew Lewis vs. Jim Pugel).

Amazon to some degree complicates the picture. Remember when we wanted the company to be more civically engaged? Well, here they are, throwing their weight around. For the business community, it means significant financial muscle and having the 900-pound economic gorilla — or 900-pound golden goose — on their side. But in talking recently with a major backer of one of the independent business political groups, he reflected that Amazon’s involvement is also a “double-edged sword.” Pumping money in to defeat district candidates underlines the e-commerce giant’s emerging image as a bully — as did its threats over the so-called “head tax” last year. Critics of Amazon are legitimized in their belief that the big tech company is trying to craft a company town to their specifications. Jeff Bezos wants to build colonies on the moon and Mars; I think he’s experimenting with crafting them right here on Earth, too. Having the chamber run Seattle is problematic; having Amazon run the city is something else again: powerful, stifling and unsustainable. One of the problems with company towns, whether that company is Boeing, the railroads or Amazon, is that they tend to create civic monocultures, and that’s bad in the long run. See Detroit.

On the other hand, some alternatives are also very problematic. I live in District 3, where my choice is between a business-backed political newcomer, Egan Orion, and Kshama Sawant, who perhaps can be said to represent the Socialist Alternative party rather than the district or its constituents. She is a grandstander whose party has contempt for many of the liberal, pragmatic, reform-oriented Democrats who vote for her, though they further her global goal of revolution in the spirit of Leon Trotsky. Sawant was a sparkplug for the $15-an-hour minimum wage, which was great, but she didn’t do it alone. I liked her effort to stop the Showbox redevelopment, but it proved to be illegal. It would have been better if that effort had been part of a sustained, systematic effort to expand the Pike Place Historical District. She’s a prodigious fundraiser for reelection herself — could she use that prowess to find a buyer for the Showbox site?

So as the ballots go into the box this week, I find myself confronted with this general dilemma: Trotsky or Bezos? Whose town do I want to live in? The Soviet of Seattle or a Seattle underneath a vast Amazon Sphere?

My answer is neither.

This is an exaggerated framing, but it’s certainly in line with much of the election polarity of the campaign. It doesn’t have to be this way. We have had more reasonable progressive regimes where progressivism and civic progress happened together. The Wes Uhlman administration of the late 1960s and early ‘70s; the Greg Nickels years when he forged a workable alliance between business, greens and labor. The administration of Norm Rice in the ‘90s is another example of social progress paired with downtown revitalization. And we’ve had city councils that were diverse, creative and focused on making major civic improvements in conjunction with creative mayors. I find it fascinating that the period of reform and recession — from 1968 to 1979 — saw incredible flowering at all levels of life in the city: affordability, parks, arts, civil rights, new business, diversity.

For that period, as Boeing was in eclipse, we ceased being a company town and focused on lasting civic improvements and reforms. We passed open housing, and launched the Burke-Gilman conversion; we saved the Pike Place Market, Chinatown-International District and Pioneer Square; we created Discovery, Freeway and Gasworks parks; we saw the launch of Daybreak Star, El Centro de la Raza, the Seattle International Film Festival, Gay Pride Week, Bumbershoot and P-Patches; we stopped the freeway-building binge; downtown condos bloomed; and Seattle boys Bill Gates and Paul Allen moved their budding Microsoft start-up to the region. The list goes on and includes notable failures (including the failure to pass mass transit). But still, this independent, progressive and creative problem solving helped establish a foundation we enjoy today.

It takes people without Manichean loyalties — people committed to local improvements, to working together, to getting things done with less posturing, virtue-signaling or bullying. We don’t need a pro-business council or a pro-socialist council. We need to recreate a political culture that rewards creative risk-taking by folks who love the city and their neighborhoods and who connect with the people who live here. Idealistic pragmatists who listen, who are for a city that is above party or patron.

This will have to be accomplished district by district — none of us has a magic wand to wave. But we do have a ballot.

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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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