Friday, 15 November 2013

Kshama Sawant wins in Seattle

Seattle City Council candidate Kshama Sawant, a “Socialist Alternative” insurgent, has unseated four-term incumbent Richard Conlin, with the latest batch of mail-in ballots nearly tripling Sawant’s lead to 1,148 votes. A year ago, Sawant was running against the Legislature’s most powerful Democrat, House Speaker Frank Chopp, charging that the “Democratic Party-majority government” had slashed billions from education programs while bestowing tax exemptions on “rich corporations.” Congratulations must go to Kshama Sawant and her campaign. While this doesn’t signal the rise of socialism in the USA it is something we should pay attention to for sure. The Sawant victory comes exactly 97 years after Seattle voters put their first outspoken radical into office, Seattle School Board member Anna Louise Strong. Strong would write about the Wobblies, oppose U.S. entry into World War I and eventually end her days in China, where she was on friendly terms with Mao Zedong. While the Occupy Seattle organizer is about to occupy an office in the council chambers, ballots are still being counted in several close races. One big ballot measure is still hanging, while other contests appear narrowly decided. The $15-an-hour minimum wage proposal in SeaTac, already under legal challenge, leads by exactly 53 votes. The margin was cushioned by 12 votes in Thursday’s count. The proposal for taxpayer-financed elections in Seattle, Proposition 1, has climbed in the late vote count. Unlike Sawant — who overcame a 6,193-vote election night deficit — Prop. 1 hasn’t quite climbed enough. The “No” side still has a lead of 2,656 votes. Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn has come up in the late count. The air went out of the room at McGinn’s election night party when returns showed him with only 43.6 percent of the vote. Sen. Ed Murray is already into transition, but McGinn has since made it respectable. He now has 47.07 percent of the vote. The campaign has captured the attention of the US left nationally, which has been looking for something to stir it from it’s post-Occupy hangover. The unexpected result has led to clamouring for more Sawant-style campaigns—could this be the beginning of a left electoral turn? Yet socialists have frequently run for office and rarely come close to victory. Was the Sawant campaign simply an isolated incident of, as ABC put it, “left-leaning Seattle, where police recently handed out snacks at a large marijuana festival and politicians often try to out-liberal each other?” The fact that fellow Socialist Alternative candidate Ty Moore ran a similarly close campaign in Minneapolis would suggest otherwise. Despite their party affiliation, it would be a mistake to view the Sawant and Moore campaigns as indicative of a groundswell in support for socialism, however defined. Sawant’s success owes itself to concrete policy proposals, such as a highly popular call for a $15/hour minimum wage—a ballot measure that was too-close-to-call in nearby Seatac. Moore, an organizer for Occupy Homes, focused heavily on the issue of foreclosures. Instead, what the results indicate is that increasing numbers are open to left electoral alternatives to entrenched Democratic Party politicians. Sawant gained ground throughout the campaign by relentless attacks on the four-term incumbent Richard Conlin, who Sawant claimed represented “big business interests.” In the post-Citizens United, post-2008 era, the Democratic Party’s corporate fealty is difficult to hide from the working class, who are increasingly financially squeezed. A recent poll indicates that 60% of voters, including half of Democrats, believe that the two major parties “do such a poor job that a third major party is needed.” With support for Congress at an historic low, much of the disgust at the political establishment can also be seen at state and local levels, making incumbents like Conlin unusually vulnerable. Prior to election, only 28% of Seattle’s voters approved of city council. While the Sawant campaign does not necessarily presage a revival of socialism, is does indicate that socialism is not a dirty word—at least in certain parts of the country. 53% of Democratic-leaning voters have a positive view of socialism, compared to 55% for capitalism and 44% for big business. In a heavily Democratic city like Seattle, to embrace the socialist label thus does a progressive candidate little harm. Not only did the label not harm Sawant, but it may have helped, by foregrounding the issue of class and attracting media attention and national fundraising. The two campaigns also demonstrate the importance of organization. Socialist Alternative brought a national organization and full-time staffers to concentrate almost exclusively on three local races (including Seamus Whelan’s unsuccessful candidacy in Boston). The Sawant campaign made use of hundreds of volunteers. Yet despite Socialist Alternative’s organizational strength, their results would not have been achievable in isolation. Critically, Ty Moore landed the endorsement of the SEIU, while Sawant received the endorsement of several unions. Sawant’s insurgent campaign posed tough questions for local progressive Democrats, with several prominent Democrats ultimately endorsing her. Sawant raised over $100,000, significantly out-fundraising Conlin in the campaign’s final weeks. This number should give prospective socialist candidates some pause; at roughly a dollar a vote, Sawant’s campaign was on the efficient side. While it is worth noting the large-scale city-wide nature of the race, this is the type of fundraising that serious third-party challengers will require. Finally, both campaigns benefited from exceptionally strong candidates, with a history of local activism, Sawant with Occupy Seattle and Moore with Occupy Homes-Minnesota. Will owe her slim victory to an impressive ability to communicate with voters on everyday issues. It was also to her advantage that she was familiar to Seattle voters, having run unsuccessfully against Washington House Speaker Frank Chopp in 2012.

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