A Rare Elected Voice for Socialism Pledges to Be Heard in Seattle
By KIRK JOHNSON
SEATTLE — People are used to liberals running things around here. But
nobody reckoned with Kshama Sawant. Ms. Sawant, a 41-year-old
economics teacher and immigrant from India, took a left at liberal and
then kept on going — all the way to socialism.
When she takes a seat on Seattle’s nine-member City Council on Jan. 1,
representing the Socialist Alternative Party, she will become one of
the few elected socialists in the nation, a political brand most
politicians run from.
But Kshama Sawant (pronounced SHAH-mah sah-WANT) heartily embraces the
label. Ask her about almost any problem facing America today, and her
answer will probably include the “S” word as the best and most
reasonable response. Socialism is the path to real democracy, she
says. Socialism protects the environment. Socialism is the best hope
for young people who have seen their options crushed by the tide of
low-wage, futureless jobs in the post-recession economy.
“The take-home message for the left in general is that people are
looking for alternatives,” she said in an interview, discussing her
victory over a veteran Democrat by a margin of 3,100 votes of about
184,000 cast in a citywide contest. “If you ask me as a socialist what
workers deserve, they deserve the value of what they produce.”
Progressive liberals — some of whom might look radical as well, at
least to conservatives — made inroads in other places on Election Day,
notably in New York City, where Bill de Blasio won the mayor’s race
partly on his plan to address the gulf between the “two New Yorks” of
poverty and wealth.
Here in Seattle, Mayor-elect Ed Murray, a former state senator and a
leader of the state’s drive to allow same-sex marriage, promised
support for an idea that was central to Ms. Sawant’s campaign: a $15
minimum wage in the city, matching the highest in the nation. He said
in an interview that he saw momentum in cities across the country in
addressing income inequality.
“The commonality is the expression of a progressive impulse based on
the shrinking middle, as more people slip into poverty and as more
wealth is concentrated in fewer hands,” Mr. Murray said.
Seattle Republicans, mostly watching from the sidelines, also see a
trend to the left. They say a socialist on the City Council will
probably fit right in.
“I don’t think she differs that much from other Council members,” the
chairwoman of the King County Republican Party, Lori Sotelo, said of
Leftist critiques of capitalism have a long past in the Northwest,
historians said, from the Wobblies in lumber camps in the early 20th
century, as the Industrial Workers of the World were called, to
Seattle’s general strike of 1919 and the anarchist movement that still
stirs occasionally now. A socialist was elected mayor of Seattle as
recently as 1922.
“She tapped into a growing discontent,” James N. Gregory, a professor
of history at the University of Washington, said of Ms. Sawant. “But
she also built off a framework of liberalism and economic liberalism
that is pretty widely, strongly based in Seattle.”
The spotlight on Ms. Sawant, as one of only a handful of self-avowed
socialists to be elected to a city council in a major American city in
decades, experts say, could be intense. Her party has supported Ralph
Nader for president, but its website also links to the writings of the
Bolshevik leader Leon Trotsky. It put up municipal candidates in
Boston and Minneapolis this year, though none won. The Socialist Party
USA, an older group, regularly fields candidates in state and federal
races. Senator Bernard Sanders of Vermont calls himself a socialist,
though he was elected as an independent.
“If she remains only an activist, she’ll be a one-shot wonder,” said
the Rev. Rich Lang, the pastor of University Temple United Methodist
Church in Seattle and a Sawant supporter. But if she moves too far
toward the center, “she’ll be shot down from the left as a
compromiser,” he said. “There’s tremendous pressure on her.”
So should an elected 21st-century socialist hark back to the old
Marxist passions of labor and capital, or more toward the
welfare-state model of market regulation and high taxes on the rich?
Ms. Sawant, during the interview, sometimes responded one way,
Asked about Boeing, which is currently in a standoff with its biggest
union and is threatening to expand outside its historic home base in
the Puget Sound region, Ms. Sawant said the company was guilty of
“economic terrorism” by “holding not only Boeing workers but the
entire state’s economy hostage to their endless desire for profits.”
On the idea of a $15 minimum wage, though, she was more subtle.
Mr. Murray, the mayor-elect, recently announced the creation of a
committee of business executives, labor leaders and politicians,
including Ms. Sawant, that would develop recommendations for
increasing the minimum wage and report back to him early next year.
Asked if she might be co-opted by sitting on a committee alongside a
representative of the Chamber of Commerce, Ms. Sawant responded, “I
think that should always be a concern.”
“But if we’re serious about fighting for the interests of workers,”
she added, “that means engaging with people who don’t agree with me.”
The daughter of a schoolteacher and a civil engineer, Ms. Sawant said
she was seared by the disparities between the rich and the poor around
Pune, India, which is near Mumbai and where she grew up. But she was
also shocked, and radicalized, she said, by finding sharp income
inequality in America when she immigrated here in her 20s.
She drifted away from computer software engineering, her first love —
she once dreamed of being a “math geek,” she said — and began studying
economics, which she now teaches at Seattle Central Community College.
She lost her first run for public office two years ago, when she
challenged a Democrat for a state legislative seat. But she said she
learned a valuable lesson in targeting voters; this year, she
aggressively, and successfully, courted transgender people and other
She holds no illusions, however, that a hidden bloc of socialist
voters is ready to mobilize for her re-election campaign in 2015. That
election could be more complicated for her, as Seattle voters this
year changed the Council’s composition from all citywide seats to
geographic districts for most members.
No one, not even Ms. Sawant, believes that a socialist-majority
district exists in Seattle. So she will try to draw support from the
disgruntled voters who helped elect her this year. And she is counting
on them to feel the same in 2015 as they did in 2013.
“They’re just fed up,” she said.