In 2013 Kshama Sawant, a member of Socialist Alternative, surprised many by winning a seat on the Seattle City Council. Several weeks ago, with Sawant in full reelection campaign mode (the city’s primary is tomorrow), I spent ten days in Seattle interviewing politicians, labor officials, and business leaders. Several key lessons emerged for those on the Left who are interested in winning local elections, while also building broader movements.
1. The labor movement can be engaged.
Most — though not all — unions kept Sawant and Socialist Alternative at arms length in her first two campaigns. But after two years in office and a historic minimum-wage victory, the major unions in Seattle are providing her with significant resources, and individual labor leaders are part of her fundraising effort.
More than one labor official expressed the sentiment that having a socialist to your left can be irksome, but that the benefits far outweigh the negatives. And nearly every labor leader acknowledges the basic fact that explains why nearly the entire Seattle labor movement now supports Sawant: she fights for working people.
2. The Left can support rank-and-file efforts to reform labor, without burning all our bridges.
Socialist Alternative is clear that while they had some strategic and tactical differences with labor leaders during the struggle for a minimum-wage hike, they are fighting for many of the same objectives.
And importantly, Sawant and her team recognize that there are no working-class organizations in the city with anything close to the resources of the unions. There were bumps on the road to $15 — including Socialist Alternative leaving the labor-community coalition under less than ideal circumstances — but most union leaders were exuberant in expressing that Sawant was essential to success.
In short, Sawant and Socialist Alternative seem to be doing a deft job of building relationships with the labor movement, while maintaining an independent orientation in terms of strategy and politics.
3. Any negative response to the socialist label is the least of Sawant’s concerns.
I spoke with several business leaders who are pouring money into her opponent’s coffers. Their motivation was not some Cold War–inspired fear of socialism in the abstract, but the fact that Sawant was at the forefront of historic minimum-wage legislation that, according to the advocacy group Puget Sound Sage, will transfer some $3 billion from owners to working people over the next decade.
The concrete results of her presence on the council for power and class dynamics seem to matter much more to the business community than anything else. Basic social-democratic reforms — like a higher minimum wage — are more troublesome to business elites than the vague threat of Bolshevism.
4. The candidate matters.
Several Socialist Alternative members mentioned that when the idea of running Sawant for office first arose in the wake of Occupy, she was resistant.
When I interviewed her, she acknowledged that her reluctance was part of an impulse to avoid careerism. I came away with the distinct impression that Sawant was a movement organizer, not a politician who could easily be seduced by the next political opportunity.
As more left formations in various US cities engage in independent electoral projects, it will be critical to recruit candidates like Sawant who are highly qualified but are far more committed to movement-building than personal electoral ambitions.
5. Formal organization is key.
There is a lot that individuals and fellow travelers can do from the sidelines on behalf of various social movements and political organizations. But getting Sawant elected and then building a movement around the $15 minimum-wage effort took organization.
A loose network of activists will not have the collective discipline necessary to read political openings and take advantage of them. The Left in different cities will undoubtedly engage in electoral politics in different ways, but it’s essential to build or find some kind of formal or semi-formal structure — at the very least, regular planning meetings in the beginning to which a core group of people is committed.
6. A single city councilor matters.
Almost no one I talked to in the labor movement or in the business community thought the $15 minimum-wage legislation would have been as strong without Sawant and Socialist Alternative’s 15Now project.
But $15 was the beginning and not the end of Sawant’s policy agenda. On July 20, I attended a rent-control debate featuring Sawant and the council’s other leftie member, Nick Licata, squaring off against a real-estate lobbyist and a conservative elected official from eastern Washington. That the Right agreed to debate speaks volumes about Sawant’s ability to set Seattle’s policy agenda. That there were approximately one thousand people in the room indicates that she and her organization know how to integrate base-building and policy work in meaningful ways.
I was shocked to hear the real-estate lobbyist quote Karl Marx in his opening statement. Sawant can be credited not just with steering the policy debate in Seattle, but also with setting the very terms of that debate.
7. Victory = $ = organizing staff.
In some contexts, there is a risk that electoral victories will remove the best activists from the street and isolate them in the bureaucratic halls of power. However, I was struck by the fact that those who are employed in Sawant’s beautiful city hall office and in her vibrant reelection campaign are organizing and organizing hard.
Between city hall and the campaign, she has well over a dozen activists who are getting paid to organize. Far from diverting energy from the street to city hall, Sawant’s victory seems to have expanded the organizing capacity of the Left in Seattle — not shrunk it.
There’s no reason why the Left elsewhere shouldn’t look to this example.