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SEATTLE — Kshama Sawant, Seattle's new socialist City Council member, bears little resemblance to the conventional image of a modern U.S. politician whose appearance and policies are often burnished by legions of advisers and focus groups.
A small, whip-smart Indian-American woman in faded jeans with a makeup-free face, she holds a Ph.D. in economics and was an early participant in the Occupy protest movement.
Sawant is not shy about her left-wing party affiliation — despite America's modern habit of reacting with extreme hostility to the word "socialism," which is freely demonized on the right and treated with extreme caution even in progressive circles.
Yet Sawant is a clear exception. She told Al Jazeera that she was already going against convention by siding with the groups she sees as typically shut out of the political conversation — low-wage workers, women, immigrants and people of color — and so chose to identify her socialist affiliation to gain distance from a two-party system she sees as broken.
Now, having won office with a surprise result that captured national headlines, she is triumphant in tone and feels that being a socialist in America is not necessarily a ticket to electoral disaster, as it has been so many times in the past.
"We've shown that it's possible to succeed in an openly socialist campaign, not taking any money from big business, not currying favor from the establishment and openly rejecting business as usual," said Sawant, speaking from a victory rally in Seattle that more closely resembled a religious revival than the glossy parties typically seen in modern politics.
Somewhere between the calls to "my brothers and sisters," the booing and the clapping, supporters rose to pledge donations — or, in the case of one elderly gentleman, denounce the actions of the rich to the rapt crowd. "I just want to say that I'm a member of the 1 percent and I'm ashamed of my compatriots," said J.P. Shapiro, a retired attorney who forked over the maximum legal contribution for an individual.
A 41-year-old emigre from Mumbai, Sawant grew up observing the consequences of the caste system and abject poverty — though she was part of a middle-class family from the Brahman caste. She said such exposure shaped her views and eventual conversion to socialism after her move to Seattle in 2006.
She said Seattle, like many major cities, is controlled by the Democratic Party establishment, which has abandoned the interests of its constituents and left people hungry for an alternative. She campaigned on leftist policies like raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour, taxing the rich and implementing rent control, and her narrow victory shocked her opponents and local media, which confidently expected four-time incumbent Richard Conlin to emerge as the victor.
Ever since Conlin's concession on Nov. 15, Sawant's supporters have continued to knock on doors and validate challenged signatures to account for every vote. While the final tallies will be announced later on Monday, the gap has continued to grow in Sawant’s favor, with more than 90,000 votes cast for the college economics professor.
"People who have never voted before not only voted but also volunteered for this campaign," said Ted Virdone, a Sawant volunteer himself. "Kshama's campaign means something completely different than the politics we've seen before."
I just want to say that I'm a member of the 1 percent and I'm ashamed of my compatriots.
For Sawant, "completely different" includes donating much of her new $120,000 salary, leaving her with "an average worker's wage." It also means talking about swinging hard left and attacking the capitalist economy as a failed experiment, unable to deliver the most basic needs for human survival — rare words in American politics.
"We have billions of workers doing backbreaking work all over the world who generate this phenomenal productivity the system enjoys," she said. "These workers only get a little sliver of the wealth generated, and much of that wealth is siphoned off to the tiny global elite at the top."
Sawant said Americans are looking outside the two-party framework and aren't afraid of socialism anymore. "The American public is well to the left of what the media will tell you and well to the left of Congress. That's why the popularity of Congress is at an all-time low," she said.
American socialists have a long history to look back on. The Socialist Party of America won more than 900,000 votes in the presidential elections of 1912 and 1920 and elected two members to Congress, as well as winning many lesser posts in cities across the U.S. But since then, the political fortunes of U.S. socialists have dramatically declined and — especially during and since the Cold War — the ideology has been routinely demonized and portrayed as unpatriotic.
It is doubtful that Sawant's election in Seattle marks a sudden reversal of fortune. But her staff is adamant that times are changing, especially in the wake of the Great Recession, which spawned a debate about economic inequality and saw the rise and fall of the Occupy protest movement.
Devin Matthews, a staff member for Sawant's campaign, points to a recent Pew research poll showing that the majority of people ages 18 to 29 have a more favorable view of socialism than capitalism. "When they grow up seeing (right-wing media commentator) Glenn Beck screaming about socialists, they think, 'I don't know what socialism is, but if Glenn Beck hates it, maybe I should check it out,'" Matthews said.
But not all are convinced. Joel Grus, a Seattle voter and data scientist, disagrees with Sawant's ideas. He says her policies will make it harder for low-skilled people to find jobs in Seattle and harder to attract entrepreneurial talent.
"I expect her term to be greatly entertaining," he said, "particularly if she follows through on her threat to seize a Boeing factory and retool it to produce transit buses or whenever she floats the idea of collectivizing Amazon."
'Anointed by big business'
However, Sawant doesn't consider her goals particularly outrageous and said there is a disconnect between public opinion and what the Democrats and Republicans are willing to deliver. Her campaign was launched with the help of Socialist Alternative, a political party active in at least 20 major U.S. cities; she was supported by unions, the Green Party and the influential local weekly The Stranger. Many of her volunteers and staff were involved in the Occupy movement in Seattle and elsewhere across the country.
"Corporate politicians get people to vote for them, but in reality they're anointed by big business," she said. "They are not going to vote to tax the wealthy because they're serving the wealthy."
While her primary focus is on Seattle and its struggles with transportation, housing and wages, Sawant said she is unwilling to completely isolate the local fight from the global struggle in her discussions of the issues. She views the Occupy movement as a precursor to her election, both philosophically and in a literal sense as a generator of volunteers. She said the movement ended a public silence on a lot of things people were angry about, particularly the bailout of banks widely blamed for the financial collapse, high unemployment and an epidemic of foreclosures and evictions.
Those people are becoming increasingly vocal. Chris Gray, an organizer who drove out with a group from Minneapolis to help Sawant after a slim loss there for a socialist candidate, thinks there's nothing special about Seattle or Minneapolis.
"The conditions exist in every city for challenges like this," he said.
While getting a socialist elected to the city council of a major U.S. city is hardly a political earthquake that will herald the rebirth of socialism in the mainstream of American politics, Sawant does not think it will be an isolated event.
"That's not how history works," she said. "This is a continuum where people learn lessons and progress to the next level. Their political consciousness evolves, and they gain confidence to fight for bigger things.
"Unless we relish the idea of our children being subjected to an endless battle for the same reforms over and over again and seeing the expansion of poverty between every fight for reforms, we have to look for an alternative to capitalism."