The first socialist to hold a seat on Seattle’s city council in nearly 100 years looks set for a second term, in what the campaign and supporters are describing as a victory for the socialist cause nationally. The vote count as of Thursday evening had incumbent Socialist Alternative candidate Kshama Sawant beating Democrat Pamela Banks by eight percent of the vote, according to the county’s elections department.
Sawant became a celebrated figure on the radical left during her first campaign for the city council in 2013, when she ran on a platform that included raising Seattle’s minimum wage to $15 per hour. Her victory in that race looked like a beacon to other socialist activists, who have been largely relegated to the margins of U.S. politics for the last few decades.
But the question going into the 2015 campaign was how voters in her district would feel after two years of being represented by a bona fide socialist. To Sawant, their decision to re-elect her is vindication of her belief that socialist politics can work in America.
Now she’s calling on other would-be candidates around the country to hoist the red flag.
“We should be doing this in every city,” Sawant told Al Jazeera. “The labor movement should be running its own independent working-class candidates in every city."
Labor support is a key element of Sawant’s political strategy. Her connections to Occupy Seattle and political activists throughout the city gave her access to a volunteer army and a healthy base of small donors; the day before the election her political director, Philip Locker, estimated that more than 600 people had volunteered their time to help her get re-elected.
Sawant also raised more money than any other candidate for the Seattle city council in this election cycle, even though the average Sawant donor gave her just $120 — less than half the average donation offered by Banks's supporters. Sawant’s national celebrity among radical leftists also gave her access to potential donors outside of Seattle; as a result, 39 percent of all contributions to her campaign came from outside the city limits.
“Sawant is an inimitable organizer. Any politician in the country would be envious of her organizing skills,” said Josh Feit, politics editor for the Seattle Met magazine. “She’s got a committed, almost zealous following, and she raised a ton of grassroots money."
That following also helped Sawant deliver on the central promise from her first campaign. Six months after she was first elected, local politicians and business leaders struck a deal that would make Seattle the first major U.S. city with a $15 minimum wage law. San Francisco and Los Angeles soon followed Seattle’s lead.
“The reason we won that fight is because we had our position in City Hall, and we used that position to build a real fighting movement,” Sawant said. She has also used her status within the city government to combat rent increases, a perennial issue for Seattle and other major urban areas.
Sawant’s combative style and implacable leftward pull haven’t won her many friends in City Hall. Six of her eight colleagues on the city council endorsed her Democratic opponent, Banks. Some Banks supporters have accused Sawant of dwelling too much on national left-wing politics, rather than dealing with her constituents.
“Kshama Sawant is a no-show in the community,” said the Rev. Harrett Walden, founder of Mothers for Police Accountability and co-chair of the Community Police Commission in Seattle, in an ad put together by the Banks campaign. “Kshama spends a lot of time outside the district, outside the city. She isn’t there when we have a crisis."
John Nichols, national affairs correspondent for The Nation and author of a book about the history of American socialism, told Al Jazeera he thinks Sawant has accomplished a good deal on the local level. But the most important socialist politicians in the country’s history have always done their local work with an eye toward the national context, he said.
“Like the socialists of 100 years ago, she doesn’t limit her public service to the specific fights she’s in,” Nichols said. “She links them to national and international fights, she travels a great deal, she tries to be in media. She makes herself very available to spread the word, and that’s the classic model."
By spreading the word, Sawant hopes to encourage more socialist candidates at every level of government — including federal politics. When Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., was first contemplating a run for the presidency, Sawant urged him to launch a third-party socialist candidacy instead of entering the Democratic primary. Sanders, though he identifies as a socialist, chose to run as a Democrat.
“Our analysis has always been that the Democratic Party has proven itself incapable as a vehicle for a real alternative to Wall Street-dominated politics,” Sawant said, explaining Socialist Alternative’s disagreement with Sanders.
But while Sawant differs with Sanders on that point, her organizing-based strategy vaguely resembles the grassroots “political revolution” that Sanders has often described as a necessary precondition to fixing entrenched inequality. And Sawant is gambling that this movement will spread — even, in her view, outside of liberal fortresses like Seattle.
“The most intriguing question nationally is whether a socialist is electable on the national level,” she said. “Clearly what we’ve done in Seattle has implications for that question."