Kshama Sawant took the microphone at her victory party on Nov. 17, 2013, and called one of the Seattle region’s biggest employers an economic terrorist. “If Boeing executives insist on relocating the factories out of Washington,” she told a cheering crowd at the headquarters of Service Employees International Union Local 775, “the only response we can have to reject this blackmail is to tell the CEOs if you want to go, you can go. The machines are here, the workers are here, let us take this entire productive activity into democratic public ownership and retool the machines to produce mass transit.”
Yes, Sawant is that kind of socialist. And her speech, just after her election to the Seattle City Council, got a standing ovation. Local 775 had endorsed her opponent, incumbent Richard Conlin, but by the time the final vote count showed Sawant had won, the union was lending her its hall. She paused, grinning, to let her supporters clap. “We need to fight on behalf of the Boeing workers, we need to fight on behalf of Metro workers, we need to fight for $15 an hour, but that is not going to be enough,” she said. “We are fighting against the system of capitalism itself, and look how spectacularly it has failed in meeting even the most basic needs of human survival.”
A year and a half later, I sat in Sawant’s office in City Hall, listening to her recall the Boeing workers’ rally that had taken place the next night. The state legislature had just voted to give Boeing a package of tax breaks worth $8.7 billion, at the time the largest subsidy ever given to a single company in US history, and at the same time Boeing was demanding that its union workers give up their pensions — or else the company would move production to nonunion South Carolina, where Gov. Nikki Haley had bragged about wearing high heels to kick the unions. Haley, like Sawant, is of Indian descent, but there the similarities most definitely end. After riding the 2010 tea party wave into office, Haley had flaunted her hatred of worker organizations; Sawant, by contrast, argued that both Republicans and Democrats had abandoned working people. And Sawant’s election to the city council seemed to be evidence that Americans, increasingly, were ready for answers outside of the previously accepted political consensus.
Sawant came to socialism in 2009, after hearing a member of the group Socialist Alternative speak at a postelection event. “When he spoke it was everything that I was thinking about; it was an analysis of why we need to fight against capitalism and why we need an organization like Socialist Alternative, and for me it was like boom, it makes sense,” she said. Growing up in India, she had been “obsessed” with the problems of poverty and hunger. “It got more and more obvious as I got older that this was something systemic — it was not inevitable — meaning you could change the system and have a different kind of outcome.”
Until she encountered Socialist Alternative, she hadn’t found a political organization that made sense to her. Single-issue campaigns or nonprofits held little appeal. She moved to the United States at age 22 and worked as a computer programmer, but her questions about poverty and inequality led her back to school, where she earned a Ph.D. in economics. She moved to Seattle and began teaching at Seattle Central Community College. That’s where she was when the Occupy movement broke out in Seattle in the fall of 2011. “I can hardly remember a day that I didn’t go — I would finish teaching my classes and then walk downtown to the occupation,” she said. When the city government wanted the encampment moved out of the public park it had taken over, Sawant helped negotiate space for the occupiers on the campus of Seattle Central.
When Occupy faded, Socialist Alternative began to consider new ways to get involved in politics. The 2012 election was looming, and the pressure was on for movement activists to get in line behind the Democratic Party. But what if they could demonstrate a different kind of political campaign, one that took issues seriously but was uncompromising about its anti-capitalist politics and deliberately outside of the two major parties? Socialist Alternative, Sawant explained, is an activist organization, not a political party — it calls for an independent workers’ party — and so it took a serious debate for the Seattle group to decide that it wanted to run an electoral campaign. Sawant was even more surprised when her colleagues nominated her to be their candidate. “I was quite stunned,” she laughed. “Nobody can even say my name in this country. How are we going to make any impact with my name on the ballot sheet?”
David Goldstein was a writer for the Seattle alternative weekly newspaper The Stranger when Sawant ran her first campaign, which was for the state legislature. “We’re used to having what we call ‘clown socialists’ come in,” he told me, “who are there just to be angry and dour-faced and spout a little Marxist rhetoric about how corrupt the whole system is, and then that’s all they do — they don’t really run races.”
But Sawant, seeking The Stranger’s endorsement in her race against state representative Jamie Pedersen, seemed different. She had specific plans and could discuss the ins and outs of the budget. The Stranger staff felt that they had to endorse Pedersen, who had been a champion of the marriage equality measure on the ballot that year. But Goldstein suggested endorsing Sawant in another race, against the speaker of the House, Frank Chopp, as a write-in candidate. They did, and she made it through the first round of both primaries. For the November election, Sawant chose the race against Chopp and went to court to make sure the ballot identified her as coming from Socialist Alternative. She lost the election to Chopp, but she still managed to win 29 percent of the vote with “Socialist” next to her name.
The city council elections came up the following year and, buoyed by its success against a powerful statewide figure, Seattle Socialist Alternative decided to challenge Councilmember Richard Conlin. Meanwhile, halfway across the country in Minneapolis, another Socialist Alternative member with ties to Occupy, Ty Moore from Occupy Homes Minnesota, was running his own city council race. “Ty at that moment, ironically, was our winnable campaign,” Sawant recalled. “This campaign was a long shot because this was a citywide campaign; that was a ward-based campaign and we were such underdogs at that time.”
“Running a viable campaign as a socialist isn’t just a matter of audacity, clever tactics and the right program (though those are all crucial),” Moore said. “You need to have built up some kind of base in advance.” He won endorsement from SEIU’s Minnesota state council, immigrants groups and worker centers, and ultimately lost by just 229 votes.
Another campaign was heating up at the same time as the Seattle City Council race. For years, workers at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, in the nearby suburb of SeaTac, had been trying to organize, backed by several local unions. Alex Hoopes, a 25-year veteran of the airline industry, was one of those workers. He had seen his job fall from a unionized, stable position with a living wage to a gig that started at $8.72 per hour. He worked as a baggage handler and ramp agent for AirServ, a contractor that provided staff to clean the planes, load them, and provide security. He had reached out to SEIU Local 6 about organizing, but the union was having little luck getting the airlines to come to the table and negotiate with the workers. Instead, the union and its allies moved to raise wages for the many low-wage workers at the airport and its surrounding hotels, restaurants and other businesses by putting the wage issue before the voters. Hoopes collected petition signatures to put a $15-an-hour measure on the SeaTac city ballot that fall. It was the first time that voters anywhere in the United States would consider a wage that high; only a few months before, striking fast-food workers calling for “$15 and a union” had begun the drumbeat on the streets of New York.
It wasn’t long ago that calling for a $15-an-hour minimum wage would have gotten you branded a dangerous communist and laughed out of the political debate. But in 2013, members of Socialist Alternative thought it was their key to mainstream success. “We felt that the $15 demand was really going to fix itself on the consciousness of a large base of the working class nationally, not just in Seattle,” Sawant said.
Heather Weiner, a longtime labor movement strategist, was working on the SeaTac campaign at the time, and remembered the first time Sawant and Socialist Alternative arrived at a hearing on the $15-an-hour measure. The SeaTac City Council had the option to adopt the measure rather than sending it to the ballot, and airport workers and local residents were lined up to speak. “Kshama and her crew showed up in their red shirts from Seattle and start giving socialist rhetoric,” Weiner said. “I remember I thought, ‘What are you doing?’ But the crowd loved her, and I thought, ‘All right, I don’t need to control this, I just need to sit back and relax and watch what happens here.’” The socialists, she said, were making her campaign look like the moderates in the room.
Back in Seattle, few people thought Sawant had a chance. Despite her vocal support for $15 an hour, most of organized labor endorsed the incumbent, Conlin. Some, though, recognized that there was an opening for someone who was prepared to challenge what Robert Cruickshank, a former aide to Mayor Mike McGinn, called the “very comfortable liberalism in Seattle.” Cruickshank explained, “Voters in Seattle were ready for political change in City Hall, and I think Kshama captured that in the right way. They wanted something more progressive.”
The country in general, and Seattle in particular, were ripe for this message. The financial crisis, Cruickshank said, had made people start to think about capitalism, creating a newly fertile ground for big ideas and washing away the remnants of the red-baiting that had so defined debate for so long. In Seattle, where tech money from companies like Amazon was flowing and rents spiking, the city was perhaps even more primed for Sawant and for $15.
It didn’t hurt that Socialist Alternative ran what turned out to be a very effective grass-roots campaign. “We had about 400 volunteers toward the end of the campaign,” Sawant said. “As many of the people we ran into told us, they couldn’t walk a few blocks without seeing one of us. It was incredible.”
Sawant’s ultimate margin of victory was over 3,000 votes; because the city council was elected citywide at the time, that meant that over 93,000 people in Seattle voted for a socialist. The SeaTac ballot measure won, too, by 77 votes out of 6,003. It became clear that what had been a wild, utopian demand for a livable wage was something that voters were willing to endorse, both in the person of Sawant and explicitly, in the SeaTac ballot campaign.
To Sawant, the victory showed that her message, and its appeal to the working class of a wealthy city, had resonance. “People don’t need some kind of detailed graduate-level economics lesson; they understand that the market is not working for them. The market is making them homeless. The market is making them cityless. And they’re fed up, and they’re angry.” Angry enough, it seemed, to take a leap of faith and support a candidate whose ideas had only recently been presumed to be unthinkable.