Seattle has been at the forefront of progressive politics in the United States as socialists and leftists have battled with corporate Democrats who face virtually no opposition from Republicans. In 2013, Kshama Sawant became the first socialist elected to the city council in nearly a century, and with her election has come a wave of grassroots socialist movements that continue to challenge the city’s Democratic establishment.
This past November, the city’s Democratic machine managed to fend off challenges from leftists in mayoral and city council races. The Seattle People’s Party mayoral candidate Nikkita Oliver came up short in the August 2017 primary, after which the establishment-backed candidate Jenny Durkan won the runoff election against Cary Moon.
“The fact that Durkan got elected is a positive development for the establishment because Durkan is not only a corporate politician, which she is, but she’s not just any corporate politician. Durkan is a stalwart for Seattle’s political and business establishment,” said Socialist Alternative Seattle City Council Member Kshama Sawant in an interview with me. “In a sense, for Seattle’s establishment, this is a regrouping of their forces since what they perceived as what happened in 2013, which is my election and, in their eyes, a debacle towards pro-working class politics, which we had helped put forward not just because of me, personally, but because of us, a socialist winning this seat and using it in a full way to mobilize social movements because our loyalties are not divided between business and workers. We are unambiguously fighting for workers.”
She notes that, although Oliver didn’t make it to the general election and socialist city council candidate Jon Grant didn’t win, superficial conclusions shouldn’t be derived from their losses; “Superficially, the conclusions would be exactly what the corporate media is saying in Seattle, which is that, ‘Oh, bye, bye to socialism. Bye, bye to working-class politics. Now, it’s back to the good old days of the Seattle establishment.’ That’s absolutely not true.”
Though the Democratic Party establishment made key gains in recent Seattle elections by fending off challenges from the left, those challenges are bigger than a single election and symptomatic of a broader ongoing process in Seattle.
“The social movements in Seattle, especially around the issues of the affordable housing crisis, and the escalation of homelessness, are really starting to ramp up. In fact, just the last week, it gave you a glimpse of things to come because it was a real clash between me and social movements on one side, and the political establishment on the other side. The main clashes were around our key demands in the budget this year, which were to stop the sweeps of homeless people on homeless encampments, and to tax big business to fund affordable housing and homeless services.
Now, we didn’t directly win either of the demands, but the movement has been so energized. The combination of an energized social movement, and having a socialist in office, has meant that we have really, through the work of our grassroots coalitions, we have succeeded in putting the establishment on notice.
The tax on big business is going to pass sooner or later because the strength of the social movement and the changing balance of forces. The corporate council members were emboldened by Durkan and Mosqueta’s election, and Jon Grant’s defeat; it meant that they didn’t vote, ‘Yes,’ on the tax. At the same time, the movement building its own forces also meant that the council members didn’t feel emboldened enough to just completely reject the tax either.”
Due to the growing social movements in Seattle, city council members who voted no on the Seattle business tax to fund housing for the homeless had to compound their votes with political promises to appease their constituents. “What they were forced to do was, I would say, mental acrobatics. On the one hand, they voted, ‘No,’ and they came up with all kinds of faults, excuses for it. In the same breath, because they’re getting such pushback from the movement, and they know the movement is not going away, they have to also say, ‘Well, I promise you to pass the task and tax in 30 days.’ Another corporate council member said, ’I’m going to pass it in 60 days.’ Yet another said, ‘I’m going to pass it in 90 days.’ In other words, they have made public verbal commitments that they’re not going to be able to slither out of it. If they do, there will be a political price to pay for it.” Sawant said.
Minneapolis, another Democratic Party stronghold, is experiencing a similar clash between the Democratic political establishment in the city and socialist, progressive movements. In November 2017, Ginger Jentzen nearly became the first socialist on the city council, but came up short after winning the first ballot in ranked voting.
“This is another example of the trend that I’m talking about,” Sawant explained. “Ginger Jentzen, who ran as a Socialist Alternative candidate in Minneapolis after having won $15 an hour [for] the 15 Now Minnesota Campaign. She didn’t win the election, but it’s the same phenomenon. It’s a similar phenomenon where she did extremely well in the race. She won every working class precinct in Ward three, where she ran, but the corporate entities in the city correctly saw her and Socialist Alternative as a threat to their domination. They spent tens of thousands of dollars of corporate-backed money to defeat her, which they succeeded in.”
What they didn’t succeed in, Sawant argued, was winning on the basis of ideas.
“In other words, even though Jentzen lost, it’s a similar phenomenon to other regions where the ideas of rent controls, of taxing the rich, of fighting against the corporate status quo are now out there because our campaigns have campaigned on them. We’ve gone to every door in the working class precincts with these ideas, and we have shared support. We have laid the basis for future struggles for, potentially, around rent control.”
While Jentzen came up short in her Minneapolis City Council election, Our Revolution-endorsed candidates have won eight slots on the Minneapolis City Council and the Amalgamated Transit Union local in Minneapolis recently elected a member of Socialist Alternative, Ryan Timlin.
“[Ryan is] a long time fighter for worker’s rights in his union. He’s well known within his union. Why? The reason I mention it is that, just two days ago that same local took a strike authorization vote. Over 90% of strike authorization vote because they’re heading into confrontational contract negotiations with the transit authority and they’re promising to strike [during] the Super Bowl because the Super Bowl is going to be there in Minneapolis. These are other examples of the promise of real clashes between big business forces and the working class that we are going to see play out in the future.”