By STEVE LEIGH
— SEATTLE — Rightist Trump allies, big business, and legalistic liberals failed to oust Kshama Sawant in their Dec. 7 recall vote. Sawant is the first Seattle socialist city councilor in 100 years. She has championed a higher minimum wage, renters’ rights, taxing big business to fund public housing and turning Columbus Day into a celebration of the Indigenous people.
She was first elected in 2013 and immediately helped pass one of the first big city $15 per hour minimum wage laws in 2014. She went on to demand a “people’s budget,” including more funding to provide housing for the homeless. In a city with over half the residents being renters, she pushed for eviction moratoria and punishment of slumlords. She supported Black Lives Matter and helped galvanize support against a new police “bunker” that would have cost over $200 million. She always targeted big business.
Championing the needs of the poor and working class has drawn the enmity of those with wealth. They were surprised that she squeaked through the 2013 citywide election against a “Green” candidate. In 2015 and 2019, conservatives mounted serious challenges. In each case late-counted votes from young people put her over the top.
The recall, mounted in 2021, was based on bogus charges. The recallers said she broke the law by letting BLM activists rally at City Hall in July 2020—as if the people shouldn’t be able to use their own building! They said she threatened the mayor, Jenny Durkan, by “leading” a march on her house in August 2020. In fact, DSA, which organized the march, asked her to speak. The recallers wanted to punish her for exercising her right to free speech. Finally, she was accused of using city resources to promote the “Amazon Tax,” which would have provided money for public housing. A modified version of this tax finally passed.
Ironically, the same court that allowed the recall to go forward invalidated a recall effort against the mayor. The court said that if the charges against Sawant were correct, they constituted grounds for recall. It was up to the voters to decide if the charges were correct. The court said, on the other hand, that the charges against Mayor Durkan were not sufficient for a recall even if true. All Durkan did was unleash the police with chemical weapons on BLM protesters. This, the court said, was perfectly legal! So holding a meeting against police violence was illegal, but unleashing police violence was well within the law! A clearer indictment of this upside-down system has never been issued! As Howard Zinn said, “The wrong people are in prison and the wrong people are free.”
Not only were the charges against Sawant ridiculous; the election timing was also arranged to favor recall. Instead of holding the recall during the regular November election, the recall took place during a special election with nothing else on the ballot. This was designed to lower the voter turnout and favor more conservative voters. The close vote shows that it almost worked.
Sawant’s district is the most left wing in Seattle. It encompasses the historically Black Central Area and the historic youth and gay area of Capitol Hill. Yet it is also class divided. A large renter population on the core of Capitol Hill contrasts with the more affluent areas near Lake Washington. Early voting favored the richer areas, but late voting from renter neighborhoods favored Sawant. Socialist Alternative, Sawant’s party, led a vibrant, efficient, and well-organized effort to keep her in office. There were tables and signs all over the district.
Since the vote is close (both sides are separated by just a few hundred votes), the pro-recall side can still call for a recount, but they have to pay for it. As this is being written, some 600 potential votes remain to be counted, but these will likely lean toward Sawant. Though the result has not yet been certified, her victory is all but certain.
Why was the vote so close? The timing of the election was one factor. So was the million dollars spent by the conservatives. This resulted in endless anti-Sawant brochures mailed out through the district and even TV ads, unusual in a one-district race.
The key political factor was class polarization. Since the onset of neoliberalism in the mid 1970s, living standards for the poor and working class have stagnated and dropped. Wealth has concentrated at the top. Billionaires have gained $5 trillion dollars in wealth since the pandemic started (Common Dreams). This concentration of wealth has even hurt the middle class, small capitalists, and independent professionals. Neither Republicans or Democrats want to seriously correct this. They both serve the interests of the large corporations. Tax cuts for the rich have been paired with budget cuts in social programs. Congress quibbles over the “Build Back Better” plan that would cost about $175 billion per year but quickly, and easily, passed the military budget of $768 billion for one year—$25 billion more than Biden even asked for.
This failure of liberalism and conservatism has increased discontent. Support for both parties, Congress, and politicians have dropped. Today only 21% approve of Congress. More and more young and working-class people have looked to the left. This is shown by the growth of DSA and by opinion poll after opinion poll.
However, sections of the middle class and especially some older white workers have reacted to the failure of liberalism and conservatism by supporting right-wing populism. Some whites have seen their dropping economic position as the fault of the supposedly rising position of people of color, women, immigrants, and LGBTQIA people.
In Seattle and other cities, homelessness has become a center of this polarization. Rising rents and austerity-induced social deterioration have resulted in a massive increase in the homeless population (several thousand in the Seattle Area). In Seattle, the average one-bedroom apartment is around $2000 a month—far out of reach of lower-paid workers, even with Seattle’s comparatively high minimum wage.
For the left, the answer is clear—tax the rich and provide public housing and social services. For the right, the answer is repression. They call for sweeps of homeless camps and provision of only the most minimal, crowded, unsafe shelters, if that. Sweeps happen regularly and destroy the limited property homeless people have. They just succeed in moving people around and making their lives more miserable.
Since the liberal programs passed by the city council have not stemmed the crisis, many homeowners have turned to repression. They are tired of the visual blight, drugs and used needles of tents on the streets and in the parks. They just want the homeless somehow gone. This trend led to the loss of some progressive candidates in the November 2021 election.
The conservative opponents of Sawant have used this frustration for their own purposes. They are reinforced by the local conservative newspaper, the Seattle Times, and KOMO, the Sinclair TV Station. That station’s take on the homeless and “crime” issue was its special program, “ Seattle Is Dying.”
The attempted recall of Sawant is a gigantic sign of the need for a strong revolutionary socialist movement. Conservatism has failed. Liberalism has failed. Both are beholden to the interests of capital. Liberal reformism can only tinker around the edges of the crisis.
Even in a liberal city like Seattle, the polarization is growing. Continued failure to address the fundamental problems that the city faces will only give more fuel to the right—unless the left builds a strong enough movement to force changes that will ameliorate the crisis. Even a strong left cannot solve the crises while capitalism still exists. However, a fighting movement can show a way out and diminish the appeal of rightist pseudo-solutions that scapegoat the oppressed. It can help build the momentum for an overturn of capitalism.
A stronger left is needed for another reason. A significant section of previous Sawant voters voted for her recall this time. Why? It is because they bought the legalistic argument that she broke the law. A stronger socialist movement can help people understand that the real issue is class conflict—whose side are you on? People need to support class interests, not liberal niceties.
Sawant in office has been part of building the needed left opposition to capitalism. Her retention is a victory for the left. Sawant’s record is far from perfect. She compromised socialist independence from capitalist parties by backing Bernie Sanders twice. She joined DSA as it was moving to the right. She voted for budgets that funded the police and even voted to approve police chief Carmen Best, who ended up leading the repression against the George Floyd solidarity movement. She condemned both sides in Palestine. She believes in an electoral road to socialism. She wound down the $15 Now! minimum-wage movement in order to reach a compromise in 2014.
In spite of the weaknesses in her politics, revolutionary socialists in Seattle have been correct in supporting Sawant in her elections and especially in this recall. Having a socialist voice on the city council has been a boon to the opposition to capitalist priorities. Her presence on the council has contributed to concrete gains for the working class.
The left should savor this victory, but never get complacent. The right and its wishy-washy liberal allies will keep coming for Sawant, and more importantly, they will keep coming for workers and the poor. To paraphrase Joe Hill: Don’t just celebrate—organize!
Steve Leigh is a member of the Seattle Revolutionary Socialists and the Revolutionary Socialist Network.
Photo: Kshama Sawant (Ted S. Warren / AP)