The evening of 15 November will go down as marking an historic step in re-building a socialist movement in the US, the world’s leading capitalist nation. Kshama Sawant, candidate of Socialist Alternative (co-thinkers of the CWI in the US), was poised to win a seat on the Seattle City Council after her opponent conceded the race. This is the first time in many decades that a Socialist in the US won an election by defeating the Democrats, a party that pretends to be pro-labour. Further counts continued to show Kshama’s lead increasing in this city wide vote. As of November 18 Kshama stands on 93,168 votes. She spoke to Sarah Wrack about the campaign.
Why did you and Socialist Alternative decide to stand in this election?
We ran a campaign last year where I stood for the Washington State House of Representatives against House Speaker Frank Chopp – probably the most powerful legislator in the state.
The reason we thought about running an electoral campaign was our political analysis of the conditions coming out of the Occupy movement. The Occupy movement was very active and then towards the end of 2011 and the start of 2012 it started branching out into offshoots like the Occupy Homes campaign in Minnesota and so on but for the most part it was starting to wind down. The most prominent topic of conversation was the re-election of Barak Obama and that, for people who consider themselves progressive, the priority was to get Obama elected because it would be unthinkable to get Mitt Romney in the White House.
Of course Socialist Alternative is in agreement that the right wing should not be given that opportunity but we also point out that the Democrats are not an alternative to the Republicans and on the whole having two big business parties, or just two wings of the same big business party, has not worked for the working class of the United States.
In fact the Obama administration itself is a good example of how progressive Americans put their faith in the Democrats year after year and then have a string of betrayals to show for it. All the promises that were made on healthcare, on the holding of people at Guantanamo Bay, ending the occupation of Afghanistan and the drone attacks – all of these have been betrayed. In fact drone attacks have shot up, Obama has presided over the highest number of deportations of undocumented migrants. And as a teacher I can tell you that the assault on public education and on teachers’ unions has become sharper under Obama’s Department of Education.
And so the question for Socialist Alternative was how do we continue to engage people in a political discussion and clarify the need to break from the two big business parties and also to break from capitalism itself. It seemed like an effective strategy to do that would be to run our own campaign and show what a truly independent grassroots campaign looks like.
We ran both campaigns not taking any money from big business and running independent from the Democrats, not seeking the endorsements of the Democratic Party establishment.
Last year we got 29% of the vote which was also quite remarkable – over 20,000 people voted for us. And we fought for our right to say Socialist Alternative Party on the ballot and this year also we were openly running as a Socialist Alternative candidate.
How was the campaign organised?
The first people involved in the campaign were members of Socialist Alternative and our primary focus at the beginning was developing the campaign platform itself. That was thoroughly discussed and debated in the Socialist Alternative branches. We highlighted three points – one was for a $15 dollar an hour minimum wage which we had been calling for last year as well. This year, seeing as we were running a city-wide election, our demand was $15 an hour minimum wage city-wide. The second was affordable housing and rent control. And the third was a millionaire tax to fund mass transit and education.
Our campaign said make Seattle affordable for all because a primary issue we were highlighting is that Seattle is a very wealthy city but it’s deeply unequal and it’s unaffordable for the vast majority of people – especially the growing ranks of low wage workers.
It was clear from the very beginning that these points were really galvanising attention from the working class in Seattle and that helped us to grow our base of volunteers because people were really excited about the idea of an electoral campaign that’s so unlike the business-as-usual corporate politicians.
One thing that really excited people was that we pledged that if we were elected that we would only take the average worker’s wage. Seattle City Council members are paid $120,000 a year which is a very high salary and is second only to the City Council in Los Angeles. Most people didn’t know that and when we said we’d only be taking the average worker’s salary and giving the rest to build social justice movements, that really caught people’s attention.
So through the politics of the campaign we were able to attract a big base of volunteers. We had several people from Socialist Alternative working full time to organise the volunteers. We had a campaign office, we organised staff meetings every day to discuss the tasks – the staff meetings were organised in cooperation with the local Socialist Alternative leadership.
And so we were really able to pay attention to everything that was happening in the city and take advantage of any potential opportunity to talk about the campaign, to publicise the campaign, to get media opportunities - which was really necessary for us because we were running against a 16-year incumbent, entrenched and powerful Democrat. We were relentless and sharp in bringing out all the problems not only with his 16-year reign but also with the city government in general and how they are out of touch with the needs of working people. Through all that effort we were able to build a base of over 350 volunteers which was a source of energy for the campaign.
Another thing we did that really helped the campaign was in the last weekend before election day we organised 100 rallies. We had people with signs for the campaign standing at busy street intersections waving them, we did several banner drops on top of freeways where there’s a lot of traffic of people going to work every day, we had big banners that said ‘$15 minimum wage, Vote Sawant’.
That really helped us in getting people to vote. For the most part city politics is so out of touch with normal working class life that people don’t pay attention to it, it’s boring. They see the City Council members as mostly white, wealthier, upper class people who don’t really know what’s happening on the ground and don’t care. So for us the struggle was not only to influence people who usually vote but also to get people who don’t usually vote to vote for this campaign.
And we engaged in a dialogue with people - we’re Marxists, we don’t necessarily think that the electoral arena is the most favourable to build social movements. However, we can show an example of how that can be done but that requires you to be involved. So I think that was the biggest challenge which we did quite well.
But we cannot talk about our campaign in isolation. We also have to mention that it was happening at the same time that the fast food workers movement has been on the rise. Especially in Seattle they’ve been quite confident and we’ve been in solidarity with them. There was also the $15 an hour ballot initiated in Seatac, which is a neighbouring city to Seattle where the international airport is located. It was specifically for giving $15 an hour to airport workers. So all of that created a lot of momentum for the campaign.
How did people respond to the fact that you were openly a socialist?
For most people what stood out was the fact that we were fighting for $15 an hour.
And what really attracted people was how audacious we were and that’s the opposite of the advice that you usually get. There were a lot of people who liked our campaign and have experience in bourgeois politics who would tell us: “you have to tone yourself down, don’t criticise the administration so much”. I was often asked: “why do you always start any speech by saying ‘I’m a member of Socialist Alternative’?”
They wanted to dissociate me from Socialist Alternative because normal US electoral politics is centred around individuals and personalities not on collective organisations, collective effort. But we rejected that completely. Instead we were bold and unrelenting in presenting our politics and making clear that if you like this campaign, if you like that we’re fighters, then that has everything to do with the fact that we’re socialists.
A lot of people didn’t care so much about the label, they cared about the issues and the campaign. But there is a layer of people for whom it was really part of it. There were people who said, ‘well if that’s a socialist campaign and I agree with everything, then maybe I’m a socialist, maybe I need to talk to Socialist Alternative’. We have had people join Socialist Alternative or explore joining because they agreed with what we were saying and their confidence was raised by how boldly we were fighting for the campaign.
What are your plans now?
First of all today [17 November] we are having a big rally to bring everyone who worked on the campaign and who is excited about our victory to celebrate it but also provide a sense of the way forward – what is it that needs to happen from here?
We want to talk about not only our campaign and what we’ll do in City Council but also, what is the significance of this? What is the significance of a revolutionary socialist being elected to the City Council of a major city in the United States? That has real (in many ways earth-shattering) consequences for the left in general, especially in the US but also internationally because it should make the left sit up and think, well if this is possible then what more could be possible?
The reason we’re getting national and international media focus is not that we won a City Council seat – ordinarily nobody would care that somebody won a City Council seat. What’s striking is that an open socialist won the seat, that the campaign did not take any money from big business and did not rely on the Democratic Party apparatus to win. We need the left to draw on these lessons and realise that there is an opening to build movements and to build a viable anti-capitalist, anti-corporate working people’s alternative to the two big business parties.
In the City Council, our first priority is to push for the $15 an hour minimum wage. Specifically we will be drafting an ordinance to present to the City Council. But we also have no illusions that it’s going to be easy. Big business is going to resist tooth and nail because Seattle is a major city and if we get $15 here it will have a domino effect for other cities. So we need to continue building mass support for the demand.
One of the things we’re going to work towards is having a big rally - our target is to bring 10,000 people but we’ll see how it goes - at least bring thousands of people to a rally early next year in support of $15 an hour.
I’ve seen a lot of comments saying that there’s something unique about Seattle. Of course there are always things that are different from one situation to another but I think it’s important for the left everywhere to realise that given the crisis of capitalism, especially in Europe given the extent to which austerity politics has been carried out, there is absolutely no question that there are opportunities. And if it can happen in the belly of the beast there is no reason why it can’t be done elsewhere. But it’s not automatic which is why we need to consciously build our forces.