Sawant Campaign Invigorates Socialist Politics

by Ben Campbell on November 14, 2013

Kshama Sawant

Kshama Sawant

For a left that is used to settling for symbolic victories, most seemed impressed by socialist candidate Kshama Sawant’s 46% election night showing in Seattle. She had “changed the conversation” on topics such as the minimum wage after receiving an unprecedented number of votes in a city-wide race that few had expected her to win. Yet, after a prolonged process of vote-counting in which the Sawant campaign has carried all the momentum, the socialist has emerged with a 400-vote lead.

As ballots continue to be counted the campaign is appealing to volunteers and donors. They hope to avoid an automatic recount, which would be triggered if the vote differential is under 2,000 votes and one-half of one percent. While the campaign is cautious, it appears likely that Sawant is headed for electoral victory and one of nine spots on Seattle’s city council.

The campaign has captured the attention of the US left nationally, which has been looking for something to stir it from its post-Occupy hangover. The unexpected result has led to clamoring for more Sawant-style campaigns—could this be the beginning of a left electoral turn?

Yet socialists have frequently run for office and rarely come close to victory. Was the Sawant campaign simply an isolated incident of, as ABC put it, “left-leaning Seattle, where police recently handed out snacks at a large marijuana festival and politicians often try to out-liberal each other?” The fact that fellow Socialist Alternative candidate Ty Moore ran a similarly close campaign in Minneapolis would suggest otherwise.

Despite their party affiliation, it would be a mistake to view the Sawant and Moore campaigns as indicative of a groundswell in support for socialism, however defined. Sawant’s success owes itself to concrete policy proposals, such as a highly popular call for a $15/hour minimum wage—a ballot measure that was too-close-to-call in nearby Seatac. Moore, an organizer for Occupy Homes, focused heavily on the issue of foreclosures.

Instead, what the results indicate is that increasing numbers are open to left electoral alternatives to entrenched Democratic Party politicians. Sawant gained ground throughout the campaign by relentless attacks on the four-term incumbent Richard Conlin, who Sawant claimed represented “big business interests.”

In the post-Citizens United, post-2008 era, the Democratic party’s corporate fealty is difficult to hide from the working class, who are increasingly financially squeezed. A recent poll indicates that 60% of voters, including half of Democrats, believe that the two major parties “do such a poor job that a third major party is needed.” With support for Congress at an historic low, much of the disgust at the political establishment can also be seen at state and local levels, making incumbents like Conlin unusually vulnerable. Prior to election, only 28% of Seattle’s voters approved of city council.

While the Sawant campaign does not necessarily presage a revival of socialism, is does indicate that socialism is not a dirty word—at least in certain parts of the country. 53% of Democratic-leaning voters have a positive view of socialism, compared to 55% for capitalism and 44% for big business.  In a heavily Democratic city like Seattle, to embrace the socialist label thus does a progressive candidate little harm. Not only did the label not harm Sawant, but it may have helped, by foregrounding the issue of class and attracting media attention and national fundraising.

The two campaigns also demonstrate the importance of organization. Socialist Alternative brought a national organization and full-time staffers to concentrate almost exclusively on three local races (including Seamus Whelan’s unsuccessful candidacy in Boston). The Sawant campaign made use of hundreds of volunteers.

Yet despite Socialist Alternative’s organizational strength, their results would not have been achievable in isolation.  Critically, Ty Moore landed the endorsement of the SEIU, while Sawant received the endorsement of several unions. Sawant’s insurgent campaign posed tough questions for local progressive Democrats, with several prominent Democrats ultimately endorsing her.

Sawant raised over $100,000,  significantly out-fundraising Conlin in the campaign’s final weeks. This number should give prospective socialist candidates some pause; at roughly a dollar a vote, Sawant’s campaign was on the efficient side. While it is worth noting the large-scale city-wide nature of the race, this is the type of fundraising that serious third-party challengers will require.

Finally, both campaigns benefitted from exceptionally strong candidates, with a history of local activism, Sawant with Occupy Seattle and Moore with Occupy Homes-Minnesota. If Sawant holds on to win, as is likely, she will owe her slim victory to an impressive ability to communicate with voters on everyday issues. It was also to her advantage that she was familiar to Seattle voters, having run unsuccessfully against Washington House Speaker Frank Chopp in 2012.

Following their impressive election night showing, Socialist Alternative called for the formation of “coalitions throughout the country with the potential to come together on a national level to run 100 independent working-class candidates in the 2014 mid-term elections.” What Sawant and Moore demonstrate, however, is that the quality of electoral campaigns is far more important than quantity. Socialists should consider what strategic openings exist where they active, and what types of coalitions might possibly be formed out of electoral campaigns.

{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

William C Crain November 14, 2013 at 6:48 pm

It’s a good sign to be sure… if only i could get a Socialist or Green Pty candidate to run for the US Senate seat in Montana ~ it’s ours for some hard work as the Repugs ‘n Dems trash each other…
Yes,i’m seeking a Socialist or Green Pty US Senator candidate in Montana ~ it’d be a Big first but it can be done. We’re less than a million pop but scattered from hell to breakfast in our huge Big Sky state but with some tenacity and resolve we can have a US Senator Montana Socialist or Green Pty…


ed2291 November 14, 2013 at 7:18 pm

William is right and not just in Montana. The refusal to run even a minimally competent candidate for a token campaign given the conditions we are under mystifies me.


Christian November 14, 2013 at 8:06 pm

revolutionary socialists: merge now, build a united party, and run
local candidates. You can split later and go off to your own fiefish
sects later if you want. But you’ll have more members and more respect.

in isolation from each other, hyper theorizing, and avoiding official
politics is OUT.This is the way to break down the barriers and win a
principled political representation for the pro labor, socially liberal,
and anti war majority.


Deran November 14, 2013 at 8:39 pm

One thing that I think can not be ignored is that in Seattle Sawant had the enthusiastic support of Seattle’s “alternative” weekly newspaper, The Stranger. The Stranger is traditionally a Democratic Party lap dog, but in both of Sawant’s campaigns The Stranger has played a major role in both getting young people excited abt Sawant and socialism and making sure the mainstream press had to pay attention to her campaign. In addition to her campaigns well conceived and carried out news making events, around rent control, $15 minimum wage, stopping home foreclosures and such.

I also think if Sawant wins one of the biggest hurdles to her being as innovative and effective in office as her campaign was is if Sawant and the Socialist Alternative can avoid turning this in to a party building effort and not letting their Leninism run amok and alienate everyone.

In addition, I think it is important to note that the real leadership and organizers of the campaign were not SA members. Geov Parris is a left libertarian and he was essentially the campaign manager.

I also think it is important for Sawant to keep her coalition together, otherwise the Powers That Be will squash her.


disqus_JQwqPEla0V November 15, 2013 at 11:03 pm

Geov Parrish, who worked tirelessly as our media and fundraising coordinator and provided invaluable advice on local politics, was not the campaign manager. The “real leadership and organizers of the campaign” were absolutely SA members, myself included. Not sure why you think otherwise.


Deran November 16, 2013 at 1:14 am

My mistake. I’m sorry. It appeared that people who are not necessarily SA cadre’s were in leadership positions. It is not a bad thing that people to see the Sawant campaign as something bigger (socialism) rather than just an opportunity to recruit more SA members. When I said something like “Leninism running amok”, I meant the internal tendency of Leninist orgs to fall into vanguardism.


disqus_JQwqPEla0V November 16, 2013 at 1:31 am

No worries! I think it’s an important point to be clear on and wanted to make sure readers of this blog know that. Our cadre is constantly growing, so it’s hard to know everyone’s names, right? ;-)


Aaron Aarons November 16, 2013 at 12:28 am

I’m less afraid of Sawant and Socialist Alternative “letting their Leninism run amok and alienat[ing] everyone” than of Sawant acting like a “constructive” politician and making unprincipled compromises. For example, will she vote for a budget or law that includes funding of the police on the grounds that it also has good things in it?


insert name here November 16, 2013 at 1:48 am

Are you suggesting that she adopt a kind of Ron Paul/Bartlbian refusal strategy in her voting? I’m not necessarily saying that’s a bad thing (it kept Ron Paul in congress for a long time), I’m just asking.


Aaron Aarons November 18, 2013 at 11:26 pm

I don’t know enough about the right-wing ‘libertarian’ Ron Paul to comment on his strategy and I never even heard of somebody named ‘Bartlbian’. And I’m not mainly concerned with keeping somebody in Congress or on the Seattle City Council. The job of a genuine socialist or communist in a bourgeois legislature is to (1) use their position to propagandize against capitalism, etc., (2) agitate on a variety of issues, especially in support of actual movements, and (3) obstruct the passage of budgets and other reactionary legislation.

There will be cases when something will be voted on that a socialist can support and that might actually pass, but I would expect such situations to be exceptional, and it is the obligation of a socialist in a legislative body to oppose legislation that combines ‘good’ and ‘bad’ elements. For example, if there were a socialist in Congress today, it would be totally unacceptable for said socialist to vote for the Senate immigration bill, with its financing of (not only continued but) increasing militarization of the U.S. border with Mexico.


Andrew Gorman November 16, 2013 at 3:38 pm

The police have to have funding, because we need a police force. What she can do is defund the police in anti-drug campaigns, because that disproportionately affects working people. She can also push for more police accountability, get rid of laws that hurt working people, etc.

But you need a force that people can call for help. But it has to be in the hands of those people, where the people can actually see police with more respect.


Aaron Aarons November 18, 2013 at 6:51 pm

The police under capitalism, and even more in the imperialist, settler-colonial United Snakes, are the main force defending inequality and oppression. If oppressed people do need a force they can call for help, that force needs to be organized in opposition to the police and the ruling class. Of course, such a force with sufficient strength will not be organized overnight, but neither will the defunding of the police by socialist council-members happen overnight. In the meantime, it is not the job of socialists to help maintain the capitalist state by voting to fund its “special bodies of armed men”.

Moreover, even for those who accept Andrew’s reformist, approach, is it enough to defund only things like anti-drug campaigns? What about funding the arrest and persecution of shoplifters and others who commit crimes against capitalist property? What about funding the persecution of sex workers? Shouldn’t a reformist who claims to be “socialist” at least vote against any bill that includes funds for such policing?

BTW, I suggest that anybody who thinks like Andrew Gorman does, or anybody who already opposes the police but wants more ‘ammunition’, should read the seminal work, Our Enemies in Blue: Police and Power in America, which can also be downloaded here as a PDF.


Aaron Aarons November 18, 2013 at 11:53 pm

Help! I spent a lot of time writing a reply to this and it seems to have disappeared, perhaps during my last edit! Can the moderators restore it?


will_robertson2 November 22, 2013 at 11:08 pm

So Andrew, do you find it necessary to post bull on WITN after going to this socialist website? Next time you defend a democrat Uriah Ward, consider we are a capitalist country, a republic and you are welcome to leave at anytime to search for your endeavors.


lessthantolerant December 1, 2013 at 3:15 pm

Defund the police departments immediately! Seattle does not have a crime problem, it has a poverty problem. Too many poor are not provided for properly. Bill gates home could house at least a hundred homeless comfortably. Take some of his free wasted space and share!
There are many liberals in Seattle who have large under occupied homes, begin confiscation as was done after 1917.
Power to the People!!!!


lessthantolerant December 1, 2013 at 3:11 pm

Watching Seattle try to commit suicide by stupidity is amusing. To many residents of Seattle have little no real understanding of socialism and its inherent evil past. I hope she gains power, she sets up a proper wealth redistribution scheme and she starts with Microsoft and Boeing. After all both corporations make too much profit and their owners have too much wealth.
Just think, Mr. Gates needs no more wealth than 100 million dollars, the remaining wealth could be used to feed and house the so many poor of Seattle.
Can’t wait to see how well this insanity plays out.


Margarita December 3, 2014 at 10:02 am

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