The last time Seattle had a communist on the city council — in 1940 — it was Hugh DeLacy, a former University of Washington English instructor. When DeLacy was “red-baited” by an opponent from West Seattle and lost his seat, the Argus, a conservative weekly, opined that he’d had no effect on the politics of the city. DeLacy’s radicalism, the paper said, had set him so far apart from his colleagues that in three years he hadn’t “done a single thing.”
Say what you will of Kshama Sawant, who has just announced she will not seek another term on the city council, but you cannot say that. Seattle’s socialist councilwoman has been of greater consequence than our forgotten councilman of 1940 – or even of Anna Louise Strong, the former member of the Seattle School Board who is revered by the left for her role in the Seattle General Strike of 1919.
I was a columnist at the Seattle Times when I first wrote of Kshama Sawant in 2012. Born in Pune, India, of middle-class parents, she emigrated to the United States, and taught economics at Seattle U. and Seattle Central Community College. (What brand of economics, you might imagine.) She listed her political party as “Socialist Alternative.”
Sawant entered the public spotlight by running against Rep. Frank Chopp in the 43rd legislative district. Chopp was not an obvious target for an entry-level challenger. He was the Speaker of the House, the shepherd of its Democratic caucus. While Christine Gregoire was governor, Chopp was the most powerful man in Olympia.
Sawant challenged Chopp to a debate. He didn’t have to agree, but he obliged. On the dais, he was polite. Sawant had a sharp edge. She accused Chopp of giving up the goal of health care for all. He explained that in politics, you don’t get all you want. He had made strides toward that goal. In Washington, a higher percentage of kids had health coverage than ever before. Sawant dismissed this as crumbs from the capitalist table.
Chopp won the election, but Sawant got 29 percent of the vote. That was notable for a foreign-born woman running under the banner of a Trotskyist party. Sawant was just getting started. To the press, she said, “We will be shifting the political conversation to the left.” And she did.
A year later, in 2013, Sawant ran against City Councilman Richard Conlin. She was 41; he was 65. He had been in office four terms, and he didn’t campaign very hard. By the time he realized his mistake, it was too late.
It is an old rule of politics in Seattle that the only thing you put on yard signs is the office you seek and your name. Sawant broke that rule. Her issue was a $15 minimum wage — this, at a time when Washington’s minimum wage was $9.19, the highest of any state’s. All over Seattle sprouted the red yard signs saying, “Kshama Sawant. $15 Minimum Wage.” Her troops put up those signs as part of her “ground game,” the people out knocking on doors. Right from the start, Sawant’s ground game was one of her assets.
She was a different kind of candidate. She was sure of her radical ideas, with “the zeal of the recent convert,” one politico recalled. She was pushy, and her supporters could be pushier still. One witness to those days recalls seeing Conlin and Sawant at a voters’ forum. “Her people shouted him down. It was ugly. It exhausted him.”
In November 2013 she beat Conlin — barely, with 50.9 percent of the vote. It was the only time she had to win citywide — and probably the only time she could have. But she won, and made the most of it, rolling over the rhododendrons of Seattle Nice like a truck. Jonathan Martin of the Seattle Times wrote that she had “come out of nowhere to commandeer the city’s political agenda.”
“Commandeer” is an apt word. A person who was there recalls, “Her tactics were to pack the chamber with her supporters and engage in bullying. It made it hard for members to vote for things that weren’t what the audience wanted. This lasted for years.”
Her first objective, the $15 minimum wage, was low-hanging fruit. Even before the election, Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat opined that whether Sawant won or lost, the real winner in the city council elections was “the socialist,” because the others had stolen her idea. And the next year, the $15 wage swept into law.
Mayor Ed Murray negotiated the final deal with labor and the business lobby: the $15 was phased in over four to seven years, depending on the size of the employer, and health-insurance benefits were included. It wasn’t the immediate $15 that Sawant wanted, but it had her name on it, and it was a big deal. (Seattle’s minimum for companies with more than 500 employees is now $18.69, compared with $15.74 for the state and $7.25 for the nation.)
The $15 was just the beginning. Sawant pushed for other things. Sometimes she got nothing. She wanted to redo City Light rates so that residents paid the same or lower per kilowatt than industry, which is cheaper for City Light to serve. She didn’t get that. Another of her proposals that never made it was rent control for apartments, a policy anathema to the real estate industry and currently banned by state law. Sawant has called for years for the Legislature to change that law, and the Democrats in charge have not done it. But at the city council, she was able to pass an ordinance limiting the size of security deposits and another forbidding evictions during winter.
Starting in 2015, seven of nine members of the City Council were elected by districts, a change that was good fortune for Kshama Sawant. She lived in the new third district, Capitol Hill and the Central Area, which had the city’s highest concentration of apartment dwellers and leaned furthest left.
That year, she raised $464,000 for her council campaign. It was a big number then — a record. The same year, Seattle voters passed Initiative 122, setting up Democracy Vouchers, a program that was supposed to take private money out of politics. The program mails out taxpayer-funded $100 vouchers to voters, who can use them to support candidates who agree to limit what they take. Sawant has never used Democracy Vouchers. She says she needs the support of private donors (many from out of state) in order to prevail against candidates backed by business.
From the start, Sawant has been a champion of taxing the rich, an idea that also finds favor with the non-socialist left. In 2017, she and the progressives on the Seattle city council passed a 2.5 percent tax on individual incomes above $250,000 a year. The whole council voted for it, though they had been advised by City Attorney Pete Holmes that under state law, Seattle had no authority to impose such a tax. Soon the city income tax was thrown out in the courts.
In the spring of 2018 came the proposal for a business tax of $500 per employee for all companies above $20 million in annual revenue, dubbed the “head tax.” Its aim was to raise $75 million a year, $20 million of it from one company: Amazon. Most of the money was to be spent on housing and services for the homeless.
The argument was that Amazon, in hiring 50,000 people, was responsible for Seattle’s run-up in housing prices. Amazon’s prosperity was why people were camping in the parks. Sawant’s opponents argued that the head tax was “a tax on jobs,” and would drive employers out of the city. Their argument was seemingly validated when Amazon said it was putting on hold its plans for a 17-story building in Seattle. Sawant called Amazon’s decision “blackmail.”
In May 2018, when Sawant and her supporters were having a Tax-Amazon rally at the Amazon Spheres, they were confronted by ironworkers who wanted to work on Amazon’s project. For Sawant’s opponents, it was a delicious moment. She had been at dozens of union demonstrations — by airline workers, hotel workers, schoolteachers, university employees — always on labor’s side. Now the men from Iron Workers Local 86 were in her face, shouting “No head tax! No head tax!”
Under pressure from business, Mayor Jenny Durkan cut the proposed head tax nearly in half, to $275, and the council passed it, 9-0. Sawant’s progressive allies saw it as a measure to fund homeless programs. For Sawant, the head tax was a measure to “take our government back from the billionaires, back from Trump and from the oil companies.”
To business, the head tax was poison — and being a simple tax, it was easy to explain why. The Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce and the Downtown Seattle Association quickly raised enough voters’ signatures to put the head tax on the November ballot. Given polling data showing that the public was on Amazon’s side, Mayor Durkan’s operatives called the council members one by one — excepting Sawant — to line up votes for repeal. In June 2018, seven of the nine council members reluctantly voted to toss out the tax they had passed the month before. Only Teresa Mosqueda and Kshama Sawant stood by it.
Politically, June 2018 was Sawant’s lowest point. If she had been up for election that November, she would have lost. But Sawant was favored by the gods, and not for the last time. She wasn’t up for reelection until a year later, 2019.
Even then, she was vulnerable. In the August 2019 primary, running against a gaggle of candidates, she got only 37 percent of the vote. “People are just over the Kshama thing,” a Teamster official told the Seattle Times. “Sawant’s Marxist radicalism is not needed to advance the cause of Seattle’s working people,” the paper opined. The Times beat the drums for her rival, Egan Orion. As the past director of the Capitol Hill Chamber of Commerce, he was a supporter of small business — and also a promoter of the gay pride parade.
At the meeting where the head tax went down, Sawant had famously declared, “Jeff Bezos is our enemy.” Given that, it shouldn’t have been a surprise in October 2019 when Seattle’s largest employer dumped more than a million dollars into the city council races, most of it to defeat Kshama Sawant.
The move backfired. Before that, Sawant had been the issue. Now Amazon was. From Vermont, Sen. Bernie Sanders called Amazon’s outsized donation “a perfect example of the out-of-control corporate greed.” And Sawant won re-election again, this time by 51.8 percent.
In 2020 came COVID-19 and, in May, George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter demonstrations. In June 2020, protesters seized six blocks of Sawant’s district, including the police station there. They declared it the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone, free of Seattle police, and demanded that the police department be disbanded and the cops’ pensions erased.
The demands were impossible, but in that atmosphere even impossible demands had to be treated with respect. And for once, Kshama Sawant could be the moderate. Total defunding of police was not possible in a capitalist society, she told the protesters. (And in a socialist society?) Sawant pushed to cut Seattle’s $400-million police budget in half.
The police were, to put it mildly, out of favor. Mayor Durkan was painted as the queen of a police department that had used “chemical warfare” (tear gas) on peaceful protesters. Sawant called for Durkan’s resignation. On June 9, 2020, Sawant joined a protest march to Durkan’s house, a location that was supposed to be secret under state law, because Durkan had been Obama’s U.S. attorney for Western Washington and was a potential target of the men she’d put in prison.
Sawant didn’t get the mayor’s resignation, though Durkan later announced she would not run again. But the wave of support for the protesters provided an opening for other things. In July 2020, Sawant and her allies on the council were able to push through a new version of the head tax. It was not the simple $500 per head, or even $275, both of which sounded like a lot. It was an 0.7-to-2.4 percent sliding levy on the salaries of employees making at least $150,000, payable only by employers with at least a $7 million annual payroll. All that made the tax sound small, which it wasn’t. It was big. And it passed.
This time, Sawant’s opponents targeted her with a recall. The ostensible reason was her invasion of Durkan’s privacy, and some other pushful things Sawant had done. Sawant claimed that it was political retaliation, which it was. And had the recall gone to the ballot in November of 2020, Sawant would have lost. But she sued, challenging the recall at the Washington Supreme Court. The Court ruled against her, but it was slow, and by that time the Court made up its mind the furor had ebbed.
The recall-Sawant campaign was held in the fall of 2021. Each side spent close to a million dollars. Against Sawant was mostly local money: business names such as Frank Shrontz, retired CEO of Boeing, some McCaw Communications money, and Nordstrom money. Notable among anti-Sawant donors were owners and managers of Seattle rental properties. The list also included a homebuilder and the owner of a lumberyard. Many other donors listed their occupations as “retired.”
Most of the money supporting Sawant was from her out-of-state socialist network, some of it from Boston and Cambridge, Mass., New York City, and Oakland, Calif. Much of her money came from academics and government workers, particularly from city transit agencies and the Post Office, though her list included donors from such capitalist enterprises as Microsoft, Oracle, Facebook, Info Harvest, Optiv, and Sincro. One donor was from Jeff Bezos’ rockets-into-space company, Blue Origin. Eight of Sawant’s $1,000 contributors listed their occupations as “unemployed.”
The recall campaign was not well-run. Citing Covid, the recallers campaigned through the mails, which was not effective. When the recall came to a vote, in December 2021, Sawant squeaked by with 50.4 percent of the vote (only District 3 voters could vote). Her opponents muttered darkly that the Sawant campaign had rounded up supporters and registered them on the spot, up to the last day. You can do that here. It’s part of the ground game.
Sawant’s nine years in office have been a time of turmoil. “Collegial ‘Seattle Nice’ politics was replaced by a hard-left City Council where crowds of ‘activists’ sometimes shout down other-thinking people who try to speak,” wrote Times economics columnist Jon Talton in 2018. “How this came about should intrigue historians and political scientists for decades.”
Before Sawant, Seattle was a one-party town, all Democrat. A Republican, Mike McGavick, once complained to me that the acceptable range of opinion in Seattle was “about this wide,” stretching his thumb and index finger. Sawant changed that, widening the spectrum to the left. In a survey done in 2022, the Seattle Chamber of Commerce found that 7 percent of Seattle voters identify as “socialist.” That’s not much compared with the 61 percent who called themselves Democrats, but a lot of Seattle Democrats voted for Kshama Sawant. The Chamber’s survey found more Republicans (12 percent) than socialists, but Seattle Republicans don’t put up yard signs. Some of them write checks, but they make no noise.
Kshama Sawant makes noise. Always. To opponents, the sound is irritating and the tactics worse. She breaks the unwritten rules, and sometimes the written ones. She asks for the whole loaf, and with the support of a left-wing council, she gets a slice, sometimes only a little and sometimes more.
In 2015, Times city Hall reporter Daniel Beekman published a feature on Sawant, saying that she had “rapidly become one of the council’s most influential members.” He quoted Nick Licata, the longtime leader of the council’s left wing, who was about to retire: “Without a doubt, Kshama has moved the council in a new direction. More progressive. More sensitive to social and economic justice. The other members are inclined to go there, but Kshama is pushing them. Kshama is making things happen that never would have happened before.”
Business saw it differently. Always Sawant was against “the corporations.” She never had a good word for any private business larger than a barber shop. In 2014, she refused to attend the Chamber of Commerce’s leadership conference in Cle Elum, saying that she didn’t want to be influenced. In 2015, when Kathleen O’Toole was up for confirmation as Seattle’s police chief, and said she intended to run the department like a business, Sawant voted not to confirm her — because, she said, businesses are not accountable to people.
Well, she was a socialist. What sort of socialist? “I am a Marxist,” Sawant wrote for the London web page of International Socialist Alternative. “I am a scientific socialist. That means I do not engage in the wishful thinking of political impressionism that is the stock-in-trade of the liberals. I base myself — as do all my comrades in Socialist Alternative — on material reality, on historical materialism.”
In 2020 in Tacoma, Kshama Sawant warmed up a campaign crowd for Sen. Bernie Sanders, who was running for President. Sanders had long called himself a socialist, though he was running for the nomination of the Democratic Party. Sawant is proudly not a Democrat. To Sanders’ crowd, she yelled, “We need a powerful socialist movement to end all capitalist oppression and exploitation!”
The Seattle Times has been coy about the right label to pin on our longest-serving city councilwoman. Columnist Danny Westneat has correctly called her a Trotskyist, a term that means something to readers who know who Leon Trotsky was. Cartoonist Dave Horsey has pictured her shouting into a bullhorn at her desk, with a picture of Karl Marx on the wall behind. In his 2014 story, Times reporter Daniel Beekman was even more oblique when he noted that Sawant had named her dogs “Rosa” and “Che.” Probably most of his readers missed his reference to Che Guevara and Rosa Luxemburg, both of them revolutionaries.
For a city that is such a showpiece of 21st-century capitalism — a city of office towers, techies, and Teslas — it is strange that Seattle would elect a Marxist to the city council. But it did, and it has tolerated her for nine eventful years.