Conlin vs. Sawant: The Politics of Character Assassination

Character assassination is easy. The great thing about it is you don’t actually have to prove anything. You can use any number of techniques. Guilt by association with other people. Tying the person to something seemingly in contradiction to their values. Vague innuendos that sound like questions. Taking details of a person’s personal life and weaving them into a false narrative. Drawing conclusions from isolated facts. And if all else fails, claiming the subject is not being honest or open when they won’t play along with your “when did you stop beating your wife?” type of questions.

Like I said, it’s easy. It’s just not ethical. It’s also not honest journalism. It is normal electoral politics though, when you’re running scared. And Richard Conlin is very scared indeed. A four-term incumbent, he is running a tight race against someone who he may have laughed about when she filed against him: Kshama Sawant. He’s certainly not laughing now.

Kshama Sawant

Fortunately, he’s got Erica Barnett and PubliCola to come to his rescue, or so he thinks. After he realized that desperately flailing away about Kshama’s supposed lack of civic engagement didn’t produce much, now he’s back with a story about hypocrisy, and the inability to identify with the needs of the 99%. Imagine in a race between two candidates, one of them Conlin, and the other candidate is being charged with hypocrisy and lack of empathy for workers. It would be funny, if it weren’t so sad and sordid.

In a way, you can’t blame Erica. She’s just feeding off of what’s being offered her. It’s not like she went online and dug up the F1 form showing Kshama’s husband’s income. No, in the business of electoral politics, this goes under the delicate name of “opposition research.” Goldy captured it perfectly in The Stranger:

“We all know how this game is played: Conlin pushes the smear to PubliCola. PubliCola publishes. Then Conlin sends out an attack mailer citing PubliCola as his independent source, giving the charge an air of credibility. That’s electoral politics.”

He forgot to add that this is best done just before ballots are sent out, so as to keep the latest dirt fresh in voter’s minds, but well said, regardless.

So we can say that Ms. Barnett is just playing the typical role of amoral press flack, hoping to serve someone well enough to earn their gratitude, and whatever comes with it. Nonetheless, you have to stand on what you write publicly. So let’s begin the dissection with the actual facts, shall we?

Kshama had a husband. She separated from him, but hasn’t divorced him yet. He works at Microsoft. Salary undetermined, but above $100,000. She now lives with someone else. She takes no money from said husband. In fact, she works part-time as a college professor. That’s it. Nothing remarkable, it could be a story about any of us.

The actual remarkable thing is this: She’s running for office against Richard Conlin, on a strong progressive platform, including a call for a minimum wage of $15/hr. She got 35% in the primary. She is probably within striking distance of Conlin now. And she is scaring the pants off the 1% and the political toadies that serve them.

But that’s not what Ms. Barnett wants to write about. Not the remarkable thing, but the unremarkable personal details.

Much as I dislike quoting mud, here’s the relevant parts of Ms. Barnett’s article:

“… according to a financial disclosure document filed with the state Public Disclosure Commission, Sawant’s husband (whom Sawant listed as a source of her income) makes “$100,000 or more” (potentially a lowball number for his income given that $100,000 is the largest amount that’s possible to report on the form)—as an engineer at Microsoft? (Microsoft is also the top identified employer of Sawant’s contributors.) Sawant’s financial disclosure report also lists her own income at her part-time jobs as between $4,000 and $19,999, and assets in two accounts—a checking account and an insurance fund—that are each worth between $40,000 and $99,999.

Taking the minimum possible amount for all their incomes and assets, then, the Sawants have at least $80,000 in their accounts and together earn at least $108,000, though the true amount is probably higher. That’s a pretty big chunk of change for a self-proclaimed representative of “the 99 percent.”

In her second hit piece, she doubled down with the emphasis on hypocrisy:

“…it’s hard to see how someone with a top-bracket income can be truly in touch with the poor in Seattle. Conlin isn’t simultaneously trashing corporations and simultaneously benefiting financially from one of the specific corporations that are evidently ruining America; Sawant is. (Not only does her husband work for Microsoft, Microsoft is the top employer of her contributors)”

So the charges are:

  • Kshama can’t really represent the 99%, because she’s too wealthy. Or her engineer husband is, who Erica darkly hints, probably makes gazillions of dollars. (All engineers at Microsoft now have official permission to break into shrieks of laughter.)
  • She’s a hypocrite because her contributors happen to work at Microsoft while she attacks it.

As for the first charge, it’s pretty ridiculous to characterize Kshama as a member of the 1%, but others have spoken to that, so I’ll let that alone. Instead, let’s examine the premise: if you make too much money (what level is that exactly, Erica?) you can’t represent the 99%. By way of exploring this idea, let’s have some fun by thinking of the two most famous revolutionaries that ever existed: Karl Marx and Frederich Engels. Great revolutionaries for the proletariat of their time, despite neither one actually being an industrial worker. So imagine the scene:

(Frederich Engels walks into the reading room of the British Museum to see Karl Marx, a draft version of The Communist Manifesto in hand)

“Listen, Karl, I’ve got some bad news about this piece. But before we get into that, here, let me lend you a few pounds. At least you can get the heat turned on in your garret this way.”

(Marx recoils with horror) “Frederich, are you mad?? I can’t take your money! I’m writing about exploited workers, who live in misery!”


“So? How can I write about exploited workers living in misery unless I’m living in misery! My God, are you trying to turn me into a petty bourgeois?”

“Karl, it’s not so much for you as for your family…”

“My family! How do you think the workers would feel if they knew my family was living in some comfort? Oh, the hypocrisy would incense them! Someone would probably write about it in one of the gossip rags and that would be the end of me.”

(Engels pauses in thought, frowning.) “Well, Karl, I see your point. In fact it was that very point that I was going to bring up about this Manifesto piece you wrote. I’m afraid it just won’t work.”

“But why? Isn’t it all true? Isn’t it well argued? Isn’t it inspirational? Tell me, what could be wrong with it?”

“Oh, there’s nothing wrong with it. There’s something wrong with you writing it.”


Karl, this was written for the industrial proletariat, for the industrial proletariat, yes?”


“Karl, you’re not the industrial proletariat. You’re barely proletarian at all, and certainly not industrial. You’re a part-time journalist when you are working, which isn’t much, hoping to get a book published someday. Nothing industrial about that.”

(Marx pales, as sweat breaks out on his brow.) My God, you’re right! And in fact, it’s even worse than you think, I’m afraid.”

“How’s that?”

“Well, you know that book you wrote that was sympathetic to the English workers? You know, “The Conditions of the Working Class in England.”

“What of it? Very well researched, I thought.”

“But Engels, my dear man, how could it be? You’re not only not a worker, you’re a capitalist for God’s sake, the very opposite of a worker!”

(Both men freeze, undone by the hypocrisy they have displayed.)

So I think we get the point. One’s income, former income, former husband’s income, etc. do not determine one’s consciousness. Of course, no doubt there are wives separated from their husbands at large multinational corporations who may be total hypocritical radicals or Tea Party zealots. Kshama just doesn’t happen to be either.

But let’s think for a moment of what conditions might provide one with a sense of genuine empathy and justice for the 99%. Let’s name a few, and then check Kshama’s record:

  • Working part-time and therefore being underpaid for your talents. Check!
  • Having that employer try and fire you for political activity. Check!
  • Being jailed for your social justice work. Check!
  • Working to defend an Occupy encampment. Check!
  • Working with a radical political organization. Check!
  • Campaigning among low-income workers for a $15/hr minimum wage. Check!

You see, it’s what you actually do in the world that determines your sense of justice and empathy. This is probably difficult for Ms. Barnett to understand, given what she does in the world, but it’s true.

Now for the second charge, being that both her husband and many of her contributors work for Microsoft, which she attacks. This is hypocrisy, supposedly. NOT!

Allow me to get personal for a minute. I am a contributor to the Sawant campaign, for a few hundred dollars. I am also a policy analyst for the Port of Seattle Commission. Does this mean that Kshama can’t ever say anything bad about the Port henceforth? (Actually, too late, I think she already has.) But hypocrisy if she does, yes? No, actually not.

You see, I work for the Port of Seattle, but I am NOT the Port of Seattle. Allow me to introduce Ms. Barnett and all of you to my work life. Sometimes my bosses ask my opinion. Sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they listen to what I say. Sometimes they don’t. Sometimes I like what they do. Sometimes I don’t. Such is life. One of the benefits of working for the Port though, is it allowed me the freedom to give a few hundred dollars to the Sawant campaign. Now can anyone seriously conjure up an image of me handing the Kshama campaign a check and then saying, “I hope you realize how hypocritical it will be from here on in if she criticizes the Port.” Let’s be real, please.

No doubt, the Conlin campaign is chortling over this supposed “expose.” One can only imagine the conversation. “We got Erica to throw mud! The Sawant campaign is taking up precious time answering our charges! Maybe we can frighten away potential contributors! Maybe those damned poll numbers will finally start moving in our favor!”

Dream on. Here’s a free prediction. The Sawant campaign sticks to the real issues. Sawant contributors donate more money, not less. And those damned poll numbers continue to move in the wrong direction.

Good luck, Richard, you’re going to need it. And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to the Sawant website to donate another $100.

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