The real meaning of Kshama Sawant's stunning numbers

The strong showing of some 35% by Kshama Sawant in her race against Richard Conlin for Seattle City Council impressed many.  Yet even fans such as the Stranger have failed to understand the actual nature of the political earthquake, resorting to exercises in vote counting that border on numerology.

Kshama Sawant

Certainly, the facts themselves are amazing. But what happened conceptually was even more revolutionary, if you will excuse that word applied to the run of a socialist. For what Kshama did was to simply overturn the common wisdom of how to succeed in local elections in general and City Council races in particular. She took what were viewed as two immutable political laws and essentially threw them out the window.

Rule One

Everyone knows this one: money talks. Because the race is city-wide, supposedly you have to raise immense amounts of money to effectively run. I have heard $100,000 on the low end and $250,000 on the high end. Conlin himself raised at least $140,000 for the primary, and Brian Carver, the other challenger raised roughly $50,000. And Kshama? $25,000, which believe it or not, made some of her supporters practically giddy because it beat her Chopp fund raising total by some $5,000.

Rule Two

This is less understood by the public, but those who involved in the business of elections will tell you this one over and over, in tones comparable to a Sunday sermon on piety: It is impossible to run a credible race for local races without garnering support from the local Democratic Party district organizations, and if possible an endorsement by those organizations. In particular, this means the 36th, (Ballard/Phinney/Magnolia/Queen Anne), the 43rd (Greenlake/Wallingford), the 34th (West Seattle) and the 37th, (Capitol Hill/Central District/Madrona/Beacon HIll). Conlin picked up the 34th, 36th and 37th.

And Kshama? Noting Seattle’s history as a one party town, the organization that Kshama belongs to, Socialist Alternative, stated that “the Democratic Party machines…totally run these cities in the interests of the rich and powerful.” For her part, Kshama ran in headlong opposition to the Democratic Party, declaring Conlin to be a “corporate-pandering politician” and “a poster boy for out of touch politicians.” This earned her the sobriquet of “too hard left for Seattle” by the Seattle Times, bellwether for all blessings corporate, not to mention snarky commentary by the establishment political aristocracy. Even some of us who wished her well were wondering if it was possible to gain any traction against a three-time incumbent, who had branded himself as a likable liberal.

The Lords of Concrete

In fact, Kshama was calling a spade a spade. Since this is a one-party town, the economic elites use their ties to the political elites who operate inside the Democratic Party to push policy and perks that allow them to flourish. These are the commercial real estate developers, the construction companies they do business with, the banks and finance companies that underwrite them, the high end retailers that rent their space, and the architects and downtown law firms that service them. They own this town, making and remaking the commercial infrastructure and high end housing of the urban core however they please, making money while making decisions for the rest of us through a compliant City Council. Think South Lake Union, streetcars, outsized luxury condos, the proposed industry-killing basketball stadium district and so on. Brought to you by developers like Paul Allen/Vulcan and Martin Smith, construction firms like Wright Runstad, key attorneys at Foster Pepper, and others. If you want to see exactly who I’m referring to, just look through the C-3s, which disclose donations, that Conlin filed.

The effect is a tacit agreement between them and the Democratic Party leadership that serves to muzzle any effective policy challenge to undisputed corporate rule. But of course, since it is the Democratic Party, which has a mix of progressives, liberals and centrists at the precinct level, consideration and allowances are made for progress on social issues – support for gay marriage being an example. The overall effect is a whole lot of socially liberal happy talk masking a very conservative economic agenda. At times, a genuine progressive like Licata or O’Brien can be elected, but they are effectively doomed to tack to the limits of the rest of the Council. Issues outside the pale – like say, a $15 minimum wage are never even talked about, let alone arrive on the agenda for a vote.

So that’s the rules, and those hoping to win office were told – TINA [“There Is No Alternative”], as Margaret Thatcher used to say.

Instead, Kshama flouted both rules not once but twice. She didn’t just ignore the Democrats, she openly challenged them as servants of the 1%. The first time was against Frank Chopp, founder of Solid Ground, with a liberal pedigree and a power base in Olympia. Startling to say the least.

It was a fluke, many said; Chopp had become arrogant, Olympia-centric in a highly political district. Conlin was supposed to be different. The quintessential likable Seattle liberal. Supposedly, Conlin’s only real opponent was Carver, running a vanity race with his own money, and a few endorsements.

The result was no fluke. As of Monday night, we have Conlin at 47.86% with 59,760 votes, Kshama at 34.92% with 43,601 votes, and Carver at 16.67% with 20,812 votes. So outspent by roughly 2 to 1 by Carver, she got over twice his tally, and outspent by 7 to one, she denies Conlin a majority, coming within 13 points and roughly 16,000 votes in a primary, where older more conservative voters supposedly predominant.

It’s nothing short of an earthquake. If nothing else, Kshama has shown a new path for independent candidates who directly advance working people’s interests and issues. It opens the way for candidates to challenge the status quo and directly oppose the low wage work, unaffordable housing, cuts in mass transit, budget cuts along subsidies to rich, and the remaking of our city as a playground for the well-to-do.

Even with these numbers, some wags are postulating that her numbers are just sending a message of discontent to Conlin and they will come around and vote for him in November. It’s a message alright, but I would say it is directed at the people who like to think they run this town. We’ll see in November, and then win or lose, it’s on to the fight for a $15/hr minimum wage in 2014.

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