Last week, in a Labor Temple hall that's seen more than its share of abortive coalitions over the years, a new alliance took some first, halting steps toward relevance. The 60 or so people attending were, in one attendee's words, a room full of generals—many of the people who run the various left-leaning activist and lobby groups concerned with politics in Seattle. Dean people were there; so was the Kucinich camp. So were some Green Party types, as well as progressive Democrats and grizzled Rainbow Coalition survivors. So was a new Seattle School Board member and at least four past Seattle City Council candidates.
The idea is as simple as the well-worn cliché in progressive politics of "Why can't we all work together?" Thanks to the shared sense of revulsion a second Bush term is inspiring, there's enough activist electricity in the air these days—and enough of a focus on winning elections rather than brandishing the perfect ideology—that finally, perhaps, all the generals can fit in one room.
The nascent effort is calling itself the Seattle Progressive Electoral Coalition (SPEC), and it treads in territory littered with the corpses of past left-leaning Seattle coalitions. The pitfalls are all too familiar: When you get a roomful of people chronically outside the halls of money and power, ideology is what's left to fight over.
"My goal," says Jerry Neufeld-Kaiser, a Kucinich organizer who is among the group's original conveners, "is to try to match up the resource we have available—a large group of people with fire in their belly—with a need to influence electoral politics. It's not much more formed than that."
Typically, these sorts of coalitions have devolved into fortnight-long meetings wrangling over mission statements and strategic visions and points of unity; by the time the prized document is hammered out, three people are left in the room and neither the document nor the group is ever seen again. What makes this coalition potentially different is the shared sense that this sort of chronic powerlessness isn't inevitable.
While presidential politics clearly hover over the project, so do local politics. It's not entirely fair to give all the credit for SPEC's inspiration to George Bush or to conservative Democrats like Gary Locke. Credit also last fall's winning School Board reform campaigns and even the energizing effects of last year's peace movement. People who've spent two months or two decades marching outside City Hall have suddenly got it in their minds that, at least locally, they're a majority and they can win. A growing body of progressives with experience in electoral campaigns can help make it happen.
As if to underscore the point, last week longtime local activist Alice Woldt announced a primary-election challenge against powerful, 16-term state Rep. Helen Sommers of Seattle's 36th District, which spans Queen Anne, Magnolia, Ballard, and Phinney Ridge. Woldt spent nearly two decades on the staff of the Church Council of Greater Seattle, most recently as its head, before leaving late last year. While politicos have focused on Woldt's friendship with state House leader Frank Chopp, the core of her campaign support will come from progressives. Woldt's roots run deep in the local peace and social-justice communities. She is, in short, the type of experienced, competent candidate a group like SPEC would be ideally suited to recruit, train, and support.
Sommers, by contrast, is the sort of weathered incumbent Democrat a group like SPEC would consider a prime target. As head of the House Appropriations Committee, in recent years Sommers has made budget decisions that have cut deeply into the state's social services and educational programs while continuing to lavish money and tax breaks on corporate interests and leaving the state's regressive tax structure untouched. Democrats like Sommers and outgoing Gov. Locke are exactly the sort of politicians disaffected Democrats talk about when they talk of reclaiming their party. And they're the reason a group like SPEC isn't part of the Democratic tent in the first place.
SPEC's proposed task is formidable. It's one thing to endorse candidates, as Seattle's past progressive electoral efforts have largely focused on; it's quite another to research issues or propose legislation and insert it into campaigns, or to recruit and run candidates and expect to win. So far, SPEC consists mostly of good intentions every first Thursday evening at the Labor Temple in Belltown. It still needs to decide on a structure, generate funding, and come up with a strategic plan that doesn't duplicate the work of many of the groups already represented among its attendees. But in a one-party city where many voters share the beliefs—if not the tactical preferences—of the more sedate parts of our city's chronic protest movement, what happens when the protesters realize they're as capable as anyone else of making the policies? The potential is there—embodied in candidates like Woldt and last November's victorious School Board members—to make more noise than any demonstration can make. Now comes the hard part.