So Seattle Elected a Socialist. What Now?

Much has been written about Seattle’s newest City Council member, Kshama Sawant. Especially since last week, when a remarkable post-election-night surge forced four-term councilmember Richard Conlin into early retirement. Sawant’s an activist, and more importantly a socialist, as you may have heard, which has led to the predictable string of headlines, questions, and nightly news stories. Will she be able to work with her new colleagues? Will council chambers combust? Does she own a Che Guevara blacklight poster? These sorts of things ...

“It’s been pretty busy,” Sawant says of the media attention over the last week, understating the obvious.

But here’s the thing: In cities across the nation, the majority of Seattle’s City Council and political leaders would be probably cursed as “socialists.” While shocking headlines about Seattle electing a “radical” like Sawant probably moves papers in suburbia and raise eyebrows in middle America, Sawant’s campaign demonstrated that the bulk of her platform isn’t too far left of Seattle’s politics. She’s championed the fight for a $15 an hour minimum wage – an issue both Mike McGinn and mayor-elect Ed Murray eventually campaigned on. She’s calling for more affordable housing in the city and wants all of Seattle’s workers to be able to afford to live here – a vision Nick Licata shares. She wants improvements in education and public transportation – things just about everyone seems to agree are necessary.

Sure, Sawant will speak to the evils of capitalism in a fiery tone that can make the establishment squirm. And when she talks about workers rising up and taking over Boeing it provides wet-dream fodder for blowhards like Dori Monson. But the continued characterization of Sawant as a fringe dissident denies the obvious: a majority of Seattle voters who cast a ballot this year have spoken, and they’re on board with the core tenants of her message - socialist or not.

“It works both ways,” says Sawant when asked for the umpteenth time how she’ll be able to work with the other members of the Council. “How many times has the media asked whether [the other members of the Council] will be able to work with me?”

“It doesn’t matter what issue we are talking about, it’s a question of whose interests are being upheld,” she continues. “I’ve been elected on a huge mandate from the public to not continue business as usual. … Obviously a good working relationship [with the council] is essential, but we want to be able to do what the people have mandated us to do.”

That mandate, in case it wasn’t clear, is fighting for the little people and the working class. Sawant obviously takes the job seriously.

Priority number one, she says, is working to make a $15 an hour minimum wage reality in Seattle in 2014. The plan is twofold; Sawant intends to introduce an ordinance once she takes office that will force the City Council to grapple with the issue, and says she also has her sights on drafting a ballot initiative that will put the question to voters, similar to this year’s Prop 1 in SeaTac. “They’re two mechanisms, and we have to be ready with the initiative because we don’t know how the ordinance process is going to go,” she says. “We definitely think there is huge momentum, so we want to get it done next year one way or the other.”

A cynic might contend that yes, in fact, we do know where the ordinance process is going to go on the Council – nowhere fast. But Sawant’s not ready yet to concede that fight yet. “It’s not clear yet how it’s going to be because those conversations still need to happen,” she says of the prospect of working with her Council colleagues to pass $15 an hour minimum wage ordinance. “I have no doubt that everybody in city government understands how much momentum there is for it on the ground.”

In the aftermath of Sawant’s election, how the ordinance and ballot initiative will look are important questions to ask. In SeaTac, Prop 1 – if it holds its vote lead and endures even more court challenges – will give certain airport, hotel, car rental and service industry employees $15 an hour. In Seattle, however, Sawant wants a $15 an hour minimum wage to be across the board. On the campaign trail she touted a plan where increased taxes on large corporations would help subsidize small local businesses that can prove through an independent audit they can’t afford to pay such wages. According to Sawant Campaign Political Director Phillip Locker, the details of Sawant’s ultimate $15 an hour minimum wage proposal are still being worked out, with talks ongoing with various “allies.” He says there have been a number of ideas floated, including adjusting business and occupation taxes for small and large companies to help small businesses pay for an increased minimum wage, and efforts to reduce “skyrocketing” rents for small businesses that might help offset the additional costs. One thing that Locker says is certain is Sawant isn’t interested in “phasing in” an increased minimum wage over a number of years; if passed, she wants the new minimum wage to go into effect quickly.

And don’t expect Seattle’s newly elected socialist to give up her activist ways just because she’s got a new day job or it freaks people out. To drive home exactly how much momentum is behind the push for a $15 an hour minimum wage in Seattle, Sawant says the forces behind her campaign are planning a major rally early next year. “We want a mass demonstration of support,” Sawant says, citing a goal of attracting 10,000 people.

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