Over coffee on a warm, sunny morning in July 2014, Alison Holcomb told Seattle Weekly she was seriously considering a bid to unseat Kshama Sawant. Throwing down the gauntlet, Holcomb said, “You don’t effect change without a broad coalition, and her rhetoric is all about ‘You are a capitalist pig,’ no matter what the size of your business.” The provocative comment caused a stir: Might Sawant, who’d upset weak-kneed incumbent Richard Conlin the year before, face a serious and credible challenger?
Seattle’s center-left political establishment could barely contain its glee at the thought, thirsting as they were—and are—to take out the radical upstart. They figured Holcomb, then-criminal justice director for the American Civil Liberties Union and architect of Washington’s marijuana-legalization initiative, would prove an effective messenger to puncture Sawant’s anti-corporate, pro-working class progressive agenda.
Sawant, the software-engineer-turned-part-time-community-college-instructor-turned-socialist, was too strident, went the mainstreamers’ lament—a zealous show horse corralled by Trotskyite thinking and, worst of all, lacking (just ask Councilmembers Tim Burgess, Bruce Harrell, or Tom Rasmussen) the collaborative esprit de corps necessary to be a member in good standing of the nine-shades-of-blue Seattle City Council.
But alas, in the early fall of 2014, Holcomb decided to forgo the race, choosing instead to take on a new role at the ACLU, leading a nationwide campaign to end mass incarceration, a job funded by a $50 million grant from George Soros’ Open Society Foundations.
Then along came Pamela Banks, a longtime community organizer who’d spent 30 years working for the city, most of it in what was then called the Department of Housing and Human Services, and, since 2012, CEO at the Seattle Urban League. Everyone agreed that Banks, like Holcomb, would be a formidable political force in District 3, which encompasses much of Banks’ home turf, the Central District, as well as Capitol Hill, Madison Park, and Broadmoor.
“Pamela Banks was the perfect candidate to take her on,” says former deputy major Tim Ceis, an astute observer of Seattle politics. “She is the perfect contrast, what with her work for the city and her longtime roots in the district.”
Banks entered the contest with a broad spectrum of endorsements, including former King County Executive Ron Sims and a slew of ex-mayors: Norm Rice, Greg Nickels, Charles Royer, and Wes Uhlman. Also, seven of the nine City Council members (everyone but Mike O’Brien and Nick Licata) pledged their support to Banks—again, underscoring most of the Council’s unhappiness with the often-recalcitrant Sawant.
Banks announced her candidacy in March and took immediate aim at Sawant. “I’ve learned over my career that you solve more problems with a telephone than a megaphone,” she said. “I won’t be making rebuttals to the State of the Union [address].”
Banks waged a spirited primary campaign, which at times grew heated. At one point in late May, Banks dispatched an angry press release criticizing Sawant for traveling to New York for a fundraiser rather than being present for a Council committee meeting that dealt in part with the impact Mayor Ed Murray’s $930 million transportation levy might have on poor communities.
“Actions speak louder than words—even for someone who speaks as noisily as Sawant,” Banks said in the release.
In an interview with the Weekly last week, Sawant seemed completely unfazed by Banks’ oft-repeated charge that she is all rallying cry and that her refusal to compromise has rendered her an ineffective lawmaker.
“If you look at the historic progress Seattle has made, I’d say we’ve been very effective,” Sawant said. As far as forging a national socialist movement here, the Councilmember added, “The social progress that Seattle has made in fighting for racial and economic justice is empowering people in other states across the country.”
The August primary results were disappointing for Banks: Sawant garnered 52 percent of the vote to Banks’ 34.1 percent. Finishing a distant third with 9.6 percent was Rob Hearne, vice-chair of Equal Rights Washington.
“Sawant, she’s been a phenomenon,” says Ceis.
“This is an extremely tough race for Banks,” adds political consultant and pollster Ben Anderstone. “It is going to require Banks peeling off votes that are leaning to Sawant. The negatives she’s using that Sawant is ineffective and doesn’t play well with others—well, she’s going to have to be more specific, because a lot of people like the fact that she doesn’t play well with others.”
Sawant is popular in the district, having skillfully tapped into the anger and frustration over the pervasive economic inequality and a growing feeling on the part of many ordinary working people that they are being priced out of Seattle.
David Rolf, president of the powerful Seattle-based Local 775 of the Service Employees International Union, recalls, “I told Pamela back in January or February, when she was making up her mind whether to run, ‘You must know, Pamela, that labor is going to support Sawant because of her work on the [$15] minimum wage.’ ”
In 2013, before district elections, Sawant received more than 58 percent of the vote in District 3, compared to 51 percent citywide. Her name recognition is off the charts at 82 percent according to a recent EMC poll. Only Murray, with 92 percent, has higher name recognition among elected city officials.
The Nov. 3 general election will, as is almost always the case, result in a higher voter turnout. But again, that will more than likely be to Sawant’s advantage, says Anderstone, as younger voters, mostly renters and low-wage earners, cast their ballots.
Banks, for her part, has waged a competitive campaign. She has raised more than $300,000, just $25,000 less than Sawant, as of Oct. 1. But Sawant has invested the money she has amassed from more than 2,400 donors—nearly half of that in amounts of $50 or less, and netting far more individual contributions than any Council candidates running—in building a solid and tightly organized campaign infrastructure.
“I think there’s a pathway for success for Pam,” said one veteran political wag who asked not to be named—but who added with grudging admiration, “but she’s up against a monster in this race.”
“She’s run a great campaign,” says Ceis, “but she going to have to turn out her voters, a slightly older demographic, not the millennials, and continue to aggressively doorbell the district.”
Something rarely seen in a City Council race, Sawant has retained seven paid campaign workers at a cost to date of nearly $50,000, as well as spending $19,500 for the services of political consultant Jonathan Rosenblum, a respected union and community organizer who ran the successful $15 minimum-wage campaign in SeaTac.
“We knocked on 22,000 doors in the primary, and we aim to knock on 40,000 more before the general,” boasts Sawant’s political director Philip Locker. “We have 500 volunteers signed up, about 150 of them from Socialist Alternative, which is the backbone of this campaign. We got 52 percent in the primary, and we expect that to grow in November.”
Says SEIU’s Rolf: “I don’t think there is much Banks could have done differently to win, short of not running against Sawant . . . I think Seattle’s political establishment overplayed its hand to some extent in trying to knock her off.”
Christian Sinderman, a prominent Democratic political strategist who is working for Banks, concedes that Sawant has erected a political juggernaut and that his candidate faces an uphill fight. “Sawant remains a popular figure for disaffected voters, and it’s difficult to run against a symbol,” he says. “She’s built a very strong brand identity that has a lot of Wizard-of-Oz qualities to it.”
On a sun-kissed early autumn morning, Banks chose Paul Barnett Park in the Central District, where a 31-year-old man was shot in the chest on June 25, as the venue to lay out her public-safety program, one that would employ gang members as “violence interrupters” to diffuse potentially deadly confrontations.
Flanked by a group of supporters, Banks says, “As a mom and community activist, I have devoted my life and career to finding solutions that create safer, more inclusive communities. My opponent has said almost nothing about public safety.”
Locker responded by e-mailing the Weekly the same comment he gave The Stranger, saying Sawant has “spoken on this issue a number of times and has met with community activists to discuss it . . . Councilmember Sawant is quite concerned about the growth of gun violence and crime throughout Seattle. It’s a concern to her.”
Following the event, Banks sits at a picnic bench and talks about the campaign—more specifically, her opponent. “I’m not about getting national exposure,” she says. “I’m not a revolutionary.”
Removing her sunglasses, Banks goes on, “I am canvassing 18 hours a day. The majority of her canvassers don’t even live in the district. They are bringing some of them in from out of state.” (Counters Sawant: “No, the vast majority of mine are from the city and from the district.”)
“I think when people see her marching down the street and protesting the Chinese president, that’s not the kind of leadership they are looking for,” says Banks. “I’m out in the district. I’m out there talking with people.”
But can you win?
“I absolutely feel like I can win this.”
Ellis E. Conklin covers politics and development for Seattle Weekly. He can be reached at email@example.com or 206-467-4365. Follow him on Twitter at @conkline.