The Giant Killer: Kshama Sawant beats Amazon in Seattle City Council race

Kshama Sawant, the die-hard socialist of Seattle City Council, continued to keep the banner of labor and working class aloft last week as she won the Nov. 5 City Council election, holding on to the seat in her second re-election since 2013.

Standing in front of a massive “Tax Amazon” banner, Sawant declared victory Nov. 9 after the re-election race that was essentially seen as a battle between the socialist and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, who backed her opponent Egan Orion, a Microsoft engineer and former head of the Capitol Hill Chamber of Commerce in Seattle.

However, at press time Orion had not conceded the tightly-fought race

“Working people, people of color, young people came out in huge numbers, came out to vote in overwhelming majorities for our socialist politics and against this attempted hostile corporate takeover,” Sawant said at a press conference Nov. 9 after declaring victory.

“Working people in our city have stood up and said, ‘Seattle is not for sale,’” she said, standing in front of the massive “Tax Amazon” banner as the crowd cheered.

Amazon had poured in approximately $1.5 million into the fight to influence the election and to change the outcome and the composition of the progressive nine-member council.

Sawant was one of several Seattle council contenders who demanded that Amazon and other big-tech firms headquartered in Seattle pay their fair share of taxes. Their proposals reportedly unsettled Bezos and his fellow CEOs.

Sawant, one of the most high-profile socialists and municipal leaders in the U.S., according to news reports, quoted abolitionist Frederick Douglass in front of the crowd of supporters who recognized the truth of the words, “If there is no struggle there is no progress ... Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”

According to news reports, at least five Seattle council candidates backed by the chamber of commerce’s political action committee lost the election. “Sawant’s win was a sweet victory for foes of big money in politics, especially big corporate money. But it really was a struggle. Another democratic socialist who was targeted by Amazon and its allies, Shaun Scott, was narrowly defeated,” reported.

For days after the Nov. 5 election, there was animated suspense over the results of the officially nonpartisan council election as Sawant trailed Orion after the initial vote counts, prompting suggestions about her imminent debacle. The Socialist Alternative leader, however, came from behind, cutting her opponent’s lead after more votes were counted on Nov. 8.

The closely-watched District 3 contest between Sawant and Orion, caught everybody’s attention because it was viewed as a battle between Sawant’s socialism and Amazon’s capitalism and came to symbolize an ideological fight between labor and working class people, and the rich and the powerful.

Socialism that was once considered a taboo word in America has come to be seen as a viable political platform thanks to people like Sawant, an Indian-American and economist by training who won a council seat six years ago becoming the first socialist on the Seattle City Council in recent decades.

“We are contributing to this election because we care deeply about the future of Seattle,” Amazon spokesman Aaron Toso said in a statement.

“We believe it is critical that our hometown has a City Council that is focused on pragmatic solutions to our shared challenges in transportation, homelessness, climate change and public safety.”

But opinions have obviously differed on what those pragmatic solutions could be with Sawant calling for taxing big business that she sees as a solution to the city’s ills.

“Our transportation systems, schools, healthcare, and other vital social services are at the breaking point,” Sawant says. “This crushing reality falls hardest on working class people, women, immigrants, the indigenous community, communities of color, and our LGBTQ neighbors. We need to tax big business and the super-rich to create a world-class, free mass transit system and fully-funded public services,” she says. “Capitalism can be made to work for the working class.”

There is no gainsaying that working class movement against big money is gaining ground elsewhere as well, beyond the borders of Seattle.

In San Francisco, Chesa Boudin was elected on Nov. 5 as district attorney despite being targeted by roughly $650,000 smear campaign funded by the police union and its allies. Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.), who has made an overhaul of the justice system a cornerstone of his campaign for president, was among Boudin’s highest-profile supporters, according to news reports.

On Nov. 5, Working Families Party candidate Kendra Brooks scored an unprecedented victory for a Philadelphia City Council at-large seat effectively reserved for non-Democrats, becoming the first candidate from outside the two major parties to win a seat in the 100 years since the council adopted a modern legislative structure.

“For the first time in seven decades, we broke the GOP. We beat the Democratic establishment,” Brooks, who will become the first independent council member in modern city history, told a raucous crowd of supporters. “They said a black single mom from North Philly wasn’t the right person, but we have shown them that we are bigger than them.”

Brooks’ election, according to reports quoting analysts, signals a further leftward shift on City Council. She ran on issues like expanding affordable housing, fighting for some form of rent control and ending the 10-year property tax abatement, abolishing sheriff’s sales, and other progressive issues. Some of these issues resembled the ones Sawant has been fighting her campaign on.

Founded in 1998 in New York, the Working Families Party began as a progressive and independent group that sought to nab cross-ballot endorsements and supplant Democratic candidates.

The party rose in the public eye locally during the Occupy Philly protests in 2011, and also gained organizing power during Sanders’ presidential bid in 2016.

Around the country this year, democratic socialists and other ultra-left candidates have met with success in city council races. Several such candidates have already won seats in Chicago and Denver, while others are running this fall in Los Angeles and San Francisco, according to news reports.

Although it is not very common, socialists have been elected to local office in the past, including in Milwaukee that elected a trio of socialist mayors during the 20th century.

Democratic Socialist Sanders started his political career as mayor of Burlington, Vermont, during the 1980s.

Last year, several candidates endorsed by the Democratic Socialists of America won state legislative races, echoing the high-profile success of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan at the congressional level.

Sawant, who ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. House of Representatives before winning her seat on the Seattle City Council in 2013, began her political career in the streets, with Occupy Wall Street where she was at numerous general assemblies, protests, and demonstrations.

After her historic victory that year where she and her party, Socialist Alternative, defied expectations and won a tight race, her major legislative agenda, “$15Now,” a substantial minimum wage hike for workers, faced hostility from business interests. Sawant recognized that they couldn’t do it alone and that it would take a movement of regular people to make change. Her 2015 re-election issue was residential rent control, something critically important in Seattle.

And since then, that is what she has been engaged in — building a powerful movement — fighting her campaign on the strength of organized and united working people. Sawant used her two terms in Seattle City Hall to help build that movement of working people to win historic victories in the face of fierce corporate opposition.

Pune-born Sawant has always been an outspoken critic of big business and its influence on the city. She helped lead the push to bump the city’s minimum wage to $15 an hour, which was a first for a major U.S. city, after winning a council seat six years ago and becoming the first socialist on the Seattle City Council in almost 100 years. She also helped secure better protections for renters, such as barring landlords from increasing rent on substandard homes.

Although Sawant is the most recognized face of socialism in Seattle today, the city and the state of Washington have a long history of socialism.

Communism made a larger impact on Washington than almost any other state, according to a University of Washington History project. “There are forty-seven states in the Union, and the Soviet of Washington,” it quoted Postmaster General James Farley as saying jokingly in 1936 when he held the office under the Roosevelt presidency. The remark, for all its exaggeration, had some foundation.

According to a report, from 1895 to 1925 Washington was a socialist stronghold where a socialist utopian colony, Equality Colony, was intentionally started in the state because of its climate, natural resources, and sparse population. The vision of the colony organizers, the National Union of the Brotherhood of the Cooperative Commonwealth, was to start with this one colony as a demonstration project, then convert the entire state to socialism, and then, from there, convert the nation. Of course, it did not happen that way, but from 1910 to around 1916, Washington had dozens of elected socialists in office.

Last year, Sawant told this correspondent in an interview how she stood her ground against Amazon, defending her defiant battle for a corporate tax to fund homeless shelters.

From the beginning of 2017 Fall when Sawant first demanded taxing the city’s biggest businesses to raise $150 million annually to fund affordable housing and expand homeless services, the issue created animosity between big businesses and workers’ movement composed of organizations and coalitions backing Sawant.

“To me, this was a David vs. Goliath fight and the fact remains that we achieved a phenomenal victory against the most powerful corporation in the world, against the richest man in the world, against billionaires, against the Democratic Party establishment in Seattle and all other anti-labor forces,” she told India Abroad.

The Socialist Alternative Party has led campaigns in Seattle for workers’ rights during the past few years winning support from the poor and the working class people.

Many of the left-leaning policies of the Democratic presidential candidates this election cycle like a $15 minimum wage for all workers, a bill of rights for domestic workers or taxing the rich have been tried and tested in Seattle thanks to Sawant and others supporting her.

In a November 2018 letter to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, and Julia Salazar, the Seattle councilor said that their elections represent a significant step forward for the U.S. working class.

She said in that ‘Dear Sister’ letter that while the election of self-declared socialist candidates “in the belly of the capitalist beast” is a victory in itself, it is also just the beginning. “We face a decisive struggle to defeat the sexist, racist, anti-LGBTQ, anti-worker agenda of the right and the deeply reactionary Trump regime,” Sawant wrote in the letter.

She explained how working people win change — not by negotiation behind the scenes, but by building movements strong enough to make corporate politicians fear for their political careers. “You must reject the idea that it’s time for you to set your activism aside and become a politician,” she wrote in the letter.

To a question in an earlier interview if she will consider running for the Congress in future or her party field a candidate for president’s election, or she would prefer to continue to confine herself in local politics in Seattle, Sawant parried a direct answer, except acknowledging that one is not going to make any meaningful social change or impact, if one is always limited only to local campaign and local issues.

“Of course, there is need for running in congressional or senatorial elections and need to contest the presidential election. The question here is not whether a Left candidate can win the President election but the example that it can set and the huge amount of succor it can provide to working class movement for social justice and people’s rights, and the tremendous momentum it can create for the Left movement,” she said in the 2017 interview.

“As for whether I personally can run for the Congress or the Senate in future, that is to be decided by the people and my party Socialist Alternative. But one thing I can say: You need to raise the banner of the Left,” she said.

A Time magazine article noted last month, quoting Knute Berger, a columnist for Seattle magazine that, “There is really this sense that the council has moved too far to the left, and the Chamber (of Commerce) sees this election as a way to really take control of the council.”

It said national politicians may want to keep an eye on Seattle, one of the most progressive cities in the country, where businesses are trying to convince voters that there is such a thing as too liberal.

“The city’s upcoming election will be a test of whether Democratic voters are truly willing to stand behind the progressive ideas being talked about nationwide after they’re passed into law,” it said in the Oct. 10 article.

By her own admission, when Sawant first arrived in the U.S. from Mumbai in 1996, she was aghast to see so much of homelessness, poverty, and exploitation, especially of the poor and the working people in the U.S.

While growing up in India she was almost obsessed with the issues of poverty, exploitation and violence against women and lower castes and wanted answers as to why the society looked the way it did.

“Unfortunately, at that time I had not known much about Karl Marx, nor did people around told me how Marx had explained the reasons for inequality and exploitation in society and had answered many of my questions more than a century before I was even born,” Sawant had told this correspondent in an earlier interview.

During her election night party on Nov. 5, Sawant said her campaign would keep fighting until every ballot was counted.

“My friends, we as working-class people, we have always had to fight hard, so we are going to have to continue to fight hard and make sure that every ballot of otherwise disenfranchised people is counted. Are we ready to do that?” Sawant told her supporters.

Sawant, who had earlier said that her race should serve as “a wake-up call for social movements and progressives” told the Washington Post on Nov. 10, “this election was a test lab” as a count of almost all ballots showed her with 52 percent of the vote.

Sawant could not be reached for comments at press time.

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