How Seattle Elected a Socialist
Just a few short weeks after Kshama Sawant emerged victorious running as a socialist for the Seattle City Council, we interviewed Anh Tran, Sawant's assistant for the campaign. Tran also served as the volunteer coordinator for Sawant when she ran for the Washington State Legislature in 2012, so talking to Tran we were able to get a sense of the wider arc of the Seattle election.
For the interview, our main focus was trying to obtain a clear understanding of the campaign for the wider public; the Sawant election seems to have the attention of a wide swathe of US radicals (with greatly differing impressions) and it seemed important to have some basic interaction with the campaign to understand what was happening. One thread that continues through the interview is a discussion trying to understand how the campaign worked and why the participants thought that it was able to succeed.
Andrew Sernatinger: Why you start by telling us a little bit about yourself?
Anh Tran: For this last campaign, I worked as Kshama's assistant. I came on because I was on the last campaign as the events coordinator and the volunteer coordinator. I started as a member of Socialist Alternative. I'm also a former student of Kshama's when she taught macroeconomics as Seattle University.
AS: Can you tell us about what you did in the campaign this time around?
AT: I was in charge of managing Kshama's schedule, politically preparing her for her speeches, interviews, debates, and pretty much all of her public appearances. I would accompany her to many of them, just to make sure she was getting everything done that she needed to. I made sure she took care of herself, took care of any extra tasks that she had that would be overwhelming to her, kind of like being her right-hand person.
Tessa Echeverria: I was kind of curious because the last time I heard of Kshama's campaign she was running for state assembly and came out here to Madison to give a talk about that. How did this campaign for city council come about?
AT: I would have to start by talking about how the last campaign started. When the Occupy movement was winding down, we wanted to continue the spirit of the movement somehow, so we wanted to take Occupy to the elections - it was a Presidential election year and all eyes were focused on the elections. We thought, "Why not Occupy the elections?"
We brought the message of Occupy to the Washington State House of Representatives race. We usually don't run campaigns, its not what Socialist Alternative has traditionally done, but we felt that there was an unprecedented opening that existed for third-party politics to be built and for the ideas of socialism to spread on a mass scale, beyond small study groups or whatever we're all used to.
There was an unprecedented success and we got a historic vote for a socialist. Because of that, we felt that we had a responsibility to the movement to continue another election to build working class politics this year. It was a responsibility to the success we had last year to continue.
There were a bunch of immediate needs in Seattle that we wanted to address as well. The burgeoning fast food struggle nationwide was very vibrant in Seattle, so we have played a very critical part in that in terms of raising the demand for a $15 an hour minimum wage. We had that demand in the last election before it became cool, and that demand kind of took on a life of its own and we felt like we had to bring that into the forefront of the debate in Seattle politics.
There have been unprecedented cuts to transit in Seattle: metro's facing 17% cuts. Rents have been rising at about 6% every year, which is one of the highest rent hikes for all metropolitan areas in the US. The campaign also started because of the context of a prolonged economic recession, the betrayal of Obama and the Democrats, and I think the situation was really ripe for the spread of socialist politics as an alternative to the two-party system. That was what really drove the campaign, the immediate needs and the broader context.
AS: When I talked to Kshama a year ago, what she said was that the reason she ran for House of Representatives was because no one was challenging the seat and it seemed like a good opportunity to "occupy the space", as you were saying. Can you talk a little about why after that race against Frank Chopp you guys decided to get involved in a city council race? You had said that you don't really get involved in elections, so how did this come about? Why do this?
AT: The city council elections were happening this year where the mayor of Seattle was going to be elected, so it was going to be a big race. Seattle is a city of over 600,000 people, so there was a very broad audience that we would have access to and we didn't want to miss that opportunity to talk about the ideas of socialism.
There were also a lot of incumbents on city council who have been warming their seats for a very long time: our opponent Richard Conlin has been on the council for sixteen years and he did nothing during that time. We wanted this to bring a new sort of debate into the political discussions that were happening, to bring the $15 demand into the race and some other issues as well.
TE: Getting into some of the mechanics of this, was the seat citywide or was there a particular ward or district that you had to run in? How did the actual votes go?
AT: The Seattle city council elections are citywide races. We were the only campaign that gathered signatures in order to get on the ballot in the primary election. On election night, it definitely looked like we were going to lose. There was a very small chance of us being able to regain the wide margin of over seven percentage points that we had "lost by".
What was really amazing about those results was that the capitalist media actually spun our "loss" as something really positive: "Wow! Look at what this small, grassroots, openly socialist campaign was able to accomplish! In many ways, the real victors in this race are the socialists!" They never said like, "Hah! You lost!" or pointed the finger at us. It was more like they were saying that we changed the political debate, made the two mayoral candidates come out in favor the $15 demand (in words, not with any substantial action).
With every single ballot drop after election night, when it seemed that all hope was lost, our numbers kept rising. We did mathematical analyses of these trends and we saw that if the trends were to continue where we'd get 53% of the votes of every subsequent ballot drop from the election night, we could win the election by a slim margin. A recount could still be possible, or Richard Conlin could challenge the votes, but it would still take us over the top.
What happened was that for every ballot drop after, we'd get like 53%, 55%, and 58%. A couple days later, we went over the top and got past 50% and that was when the tables completely turned. Last time I checked, we're up by over 3,000 votes, which are about 93,600 votes total - almost 51%. So our victory was really drawn out!
Every other campaign fell out of the media spotlight after November 5th, but the media stayed on us throughout the election. We had dozens of media requests a day for interviews with Kshama, and we had to eventually start turning people down because she was double or triple booked. We got covered by every major capitalist news outlook: Associated Press, Al Jazeera, Huffington Post, Washington Post, New York Times, Fox, MSNBC, and a bunch of independent media sources. The coverage has been mostly positive so far, but I don't think that will always be the case especially as the ruling class starts to feel more threatened when Kshama takes office and we move beyond the rhetoric and prove that we're going to put these things into action.
TE: What I've been very curious about from afar is how you're actually running the campaign on the ground. I know you guys ran as outwardly socialist, so what tools did you use to engage and reach out to people to get out the vote?
AT: Our main outreach strategy was door knocking. We estimate that we knocked on over 16,000 doors. We spent a lot of time in the central district, which is the base for a lot of immigrant and people of color communities, and that's where our campaign office was located. We had a massive Get Out The Vote campaign during the last week of the campaign, where we tried to organize one hundred mini-rallies across Seattle. We did massive phone banking, robo-calls, mailers, anything we could. The last weekend vote drive was decisive, because so many last minute votes came out in our favor.
When it looked like we could win but it was still a close call, we went ballot hunting for all the disqualified ballots - ballots that weren't counted because they weren't signed or used the wrong ink or something. We got a list of those ballots from the city and tracked down the voters and made sure that their ballots counted. Our opponent didn't really do that.
The real key was to mobilize our base, which comprised of workers, students, immigrants, people of color, etc. And people who don't usually vote because up til now they didn't have an actual choice, they couldn't feel enthusiastic about anyone. I think this was the key, to mobilize the people who are usually disenchanted.
AS: I'm going to back up for a second and ask you some practical questions just to lay this all out. You said before that you didn't really have any corporate funding. Can you talk about what kind of funding you did have? What was the funding balance between you and the opponent, and where did that come from?
AT: At the beginning, we set what we thought were very ambitious goals at the time, and we kept meeting them. At the end of the campaign, we had about $120,000 - which is really fantastic for a grassroots campaign. The vast majority of our contributions were under $100. It came from ordinary workers, unemployed people. We had a lot of donations from enthusiastic people from around the country. We had to turn down international donations because of election rules.
Conlin raised about three times more than we did. His contributors included the biggest real estate developers; he had contributions from Amazon, especially because he's been working with them to rezone to benefit them; he took the maximum donation from coal train companies. He had many more maximum contributions that we did.
AS: As a campaign initiated by Socialist Alternative, how did you balance having your own organization with people coming from outside?
AT: Our campaign was initiated by Socialist Alternative, yes, but over time it wasn't really our campaign anymore. It was the campaign of whoever came to work on it or supported it. In finances, Socialist Alternative and the campaign were completely separate. If people were interested in joining our organization, we absolutely took the opportunity to talk to them. But a lot of people were just interested in the campaign.
So they were like two separate things. There were a lot of Socialist Alternative people working on the campaign, but more so there were not. A lot of daily decisions had to be made on the ground, and whoever was there would handle it, whether they were in SAlt or not.
TE: I'm interested in how you guys made the decision to run as a socialist campaign as opposed to a progressive campaign, or something seemingly less threatening. I've worked on political campaigns in the Midwest and often that decision is framed as whether you're running a protest campaign or you're trying to actually win the seat. Would you say that you guys started in more of a protest campaign strategy that actually turned out to be a winnable campaign, or were you always using "socialist" as a label and trying to win the seat?
AT: We ran in order to win, but I wouldn't necessarily say that we thought it was a very likely chance that we were going to win. The point wasn't precisely to win when we started, but was rather to spread the ideas of socialism on a wider scale than socialist groups are usually used to having access to. We wanted to spread the idea of working class, third parties running in elections. We wanted to talk about the issues that have been on the minds of ordinary people in Seattle that don't get talked about by elected officials.
We have always highlighted our socialist banner throughout the course of the campaign. Kshama did a really great job of tying the reforms we want to see with the need for a more fundamental social change. Every opportunity that she had she would try to raise the ideas of socialism and talk about the deficiencies of capitalism. I thought that was really good that we tried to keep socialism in the conversation instead of watering down our politics.
A lot of our campaign platform wasn't necessarily radical, but because we tied it to system change it became so. We did want people to know that these are socialist ideas that we are raising, so we were very open about that. In terms of unionizing these big Seattle corporations like Starbucks, Amazon and Boeing, Kshama has been taking a lot of flack in the capitalist media for calling for a workers' democratic public ownership of Boeing! That's really been causing ripples.
AS: Let's pick apart some of what you guys did in your campaign that resonated with people. The campaign broke from the two parties and was socialist, yeah, but it had to deal with stuff that people care about in their everyday lives. Can you talk about some of the other issues that you raised that jumped at people?
AT: Our main campaign demand was the $15 an hour minimum wage for all workers. We wanted affordable housing to be built and rent controlled. We talked about a millionaire's tax in order to fund mass transit and education. We also talked about police brutality a lot, because there have been some recent extrajudicial killings and racist beatings by the Seattle Police Department, so we called for a democratically elected civilian oversight board with full power over the police. We wanted to put a ban on the use of drones by the police, because they recently passed this thing to buy drones for surveillance.
We have been fighting against the coal train, which would be on the top ten biggest causes of climate change. We called for a moratorium on coal train passage through Seattle, and steps towards making Seattle coal-free. We called for no deportations and an end to foreclosures in Seattle.
TE: You talked about how the campaign came out of Occupy and the general position we came out of in the country as well as the specific situation you guys are facing in Seattle. What made Seattle the right place for this type of campaign?
AT: It was probably easier to run this campaign in Seattle than in say the rural Deep South. But this message was resonating with people across the world. It shows that the objective condition is extremely ripe for the spread of socialist ideas. The problem is that there aren't as many people to step up and to champion these ideas as there needs to be.
AS: Obviously you guys were very surprised that you won. So what happens now? What you do when you're campaigning is pretty different from what you do in office, and now you have to figure out how you make some progress on these things that you've talked about. Can you talk about your thoughts on what to do now? I mean, its not just up to you, Kshama will be one seat on the council. How do you do that without getting into insider politics or horse-trading? How will you resist the conservative pressure that comes with being in office?
AT: That's a really good question. Something Kshama has said in response to similar questions is that we are the ones that need to promise her that we won't just disappear now that she's won, because she will need the mass public support to do what we set out to do. This campaign was an activist campaign and it will continue to be so after Kshama takes office.
There are things we have to compromise on, but there are things that we cannot afford to compromise. We have to democratically discuss the concrete issues as they come up with members of Socialist Alternative and our allies in the community, so it's not just a thing where we can make blanket statements. It really depends on the concrete situation that arises. We absolutely need the involvement of community groups and other left groups - we want input, we need input, we need to be help accountable.
We have good relationships with some people on city council, who are more progressive than others, but they're still within the Democratic Party and they will face pressure to sever their ties with us. Ultimately, it is up to the involvement of ordinary people, our base of workers, youth and forgotten communities in order to stay involved in Kshama's work and to keep the pressure on in the streets, like it is with any elected official.
Kshama is only taking the average worker's wage, which is about $35,000 and donating the rest to whatever social movements arise that need the financial resources. She's still accountable to our organization and our allies. Her position is a tools and a resource to initiate social and political movement, and support them where they arise. In many ways, our victory was easiest part of this - the real fight lies ahead, because we actually intend on doing all the things we said we wanted to do.
AS: Obviously we're really sympathetic to the challenges of office, and I don't think anyone believes she's just going to sell out. It's just that the system is built to marginalize these kinds of efforts. Do you guys have priorities? Is there something you hope you can really pull off while in office?
AT: The first thing we plan on doing after Kshama takes office is to propose an ordinance for a $15/hour minimum wage citywide for all workers; the city council has the authority to pass an ordinance anytime they want. With the help of our community allies, we're going to draft this ordinance, put it on the table, and if the other council members try to stall, delay or water it down, we'll put it to the people as an initiative for a ballot vote.
TE: Do you have any plans to run other campaigns or try to win other city council seats to make some of these efforts easier?
AT: We can't do it on our own. One of the things we wanted to get out of this campaign was to inspire other groups to run strong and vibrant campaigns of their own. we're looking at a kind of "left alliance" of groups who want to run candidates in the future. One of the biggest victories we could get would be to inspire other groups to do that. Ultimately, the real important thing is to use all this to build social movements, because the real change happens in the streets, in the workplaces and in the schools.
Anh Tran is a member of Socialist Alternative based out of Seattle.
[Andrew Sernatinger and Tessa Echeverria are independent socialists based out of Madison, Wisconsin and produce the podcast Black Sheep.]