When you ask Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant a question, she looks at you and puzzles over your inquiry, attempting to summon something other than a polished talking point. She breaks down her response into numbered subparts; then, she offers a macroeconomic reflection—often featuring “the billionaire class” and “corporate politicians”—in her Mumbai lilt.
I met Kshama Sawant at Pettirosso, a café-bistro known for its delicate pastries, in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. We ordered house red wine, vegan macaroni and cheese (the non-dairy goop remains a delicious mystery), and a slice of pear tart. “I’m not a germaphobe,” she assured me, as we dug our forks into the “cheese.” It was a cold, wet night in late January, and the council had just heard testimony from residents of the Halcyon Mobile Home Park in fast-gentrifying north Seattle. The complex had recently been put up for sale, and its 100 or so inhabitants, mostly seniors, feared losing their homes. “These are people who have worked for decades and contributed to their community in Seattle,” Sawant said. “They were truck drivers, teachers, bartenders, restaurant workers. They have more than paid their dues and were hoping for a dignified retirement, and it’s like the rug is being pulled out from under their feet.”
For Sawant, who identifies as a socialist, the potential eviction of the Halcyon residents exemplified the cruel logic of real-estate capitalism. “Mobile homes provide one of the last bastions of home ownership for working-class people,” she explained. The residents had sought help from her office, which serves both as a municipal bureaucracy and an apparatus for Socialist Alternative. (“SA,” as it’s called, in contrast to the Democratic Socialists of America, has little interest in working with or through the Democratic Party.) Nick Jones and Jonathan Rosenblum, two of Sawant’s community organizers, had been dispatched to help the residents organize, and were now exploring tactics to prevent the mobile homes from going luxury condo.
When Sawant, an economist and former software engineer, moved to Seattle from North Carolina in 2006, it was for her then-husband’s job—at Microsoft. In 2012, Sawant ran, unsuccessfully, for the state House of Representatives; then, in 2013, was elected to the City Council, the first socialist to occupy a seat in nearly a century. This November, she hopes to secure a third term. “The political pundits had written us off. They said, ‘You’re never going to win’. But when we did win, they said, ‘You’re never going to achieve anything.’ When we did, they said, ‘Only in Seattle.’ They had rationalizations for everything!”
What “we did,” she says, is pass the nation’s first big-city $15 minimum wage and lead a people’s-budget campaign to tax Amazon and others of the “billionaire class.” (A per-employee “head tax” on large corporations was passed, then repealed, last year by the City Council.) Sawant believes that Seattle can be a left-wing model for other cities and regions. “It’s not just Seattle,” she said, “it’s West Virginia voting for Sanders and then going on a massive teachers’ strike.”
Of the recent emergence of leftists in the US Congress, she observed, “Ocasio Cortez’s dramatic victory against Joe Crowley—it shows that, if you run a fighting campaign and have a defiant posture, it’s not turning people away, it’s attracting people into the movement.”
Affordable housing is the most pressing concern in Seattle and the larger Puget Sound region, where I grew up. For Sawant, only one approach has the power to bring down rents and record levels of homelessness: “There is no way to duck the question of social housing, which is the massive expansion of publicly owned affordable housing, for the simple reason that the housing market under capitalism has been a complete failure,” she said. The decidedly un-American term “social housing” caused me to pause, mid-bite of pear. “Seattle does it, but it’s very piecemeal. We’re talking about something like Vienna, where 70 percent of the housing is publicly owned and affordable,” she said. (That figure is closer to 62 percent; fewer than 1 percent of Americans live in public housing.)
Sawant frequently invokes policies from abroad and keeps close track of activist movements in her native India. (She is a naturalized US citizen.) She and her husband, Calvin Priest, a staff organizer with Socialist Alternative, had recently returned from Bengaluru, where Sawant’s mother and sister live, and where, in early January, 12 million workers joined a nationwide, 180 million-person general strike. “As socialists, we are also internationalists. To the core, it’s a recognition that capitalism is a global system,” she said. “That’s why our links are not with Americans who are our bosses, but working people in India or Mexico or Brazil.”
Sawant has been criticized for focusing on problems far beyond Seattle. But, she says, “The issues that affect District 3—low wages, high rents, and harassment from landlords—are the issues that most affect the city and the country as a whole.” A few days after our drink at Pettirosso, Sawant and I drove with Rosenblum, a veteran labor organizer, through the Central District, a historically black neighborhood turned hot spot of gentrification that she represents on the council. We passed by Uncle Ike’s Glass and Goods, a marijuana dispensary whose exterior is styled, on trend, in black matte paint, hand-lettered signage, and retro neon. “African-American men used to be arrested on this corner for selling pot,” Sawant said, noting the irony.
We pulled up to the Garfield Community Center, for a celebration of Tet hosted by the Vietnamese Senior Association. As befits the lunar new year, there were spring rolls and sweets, a clanging Lion Dance, and elderly women in long, slitted áo dài walking slowly across the squeaky gymnasium floor.
Sawant shook hands, posed for photos, and relayed her greetings through a Vietnamese interpreter. From the front of the gymnasium, the councilmember went into some detail about the Halcyon Mobile Home Park campaign, and asked the Vietnamese seniors to submit a letter of support. (They agreed.) The interpreter did the best she could by way of summary. She did not need to translate the phrase “fixed income.”