The sixteen-year incumbent Democrat who Sawant challenged in the nonpartisan citywide race, Richard Conlin, conceded Friday evening. The former Seattle city council president acknowledged that Sawant had defeated him after the challenger took a 1,640 vote lead in an ongoing count on ballots from the city's November 5 election.
Sawant, whose campaign energized young people, communities of color and neighborhood activists to provide its come-from-behind energy, describes her electoral seccess as "historic."
"Our campaign us not an isolated event, it's a bellwether for what's going to happen in the future," declares Sawant.
It also renews an urban radical tradition that has deep roots.
America has a rich history of radical politics at the municipal level. Over the past century has seen “sewer socialists” manage the affairs of major cities such as Milwaukee and join city councils, schools boards and county commissions from New York City to Butte, Montana.
The last big-city Socialist Party mayor was Milwaukee’s Frank Zeidler, who finished his final term in 1960. More recently, Bernie Sanders served as the independent socialist mayor of Burlington, Vermont, in the 1980s; while Benjamin Nichols, a member of Democratic Socialists of America, served as mayor of Ithaca, New York, in the 1990s. And just last year, 19-year-old Socialist Party member Pat Noble was elected to the regional board of education in Red Bank, New Jersey.
But Seattle is a major urban center, with what many local analysts have portrayed as an entreched politics. So Sawant’s progress has been seen locally as big news. The Seattle Times headlined its Wednesday edition “Socialist Sawant Now Leads Seattle Council Race.”
“I think we have shown the strongest skeptics that the Socialist label is not a bad one for a grassroots campaign to succeed,” Sawant declared as the count turned her way.
A former software engineer who now teaches economics at Seattle Central Community College, Sawant ran a Socialist Alternative “Fund Human Needs, Fight Corporate Greed” campaign that argued: “We live in one of the richest cities in the richest nation on earth. There is no shortage of resources. Capitalism has failed the 99%. Another world is both possible and necessary—a socialist world based on the needs of humanity and the environment.”
Sawant pulled no punches in her platform, which began with her signature proposal to raise the minimum wage to $15 and hour and then promised to:
* Seek “A Millionaire’s Tax to fund mass transit, education, and living-wage union jobs providing vital social services.” She proposes to: “End corporate welfare. Tax freeloading corporations. Reduce the unfair tax burden on small businesses, homeowners & workers.”
* Support efforts to “Unionize Amazon, Starbucks & low-paid service workers.”
* Commit to “No layoffs or attacks on public sector unions!”
Sawant won 35 percent of the August citywide primary vote and a place on the November 5 citywide ballot along with Conlin. In the officially nonpartisan race, Conlin had the backing of most of the Democratic leadership in a city where Democrats tend to win most elections; he also had the support of a number of major environmental groups. But both candidates obtained endorsements from labor organizations and Sawant won the enthusiastic support of the city’s politically potent alternative weekly The Stranger.
“An immigrant woman of color, an Occupy Seattle organizer, and an economics instructor at Seattle Central Community College, Sawant offers voters a detailed policy agenda, backed up by a coherent economic critique and a sound strategy for moving the political debate in a leftward direction,” argued The Stranger in an editorial that celebrated Sawant’s run. “She is passionate but thoughtful. She speaks comfortably on non-economic issues. She is likable. And most important, she’s winning over voters.”
In August, The Seattle Weekly wrote: “We like her because she’s an honest-to-god socialist who’s willing to throw a few Molotov cocktails into the cloistered hatch-pits of our terribly staid civic ‘debates.’ ”
Sawant took on not just a veteran incumbent but a political process that, for the most part, favors candidates of the two major parties and a narrow range of ideas. But just as Robert Sarvis's unexpectedly strong Libertarian campaign for governor of Virginia (where he finished with almost 7 percent of the vote) offered an indication that Americans are frustrated by the constraints of traditional two-party politics, Sawant’s democratic-socialist campaign in Seattle offers evidence that a bold rejection of austerity has significant popular appeal.
“Seattle has become a really unaffordable city and overall, not just in Seattle but everywhere in the country, people are fed up, angry and frustrated with the political system,” Sawant said, explaining her strong finish. “They’re fed up with the political dysfunction and they’re hungry for change.”
John Nichols explains the growing populist appeal of politicians like Elizabeth Warren.