Jon Grant, a bespectacled democratic socialist and a long-time tenants’-rights organizer, is going where few City Council candidates ever go. As Seattle’s August 1 primary election approaches, he is visiting tent cities and homeless encampments. He is traveling to enormous public-housing complexes and small subsidized units across the city. He is knocking on doors that never get knocked on, and talking to residents who rarely, if ever, draw a politician’s attention. And he is being rewarded for it.
Since he kicked off his bid to fill an open City Council seat late last year, Grant has raised more than $200,000 in campaign contributions, much of it from Seattle’s homeless population, its affordable-housing denizens, its immigrant communities, and its working-class residents, among other constituencies that are too often ignored by mainstream politicians. Grant’s has been a lucrative, if unconventional, electoral effort. And it has been entirely enabled by a newfangled political instrument called the democracy voucher.
Like other progressive candidates in this year’s City Council elections, Grant is benefiting from an ambitious experiment in campaign-finance reform currently underway in the city of Seattle. Created by a ballot initiative in 2015, the one-of-a-kind program, which is being implemented for the first time right now, works like this: At the beginning of each election year, every eligible resident in Seattle receives four $25 democracy vouchers in the mail. They can donate these vouchers to any combination of candidates they choose. Legal voters, as well as green-card holders, can all participate in the program, which is funded by an increase in local property taxes that will bring in $30 million over 10 years. And though the program presently applies only to City Council and city attorney races, it will expand in 2021 to cover mayoral elections too.
This populist and deeply egalitarian reform is already upending the old political-money game.
“When you are a candidate that no one has ever heard of and you do the work of organizing low-income tenants for 10 years, these are not people with money to give to a political campaign,” says the 35-year-old Grant, who ran for the council in 2015 but was beaten by the better-funded, big-money-backed Tim Burgess. “But now all those folks have an equal say in supporting candidates and that is what is so radical about this.”
This year, Grant, the former executive director of the Tenants Union of Washington State, is leading his field in fundraising, having received more than 90 percent of his campaign donations via democracy vouchers. Councilmember Kshama Sawant and leading leftist groups in the city such as the local Democratic Socialists of America chapter and Socialist Alternative have all endorsed his campaign. Among his key platform planks: a proposal to enshrine collective-bargaining rights for tenants in the city as well as one to levy higher taxes on large corporations like Amazon in order to “massively expand affordable housing” in the city.