United States and World Politics

I Almost Voted For a Socialist

Seattle Times columnist Bruce Ramsey credits socialist Kshama Sawant
with cracking open one-party Seattle

By Bruce Ramsey

Originally published November 5, 2013. Page modified November 6, 2013

For years I’ve grumbled about living in a one-party town, all Democrat all the time, where the range of acceptable opinion is “about this wide,” as a Democratic politician once expressed to me with his thumb and index finger. Maybe that changes. Maybe Seattle will have two parties: the Democrats and the Socialists.

That would not be my choice; it might be Seattle’s.

Left-wing candidates run fairly often around here, usually for nonpartisan seats. Three socialists were on Seattle ballots this year in addition to Indian immigrant and college instructor Kshama Sawant. The difference is, she runs. She holds rallies. She is a sharp speaker and has a way of putting her opponents on edge. She challenged both mayoral candidates to promise a $15 minimum wage.

Her red signs are everywhere.

A rule of practical politics is that a novice should aim for an open seat or a damaged incumbent. Sawant defies that rule. This year she took on longtime City Councilmember Richard Conlin, Democrat, who was not damaged. Last year she took on state House Speaker Frank Chopp, Democrat, who has a safe seat in Seattle’s 43rd district. Backed by The Stranger, Sawant made it into the top two as a write-in, identifying herself on the November 2012 ballot as “prefers Socialist Altern Party”—a Marxist party—and collected 29 percent of the vote.

Sawant appeared to be losing Tuesday night by a significant margin, not surprisingly because she had to run citywide. But if Charter Amendment 19, the districts initiative, passes, she can run next time from Capitol Hill, and maybe Seattle will have a socialist on the City Council.

And that would be a remarkable thing. Seattle has not been ill-treated by global capitalism. Its metro area has the headquarters of Boeing Commercial Airplanes, Microsoft, Starbucks, Costco and Amazon. It has biotech. It has venture capital. It has sushi bars, craft distilleries and a Tesla dealership. Of the 39 counties in Washington, King County has the second-lowest rate of unemployment (San Juan is lowest) and the highest median household income.

The logical place for an anti-capitalist would be somewhere the economy left behind—downtown Yakima, maybe. But Seattle?

Sawant raised more than $100,000, most of it in the richest county in Washington. It was individual money. Among the $500-plus contributors, the most common occupation was software engineer. Her big donors included technical people who worked for Microsoft, F5 Networks, Google, Robbins and Boeing—all world-competitive companies. Sawant also went after endorsements. Who would endorse a candidate from a Marxist party? A former head of the King County Democrats did, as did an official of the Washington State Labor Council. Among donors is former state Sen. Eric Oemig, the Kirkland Democrat who in 2006 called on Congress to impeach President Bush.

Seattle has always had a left, though in the 20th century it learned to camouflage itself. Years ago, I wrote a profile of an activist who told me privately she was a socialist. If she were in Canada, she said, she could say it for publication. Not here. Later she won nonpartisan public office, where she was known as a progressive. I see her name among supporters of Kshama Sawant.

The candidate’s doctrines are not mine, but I give Sawant credit for what she has done. Under the guise of nonpartisan government, Seattle is a one-party town. Sawant raised $100,000 in small donations and attacked the monopoly head-on.

I almost voted socialist.

Seattle Times, November 6, 2013