A few days after her upset Seattle City Council victory, Kshama Sawant made national news when she said the government should use eminent domain to take over Boeing’s factories.
“We are doing the work!” she shouted at a rainy downtown rally. “Boeing should be owned by the workers.”
The suggestion seemed to surprise people, but it shouldn’t. Sawant, an Occupy Seattle protester and socialist, has proposed the same thing before.
“If Boeing executives want to leave the state, they are welcome to do that,” she told a cheering crowd at Town Hall Seattle in 2012. “The fact is, the workers are here. The factories are here. … We are therefore calling for the democratic, public ownership by workers and by the community of the workplaces of the big corporations.”
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It’s just that, in the past, not quite so many people were listening.
Sawant’s election has prompted wild speculation about what her tenure will be like.
And it has kicked off a political scramble as advocacy groups and politicians try to align with whatever shift in the electorate allowed Sawant to overcome council veteran Richard Conlin.
“I’m happy to be wrong about this one, that we endorsed the wrong person,” said Dave Freiboth, executive secretary of the M.L. King County Labor Council. “It represents a new City Council that really understands our principles, and that’s an exciting thing.“
He expects to help Sawant with her first priority: a $15 minimum-wage ordinance for Seattle. Sawant said she will introduce the legislation first thing, then plan a mass rally to support it.
“Even if elected officials may not have a personal inclination, they will be forced to consider it because there’s so much momentum on the ground,” she said.
Sawant clamored for media attention for her council campaign but received little, even after she got 35 percent of the primary vote.
So she took her populist ideas to people already energized by the Occupy Seattle movement, fast-food-worker strikes and the campaign for a $15 minimum wage in SeaTac.
“She and her supporters put together an incredible campaign that many of us misjudged,” Freiboth said.
Sawant, a Seattle Central Community College economics instructor, grew up in a middle-class, apolitical family in India, largely in Mumbai.
She was bothered by wealth disparity from an early age — even more so when she left her older sister and the rest of her family and moved to the U.S. in 1996 to pursue a career in computer programming. She expected a wealthy country to be free of many of the ills of poverty she saw growing up in India, she said, but instead found them more pronounced.
As she explored her questions, she decided to study economics.
“I thought economic organization was probably at the heart of why we see poverty today,” she said. She earned a Ph.D. from North Carolina State University.
She didn’t begin to call herself a socialist until she moved to Seattle in 2006 and met people in the Socialist Alternative Party whose ideas aligned with hers.
Sawant is intense and passionate as an activist, but in person she is also thoughtful, with the patient demeanor of a teacher or a scientist. She is friendly and quick to smile.
Other socialists on this year’s ballot, including mayoral candidate Mary Martin, are part of the more militant Socialist Workers Party, which has an office in South Seattle. It supports a mass worldwide revolution to restructure society, seize all wealth and redistribute it according to need.
Martin received 1 percent of the vote in the primary.
Socialist Alternatives support ordinary people having control over their daily lives, according to the party website. Part of its platform is that “a new generation of workers and youth must join together to take the top 500 corporations into public ownership under democratic control.”
The focus on social movements is part of the reason Sawant hesitates to share much about her personal life, despite reporters’ coaxing.
“My personal preference is that we all focus on the policy issues, because that is what is going to matter,” she said.
“It is not only that I want to be humble, and I don’t want this to be about me. [It’s also that] that’s not how social movements happen; they don’t happen from a few so-called political superstars.”
But she said she hopes to inspire social change.
With her story on the Internet and in local media, she said, people stop her on the street, in coffee shops and on her way to lunch and ask if they can help. She said she tells them that if they feel inspired by her win, “they shouldn’t hold that back.”
“What happened is historic, and it is something that people are sitting up and taking notice,” she said.
For Seattle, Sawant offered a refreshing opportunity to mix things up, said John Nichols, a political writer for The Nation.
That’s historically the way socialists have found electoral success, he said. Even if voters don’t agree with them on every issue, they see socialists as capable of shaking things up and unlikely to be corrupt, he said.
Sawant’s election is particularly significant right now because, nationally, Republicans have bashed socialism and used the term as a criticism, Nichols said, and Sawant’s success indicates voters in Seattle were less concerned with her political label than her ideas.
“This is significant, because we, I think, are in a transitional period where a growing number of voters are disinclined to vote for something because of an ideological label that’s attached to it,” he said.
Sawant has said Democrats are serving “corporate masters” instead of the working people.
In her unsuccessful campaign last year against House Speaker Frank Chopp, one of the most powerful Democrats in the state, she said the state’s tax system “needs to be blown into the Puget Sound.”
When Chopp said he had helped constituents, she compared him to an animal “feeding at the same trough of big business that Republicans feed off of.”
Unions that endorsed Democrats, she has said, are “shameful.”
“The global fire of the working class has been ignited, and we are heading toward an era of struggle, shoulder-to-shoulder against the capitalist class,” she told supporters last year.
And at a 2012 women’s rights demonstration, she shouted: “It’s amazing to see the seething anger and passion. You have no idea how much I have wanted this all of my life … we need to take this energy, this passion and build an actual, a real [expletive] movement.”
In the council campaign, Sawant delivered searing criticism of sitting members and vowed not to work with them if she was elected. “Getting something done … does not involve sitting with the other City Council members with whom I have major disagreements,” she said last summer.
At City Hall, rumors abound that she will refuse to take a committee assignment and might not even want an office. She said those rumors are false.
But that doesn’t mean she will do things the way they have always been done.
Her campaign, she said, which relied on activism and volunteers and accepted no money from businesses “was very different from any campaign you’ve seen in recent past,” she said. “I’m still going to be bringing the same spirit and the same principles to the job.”
She is hopeful she will find agreement from the more progressive council members, but it’s clear she will insist they join her in her efforts, and not the other way around.
“Look, our campaign shows that there is a deep hunger for campaigns independent of corporate money,” Sawant said. And as far as she’s concerned, her win was the equivalent of a poll showing Seattle wants a $15 minimum wage.
Council members get $120,000 a year, but Sawant said she will donate all but about $40,000 to mass movements for social justice.
She said she would lead mass movements rather than guide legislation peacefully through the usual council discussions and processes.
To stop coal trains from passing through Seattle, she promised not to negotiate. Instead, she said, the council should support mass occupations and blockades.
Councilmember Mike O’Brien said adding Sawant to the council means he and other members can be more aggressive passing liberal legislation.
“I haven’t chosen to go sit in and get arrested as a City Council member,” he said, “But I’m open to seeing how different people try to define the role for them.”
Councilmember Bruce Harrell said Sawant “brings a sense of urgency into the conversation, which is good.”
But he warned: “You also have to be pragmatic and practical.
“You also have to have respect for the differing views of others. Being an ideologue has its place, but one can be more effective.”
Emily Heffter: 206-464-8246 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter: @EmilyHeffter