On a recent Tuesday afternoon at Kshama Sawant’s Central District campaign headquarters, more than a dozen volunteers and campaign aides gathered for a pep talk before heading out to doorbell homes.
Organizer Emily McArthur advised them against meekly stepping away upon encountering people who say they don’t support Sawant.
“We want to polarize around that,” she said, pointing to the campaign’s script on corporate money flowing to Sawant’s challenger, Egan Orion. She urged the volunteers to “clarify” for voters that opposing Sawant means aligning with Amazon and other wealthy interests.
The us-versus-them messaging is consistent for Sawant, the Socialist Alternative member who rails against “our mortal enemy … the system of capitalism itself” — as she put it in a climate-strike rally last month — from her perch as the Seattle City Council member for District 3.
It’s a sharp contrast with Orion, a small-business advocate and LGBTQ community leader, who is aiming to decrease polarization at City Hall, contending that even progressives in Seattle have grown weary of Sawant’s fist-in-the-air brand of politics.
While crediting Sawant with “expanding the boundaries of political discourse in this city,” Orion argues her approach has caused “chaos and dysfunction” and says she’s neglected neighborhood-level concerns.
“In politics there is always this pendulum swinging. There are times when we need someone to be effective and get the basics of city government done,” he said.
Voters in the Nov. 5 election will decide whether to send Sawant back for a third term, or pick Orion as a new face to represent District 3, which runs from Capitol Hill through the Central District and from Montlake and Madison Park to First Hill.
Sawant faces a tough reelection fight amid a backlash against the council over homelessness, public safety and a controversial big-business “head tax” passed and abruptly repealed by the council last year. She received 37% of the vote in the Aug. 6 primary. Orion received 21% of the vote, edging out four other challengers to advance to the general election.
The race has become the most expensive City Council contest this year.
An Indian-born former computer engineer and community-college instructor with a doctorate in economics, Sawant grabbed national attention in 2013 when she defeated 16-year council incumbent Richard Conlin on a campaign emphasizing support for rent control and a $15-an-hour minimum wage.
A year later, the council approved the phased-in minimum-wage increase. Sawant this year is reminding voters of that accomplishment while making rent control again a central campaign theme. Notwithstanding a state ban on local rent-control ordinances, she has proposed a law limiting rent increases to the annual rate of inflation.
“The overarching question that faces us in these elections this year is who gets to run Seattle: big business, the Chamber of Commerce, the corporate developers? Or is it going to be working people?” Sawant said.
Orion rejects the big-picture framing, saying this is “a quality of life election” about who will best represent the on-the-ground concerns of residents in the council district. He said he shares many progressive positions with Sawant and her supporters — just not her tactics.
Orion criticizes Sawant’s rent control plans as extreme and says her “toxic” political reputation makes it less likely the state Legislature would overturn its preemption. He said he supports an approach similar to a new Oregon rent-control law that applies to older apartments and caps annual increases to 7% plus inflation.
A first-time candidate, Orion grew up in Auburn, moving to Seattle in the early 1990s after coming out as gay. He legally changed his birth name to Egan River Zigzyakutakek Orion in 1996, records show. (Orion says the act was symbolic of changes in his life, and also “kind of a hippie move.”) In 2014, he switched his middle name to Kennedy, out of admiration for Bobby Kennedy.
Orion worked as a barista and cruise-ship tour guide before teaching himself to design websites for small businesses. He worked on Windows user help for Microsoft before starting his own company, One Degree Events, in 2005. That firm has organized promotional “flash mobs” for small business and corporate clients.
In recent years, Orion has served as executive director of PrideFest celebrations of LGBTQ rights at Seattle Center and on Capitol Hill. He’s been credited with rescuing the annual Capitol Hill pride event after the city canceled a previous organizer’s permit. Orion was hired last year as director of the Broadway Business Improvement Area.
Tracy Taylor, general manager of Elliott Bay Books, praised Orion’s work in that role after the area lost homeless outreach services when the city canceled a service provider’s contract. Orion collaborated with neighborhood and business groups to get the service restored, while Sawant, Taylor said, was “completely unresponsive.”
“I think that we would like to see a more active City Council member in this community,” she said.
Sawant supporters deny she’s shirked neighborhood issues, citing examples including her successful push to get the federal government to bring a post office back to the Central District. They also say her fights for rent control and worker rights are crucial for all parts of Seattle.
“There is no fiercer advocate for working people in this city. I don’t need her to be popular. I need her to stand with us,” said Kathy Yasi, a longtime day care provider and second vice president for SEIU 925.
But former council member and mayor Tim Burgess said Sawant’s fiery rhetoric has been largely counterproductive.
“She would prefer to pick up a bullhorn and shout. And that is not what advances the ball,” said Burgess, who has organized an executive-funded PAC called People for Seattle that has spent more than $30,000 backing Orion.
Burgess said Sawant has appeared more focused on building a global political movement than on the mundane but important task of delivering Seattle services.
Last year, she traveled to socialist conferences in Belgium, England, Ireland and Germany — with the trips paid for by socialist organizations, according to personal-financial disclosures filed with the state Public Disclosure Commission.
Sawant supporters counter that her relentless organizing has been key to wins like the $15 minimum wage.
“Our approach is to build a movement that’s strong enough to withstand attacks from big business, like when Amazon acts like a bully and threatens to move jobs,” said Ian Burns, a West Seattle resident who volunteered for her recent doorbelling session.
Sawant was one of two council members to vote against repeal of the $275-per-employee “head tax” last year, explicitly calling it an “Amazon tax.” At a debate this month, she said she’d push for it again. Orion said he doesn’t want to “go back and keep fighting the old fights,” pointing to polls showing voters doubt the city would spend the money wisely.
With more than three weeks remaining, the District 3 race has attracted more campaign cash than any other city race this year. Sawant has raised about $375,000 from more than 5,100 donors, according to filings with the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission. Nearly half of her donations have come from outside of the city.
Orion has raised about $296,000 from more than 2,000 donors since declaring his candidacy in April, with 90% coming from inside the city. He has received dozens of contributions from Amazon managers and executives, including global real-estate chief John Schoettler and communications chief Jay Carney, a former White House press secretary.
Orion also has been backed by more than $270,000 in spending from independent political committees, including nearly $200,000 by the Civic Alliance for a Sound Economy (CASE), the political arm of the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce. CASE’s largest donors include Amazon and Vulcan.
Orion says he’s happy to have business support as well as endorsements from several labor unions. “I don’t want to be viewed as chamber’s puppet because I’m not chamber’s puppet,” he said.
Yasi said the business money speaks for itself. “These people do not love Egan Orion, they just don’t want Kshama,” she said.