Growing up in rural Jefferson County with conservative parents, Austin Tipton knew not to mention certain dirty words. Communism was taboo, and socialism was just as bad. “My dad listened to a lot of Rush Limbaugh,” he said.

But watching his parents struggle to get by also made an impression on the 30-year-old tech worker, who now lives in Seattle.

He joined the local Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) this spring, just in time for City Council elections that will decide whether Seattle will continue to lead what’s become a nationwide movement or drop behind as socialists make strides elsewhere.

Tipton is optimistic ahead of the Aug. 6 primary. Though socialism means different things to different voters, the idea that ordinary people deserve better “resonates with people like me who saw my parents work hard and still be poor,” he said.

In Seattle, the constituency carries some clout. Socialist Councilmember Kshama Sawant boasts widespread name recognition and zealous supporters from her successful campaign for a $15 minimum wage, while more moderate DSA organizer Shaun Scott is touting a “Green New Deal” and has maxed out on taxpayer-funded democracy vouchers. Some other progressive candidates are contenders.

Yet Sawant’s combative style has angered some onetime allies, possibly tainting socialism here. She regularly calls her colleagues corporate stooges. Several unions that previously endorsed the incumbent are opposing her this year, and Scott has secured no labor assistance at all.

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Leaked documents have meanwhile revealed rifts within Sawant’s Socialist Alternative organization and raised questions about who calls the shots in her office. With no socialists in most races, losing Sawant’s District 3 seat and Scott’s District 4 race would set the movement back.

“People are just over the Kshama thing,” said Dustin Lambro, political director for Teamsters Local 117, which represents warehouse workers and truck drivers. “She acts like she knows better than our workers.” With the primary approaching, it’s unclear whether socialist-minded voters will carry the day or the backlash predicted by Lambro will come true.

Socialism’s rise in Seattle

When Sawant upset an incumbent in 2013 by pushing for a higher minimum wage, she became perhaps the country’s leading socialist. Her success pressured then-Mayor Ed Murray to broker a deal on a path to $15 per hour, putting Seattle ahead of the curve.

The rest of the country began to catch up when other cities adopted wage hikes and when Bernie Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist, surged as a 2016 presidential candidate.

As Sawant pushed City Hall conversations left on tenant rights and police oversight, Helen Gilbert looked on approvingly. Gilbert was a teen in the 1970s when she joined Seattle’s Radical Women group and Freedom Socialist Party.

“With such a huge gap in this city between the mega-rich and people living on the streets, that makes you doubt the system,” she said. “It used to be you’d sell a radical newspaper and people would tell you, ‘Go back to Russia.’ We’ve come a long way.”

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Backed by red-shirted Socialist Alternative activists, who packed City Hall to cheer, Sawant worked to halt rent hikes and block a pricey new police precinct, among other causes, winning praise from some clergy members, social-justice activists and community leaders.

She won reelection in 2015, despite the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce backing her opponent. In addition to old-school socialists such as Gilbert, the council member’s bullhorn-wielding approach has attracted younger admirers.

Quinn Angelou-Lysaker initially encountered Sawant and socialist politics at a Franklin High School walkout to protest President Donald Trump’s election.

“I recognized Kshama as a real fighter,” said the 19-year-old, now a college student and a volunteer on Sawant’s campaign.

Quinn Angelou-Lysaker, a recent Franklin High School graduate, works on Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant’s re-election campaign recently. She’s one of the socialist-minded voters who could help decide this year’s council elections. (Ellen M. Banner / The Seattle Times)
Quinn Angelou-Lysaker, a recent Franklin High School graduate, works on Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant’s re-election campaign recently. She’s one of the socialist-minded voters who could help decide this year’s council elections. (Ellen M. Banner / The Seattle Times)

Socialism’s political future?

Talking to voters on Capitol Hill, Angelou-Lysaker led with a question: “Hey, do you support rent control?” Then she explained how Sawant would like to limit rent hikes to the local rate of inflation.

Seattle can’t implement that policy without the state Legislature repealing its ban on rent control, but Angelou-Lysaker says the issue speaks to voters. Housing costs have displaced people of color, particularly.

“We moved around the South End. I saw my classmates getting priced out,” she said. “I do identify as a socialist but when I’m out canvassing, that doesn’t matter so much.”

Most Sawant backers aren’t card-carrying socialists. Case in point: Miguel Jimenez, who became a Democratic Party precinct-committee officer in South Seattle after the Sanders 2016 spinoff group Our Revolution texted him to get involved.

Though Jimenez considers himself socialist only in the loosest sense, he worked last month to stop his organization from endorsing a Democrat over Sawant. “It was a contentious debate,” said the 32-year-old, who was drawn to socialist ideas while working at the Rainier Valley Food Bank.

Seeing so much everyday hunger convinced the Beacon Hill resident that “redistribution needs to happen on a larger scale,” he said.

Sanders-style Democrats have swelled the ranks of the less radical DSA, which in New York City last year helped elect a politician now much better known than Sawant — Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The group is now backing Scott in Seattle, using low-key meetups to build enthusiasm among younger voters.

Scott entered politics as a Black Lives Matter activist and is also endorsed by the King County Democrats. “We’ve gotten used to a dominant shade of red,” he said. “There are variations … I believe in building coalitions and getting along.”

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Tipton recently checked out a Communist Manifesto discussion group and a “Socialist Social Hour” at a bar. The Maple Leaf resident has assigned some democracy vouchers to Scott and intends to volunteer on his campaign. “It’s a way to meet people,” Tipton said.

Labor problems

For Seattle socialists, there are reasons to worry. The chamber is again determined to unseat Sawant, and conservative critics have gained traction by slamming City Hall over homeless camping and over what Sawant called the “Amazon tax.”

The chamber was emboldened last year when the council repealed the per-employee tax on large corporations rather than risk losing at the ballot box, and deep-pocketed Amazon has become more involved in local politics since then.

Sawant angered the construction unions building Amazon’s campus and some other labor groups by singling out the e-commerce giant, said Lambro, the Teamsters leader. The measure might have survived and raised $47 million per year to address homelessness had she not railed against Amazon, daring the company to help bankroll a referendum, he suggested.

“She blew up the [tax]. The polling on that was good before Amazon got involved,” said Lambro, whose union supported Sawant in 2015 and who personally donated $400 to her campaign back then.

The socialist also has meddled in union negotiations, Lambro said, and she declined to endorse labor champion Teresa Mosqueda, who won a council seat in 2017. Sawant voted against a new police-union contract and isn’t using the democracy-vouchers program, which caps donations at $250 and limits campaign spending, he added.

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Sawant contends the blame for the head-tax debacle lies instead with Amazon and with council colleagues who voted to kill it (only she and Mosqueda opposed that move).

“Seattle is a live demonstration of how class struggle works,” she said, describing the target on her back as proof socialists now wield serious power. “The billionaire capitalist class is not going to take this lying down.”

The Martin Luther King County Labor Council voted recently to endorse Sawant challenger Zachary DeWolf. District 3 includes Capitol Hill, the Central District, Montlake and Madison Park.

Sawant has retained endorsements from unionized teachers, hotel workers and postal carriers. But the Labor Council vote means several other large unions will devote money and boots on the ground to knock her out.

“We do agree with Kshama on a lot of issues, but she consistently alienates her council colleagues,” said Lambro.

Other challenges

Door-belling for Sawant in the Central District this month, Ty Moore said the council member is blunt because working people need an uncompromising representative. She ducked the voucher program because its restrictions would have hindered her battle against the chamber, said Moore, a veteran Socialist Alternative organizer.

While canvassing in Seattle’s Central District for Kshama Sawant, Ty Moore comes across supporter Daniel R. Smith. (Dean Rutz / The Seattle Times)
While canvassing in Seattle’s Central District for Kshama Sawant, Ty Moore comes across supporter Daniel R. Smith. (Dean Rutz / The Seattle Times)

Socialist Alternative attracted negative attention this year when the Seattle City Council Insight site published documents showing Sawant had been consulting with the group on specific council votes and a decision to let a council aide go. The documents also revealed splits among the group’s members, including whether to work with the surging DSA. Socialist Alternative has only 1,000 members nationwide, operates as a closed-membership nonprofit and employs Sawant’s husband.

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Many other politicians have “kitchen-table” conversations with unofficial advisers, Moore pointed out, saying Sawant has done nothing wrong by showing accountability to her movement. “We’re not under any illusion that Kshama is going to legislate the Marxist revolution tomorrow,” the 41-year-old Mount Baker resident added.

The Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission dismissed a complaint by District 3 challenger Logan Bowers, who accused Sawant of allowing an outside group to control her office. Still, the episode could cause some swing voters to think twice.

Though Scott is running an energetic campaign as a democratic socialist in District 4, which includes Eastlake, Wallingford, the University District and northeast Seattle, he’s no lock to advance past the primary.

Alex Pedersen has spent years courting homeowners and is endorsed by the chamber. Labor unions have coalesced behind scientist Emily Myers. More than 80 percent of Pedersen’s democracy vouchers have come from District 4 residents, while only 37 percent of Scott’s have.

Socialist Workers Party candidate Henry Clay Dennison is running in District 2 (Chinatown International District, South Seattle) but stands little chance. Though District 2 contender Tammy Morales joined the DSA last year to learn about the group, she hasn’t been an active member. Seattle City Light employee Christopher Peguero is running as a democratic socialist but has received no endorsement.

In the council’s other races, socialists have no candidates in play. The local DSA lacks the resources to run multiple candidates. The Seattle Peoples Party, which made waves with mayoral candidate Nikkita Oliver and attracted socialist support in 2017, has no candidates this year.

All that puts some voters in a bind. Tipton lives outside Scott’s district. Gilbert does live in District 4, but the DSA is too mainstream for the longtime activist. Rather than support Scott, she won’t vote. Will other socialists? Seattle’s politics could depend on it.