There’s more to Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant than her militant image suggests, but that image has helped the self-proclaimed socialist quickly gain influence in local politics.
When a number of City Council members trekked last October to a mountain resort for the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce’s annual leadership conference, Kshama Sawant ripped into her colleagues.
She accused them of taking their marching orders from corporate executives.
But the next month, the council adopted a new budget peppered with Sawant-sponsored amendments — including an immediate wage hike for city employees, money to support tent encampments and a commitment to study a possible excise tax on millionaires — and the opposite seemed just as accurate: Sawant’s colleagues were taking marching orders from her.
The Indian-born former computer engineer and community-college instructor, who knocked off incumbent Richard Conlin in 2013 under the banner of the Socialist Alternative Party, has rapidly become one of the council’s most influential members.
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“Without a doubt, Kshama has moved the council in a new direction,” said Councilmember Nick Licata. “More progressive. More sensitive to social and economic justice. The other members are inclined to go there, but Kshama is pushing them. Kshama has made things happen that never would have happened before.”
Skeptics say the council member wields limited power. She rarely casts a swing vote, and some of her ideas, such as her push to revamp Seattle City Light’s electricity-rate structure, have flopped.
But the bully pulpit, not the legislative sausage factory, is where Sawant is most effective and where her star power is an asset. The same week as the Chamber conference, a poll showed Sawant had the most name recognition on the council.
It also indicated how polarizing she is: Sawant had the council’s second-highest favorable rating and, at the same time, the highest unfavorable score. Sawant’s supporters praise her for bucking “The Seattle Process,” while her detractors roll their eyes at her righteous rhetoric and claim her approach does more harm than good.
The debate will yield a winning side soon enough, because Sawant already is up for re-election. With the council moving to election by geographic district for seven of its nine seats this year, Sawant is running in the 3rd District, which includes the Central District and Capitol Hill. She has two challengers so far.
The council’s first socialist in decades has a militant image and knows how to use it.
The book she’s writing about herself, due out in September, was temporarily listed on Amazon.com under the title, “The Most Dangerous Woman in America.”
When she talks about her signature issue — income inequality — Sawant leans forward in her chair and her eyebrows go on the attack.
Her arrest at a minimum-wage demonstration in Sea-Tac last year was first-rate political theater, and when protesters temporarily shut down a council briefing with Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole in January, Sawant raised her arms in solidarity.
But the 42-year-old — who grew up middle class in Mumbai with a civil engineer father and a schoolteacher mother, and who later earned a Ph.D. in economics from North Carolina State University — is adamant that she also has a softer side.
Sawant follows the Seahawks and had a Super Bowl party with vegan cake.
She’s engaged to be married a second time, smiles more in private and likes to host dinner parties at her Leschi home. She has two pet husky dogs, Che and Rosa.
What’s more, Sawant swears she didn’t approve and won’t use the “Dangerous” book title, which has since been withdrawn.
“It was news to me when I saw it,” she said in a recent interview, sitting at a long table in her sparsely decorated City Hall office after lunching with union organizers. “For a self-authored book, it sounds too self-important. That isn’t me.”
Sawant argues that it suits the powers that be to portray her as one-dimensional.
“The characterization comes in because what’s most threatening to the political establishment is … a mass movement around political change,” she said. “It serves the establishment agenda to isolate one person and make that person look like a fist-raising robot rather than a human being.”
The war over Seattle’s minimum wage, which ended in April 2014 with the council setting a gradual path to $15 an hour, was key to Sawant’s election and first year.
David Rolf, president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 775 and the mastermind behind the wage push, believes Sawant beat Conlin by jumping on SEIU’s $15-an-hour train, which was gathering steam at the time.
“She was the only candidate running with $15 an hour on her yard signs,” Rolf said.
“Most of her signs said ‘Kshama Sawant — $15.’ We had to change the color of our fast-food strike signs from red to green so people didn’t think they were hers.”
In the end, Sawant didn’t write the business-labor compromise that the council approved, and ultimately she cast the same “yes” vote that her colleagues did.
“If I had been on the council, I would have supported it,” Conlin said. “The results that came out were basically what the folks at SEIU had been working for, and I was endorsed by SEIU. I don’t think she made much of a difference.”
But Sawant did have a hand in the outcome, according to Rolf. The activists in Sawant’s camp and her hard-line “$15 now” stance as a member of Mayor Ed Murray’s Income Inequality Advisory Committee put pressure on the negotiators to strike a deal.
“Ed was the consensus builder we needed to translate rough ideas into actual policy, and Kshama was the threat from the left who gave us urgency,” Rolf said.
Sawant’s “$15 Now” rabble-rousing made a greater impact than her vote, and that’s been the trend. Despite her outlier status, the socialist has mostly voted with the pack.
The council’s recognition of Indigenous Peoples’ Day on the same date as Columbus Day was unanimous, as were votes to further regulate micro-apartment construction and to reserve labor hours on city construction projects for workers from economically distressed local neighborhoods.
Sawant occasionally strikes out on her own. Hers was the only “no” vote on a bill authorizing the city to receive federal anti-terrorism funds, citing concerns about spying. She opposed a zoning change for King County’s new juvenile jail and courthouse and stood solo against O’Toole’s confirmation as police chief.
She even cast a symbolic “no” vote against the new budget, despite her amendments, calling it mostly “business as usual.”
There are exceptions: Last May, Sawant voted with a 5-4 majority to lower height limits for small-lot homes, and she lost 4-5 in July when she sought to increase an insurance requirement for ride services like Uber. But 9-0 and 8-1 votes are the rule.
“She hasn’t changed anything,” said David Meinert, a business owner who sat on Murray’s minimum-wage panel. “She’s barely cast a vote that’s made a difference.”
Sawant’s supporters counter that her rallies and speeches change minds. She took part in demonstrations against Stepping Forward, a Seattle Housing Authority plan to raise rents, for example. The plan, which Murray also criticized, was shelved.
“She’s been able to play the role of the agitator,” said Hillary Stern, executive director of the nonprofit Casa Latina. “I thought she would be isolated, but she’s brought conversations about inequality to the rest of the council.”
Though Roger Valdez, whose Smart Growth Seattle organization lobbies for dense real-estate development, agrees with Sawant on virtually nothing, he believes in her ability to turn up the heat. “We have people at City Hall who are frightened by her,” he said.
“Everyone has to be with her or against her,” Valdez said. “The other council members … can’t afford to be seen as against what ‘the people’ are for.”
But Christian Sinderman, a consultant working on several council campaigns, has another view. Sawant hasn’t identified a “second act” since the wage vote, he says.
“This is a progressive city and council. They agree with a lot of what she wants,” said Sinderman. “How much is she driving the dialogue? Less than she thinks.”
Sawant might be able to get more done if she were more collaborative, says Jon Wyble, a consultant working for one of Sawant’s 3rd District rivals, Morgan Beach.
“When you talk about what’s going on — land-use, public safety, police reform — what’s she done on the inside that she couldn’t have done on the outside?” he asked.
“Not a team player” is an election-year knock that Sawant should get used to, because her opponents likely will harp on it between now and the August primary.
Michael Wells, who heads the Capitol Hill Chamber of Commerce, says the allegation is valid. The day that the minimum-wage law passed, other council members were booed and hissed at for rejecting changes Sawant requested. They cheered Sawant, Wells recalled.
“That’s not the way I want to see City Hall run, with a lack of respect for the process,” he said. “That shuts down dialogue.”
Sawant has clashed with Council President Tim Burgess more than once. “I don’t think we’re here today to debate that issue,” Burgess snapped when she went out of her way to slam local leaders for supporting the stalled Highway 99 tunnel project.
But Councilmember Tom Rasmussen, one of those whom Sawant skewered for attending the Chamber conference, says the spats don’t bother him.
“I work well with her. I like Kshama,” Rasmussen said. “She was quoted claiming we only listen to big business, so some of her statements are silly. But I don’t go there.”
District elections are supposed to make council members sweat the small stuff, and constituent services aren’t Sawant’s real strength. Her aides are still learning the ropes when it comes to managing her busy schedule.
Though she hasn’t spent much time on neighborhood issues, according to Wells, Sawant has jetted to New York and Minneapolis to talk minimum wage and climate change. The trips point to her political reach and ambition.
Pamela Banks, president of the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle, who has recently spoken with Sinderman about launching a 3rd District campaign of her own, says she requested time with Sawant last year to discuss a training program for men of color. Sawant was the only council member Banks couldn’t schedule a meeting with, she says.
But Sawant is ramping up her hyperlocal involvement. She’ll host a forum on Capitol Hill hate crime March 3. In an interview, she insisted her feet are firmly planted on the ground, describing potholes as a social-justice issue because poor areas have more.
Last month, Sawant was endorsed by Larry Gossett, the Metropolitan King County Council member, and her celebrity alone makes her the 3rd District favorite.
The greater test of her clout may be in helping to elect a fellow traveler.
“The main thing I’ve experienced is that we need more representatives like us,” she said.
Later this year, Seattle voters will decide whether they agree.