It’s safe to say that Councilmember Kshama Sawant and small-business owner Egan Orion come from very different places, politically and stylistically.
Sawant is a proud socialist who has frustrated some but worked to spur changes like a $15 minimum wage, renter protections and a tax on Seattle’s highest earners.
Orion envisions a personal approach, saying Sawant is divisive and her politics impede meaningful partnerships that can aid the city and District 3. Sawant’s mentality and loyalty to a national socialist movement prevent her from fully representing the district, he argues.
One of the few things they agree on is a mutual love for Volunteer Park and cute dogs in the Real Change office, proving that almost everyone can find common ground somewhere.
The following interviews have been edited for length and clarity.
Real Change: Why are you running for City Council District 3?
Kshama Sawant: As we have seen in the last six years, nearly six years that we have had the council seat, it’s not only possible to use an elected office to help build social movements and push forward a progressive agenda. It is possible to win the victories that were thought of as impossible.
Our movement, using our council office, has such a strong track record of having won historic, progressive victories like the $15-an-hour minimum wage, which changed the lives of 100,000 Seattle workers and resulted in a transfer of wealth from the bosses to the workers. We have won a whole host of renters’ rights. After years of organizing the Indigenous community activists working with our office, we were able to end the grotesque celebration of Columbus Day and usher in Indigenous Peoples’ Day.
We have won tens of millions for affordable housing and for homeless services, and now, this year, this is a pivotal election year for Seattle’s working people — everybody who wants to see Seattle be a city that is affordable and welcoming for all and not a playground for the wealthy, because we now have progressive candidates in every race against Chamber [of Commerce]-backed candidates in every race. I am running not only to continue the progressive agenda that we have pushed forward so successfully, but because we are at a pivotal moment in history. We have to fight aggressively to avert the looming climate catastrophe. We have an unprecedented affordable housing and homelessness crisis.
Real Change: In many races this year, the narrative is that we’re looking at a progressive candidate versus a business-backed candidate. Why is that, do you think, and what are the voters in District 3 choosing between when they choose between you and your opponent?
KS: What is at stake this year is who gets to run Seattle — Amazon and big businesses and the Chamber of Commerce, or working people, ordinary people, those of us who have a vision for social justice?
It is important that those of us who don’t share their vision for Seattle — to just become a playground for the very wealthy — that we take this as a call to action and make sure that we elect progressive candidates in every district. It is true — the seven districts that are up for reelection now are poised in that way. You have one progressive candidate in every district and one chamber-backed-to-the-hilt candidate in every district. The choice in every district is very clear.
Real Change: Egan Orion has been backed by these organizations [and] put up flyers that said, “I have not accepted corporate contributions.” By law, campaigns cannot coordinate with PACs. How do you interpret these two actions?
KS: As far as the corporate PACs are concerned, certainly, by law, candidates’ campaigns are not allowed to coordinate details with the PACs. However, the fact remains that my opponent applied for the PAC endorsement and money. He filled out a questionnaire for the PAC endorsement and money. He went and interviewed for the PAC endorsement and money, and then when he got that, he has publicly thanked them and says he’s honored to have the corporate PACs backing him.
For such a candidate — who has consciously and willingly and eagerly made himself somebody who wants corporate PAC money — for that candidate to go around the district putting up posters that say “no corporate money” — that, to me, is just a garden-variety type of dishonesty by corporate candidates and politicians. So the question that everybody in District 3 should be asking is: How can you trust somebody who has started his campaign on the basis of dishonesty, where you have willingly and consciously sought after PAC money? And then for you to say that you are not taking PAC money — that is just a complete contradiction of facts.
Real Change: Do you think that those people are donating to him because they really love all of his politics or because they really dislike yours?
KS: There’s no question that big business and the billionaire class, absolutely, is determined to try and take us out of City Hall. There’s no question about it, and there’s no secret about that. But the reason that big business is so angry at my council office is not because they don’t like my style or because they think I’m “divisive.” These are the talking points that they use, but in reality, what they hate and fear is that I have remained unbought by corporate interests and that I have not bent the knee to corporate interests, that I have consistently and unapologetically fought for ordinary working people.
But most of all, most of all, the Chamber of Commerce is attempting to get us out of City Hall because they fear the collective voice of social movements that my office is helping to build, because they have seen that that’s super effective. They know that when you have elected representatives who are willing to use their office as an organ of larger movements — to bring the voice of thousands, tens of thousands of ordinary people to push back against corporate politics — that we can actually win. And we have shown over and over and over again that you can win tremendous policy gains when you are willing to use that kind of fighting approach through your elected office.
Real Change: Do you support Councilmember Lorena Gonzalez’ proposal to limit the amount of money that an individual or corporation can donate to independent expenditures to $5,000?
KS: Absolutely. It is very important that ordinary people come out and support this legislation, the proposed legislation against corporate PAC money, and I strongly support it.
Real Change: What are some key issues that you see specifically for District 3, and how do you respond to the criticism that your movement, because of its broad nature, excludes or does not cater to your district?
KS: What is our experience, collectively? Our experience has been that most politicians do not actually pay heed to our needs. That has been true for the Democratic Party establishment as well. And then when you have progressive elected representatives in City Hall like myself, like Councilmember [Mike] O’Brien or Councilmember Lisa Herbold, then we start seeing change in a progressive direction.
If you look at District 3, the issues that are specific to District 3, what are those issues, what have those issues been? For example, when small businesses were greatly impacted — small businesses in the Central District along the 23rd Avenue corridor — were deeply impacted by the “Move Seattle” levee construction, which was necessary construction — but the storefronts were impacted because their customers had a hard time reaching the storefront. What happened then? They contacted then-Mayor Ed Murray. They contacted many of the politicians. What happened? It was a deaf ear.
It was through building this kind of campaign for their rights that we were able to win $650,000 in compensation. This is absolutely unheard of, and this was a District 3 issue. Recently, when the Central District post office closed down as a part of the gentrification process that is going on in the Central District, nobody — nobody — in City Hall was paying attention to the voices of many of our African-American elders, small -business owners, many people on fixed incomes who rely on the post office. So, then we organized through my office and, with cooperation not only from [United States Postal Service] officials but also from the Postal Workers’ Union, and led by community members themselves, we are now bringing the post office back at 21st and Union. This is an example of how ordinary people can get organized with the help of an elected representative who is relentlessly pushing for their interests.
Real Change: There’re a lot of policies and priorities that you have talked about. What do you want to do first, and how do you get a potentially new suite of colleagues and the current mayor on board? Or, how do you overcome a veto?
KS: I think it’s tremendously important, first of all, that we, between now and the first Tuesday of November, work really, really hard in the grassroots to make sure that myself and other progressive candidates are elected and, of course, that myself and Councilmember Lisa Herbold are reelected. That’s very, very important.
But, the bottom line — through which we have won so many victories in the past — is precisely because I do not rely on backroom negotiations with elected officials or believe that I can convince corporate politicians of a progressive agenda when they are actually beholden to big business.
Real Change: To move some of these policies forward and to move the agenda forward, you’re going to need new revenue. Do you want to pursue something like the head tax again? What other progressive revenue sources do you see available?
KS: We’re not going to be able to win affordable housing expansion, public transit expansion or a Green New Deal without addressing the question of revenues. We’re starting at a bleak starting point. Seattle and Washington state have the nation’s most regressive tax system. Meaning if you are a working-class household or a poor household, you are paying [a] double-digit percentage out of your income. And if you are extremely wealthy, you are paying very little, something like 2 percent of your income in taxes. And if you’re a giant corporation — multinationals like Microsoft and Amazon and Boeing — they pay actually negative rates, meaning they get more as tax subsidies from our taxpayer money than they put into the system.
It is a horrendously unequal and lopsided system, the tax system that we have in our state. I think there is broad agreement that we need to do something about it. But the question is, how do we do it?
Now, I don’t believe that statistical evidence shows that we can hold our breath for state legislators to do something about it. Given that context, as a city, we don’t have very many avenues to carry out progressive taxation.
Ultimately, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. It’s not about what you say, it’s about what you do. What you vote on. What you push for. And that is why I was helping lead the Amazon movement, which was led by so many community organizations and labor unions who all spoke with one voice, that it is unconscionable that we have this homeless emergency and we have renters struggling to pay their rent and we don’t have money for affordable housing and services.
We have to all, collectively, join together in unapologetically fighting for a big business tax, a tax on big business to fund housing and services, society’s most urgent needs. Because the society we live in is one where you know hundreds of thousands of Seattleites go to work every day. And who gets the lion’s share of the wealth? It’s these big businesses. That’s where the wealth lies.
Real Change: What is your policy on homeless encampment sweeps?
KS: My office, alongside our movement for homeless community members’ rights, ha[s] completely opposed the sweeps of homeless people. What we have seen is the city spending roughly $10 million every year sweeping encampments, and sometimes the same encampments over and over again, and they haven’t done one thing to address homelessness. What they do end up doing is taking away the dignity and the humanity of our homeless community members, not to mention the loss of property that they end up experiencing, the breaking up of their community — and also because they are both ineffective and inhumane.
It is crucial that we immediately stop the sweeps and ensure that the $10 million that are being spent on it annually be focused on providing services that work. Unfortunately, most of the rest of the council has not supported this measure to stop the sweeps, and that’s why we need a stronger movement.
Real Change: Last question, arguably one of the most controversial. What is your favorite place in your district?
One I would like to name is the Central Area Senior Center and the street it’s on. It is just absolutely gorgeous. If you’ve never been to the Central Area Senior Center, you can come on in. It’s a public resource, and the view from the center is incredible, looking over Lake Washington. It’s just incredibly beautiful even on a cloudy day. It’s one of the most gorgeous views I’ve ever seen, and the reason I mention it is not only because of that natural beauty — but I feel a strong link to our Central Area Senior Center, because we are, alongside the seniors and community members and the people who run the center, fighting for The Central, as it’s known for short, to be maintained as a community resource into perpetuity. Again, no surprise, Jenny Durkan has been an obstacle to achieving that, as well. But it’s a center that is a lifeline, especially for our elderly neighbors, but not just the elderly. Young people have actually told me that it’s a resource that youth rely on. So, check it out if you haven’t already.
And then, the other place I would mention is Volunteer Park. My dogs love it.
RELATED ARTICLE: Interview with City Council District 3 candidate Egan Orion
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Ashley on Twitter @AshleyA_RC
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