Stand by Sawant
Seattle’s Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute teemed with City Councilmember Kshama Sawant supporters the night of Nov. 5 as they waited to hear if their preferred politician had won reelection.
Early results weren’t good — Sawant lagged behind her opponent, Egan Orion, by 8.5 percentage points. Perhaps it was the fact that Sawant had overcome a nearly identical deficit in 2013 or the relentless optimism of dedicated supporters, but when the councilmember took the stage and declared her desire to fight on, the room was ready to hear it.
“Those of you who were with us in 2013 will remember what happened,” Sawant told the crowd. “We have always had to fight. We will make sure every ballot is counted. Are you ready to do this?”
The following weekend, Sawant supporters gathered in the same building, ostensibly to chase ballots and ensure their candidate got every vote that was cast in her favor.
But by then, it was unnecessary — Sawant surged past her competitor by 513 votes, once votes cast close to the Nov. 8 ballot-drop deadline were counted.
Sawant’s late victory upended the pre-election narrative that Seattle was sick of her socialist, “divisive” politics, a message that Orion banked on in the run-up to the general election and that the Civic Alliance for a Sound Economy (CASE) political action committee leaned into, using Sawant as a foil for races outside of District 3, the one in which she was a candidate.
Seattle Council business
All told, the election was dismal for CASE and its corporate backers, particularly Amazon, which pumped a record-breaking $1.5 million into the election’s last days. Only one of the candidates they put money behind won the support of district voters, leaving Seattle with what left-wing commentators dub as the most progressive City Council in recent history.
All three incumbents — councilmembers Lisa Herbold, Sawant and Debora Juarez — defeated more conservative candidates. Tammy Morales — an organizer with labor credentials — picked up District 2, Councilmember Sally Bagshaw’s adviser Dan Strauss won District 6 and Assistant City Attorney Andrew Lewis took District 7.
The only progressive loss of the night was Shaun Scott, a socialist challenging former City Council aide Alex Pedersen for control of District 4, which encompasses the University of Washington but also some of the wealthiest neighborhoods in Seattle.
Immediately after the election, leftists squared off, arguing that Amazon would win by unseating Sawant or lose because of the leftward shift outside of District 3. With Sawant’s victory days later, the settled on the former.
“Amazon did not get the results they were hoping for,” said Katie Wilson, general secretary of the Transit Riders Union.
“I think it’s clear they wanted — not just Amazon, but the [Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce] — wanted a chamber-friendly, Amazon-friendly majority on the City Council, and they did not get that,” Wilson said. “I think that is kind of undeniable.”
The nearly total loss of CASE-backed politicians is bad news for business interests, said Robert Cruickshank, campaign director at Demand Progress.
“It’s not just because they lost the election. They radicalized the rest of the council against them,” Cruickshank said.
Amazon and other business interests had a spark in 2018. When the City Council voted to enact a head tax — an annual charge based on the number of employees working for the top 3 percent of companies in Seattle — business interests swung into action. They funded a campaign that sent out signature gatherers who passed on allegedly false information, ginning up support for their cause. It was seen as an inflection point in Seattle politics, and was so successful that a majority of councilmembers — minus councilmembers Sawant and Teresa Mosqueda — voted to repeal it before the measure could be put to the ballot as a local initiative.
That defeat angered many on the progressive left who believe that big business should be paying more to help ameliorate the societal ills that they attribute to the companies and their well-heeled employees, such as the homelessness crisis, gentrification and displacement.
“The head tax repeal is the empire striking back, no doubt,” Cruickshank said. “A lot of people overestimated what they thought that victory was, a sign that the city’s politics were shifting toward the right.”
If nothing else, the election results were a solid refutation of that belief.
A socialist loss
However, leftists now have to grapple with Scott’s loss. A socialist and a Black man, Scott was largely counted out during the primary as labor activists threw weight behind Emily Myers, a graduate student and union organizer. Scott’s campaign overcame significant odds after an initial 16-point deficit against Pedersen, closing within 5 points.
Still, even though Scott advanced to the general election, progressive backers spent less than $1,925 to support him, compared with the $154,168 that pro-business groups like CASE and People for Seattle put behind his opponent.
“When Emily Myers lost, it should have gained an immediate jump-start to support these candidates that were fighting everything that so-called progressives were against,” said Dae Shik Hawkins, director of development at The Cut media organization.
“I was glad to see Teresa Mosqueda and Lorena Gonzalez come around and give support, but even their support was so late. Besides an endorsement, what did that do for these candidates?” Hawkins said.
On election night, Scott supporters Jon Witt and Erick Shaw were hanging out at The Westy, one of the candidate’s favorite places in District 4 and the site of his election night party.
“If Shaun loses, it shows more about money from special interests than engagement and enthusiasm,” Shaw said.
“If Alex Pedersen didn’t have that funding, how would he win?”
The new councilmembers will take their seats in 2020, and they will have major issues to deal with. The same night Seattle elected a progressive slate of councilmembers, perennial initiative floater Tim Eyman won a rare victory by slashing car tab fees and defunding transit projects across the state as a result.
Voters narrowly defeated an affirmative action initiative that would have undone an Eyman project from 1998, allowing public institutions to consider race as a factor in hiring and contracting.
While local voters fell on the progressive side of those issues, it will be up to the state government to fill in the holes, Cruickshank said.
“What we’re going to see in 2020 is a shift in attention to the state and state Legislature. I’m expecting all of the energy we saw in Seattle on the left to be transferred to Olympia,” he said.
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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