The U.S. electoral system heavily favors the incumbent in congressional elections. Once elected, members of Congress can make connections and garner the loyalty of fellow politicians, big donors and influential constituents. Such is the case, for example, with the former “congressman for life” Jim McDermott, who represented Seattle for 28 years until his retirement in 2017.
Of course, there are always exceptions. In 2018, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez shocked the political class by defeating the fourth highest-ranking House Democrat, Joseph Crowley, in New York City.
The Sound area has its own Joseph Crowley. Adam Smith has represented parts of South Seattle, Bellevue and South King County since 1997. Like Crowley, Smith occupies a prominent role in Congress as chair of the House Armed Services Committee, which deals with legislation funding the armed forces, Department of Defense and pieces of the Department of Energy.
However, unlike in New York, voters haven’t coalesced around progressive challengers seeking to replace Smith.
In 2018, democratic socialist candidate Sarah Smith challenged Adam Smith, winning 32 percent of the vote. This year, Adam Smith faced another socialist challenger: high school teacher and union leader Stephanie Gallardo. However, in the recent primary election, Gallardo lost out to Smith and his Republican challenger Doug Basler with just under 16 percent of the vote compared to Basler’s 20.6 percent and Smith’s 55 percent. Washington’s open primary system means that the top two vote-getters advance to the general election, regardless of party.
Gallardo was arguably a stronger candidate than Sarah Smith, gaining the endorsements of multiple local elected officials, including State Senator Yasmin Trudeau, Renton City Councilmember Carmen Rivera, Burien City Councilmember Hugo Garcia and Tukwila City Councilmember Mohamed Abdi. By contrast, Sarah Smith did not garner the support of many local elected officials.
Gallardo also earned the endorsement of multiple labor unions, such as UAW 4121 and the National Education Association. Gallardo, the daughter of Chilean refugees, was also arguably more representative of the majority-minority district. Adam Smith is a white man.
Despite her bona fides as a relatively strong progressive candidate, many Democratic and progressive institutions didn’t back Gallardo. For example, the 37th District Democrats did not endorse a candidate in the race — the membership split between Gallardo and Smith. Meanwhile, the progressive nonprofit Fuse Washington didn’t mention the District 9 race in its endorsement announcement, let alone back Gallardo.
Perhaps most notable for many Gallardo supporters was the decision by The Stranger’s Election Control board to back Smith over Gallardo. The Stranger is widely known as one of the two most influential election endorsement guides in Seattle, alongside the conservative-leaning Seattle Times Editorial Board. In 2017, the newspaper received 127,000 website visits to its primary election endorsements page.
The Stranger’s endorsement board grudgingly endorsed Smith, writing, “We are not happy about it.” The board wrote that, while they were ideologically aligned with Gallardo, the lack of policy experience and failure to “produce realistic plans for navigating Congressional gridlock” ultimately led to the paper supporting Smith. The board also contended that, if Smith were to be ousted, the armed services committee would have an even more hawkish chair.
It’s unclear how a single freshman member of Congress could overcome “Congressional gridlock,” which is mainly due to the unrepresentative and anti-majoritarian nature of the U.S. Senate, which allows a few conservative Democrats such as Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema to block the entire progressive legislative agenda.
Gallardo called The Stranger endorsement “bullshit.”
“You know, I’ll be real with you. I was really upset. Really upset when I first saw it,” she said on July 23.
“Everybody and their mama was telling me, ‘You got it, you got it, you got it.’”
Gallardo said that, as a socialist, every institution would fight against her because she is questioning the very nature of those institutions and how they operate.
Rich Smith, interim editor at The Stranger, wrote, “The Stranger Election Control Board uses a rigorous, democratic process to make its decisions. We’ll trust readers to find the answers to those criticisms within the endorsement itself.”
The newspaper also ran an editorial from local leaders who supported Gallardo.
On the campaign trail, the candidates exchanged sharp words, working to draw a distinction between themselves rather than focusing on their Republican opponents in the heavily Democratic district. In her concession statement, Gallardo accused the “corporatist, neoliberal” Democratic party establishment of colluding with Smith and sabotaging her campaign. She said that she will never run as a Democrat again.
Smith was critical of Gallardo, saying that her approach to convincing members of the public who are not on her side was wrong.
“She thinks the way to do that is to show up at people’s houses and yell at them, and wave signs at them, and tell them how wrong they are, and tell them how morally indefensible they are,” Smith said.
So what did voters who cast their ballot for a Democrat choose when they put their support behind Smith rather than Gallardo? (Real Change also reached out to the Basler campaign but did not receive a response by press time.)
When it comes to climate change, objectively one of the biggest issues facing this planet, Smith and Gallardo both backed progressive policies, although Gallardo went further by targeting emissions generated by the U.S. military.
Both Smith and Gallardo support the Green New Deal, a framework that centers social, economic, racial and environmental justice while advocating for massive investments in renewable energy and carbon reduction. Smith was an original co-sponsor of the Green New Deal resolution introduced by Ocasio-Cortez.
Smith has also supported other climate change initiatives, such as a carbon tax.
“First of all, I think we know what we need to do, which is to enact a very aggressive carbon tax, which I’m very supportive of,” Smith said.
“We need to make carbon-based fuels more expensive, and then we need to make a massive investment in alternative sources of energy. We need to build a clean energy economy.”
He also said that the climate movement needs to start building political support for policies that address climate change.
“There are too many members of Congress across this country who have voters who don’t care about climate change, who oppose all of those plans that I just stated,” he said.
“So we got to massively increase our education campaign to persuade people, not just in a very Democratic district like mine, but all across the country. So we can build the support, pass the legislation and implement the plans we need.”
Gallardo emphasized the U.S. military’s role as a big global polluter, calling for a reduction in its budget.
“The first thing is to reduce the military budget by — at minimum — 50 percent,” Gallardo said.
“We know that the military budget here in the United States, which is very close to a trillion dollars, is one of the leading causes of climate devastation, especially given that we have over 800 military bases all across the globe.”
Like Smith, she also called for more movement building to advance the Green New Deal.
“And I think we do need to undertake some public education around it, because I think that’s probably the way that we are going to get actual, meaningful movement forward on that,” Gallardo said.
In addition to the Green New Deal, Gallardo called for a ban on new polluting infrastructure.
“Of course, no more pipelines, okay? Absolutely zero pipelines; there’s just no need for pipelines. No more freeways; no more highways,” Gallardo said.
“Right now, we’re seeing that the tunnel in Seattle ... the revenues for the tunnel are just completely dipping, and it’s not going to pay off itself, of course,” she said. “Nobody needed a fucking new tunnel. We could have done it in a different way. It didn’t have to cost billions and billions of dollars.”
Given Smith’s position as chair of the Armed Services Committee, foreign policy was a big dividing line for the two Democratic candidates. Gallardo, whose parents were made refugees due to the U.S.-backed coup in Chile that brought Augusto Pinochet to power, identified U.S. imperialism as a major cause of global instability and war. Smith, who voted in favor of the 2002 House resolution that authorized the Iraq War, saw the United States playing a more constructive role on the global stage.
“So I think the first thing is we have to practice what we preach. We literally cannot call ourselves global purveyors of peace when we have a larger military budget than the next 10 or 15 countries combined,” Gallardo said.
Gallardo said that her internationalist perspective comes from her family background. “I like to have an internationalist lens, because that’s the upbringing that I had throughout my family,” she said.
In addition, Gallardo said that she wants to scale back U.S. economic warfare against countries in Latin America.
“I would like to reduce the amount of sanctions and embargoes we have, specifically with countries in Central and South America,” she said.
“That’s my dream, honestly, is to normalize relations and create long-term relationships with people in South America, the leaders of South America — specifically the presidents in Chile and Colombia … in Venezuela.”
Smith spoke with Real Change shortly after visiting Kyiv, where he advocated for long-range weapons to be given to support Ukraine after it was invaded by Russia in February. So far, the Biden administration has declined to give long-range weapons to Ukraine for fear that it could further escalate the conflict.
Smith said that human rights are a priority for him. “We need a more stable globe in order to better protect that,” he said.
“Human rights, better governance is a huge part. I prioritize them right at the top of our list of foreign policy goals. And what I really think we need to do is more diplomacy and more development,” he said.
Smith took a less hardline stance on cutting the U.S. military budget than his former opponent but did oppose two recent attempts to increase the defense budget. He also said that he supported the controversial decisions to remove U.S. troops from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Many Filipino community members have called on Congress to pass the Philippine Human Rights Act, which would impose limitations on U.S. aid to the Filipino army and police, which have been accused of human rights violations. Gallardo supported the bill; Smith did not sign on as a co-sponsor. Smith said that the United States already conditions its aid to the Philippines.
In regards to the U.S. relationship with Israel, Gallardo is an outspoken advocate for Palestinian human rights and supported the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which seeks to isolate Israel diplomatically until it upholds the human rights of Palestinians. Smith does not support BDS.
“I don’t think we should be in the business of boycotting investing from other countries and certainly not from Israel,” Smith said.
With over half the vote in the primary, Smith may be reelected for the 14th time. However, the election is an indication of the growing rift between the Democrats’ younger, grassroots socialist and progressive base and the more established, moderate wing of the party.
So did progressives miss an opportunity to elect socialist Gallardo to Congress? Who knows. Smith has a lot of support in his district, and unseating him would certainly be an uphill battle. However, it is clear that many progressives did not get behind Gallardo, hindering her chances at victory.
But for progressives at large, the race was certainly a missed opportunity to further open up the debate on issues such as imperialism. Let’s see if progressives in the area have the numbers in future election cycles and try to unseat more of these moderate Democratic “congress members for life.”
Read more of the Aug. 17-23, 2022 issue.