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Red scare: could a socialist break through in Seattle?

SawantMuch of the UK coverage of America’s off-year elections has focused on the results coming from the East Coast. The election of a Democrat Mayor of New York (and a pretty left wing one at that) for the first time since 1993. The re-election of New Jersey Governor, and potential GOP presidential candidate, Chris Christie. The victory of moderate Democrat Terry Mcauliffe over a Tea Party insurgent in Virginia.

What has passed with little remark has been the tightly contested City Council race in Seattle which sees long term incumbent Democrat Richard Conlin under threat from socialist Kshama Sawant.

Sawant is certainly not the first successful left wing politician in the US, but, with “socialist” basically a swear word, breakthroughs are few and far between. She is a member of the Socialist Alternative party, affiliated to the Committee for a Workers’ International, whose other affiliates have included Britain’s Militant tendency.

Initial results showed a close race but with a clear margin for Conlin on 54% to Sawant’s 46%. But further counting has narrowed that gap and, as of yesterday afternoon, Sawant has actually taken the lead by just 41 votes.

The Sawant campaign has put at its heart a push for Seattle’s minimum wage to be raised to $15 an hour – a referendum to lift Sea-Tac Airport workers’ minimum salary to this level is also on a knife edge. She also backs new taxes on millionaires to fund expansion of public transport and wants to see LGBTQ equality, anti-racism, and anti-sexism taught in schools.

As a third party candidate, Sawant has stood against the Democrat/Republican establishment and has characterised her opponent as being in the pockets of big business. Speaking at her campaign HQ as news she had taken the lead came through, Sawant said “people are fed up, angry and frustrated with the political system… and they are hungry for change.”

There are still many more votes to count and Sawant may not make it over the line. But for a socialist to hold a Democrat, who has been in the seat since 1997, right down to the wire is an impressive showing.

After the initial results, Sawant said she’d be back for Conlin in two years time when boundaries change and he faces re-election yet again. This might be the first time you’ve heard of Kshama Sawant. I suspect it won’t be the last.


  1. Numbercruncher says:

    This significance of what this article describes makes more sense with a little context.

    Unlike English metropolitan borough councils, some of which almost a hundred councillors (Birmingham has 120), American city councils are tiny, about the size of an English council cabinet. Seattle City Council only has NINE council members who deal with all its legislation, covering a wider range of services than English mets [].

    An English city of comparable size, Manchester, has a population of 502,900 and 96 councillors. The 22nd largest city in the U.S., Seattle has a population of 634,535 and 9 councillors. So in terms of voting weight, Sawant’s victory would give her the equivalent of about 11 votes on Manchester City Council.* So suddenly, the significance of this one election becomes appreciable.

    *Although I’m not familiar enough with the American institutions to assess what sort of impact that allows her to make.

  2. Paul Bigman says:

    As a Seattle resident (and union official), I’d like to add a couple of significant facts. Seattle is one of the relatively few US cities in which all Councilmembers are elected at large – so Sawant achieved this remarkable showing not in one neighborhood, but throughout the City, drawing almost as many votes as the incumbent Mayor (who lost his bid for re-election). With a considerable number of votes left to count, she has almost 80,000 votes. Second, at a meeting of our Central Labor Council (to which most unions belong), a majority of delegates voted to co-endorse both the incumbent and Sawant. Our rules require a two-thirds majority for endorsements, so it failed; but it was a remarkable showing of support from labor for a socialist candidate.

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