By KIRK JOHNSON
Published: December 28, 2013
SEATTLE — People are used to liberals running things around here. But nobody reckoned with Kshama Sawant. Ms. Sawant, a 41-year-old economics teacher and immigrant from India, took a left at liberal and then kept on going — all the way to socialism.
Ted S. Warren/Associated Press
When she takes a seat on Seattle’s nine-member City Council on Jan. 1, representing the Socialist Alternative Party, she will become one of the few elected socialists in the nation, a political brand most politicians run from.
But Kshama Sawant (pronounced SHAH-mah sah-WANT) heartily embraces the label. Ask her about almost any problem facing America today, and her answer will probably include the “S” word as the best and most reasonable response. Socialism is the path to real democracy, she says. Socialism protects the environment. Socialism is the best hope for young people who have seen their options crushed by the tide of low-wage, futureless jobs in the post-recession economy.
“The take-home message for the left in general is that people are looking for alternatives,” she said in an interview, discussing her victory over a veteran Democrat by a margin of 3,100 votes of about 184,000 cast in a citywide contest. “If you ask me as a socialist what workers deserve, they deserve the value of what they produce.”
Progressive liberals — some of whom might look radical as well, at least to conservatives — made inroads in other places on Election Day, notably in New York City, where Bill de Blasio won the mayor’s race partly on his plan to address the gulf between the “two New Yorks” of poverty and wealth.
Here in Seattle, Mayor-elect Ed Murray, a former state senator and a leader of the state’s drive to allow same-sex marriage, promised support for an idea that was central to Ms. Sawant’s campaign: a $15 minimum wage in the city, matching the highest in the nation. He said in an interview that he saw momentum in cities across the country in addressing income inequality.
“The commonality is the expression of a progressive impulse based on the shrinking middle, as more people slip into poverty and as more wealth is concentrated in fewer hands,” Mr. Murray said.
Seattle Republicans, mostly watching from the sidelines, also see a trend to the left. They say a socialist on the City Council will probably fit right in.
“I don’t think she differs that much from other Council members,” the chairwoman of the King County Republican Party, Lori Sotelo, said of Ms. Sawant.
Leftist critiques of capitalism have a long past in the Northwest, historians said, from the Wobblies in lumber camps in the early 20th century, as the Industrial Workers of the World were called, to Seattle’s general strike of 1919 and the anarchist movement that still stirs occasionally now. A socialist was elected mayor of Seattle as recently as 1922.
“She tapped into a growing discontent,” James N. Gregory, a professor of history at the University of Washington, said of Ms. Sawant. “But she also built off a framework of liberalism and economic liberalism that is pretty widely, strongly based in Seattle.”
The spotlight on Ms. Sawant, as one of only a handful of self-avowed socialists to be elected to a city council in a major American city in decades, experts say, could be intense. Her party has supported Ralph Nader for president, but its website also links to the writings of the Bolshevik leader Leon Trotsky. It put up municipal candidates in Boston and Minneapolis this year, though none won. The Socialist Party USA, an older group, regularly fields candidates in state and federal races. Senator Bernard Sanders of Vermont calls himself a socialist, though he was elected as an independent.
“If she remains only an activist, she’ll be a one-shot wonder,” said the Rev. Rich Lang, the pastor of University Temple United Methodist Church in Seattle and a Sawant supporter. But if she moves too far toward the center, “she’ll be shot down from the left as a compromiser,” he said. “There’s tremendous pressure on her.”
So should an elected 21st-century socialist hark back to the old Marxist passions of labor and capital, or more toward the welfare-state model of market regulation and high taxes on the rich?
Ms. Sawant, during the interview, sometimes responded one way, sometimes another.
Asked about Boeing, which is currently in a standoff with its biggest union and is threatening to expand outside its historic home base in the Puget Sound region, Ms. Sawant said the company was guilty of “economic terrorism” by “holding not only Boeing workers but the entire state’s economy hostage to their endless desire for profits.”
On the idea of a $15 minimum wage, though, she was more subtle.
Mr. Murray, the mayor-elect, recently announced the creation of a committee of business executives, labor leaders and politicians, including Ms. Sawant, that would develop recommendations for increasing the minimum wage and report back to him early next year.
Asked if she might be co-opted by sitting on a committee alongside a representative of the Chamber of Commerce, Ms. Sawant responded, “I think that should always be a concern.”
“But if we’re serious about fighting for the interests of workers,” she added, “that means engaging with people who don’t agree with me.”
The daughter of a schoolteacher and a civil engineer, Ms. Sawant said she was seared by the disparities between the rich and the poor around Pune, India, which is near Mumbai and where she grew up. But she was also shocked, and radicalized, she said, by finding sharp income inequality in America when she immigrated here in her 20s.
She drifted away from computer software engineering, her first love — she once dreamed of being a “math geek,” she said — and began studying economics, which she now teaches at Seattle Central Community College. She lost her first run for public office two years ago, when she challenged a Democrat for a state legislative seat. But she said she learned a valuable lesson in targeting voters; this year, she aggressively, and successfully, courted transgender people and other groups.
She holds no illusions, however, that a hidden bloc of socialist voters is ready to mobilize for her re-election campaign in 2015. That election could be more complicated for her, as Seattle voters this year changed the Council’s composition from all citywide seats to geographic districts for most members.
No one, not even Ms. Sawant, believes that a socialist-majority district exists in Seattle. So she will try to draw support from the disgruntled voters who helped elect her this year. And she is counting on them to feel the same in 2015 as they did in 2013.
“They’re just fed up,” she said.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: January 5, 2014
An article last Sunday about Kshama Sawant, the socialist who was elected to the Seattle City Council, misstated, in some editions, part of the name of the labor group involved in lumber camps in the early 20th century. It was the Industrial Workers of the World, not the International Workers of the World.