- Interview by
- Anthony Rizutto
The election of Kshama Sawant, an economics professor and member of the Trotskyist group Socialist Alternative, to the Seattle City Council has drawn significant headlines recently. But in Minneapolis, another Socialist Alternative city council candidate, Ty Moore, also came close to victory.
Moore won 42 percent of the vote in Minneapolis’s Ward 9, just 229 votes behind Democrat Alondra Cano, who netted 47 percent of the votes in a six-way ranked choice election. For the past decade, Moore has been a major figure in the Minneapolis activist scene, organizing young people against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and military recruitment in schools, and more recently helping to found Occupy Homes MN, one of the most successful groups to emerge directly out of the Occupy movement.
Moore was interviewed for Jacobin by Anthony Rizutto, a union researcher in Washington, DC.
Why did you decide to run for City Council?
We [Socialist Alternative] ran because we felt a strong campaign here could lay the basis for wider left and working-class challenges to the two corporate parties in the years ahead, both in Minneapolis and nationwide. For us, building a broad new party, emerging out of social movements and labor struggles, is the key task facing the US left and the working class.
After Kshama Sawant’s challenged Washington State House Speaker Frank Chopp in 2012 and got 30 percent of the vote, we concluded that there was an opportunity to win broad electoral support for serious socialist candidates in dozens of cities across the US, and certainly in Minneapolis.
You didn’t win, but you came close. What do you think explains the success of your and Sawant’s campaigns?
Running a viable campaign as a socialist isn’t just a matter of audacity, clever tactics, and the right program (though those are all crucial). You need to have built up some kind of base in advance. Over the last ten years, Socialist Alternative in Minneapolis dug roots into working-class communities and built important relationships with other serious activists. Our work in the anti-war movement, where we had led some big student walkouts against military recruitment; education justice campaigns, where we played a big role saving North High from closure; most recently, Occupy Homes, where SA was widely recognized as part of the leadership — all that groundwork was the basis of this election campaign.
So I was confident from the beginning that we could run a serious campaign, and that it was even possible to win. In fact, the leadership of Socialist Alternative initially felt it was more likely we would win in Minneapolis than in Seattle, given what appeared to be a much more favorable situation here. We have thirteen Wards, whereas Kshama Sawant had to run city-wide for one of nine Seattle City Council seats. With only 30,000 people in Ward 9, and 12,500 registered voters, we mobilized enough volunteers to canvass most voters several times over. And Ward 9 was an open seat, since the would-be incumbent ran for mayor instead.
In Seattle, Kshama Sawant chose to run against the poster boy for green-washing corporate politics, sixteen-year incumbent Richard Conlin. She chose Conlin not because he would be easiest to beat, but because running against him gave us the clearest target to challenge the Democratic Party and corporate politics as a whole.
In Minneapolis we didn’t get to choose our opponent. Our race was complicated because the Democratic Party nominated a left-liberal candidate, a Latina woman with an activist background, to run against us in the most heavily Latino Ward in the city. As it became clear we had a viable campaign, she veered even further left, adopting much of our messaging and themes — sometimes almost verbatim except without our specific demands. At the same time, she emphasized that she would be the first Latina elected to Minneapolis City Council, which understandably appealed to many of the progressive workers we were also targeting.
We came within inches of victory despite the whole Democratic Party machinery and big business interests swinging into action behind our opponent. We built a powerful coalition, raised over $55,000, and built the biggest volunteer base of any council race in the city — all behind an openly socialist campaign. It was painful coming just 229 votes short, but we are qualitatively stronger now than we were one year ago, so in that sense this is a huge victory.
Similarly, Kshama and Socialist Alternative had built a profile as serious activists in Seattle, particularly through their leading role in the Occupy movement there. Our 2012 campaign against Chopp meant Kshama entered the 2013 City Council race as a popular figure that people took seriously. In Seattle, we succeeded in making the city council race a referendum against not just Conlin, but the entire political establishment — against politics as usual. By linking up with the fast food walkouts and the call for a $15 an hour minimum wage, we tapped into the deep anger at class inequality, the rising cost of living, and unbridled corporate profiteering with the complicity of government.
Through these campaigns, we were constantly analyzing how people were reacting to our program, our slogans, and our explanations, and then refining them. There isn’t a conscious socialist majority, but there is a majority who want living wage jobs, affordable housing, taxes on the rich to fund schools, and good transit. There is a majority who recognizes that big business has deeply corrupted our political system, and wants some kind of alternative that puts people over profit. Our campaigns tapped into that. We were able to convince many others that this anti-corporate majority exists, and that it can be won over if offered a viable, unapologetic, fighting working-class political alternative.
You got the endorsement of the SEIU Minnesota State Council, among others. What made them to decide to endorse you over your opponent? Do you think this has broader implications for union endorsements in local races elsewhere?
The SEIU State Council endorsement stands out as among the most incredible aspects of the campaign. I don’t think there is an equally significant labor institution that has backed an independent socialist candidate in a very long time. Their endorsement doesn’t signify a generalized break from the Democratic Party, but I think it does reflect deepening debate over labor’s traditional political strategy and a growing openness to experiment.
During the last three contract battles and strikes of SEIU Local 26, Socialist Alternative played an active role in the solidarity committees helping to build support. Our members, including me, have been arrested in civil disobedience actions with SEIU members and leaders. Through Occupy Homes, we deepened our relationship by fighting to save the homes of SEIU members and organizing joint actions against the banks.
We never hid our disagreements with the SEIU leadership, particularly their support for the Democratic Party. Other SA members and I have had plenty of debates with SEIU members, staffers, and leaders on this and other questions. I’ve written articles criticizing SEIU nationally for their attempt to channel Occupy Wall Street into backing Obama. But this was always done in a spirit of solidarity.
So when our campaign began picking up steam, these pre-existing relationships were crucial. It was active SEIU members and staffers who led the successful charge to get the endorsement of the SEIU State Council, which includes four locals representing 30,000 workers. This was a major boost. All the locals donated the $300 max contribution, helped advise our organizers, and many members put in long hours with us.
You also got the endorsement of a number of Latino community organizers. Why did they endorse you over your opponent (who is now the first Latina ever elected to the Minneapolis City Council), and what role did immigrant rights play in your campaign?
From the beginning, we understood there existed real political divisions — class divisions — in the immigrant community and the immigrant rights movement in Minneapolis. Our Democratic Party opponent, Alondra Cano, had been at the center of many political fights within the movement. Her faction had been working for years to build a Latino political block within the Democratic Party, and a left wing had partially crystalized in opposition to them.
We won early support from a leading figure in the Centro de Trabajores Unidos en Lucha [a Twin Cities immigrant workers’ center that has led strikes by janitors at Target stores], who felt that our opponent had no real program to address the needs of immigrant workers. We called for city action to create a moratorium on deportations, a $15 an hour minimum wage, city support for unionization, and voting rights for all residents in city elections, regardless of immigration status.
Twenty Latino community leaders, most of them labor and immigrant rights organizers, signed a letter supporting my campaign, published in the three main Spanish language papers. We had two dozen Spanish language volunteers out multiple days, discussions with church groups, radio interviews, etc. The Democrats leaned heavily on appeals to identity politics with no class element, so having a very visible base of support among immigrants was crucial to helping us present a clear appeal for working-class solidarity against corporate politics.
Many on the Left argue that election campaigns take away resources from building movements, and thus resources should be directed elsewhere. What was the discussion around this issue like in the groups you’re involved in, and what was the effect of your campaign on social movements in Minneapolis?
Most of the time, when we are talking about electing progressive Democrats, it’s true that orienting movements into electoral politics means there’s pressure to lower our demands, avoid combative tactics that might compromise “our” candidate, and generally demobilize the real organizing work. We set out to model a completely different type of politics, one rooted in the idea that movements are primary for the working class and that elections should only be viewed as a tactic to help build workers’ class consciousness, independent organization, and self-confidence. This is a model with deep roots in the history of Marxism in the US and internationally, but forgotten by many activists today.
In Minneapolis, our campaign was widely seen by Occupy Homes activists and residents fighting foreclosure as a tool that helped elevate their struggle and put pressure on city hall to adopt their demands. In practice, during the entire election period, our demand against using police resources for evictions was de facto in effect. With only a couple exceptions, the Mayor’s office clearly aimed to avoid any confrontations with us during the election campaign, and so in practice we bought a lot of time on a number of occupied homes.
Our campaign helped push other politicians, including the new mayor, to publicly embrace the work of Occupy Homes, and give lip service to our demands including no use of police resources for evictions and using eminent domain to force the banks to renegotiate with underwater homeowners. Our campaign dramatically raised the confidence of activists from many struggles, and I’m confident this will bear fruit in the future.
In Seattle, we are about to see in an extremely vivid way how electoral politics can be a key tool in the class struggle. It appears likely we can pull together a broad coalition in the coming weeks to put a referendum on the ballot next November for a $15 per hour minimum wage in Seattle. It will take a huge movement to overcome the tens of millions big business will spend to defeat us, but this struggle will represent a dramatic expansion of the movement initiated by fast food worker strikes earlier this year.