The last two US election cycles have established that socialists can win local, state, and even federal office. Besides the high-profile congressional wins of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib, some three dozen socialists won elections last year, and momentum has carried over in 2019 with wins from Philadelphia to Chicago to Denver.
But what hadn’t been tested in this era — until now — is whether, having secured political office, socialists can manage to hold on to power in the face of a maximum assault by corporate CEOs and their political patrons.
That first stress test of socialist political durability came this year in Seattle, pitting six-year incumbent city council member Kshama Sawant, a member of Socialist Alternative, against the combined might of Amazon, Starbucks, Comcast, Expedia, Lyft, Boeing, major real-estate developers, the mayor, most of the political establishment, and the corporate media.
Sawant Versus Amazon
With a diverse community coalition of working people, renters, union members, students, seniors, and faith activists, Sawant’s campaign prevailed over an astounding $4.1 million in corporate spending, backed by an obedient media echo chamber, that aimed to defeat her and other progressive candidates in Seattle races.
Amazon’s heavy-handed political play, a record $1.45 million donation to the local Chamber of Commerce PAC, came to dominate the political discourse during the three-week balloting period in this all-mail-ballot election. The chamber churned out dozens of anti-Sawant mailers, swarms of TV and social media attack ads, editorials amplified by right-wing talk radio, and teams of paid canvassers.
Even in races outside of Sawant’s central Seattle district, the chamber’s literature pitted their chosen candidates against her, judging that the socialist firebrand would be regarded poorly among voters. They were wrong.
In the end, the chamber lost five of the seven races to centrist and progressive candidates, plus socialist Sawant. (Unfortunately, one of the chamber’s victories came at the expense of Democratic Socialist of America member Shaun Scott.)
“Our successful socialist reelection campaign was a repudiation of the billionaire class, of the richest man in the world, of the real estate tycoons and the political establishment,” Sawant declared at a packed celebration of her 52-to-48-percent victory over Amazon’s candidate, businessman Egan Orion.
Much of the mainstream media has credited Sawant’s win to the profound miscalculation by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and his executive team, whose intervention effectively made the race Sawant versus Amazon. “How Amazon’s Klutzy Politicking Backfired in Seattle,” read one typical headline.
Amazon’s political gambit confirmed to voters what Sawant had been saying all along: “What’s at stake this year is who runs Seattle – Amazon and big business, or working people.” It polarized voters against the company and their chosen candidates. In the final ten days, canvassers routinely heard voters declare they were voting against whoever Amazon supported.
But leaving the analysis at that triumphant note misses the real lesson of what happened in Seattle, and therefore won’t help us learn how to defeat corporate power and retain socialist officeholders in future elections.
The movement prevailed over Amazon in Seattle because Sawant’s campaign applied the same principles and strategies that characterize successful workplace union organizing: a bold platform for change that connected with the needs of ordinary working people; a fighting, class-based approach that recognizes the struggle is fundamentally about power; and deep organizing and engagement of rank-and-file workers.
Sawant first won election in November 2013, beating a four-term incumbent by raising the $15 minimum wage banner. Sawant and allied forces carried the election’s momentum to win $15 legislation in the spring of 2014, making Seattle the first major city to do so.
Sawant had to run again in 2015 as the city moved to district elections. With the landmark $15 wage victory providing a political tailwind, the movement defeated the chamber-backed candidate. Following her 2015 reelection, Sawant led successful campaigns to cap rental move-in fees, bar rent increases at substandard apartments, and win tens of millions of dollars for affordable housing and social services. Sawant and the movement also won signature organizing battles outside City Hall, beating back rent increases in public and private housing, stopping the construction of a new militarized police station, and supporting workers organizing to win union contracts.
Seattle’s political establishment soon regained their footing. In 2017, with a $350,000 contribution from Amazon, they elected a strong pro-corporate mayor, former federal prosecutor Jenny Durkan.
The following spring, after Sawant and the movement pushed through a modest tax on Amazon and other top corporations to fund affordable housing, the chamber and their allies launched a scorched-earth political counterattack. They took to the airwaves, ran multiple editorials denouncing the tax, began an initiative drive to repeal the law, and mobilized conservative trade union leaders to assail the measure. Within weeks of unanimously adopting the big business tax, the council meekly submitted to the mayor’s demand to repeal it, with only Sawant and one other council member opposing.
The Amazon tax blowback rendered most progressive forces stunned and scattered. Big business was emboldened and on the march.
The 2019 election season got underway with three major pro-business PACs salivating at the opportunity to take out Sawant and anyone on the city council who would not toe the corporate line. For them, the election presented the opportunity to finish the political shock-and-awe realignment they began in 2018.
“This is a change election,” chamber president Marilyn Strickland declared, as business prepared to dole out millions to their chosen candidates.
The chamber’s basic strategy relied on replicating the 2018 tax rollback campaign in the electoral arena: Blitz the airwaves and social media with attack ads, flood the mail, deploy push-polling, and hire armies of paid canvassers. Just as in a maximum-boss anti-union campaign in the workplace, the goal is not primarily to win hearts and minds, but to deploy such overwhelming brute force as to make resistance seem futile.
For key spokespeople, the anti-Sawant forces recruited community messengers who could claim progressive bona fides. Leaders of some of the building trades and the more conservative-led unions attacked Sawant (a rank-and-file member of the teachers’ union) for her leadership on the Amazon tax, and said that while they supported her in the past, her district deserved a “more effective” progressive council member.
“People are just over the Kshama thing,” declared Dustin Lambro, political director for Teamsters Local 117 and president of the local labor council.
Big business also recognized it needed to replace the prevailing political debate in Seattle, which had focused on income inequality and the lack of affordable housing. For this strategy, they pulled a page from the Trump playbook: shift attention away from the billionaires and their political friends by condemning and criminalizing the city’s most vulnerable.
In March, KOMO-TV, the Seattle station owned by right-wing Sinclair Broadcast Group, aired “Seattle Is Dying,” a melodramatic hour-long documentary that blamed Seattle’s ills on drug addicts and people experiencing homelessness. The ensuing media echo chamber amplified KOMO’s hit piece, running articles and hosting debates about whether Seattle was, indeed, dying.
Editorialists pointed to polls following the documentary’s release, claiming they showed that Seattle voters were blaming the homelessness crisis not on capitalist greed but on Sawant, other housing advocates, people with substance abuse problems, and “wasteful” social service workers.
The August primary must have confirmed the chamber’s belief that their strategy was on track. All of their chosen candidates came through in first or second place, and Sawant emerged from a crowded field with 37 percent of the vote – first place among six candidates by a 15-point margin, but widely considered a “vulnerable showing” for an incumbent.
There’s no shortage of political consultants who would instruct an incumbent scoring that poorly in the primary to tone down their rhetoric for the general election. Indeed, other self-described progressive candidates who made it through the primary with better numbers – including two incumbents – tacked to the right in advance of the general, boasting how they supported the mayor’s brutal program of sweeping homeless encampments and telling voters they didn’t support bringing back the failed 2018 big business tax.
But Sawant maintained a clear emphasis on the movement’s core demands of rent control, a Green New Deal, and taxing Amazon to build social housing, and she never hesitated to remind voters that this was a socialist campaign going up against a corporate-funded candidate. In late September, Sawant convened a packed city council committee meeting to unveil her draft rent-control legislation, applauding activists who had collected more than thirteen thousand rent-control petition signatures in the preceding months.
Every day from Labor Day onward, several Socialist Alternative staff and even greater numbers of volunteers – rank-and-file union members, renters, students, seniors, members of the LGBTQ community, and people of color – fanned out through Sawant’s district to knock on doors, table, put up posters, and leaflet at public transit stations, urging voters to support the socialist’s program.
All told, 1,000 Sawant campaigners knocked on 225,000 doors between May and November. More than 7,900 people – including one of every twenty voters in Sawant’s 74,000-voter district – donated to the campaign, with a median contribution of $20. The campaign also built strong organizational support, garnering endorsements from twenty-two local unions, plus immigrant rights, environmental, and LGBTQ groups along with key leaders, clergy, and activists in communities of color.
When Amazon’s million-dollar money bomb hit in early October — on top of the company’s earlier, record donation of $400,000 — it may have seemed extraordinary in size. But for voters, it confirmed what Sawant campaigners had been saying all along about the election.
Amazon’s donation dramatically changed the political discourse — in the media and also on the street and at the doors — from “Seattle is dying” to “Seattle is not for sale.” It didn’t take long for the establishment media to realize the strategic mistake, as local politicians who had remained on the sidelines joined Sawant in a protest at Amazon headquarters.
Presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren assailed the company and urged voters to support Sawant and the more progressive candidates. “The election was playing out as a referendum on the performance of the City Council. Now it could well be a referendum on Amazon and corporate power,” bemoaned Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat.
Organizing Needs Leadership Structures
All good union organizing includes “inoculation.” Workers, if properly educated about what to anticipate in advance of the boss’s attacks, will grow stronger, not weaker, when the assault comes, because they have been immunized to expect it. The anti-union attack fails to intimidate but rather confirms to workers that the boss is assailing the union precisely because workers have power and are threatening his fundamental interests.
That is what happened in Seattle. Amazon’s political gambit failed, not simply because it was ham-handed (which it surely was), but because years of grassroots organizing by Sawant and Socialist Alternative, along with their allies, and months of electoral campaigning against corporate PAC money, had built political consciousness and movement resiliency.
Amazon’s massive donation against Sawant reinforced to voters what they had been hearing — and suspecting — all along: that the company executives intended a hostile takeover of City Hall. The flood of chamber-bought mailers and social media ads in the last ten days of the election solidified rather than undermined support for Sawant, because they reminded voters that big business wanted to buy the election.
Movement resiliency, however, needs more than a big army of get-out-the-vote mobilizers. It requires deep community organizing, over time, with a strong emphasis on leadership development.
The campaign created three zone teams focused on neighborhoods where most working-class people, people of color, and young people lived. Socialist Alternative staff organizers in each zone were assigned “permaturf” — precincts that they walked consistently over months, getting to know and building trust with residents, and successfully recruiting many to be campaign activists.
Some of those activists became apartment captains, leveraging personal relationships and easy access to neighbors. C. C. Reuge, a Transit Riders Union activist, knocked on the doors of most of her 150 building-mates, showing up with banana bread and campaign literature. She and her partner covered the building twice over, making sure Sawant’s votes got out and persuading several of her undecided neighbors to cast ballots for the socialist.
By the time mail-in ballots arrived, the campaign had collected 23,900 voter IDs and registered more than 1,000 new voters. The get-out-the-vote operation supplemented staff with hundreds of volunteers, saturating key neighborhoods and generating a district voter turnout of 60 percent — far above the 50 percent turnout in the last election cycle.
The electoral campaign’s leadership development work also built on six years of organizing by Sawant, her council staff, and community activists. In every issue campaign — collecting rent-control petition signatures, uniting with tenants to stop a rent increase or win relocation assistance from a developer, fighting the displacement of immigrant-owned small businesses, securing funding for a Vietnamese senior program, winning a new neighborhood post office, saving the local African-American senior center – Sawant and her team identified and developed the natural leaders who emerged, and encouraged those leaders to get engaged in other struggles.
In union organizing, organizer and author Jane McAlevey notes that individual skirmishes with management are essential to the overall campaign because, through them, leaders emerge and workers gain “the confidence and the capacity . . . to build a structure that can withstand the bosses’ blows throughout the entire campaign.”
The Sawant campaign’s community leadership structures, while not as tight as those required in a union campaign, were decisive in educating voters about Amazon, and ultimately in getting people to cast their ballots. Campaigning on Election Day with tenant leader Renee Gordon, I asked her how the get-out-the-vote effort was going in her apartment building. She proceeded to name every tenant in her twenty-one-unit building who had voted, and when they had voted.
Political Power in Seattle
For Amazon and their political patrons, the 2019 election was supposed to be the moment to sweep pesky socialism out of City Hall and to reestablish political law and order. Instead, the chamber is chastened. Socialists and other Seattle activists are energized and on the march with rent control, a Green New Deal, and an Amazon tax to build social housing.
This dramatic turn of events didn’t happen by luck, or simply because of Amazon’s miscalculation. Socialist political power in Seattle has endured because smart strategies anticipated and prepared for the corporate assault, a bold platform excited voters, and persistent, deep organizing built a foundation that was resilient enough to endure the corporate assault. That’s a vital prescription for future socialist political successes.
“The biggest mistake we could make right now,” Sawant told the victory party crowd, “is underestimating what we’ve accomplished. We’ve won by building the most powerful grassroots campaign Seattle has ever seen.”