How socialist Kshama Sawant triumphed over Amazon in its own backyard | US news

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A single step inside the socialist Kshama Sawant’s office on the second floor of City Hall in downtown Seattle and a visitor knows exactly where the newly re-elected city council member stands politically.

One wall is plastered with every imaginable poster on policies she’s pushed for, including rent control and $15 an hour minimum wage. One bright red poster says, “Unionize Amazon” and “Tax Bezos” in large white letters. It offers a glimpse into a potential upcoming battle for Sawant now that she beat her rival, the business-backed Egan Orion, despite his unprecedented financial support from Amazon.

The collection is her “labor of love” and frequently updated with the day’s latest struggles, says Sawant, who is sitting at a long table in her office Tuesday with a mason jar filled with apple cider (It’s from PCC Community Markets, a local food cooperative whose workers, she happily reveals, are unionized).

She’s been up since well before 5am, juggling a day packed with media interviews and council meetings. But you wouldn’t know it by the rapid-fire analysis she provides of her recent momentous win.

She says that she hopes other candidates like her across the world take note of this major victory.

“The fact that a socialist who has been an unapologetic fighter for ordinary people and who has doggedly used a movement-building approach and shown herself to be extremely effective and successful, that you can win three elections, that should be extremely empowering for our movements,” said Sawant, who will now be starting her third term in office in January.

Amazon, which is headquartered in Seattle, contributed $1.5m into the local city council elections by way of a political action committee sponsored by the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce. The Civic Alliance for a Sound Economy backed her opponent, Orion, and six other candidates considered to be business-friendly. Only two of them ultimately won.

Kshama Sawant’s campaign office in Seattle.



Kshama Sawant’s campaign office in Seattle. Photograph: Elaine Thompson/AP

Sawant, a Mumbai-educated economist and former tech worker, said the Amazon money certainly had a negative impact on her campaign, citing the many attack mailers and online attack ads that have circulated. But it also helped to further galvanize her grassroots support. Her campaign ultimately saw hundreds of volunteers who knocked on more than 200,000 doors, and over $500,000 in donations from hundreds of individual donors across the US.

On election night, Sawant trailed Orion by 8%, but days later, after the remaining ballots were counted, she managed to take the lead. Washington state runs a vote-by-mail system, which means it can take days to achieve a final count. It wasn’t until the following Tuesday that Orion conceded.

In 2013, Sawant unseated the 16-year incumbent Richard Conlin, a Democrat, to become the first socialist on the Seattle council in nearly a century. Since then, she has helped to raise the city’s minimum wage to $15 an hour and provide renters with more rights.

From the beginning she has been a fierce critic of big business and its influence on Seattle.

Last year, she drew national headlines through her push for the controversial head tax, a per-employee tax on large corporations. Amazon has about 45,000 workers in Seattle, so it would have potentially had to pay millions each year through the tax. The funds would have been used for housing for the homeless, but was repealed one month after passing unanimously.

Now that she has been re-elected, Sawant says one key priority will be to push again for this type of tax. She says she believes it’s possible as long as she builds up an even more powerful movement.

Sawant has long been viewed as one of the area’s more controversial politicians. One key complaint has been about her ability to collaborate and work with fellow council members in order to get policy enacted. As one editorial published last month in the Seattle Times put it, “The Socialist Alternative rabble rouser – or should I say champion of the common people – has shown herself not especially interested in comity and compromise.”

Kshama Sawant speaks to her supporters, 5 November 2019, at the Langston Hughes Cultural Arts Center, in Seattle.



Kshama Sawant speaks to her supporters, 5 November 2019, at the Langston Hughes Cultural Arts Center, in Seattle. Photograph: Genna Martin/AP

Sawant said she believes in being cordial and building unity with other elected officials, but ultimately her job is to represent the interests of the working people.

“When they say that, ‘Oh we don’t have a good working relationship,’ what they are actually saying is that I am not accountable to them, I’m accountable to the movement,” said Sawant. “But that’s not something I hide, that’s not something I’m planning to change and I’m proud of that because that is the only winning strategy.”

In her upcoming term, two of her key priorities will be on pushing for a tax on big business, and rent control, something she has been advocating for since she was first elected. In September, she introduced a proposal that would limit rent increases to the rate of inflation.

When she kicks off her new office term, she will now be the most senior member of the city council. But if anyone thinks that’s going to have any impact on how she governs, you would be sorely mistaken.

“Just because I’m technically senior, that doesn’t mean that I’m now suddenly going to lead the establishment wing of the council,” she says. “I am still going to be 100% loyal to the movement that I am a part of and continue to use my office to build that struggle even more strongly that we already have.”


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