Socialist candidate upends politics as usual in challenge to longtime liberal
Richard Conlin (incumbent) versus Kshama Sawant
The race for Seattle City Council Position 2 pits a 16-year incumbent with strong ties to the Democratic Party against an Occupy Wall Street-inspired activist agitating for a $15-an-hour minimum wage.
In cities that are more moderate, the contest between an established Democrat and a relatively new Socialist might be seen as a sideshow. But Kshama Sawant’s resonant campaign messages have made her a credible challenger to incumbent Richard Conlin.
There is a bit of déjà vu, too. In Sawant’s debut bid for office, in 2012, she ran for the House against incumbent Rep. Frank Chopp (D-43rd Dist.) Then, as now, voters had to choose between two liberal candidates, each struggling to seem further to the left.
Conlin says he has endorsements and awards to prove his progressive agenda. He’s won the support of Seattle Democrats and several labor unions. He also received the “Hunger Fighter” award from the Seattle Weekly after being nominated by Food Lifeline for his work expanding city funding for food banks by $200,000.
Conlin seems to have been caught off guard by how the race has played out so far.
“I am a progressive councilmember,” Conlin said. “I have done lots of great things for lots of folks, and all the progressive organizations recognize that and endorse me, and it’s kind of odd to be in this situation.”
Sawant has presented herself as a populist candidate who receives support and donations from working-class people without corporate ties. She has said she’ll take home a working-class wage if elected and donate the rest of her $120,000 city salary to various political and charitable causes.
“We are showing that you don’t have to go by the good old rules: run as a Democrat, raise a large amount of money,” Sawant said. “We’ve basically thrown those out the window.”
If re-elected, Conlin would like to lead an effort to reform the city’s financing of affordable housing. Earlier this year the city council created an ordinance that allows developers to build taller buildings in exchange for $22.88 per square foot of additional height. The funding would be used to build low-income housing elsewhere.
The city’s levy to pay for low-income housing is due, and Conlin said it should be renewed and increased.
Conlin has made a verbal commitment to prioritize low-income housing, but he has occasionally taken stances that make advocates for housing and human services bristle.
Conlin opposed legislation that would allow tent encampments such as Nickelsville to operate on private property. In 2010, Conlin voted in favor of an ordinance that would allow the police to issue $50 tickets for aggressive panhandling.
Citing those stances, Sawant has questioned whether Conlin is truly progressive. She said she plans to bring a populist perspective to City Hall, pushing for employee-owned businesses and taxes against wealthy people.
The Seattle City Council has thus far been run by corporate politicians of varying degrees, Sawant said.
“You can easily have a debate where you have one corporate politician with another slightly more or less corporate politician,” she said. “But that’s not a real debate.”
Sawant’s platform has already had a ripple effect on other races this fall. Mayoral candidates Sen. Ed Murray (D-43rd Dist.) and incumbent Mayor Mike McGinn have voiced support for a city-based minimum wage, one of Sawant’s primary campaign promises.
Her campaign is unsparing in its criticism of elected officials, often calling out reputedly liberal politicians for not being as progressive as their constituents.
“Our campaign is not an isolated event,” Sawant said. “It’s the bellwether for what’s going to happen in the future.”
CommentsI think Sawant's voice is needed and refreshing. She speaks for working and homeless people, and the minimum wage is an important step.
Commenting is not available in this channel entry.