Radicals in City Hall: An American Tradition

Socialist Kshama Sawant’s election to the Seattle City Council in November 2013 made national news, a kind of “man bites dog” story that the media found shocking and irresistible. The Los Angeles Times’s front-page article described Sawant as “41-year-old software-engineer-turned-far-left-sweetheart.” The Seattle Times called her “the council’s first socialist member in modern history.”

In fact, the United States has a long tradition of municipal socialism. One hundred years ago, at the Socialist Party’s high point, about 1,200 party members held public office in 340 cities, including seventy‑nine mayors in cities such as Milwaukee, Buffalo, Minneapolis, Reading, and Schenectady. (Before Sawant, the last socialist to get elected in Seattle was journalist Anna Louise Strong, who won a seat on the School Board in 1916). These local leaders, whose ranks included working-class labor union members and middle-class radicals such as teachers, clergy, and lawyers, worked alongside progressive reformers to improve living and working conditions in the nation’s burgeoning cities. In today’s hyper-capitalist economy, their experience may still offer some lessons for contemporary activists.

Seattle political analysts are still trying to assess how Sawant—who beat sixteen-year incumbent Richard Conlin by a slim margin despite being outspent more than two to one—managed to pull off her remarkable upset. Her effective grassroots campaign and knack for proposing policy ideas that seemed both radical and reasonable played a key role. But Sawant’s victory is also a result of the growing unease—in Seattle and across the country—with widening inequality and the growing influence of big business in politics. Much of this was expressed by the Occupy Wall Street movement that began in September 2011, but while Occupy activists have generally eschewed electoral politics as a strategy for change, their message has continued to resonate with the American public, and many mainstream politicians and pundits have embraced the “1 percent vs. 99 percent” theme.

On the same day that Sawant won her city council seat, progressives and radicals around the country won a number of significant local victories. The most celebrated was Bill de Blasio’s landslide election to the New York City mayoralty on a platform challenging the city’s growing inequality and gentrification. Minneapolis voters elected City Council member Betsy Hodges—a longtime activist with the progressive grassroots group Take Action Minnesota who called on people to “free ourselves from the fear that keeps us locked into patterns of inequality”—as their new mayor. Another longtime Take Action Minnesota member, Dai Thao, became the first Hmong city council member in the St. Paul’s history. In Minneapolis, Ty Moore, an Occupy organizer and Socialist Alternative candidate, narrowly lost a contest for City Council. Meanwhile, Boston voters catapulted union leader and state legislator Martin Walsh into the mayor’s office, despite business-led efforts to lambast him as a radical.

One of Sawant’s key campaign platforms was a pledge to push for a $15-an-hour municipal minimum wage. This might have seemed outrageous a year ago, but on the same day Seattle voters elected Sawant, voters in the adjacent suburb of Seatac approved that same minimum wage for about 6,000 workers at the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and airport-related businesses, including hotels, car-rental agencies, and parking lots. Both Seattle’s defeated incumbent mayor, Mike McGinn, and his successor Ed Murray endorsed the Seatac initiative and raised the possibility of doing the same thing in Washington’s largest city. (San Francisco, Santa Fe, and Albuquerque already have municipal minimum wages).

Neither Sawant’s affiliation with the small Trotskyist group Socialist Alternative—a branch of the British-based Committee for a Workers International—nor her immigrant background seem to have impeded her campaign. Sawant grew up in Mumbai, India, where she received a bachelor’s degree in computer science, and in 1994 moved to the United States with her husband, abandoning her career in computers for a Ph.D. in economics. She became a U.S. citizen in 2010 and teaches economics at Seattle Central Community College.

Sawant was well-known in Seattle’s activist community long before winning public office. After city officials removed Occupy protesters from Westlake Park, Sawant helped them find a friendlier, though temporary, home on the SCCC campus. She was also one of several Occupy activists arrested for blocking King County sheriff’s deputies from evicting a man from his home and a regular participant at protests led by striking fast-food workers and cab drivers. Her activism shaped her campaign platform. In addition to calling for a citywide minimum wage, Sawant also called for rent control to address Seattle’s skyrocketing housing costs, a millionaire’s tax to fund mass transit and education, and universal pre-school.

None of these pronouncements distinguish Sawant from what many other progressives have called for. But Sawant’s political program goes a step further, calling for what Michael Harrington once called the “left wing of the possible.” For example, in response to Boeing’s threat to move its airplane production operation out of Seattle unless it gets major concessions from the machinists union and large tax breaks from the state legislature, Sawant joined with union members who boldly rejected the company’s give-back demands. “We don’t need the executives!” she said at the union rally. “We need Boeing to be under democratic public ownership by workers—by the community.”

As the only socialist on the nine-member City Council, Sawant isn’t about to transform Seattle into a Pacific Northwest replica of Sweden. Indeed, it isn’t clear yet whether she has the patience, pragmatism, or political skill to successfully walk the tightrope of a being a radical in municipal government—of being an insider and an outsider at the same time. Her effectiveness will depend on her ability to work with Seattle’s progressives—unions, community organizing groups, environmentalists, and others—to mobilize support for a common agenda, and then to push her liberal colleagues on the City Council as well as newly-elected Mayor Murray, also a liberal, to embrace a bolder vision of urban progressivism.

That was the strategy adopted a century ago by America’s urban progressives and socialists. In the first decades of the twentieth century, new technologies made possible new industries, which generated great riches for the fortunate few at the expense of workers, many of them immigrants, who worked long hours, under dangerous conditions and for little pay, in the nation’s burgeoning cities. Out of the poverty, slums, child labor, epidemics, sweatshops, and ethnic conflict that afflicted America’s industrializing cities emerged a coalition of immigrants, unionists, radicalized farmers, middle-class suffragists, clergy, and upper-class philanthropists. Progressive reformers fought alongside radical socialists to champion child labor laws, women’s suffrage, and the establishment of public hospitals and clinics while leashing the power of landlords, banks, railroads, and utility companies.

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