Occupy Tastes Rare Success in Rise of Seattle Socialist

The Tea Party feted its five-year anniversary last month with three U.S. senators it helped elect, two of them presidential contenders. Now Occupy Wall Street, the other populist movement to emerge from the financial crisis, can claim electoral success: a Seattle city council member.

Kshama Sawant, a socialist and Occupy activist, took office earlier this year, vowing to make Seattle the first big city with a $15 minimum wage and alarming employers with talk of turning Boeing Co. assembly lines into collectivist workers’ paradises. She has become something of a progressive celebrity, winning coverage in The Guardian and Al Jazeera America, and delivering a response to President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address that Occupy adopted as its own.

Sawant is one of the only socialists in decades elected to the city council of a major U.S. city, garnering almost 100,000 votes in her November election. She’s also, several Occupy leaders said, one of the few from their movement to win a significant office.

What can be seen in one light as a rebuke -- Seattle’s nine-member council, after all, isn’t the U.S. Senate -- also offers a possible road map for a movement that captured world attention with its “We are the 99%” message against income inequality, then fizzled.

“The legacy hasn’t been written yet,” said Micah White, 31, a former editor of the anti-consumerism magazine Adbusters. He helped coin the term Occupy Wall Street for a July 2011 e-mail to followers that led to the encampments in New York and dozens of cities around the country. “This new generation of activists isn’t done rising up. We’ve only tasted how intense viral social movements can get.”

Minimum Wage

Sawant, 41, is already helping reshape public policy in Seattle, the largest city in the U.S. Pacific Northwest.

An economics instructor and one-time software engineer who emigrated from India in the 1990s, she defeated an incumbent Democrat by advocating the $15 hourly wage. Both of the city’s mayoral candidates embraced the idea. Since taking office, Mayor Ed Murray has given her a seat on his task force of business and labor representatives weighing how to phase in the higher wage - - more than 60 percent higher than Washington state’s $9.32 an hour, already the most in the nation.

Sawant has also rattled the business community, saying as chairwoman of the council’s energy committee in January that a proposed rate increase for the city-owned utility should fall on corporations rather than individuals. And in November, when Boeing threatened to move work out of state without union concessions, she told a local television station that workers should take over the factories and re-tool the machines to produce buses.

Dismissing de Blasio

Even other progressives don’t meet her standards. While New York elected its own populist mayor in Democrat Bill de Blasio, who has proposed higher income taxes for the wealthy to pay for universal preschool, Sawant called him an “establishment” politician. In an interview, she also rejected the idea that her election in a traditionally liberal city is a curiosity with little national relevance.

“We are often asked, ‘What’s happening in Seattle, is it something in the water you drink?’” Sawant said in her council office, adorned only by a “$15” placard, made up to look like the ubiquitous 12th Man flags of the city’s Super Bowl-winning Seahawks. “No, the political underpinnings of social change exist everywhere, because working people everywhere are struggling with an economy that does not work for them and only for the super-wealthy.”

Newcomer’s Lament

Born in Pune, India, Sawant trained as a software engineer before moving to North Carolina, where she started in 1997 at Nortel Networks. She left to earn a Ph.D. in economics at North Carolina State University in Raleigh.

As a newcomer to the U.S., Sawant was struck by the extent of poverty in the world’s largest economy, and the lack of amenities even poorer places enjoy, such as mass transit.

“I couldn’t go to the grocery store until I got a driver’s license, which seemed absurd to me,” she said.

After moving to Seattle, where she taught part-time at two local colleges, Sawant joined the Socialist Alternative party, a national group with branches in more than 20 U.S. cities. When Occupy sprang up, she helped organize a Seattle chapter and led some of the call-and-response protests that became a fixture in parks and squares across the U.S. in 2011.

Fading Momentum

A year later, Sawant challenged the Democratic speaker of the state House of Representatives as a Socialist Alternative candidate. Worried that Occupy’s momentum was fading, the party wanted to run 200 independent Occupy candidates across the country that year, said Philip Locker, a Socialist Alternative spokesman who was Sawant’s political director. Sawant turned out to be one of the few candidates who actually ran.

Encouraged after winning 29 percent of the vote in the state house race, she returned a year later to run for city council, telling unions they were wasting their money by supporting Democratic candidates.

The state has a long history of labor activism, from the Wobblies, or Industrial Workers of the World, members who organized in lumber camps a century ago, to the protesters who disrupted World Trade Organization meetings in 1999. “There are 47 states in the Union, and the Soviet of Washington,” went one 1936 quip, attributed to a former U.S. postmaster general.

Sawant won endorsements and, in some cases, donations and volunteers, from six unions, including local chapters of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, the Communications Workers of America, the Transit Riders Union and the American Federation of Teachers.

‘Lip Service’

“It’s not some magic that Kshama got elected,” Locker said. “It’s entirely replicable, if the labor movement was to put its money and resources and political might behind independent working-class candidates.”

In Minneapolis, another Socialist Alternative candidate with ties to Occupy, Ty Moore, won backing from the Service Employees International Union for a city council bid last year and fell 229 votes short.

Occupy has had a few other successes. The New Hampshire branch claimed in November 2012 that it elected a “handful” of its activists to the statehouse. Occupy also put one of its own on the board of the Vermont Federal Credit Union, according to the Credit Union Times trade publication.

Without a strong third party, people are bound to be frustrated by Democrats and Republicans who are captive to big business, Sawant said. Obama’s proposal for a $10.10 minimum wage, she said, is “lip service.”

Tea Party

An unwillingness to work within party primaries is one reason Occupy faded, said Mark A. Smith, a political science professor at the University of Washington in Seattle.

“The Tea Party was just more sophisticated about how you attain political power,” Smith said. “They had both an insider game and an outsider game. Occupy was all an outside game.”

Two of the limited-government group’s favorites, Republican U.S. senators Rand Paul of Kentucky and Ted Cruz of Texas, led a presidential preference straw poll taken this month at the Conservative Political Action Conference. Both spoke along with Senator Mike Lee of Utah at a Tea Party anniversary gathering in Washington on Feb. 27.

For Occupy, a movement that famously eschewed a top-down organization, rallying around any leader, even one who sings from the same choirbook, has its own challenges. White, who coined the term, said he supports Sawant -- yet still yearns for an even bolder kind of politician who might, say, serve a month before handing the office to someone else.

“My advice for her would be, be careful to think you won’t be in power too long,” he said. “When these people get elected, they act as if they’re going to be there a very long time.”

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