Kshama Sawant, an Occupy Seattle activist and socialist, won 29% of the vote against the incumbent Democratic candidate Frank Chopp in Washington’s 43rd legislative district. Sawant’s candidacy managed to procure votes combined than all the socialists who ran for the Presidency. The campaign suggests that despite all the media warnings to the contrary, there is an opening for a socialist voice in US politics.
Sawant and her party, Socialist Alternative, built upon Occupy Seattle’s work by highlighting the effects of the recession in the state. Since the recession, which began in 2008, the state government has cut more than $10.5 billion from essential services such as education, health and mental health, and human services, and cut benefits and jobs for state employees. Washington is also home to some of the wealthiest corporations in the country, such as Boeing and Microsoft, who enjoy lucrative tax breaks. Boeing and Microsoft’s tax breaks are nearly $7 billion.
“In a time of growing unemployment, poverty, student debt, and massive budget cuts to education, healthcare, and public transit, how can we afford to continue giving handouts to corporate behemoths like Boeing and Microsoft when they are sitting on billions in profits?” Sawant asked. Sawant’s questions resonated with thousands of voters who are still suffering from the recession.
The challenger, Democratic Frank Chopp, has been a member of the Washington House of Representatives since 1994 and speaker since 2002. The Democratic Party has held the majority party in Washington for years. Chopp claimed that he balanced the budget and saved essential services. “We hear this rhetoric over and over from the Democrats that, “we’re trying to save education and healthcare but we can’t because we need to balance the budget and this is the only thing we can cut. But that is a blatant lie because they could be raising taxes on corporations and the super wealthy.” Sawant challenged.
Sawant’s campaign was run mostly on small contributions, and had to overcome a legal hurdle to be on the ballot as “Socialist Alternative.” Throughout the summer, Sawant picked up a number of endorsements such as The Stranger an alternative newspaper, Amalgamated Transit Union Local 587, the Seattle Transit Riders Union, and other leftist and progressive groups, which helped her campaign.
Many objected to Sawant’s candidacy on the grounds that she was running as a socialist. Although the campaign was fighting for full funding of health care, education and taxing the wealthy. Sawant leveraged these agenda items in order to be independent of the Democratic and Republican Parties of Wall Street. The campaign linked the struggle for reforms within the system with the need to pose an alternative. “I believe that if we’re going to effect change, we have to be bold. That means not hiding behind false labels. More and more people, when asked, will tell you that they prefer socialism over capitalism. And it is obvious why: Capitalism has failed the 99%, whereas socialism stands for genuine democracy and equality,” said Sawant.
Sawant may not have won on election night, but her strong showing highlights the possibilities for socialist and independent candidates on a local level. “We are reaching out to other progressive forces to form a united left slate of independent working-class candidates to run a vigorous campaign for Mayor and every open City Council position in 2013,” Sawant declared on election night.
Socialist Alternative’s campaign shows that there is room for independent political action on the local level as opposed to the Presidential level, where enormous amounts of money are needed to compete effectively. Sawant’s campaign brought together a wide coalition from unions, existing left groups, Occupy activists and others. For the future, Sawant urged for a focus that is not solely on elections but on grassroots activism and building a working class party independent of Wall Street.