Kshama Sawant

In this 2018 photo, Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant, a fierce critic of Amazon, speaks at City Hall. Amazon donated $1.5 million to a political action committee that supported a slate of candidates perceived to be friendly to business is this year's election. Sawant was among the company's top targets, but she won her race.

Standing in front of a massive “Tax Amazon” banner, Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant declared victory in a re-election race that pitted her against Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and the billionaire class.

“It looks like our movement has won, and defended our socialist City Council seat for working people against the richest man in the world,” Sawant said Saturday. The two-term council member, one of the most high-profile socialists and municipal leaders in the country, quoted abolitionist Frederick Douglass in front of a crowd of supporters who recognized the truth of the words, “If there is no struggle there is no progress. … Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”

What happened this fall in Seattle was a great struggle — one of several in cities where proudly radical contenders confronted massive spending aimed at defeating them. But it wasn’t easy.

Sawant was one of several Seattle council contenders who were demanding that Amazon and other big-tech firms headquartered in Seattle pay their fair share of taxes. Their proposals unsettled Bezos and his fellow CEOs. Amazon steered $1.5 million into races for the city’s district council seats — all seven of which were up for election this year. The money helped fund a multimillion-dollar drive by business interests to elect a corporate-friendly council that would shy away from imposing taxes on corporations, seeking to implement rent control, and otherwise tipping the balance in favor of working families that are struggling to get by in an increasingly expensive city.

A huge portion of the spending by the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce’s “Civic Alliance for a Sound Economy” political action committee — roughly $450,000 — was aimed at defeating Sawant, a member of the Socialist Alternative movement who ran a “not-for-sale” campaign that bluntly declared, “What’s at stake this year is who runs Seattle — Amazon and big business or working people.”

After a long, slow count that saw her come from behind, Sawant won. So, too, did several other candidates who were opposed by the business PAC. “It turns out you don’t need Amazon’s money to win an election,” announced the city’s iconoclastic weekly paper, The Stranger. “The tech company’s massive PAC spending turned out to bite them in the ass.”

This time.

Sawant’s win was a sweet victory for foes of big money in politics, especially big corporate money. But it really was a struggle. And another democratic socialist who was targeted by Amazon and its allies, Shaun Scott, was narrowly defeated. So, while there is much for municipal activists to celebrate in the news from Seattle, the story of this year’s council competition remains a cautionary tale.

“We’re talking about the richest man in the world, and the billionaire class that he’s part of, going to war against the City Council of a city,” Sawant told me recently. “I mean, of course, we are familiar with this kind of corporate influence on congressional races, obviously on the presidential campaign, but you can see that local elections are not immune either.”’ That’s a vital point to consider because, as Sawant said, “many grassroots movements have learned that actually it is possible to make change starting from the local level.”

That’s something Madison activists well understand. This city has led the country over the years on a host of progressive issues. But, like Seattle, Madison is becoming a more expensive city to live in — indeed, it is paralleling Seattle to such an extent that a Cap Times Ideas Fest panel this year asked: "How does Madison not become Seattle?”

One way is by keeping big money, especially big corporate money, out of local politics.

Keeping local elections inexpensive matters precisely because — while avenues for radical reform are often closed off at the national and state levels of politics — local elections can still be won with hard work and big ideas.

“We have successfully defeated attempts at economic evictions. We are now building a powerful movement for rent control,” explained Sawant as this year’s election approached. “And so the billionaire class, while it initially might have arrogantly misjudged the power of local movements, is now understanding that there is a real danger that if this socialist on the Seattle City Council gets re-elected once more, that will send a message of confidence. Not only throughout Seattle, but throughout the region, throughout the state, and indeed, nationwide. It is that contagion of working-class confidence that the billionaire class fears the most, and that is why they are so determined to attempt this kind of corporate takeover.”

This is one of the reasons campaign finance reformers need to turn more attention to addressing excessive corporate and special-interest group spending in local races. It is also why political organizers must be prepared to expose and challenge the money power at the local level — as Sawant did so aggressively in Seattle.

She won. But the big-money threat remains.

Sawant said her race should serve as “a wake-up call for social movements and progressives.” She is absolutely right.

John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. jnichols@madison.com and @NicholsUprising. 

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