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November 22, 2013 at 1:41 PM

Can Kshama Sawant move past rhetoric, work with City Council?

Kshama Sawant is a natural campaigner.

Clearly, she’s a passionate voice for those who agree with her. But does she listen to those who don’t? Because if she wants to create substantive changes in Seattle, she’ll have to learn the art of the political deal.

In this photo taken Nov. 4, 2013, Socialist candidate for Seattle City Council Kshama Sawant, right, speaks outside City Council chambers in Seattle about her support for raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour for all workers in the city. Sawant beat four-term Councilman Richard Conlin. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

In this photo taken Nov. 4, 2013, Socialist candidate for Seattle City Council Kshama Sawant, right, speaks outside City Council chambers in Seattle about her support for raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour for all workers in the city. Sawant beat four-term Councilman Richard Conlin. (Photo by Ted S. Warren / Associated Press)

Each time she says something that resonates with voters, like this:

What I can do on the City Council as one socialist is really far more than what people imagine it to be. Because it won’t just be my voice … to talk to other council members, but it’s also going to be to continue to really encourage and to invite public pressure into it. Which is how this camp succeeded.

She alienates others with bold assertions, like this one published in Salon after Boeing machinists rejected a contract offer that would have guaranteed the 777X would be built in Washington state:

Boeing has an enormous factory, [as well as] all the auto factories that are lying defunct right now in the U.S. — they all have enormous capacity for production. And there’s any number of workers with the skills, and people who have the potential of learning those skills. And instead we have a situation where, because we don’t have a say in the production, either the machines are lying idle, or the machines are being used to produce destructive machines like drones.

So what we need to do is to take the machines and the factories into democratic, say, democratic ownership — and the workers can contribute rail cars or buses, something like that, something that is beneficial to society. And that’s something that creates jobs — it will create living wage jobs …

Over the past week, Sawant has appeared at rallies and become a national hero among socialist circles. (Here’s a profile on her in The Los Angeles Times.) Not every review has been positive. Slate’s Matthew Iglesias took a closer look at her ideology and wrote a story with the headline “Socialism off to a poor start in Seattle.”

Having an immigrant woman of color join the Seattle City Council is a powerful, symbolic feat. Sawant has injected new energy into Seattle politics. There’s no doubt she cares about the working class. If she wants to be effective, though, she has to convince at least four other council members to support any rule change she puts on the table.

During a phone interview Thursday, the campaign’s political director, Philip Locker didn’t exactly inspire confidence she’s ready to cooperate with her colleagues. Locker characterized the current city council as engaged in “back room wheeling and dealing and horse-trading. That’s not how Kshama plans to operate.”

Of course, Locker also clarified he hadn’t watched the Seattle City Council too closely before Sawant’s election.

“She will have a friendly, cordial, professional working relationship with her colleagues,” he promised.

Never mind the council seat is supposed to be non-partisan. Sawant’s campaign has scheduled a rally Friday evening to teach people about her organization, Socialist Alternative.

“She’s not interested in pretending she’s not in a political party. All the other (city council) members are,” he said.

What? Please. We don’t need more party politics around here. We need people who make policies work for Seattle.

Sawant could prove to be a relevant voice for the powerless. Her campaign deserve a few days to bask in the glow of her sudden fame (and its website does just that), but it should pay attention to the criticism, too. It’s not enough to be a strong candidate. Serving on the Seattle City Council goes beyond making speeches about a $15 minimum wage, a tax on millionaires and rent control. It’s also about governing, building coalitions and counting the votes that matter. In Sawant’s case — she has to recognize she’s one of nine council members charged with running a major metropolitan city with more than 600,000 residents. The job entails a non-glamorous and broad range of duties, from fixing potholes and regulating taxis to convincing developers to build affordable housing.

Locker, who answered curtly and sounded wary of some of my questions, said the campaign needs time to determine Sawant’s transition from part-time professor to full-time council member. However, he said they are definitely making big plans to organize a 10,000-person march next year to raise the minimum wage. Sawant wants to chair a committee to look at the issue. If the city council and mayor-elect don’t take action, Sawant will support an initiative on the November ballot.

“We see too many nice promises during elections and limited results afterward,” Locker said.

I kind of love it when political outsiders think they can sweep in overnight and change the status quo. The verdict is still out on whether Kshama Sawant can follow through with her own campaign pledges.

Get ready for two very interesting years.

Comments | Topics: kshama sawant, politics, Seattle City Council


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