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April 29, 2014 at 8:10 AM

Kshama Sawant has already won the Seattle $15 wage debate

Mayor Ed Murray is expected to release his plan to raise Seattle’s minimum wage as soon as today. No matter what happens in the $15 wage debate, Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant

Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant (Greg Gilbert / The Seattle Times)

Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant
(Greg Gilbert / The Seattle Times)

has already won.

If the Seattle City Council passes a $15 wage in the coming months (as appears likely), Sawant will appropriately get credit for coming out of nowhere to commandeer the city’s political agenda.

Who had heard of her before last August*? For that matter, who (aside from Socialist Alternative newspaper subscribers) had a quick jump to a $15 wage on their radar a year ago? Yet the political fear of Sawant’s organizing skill has put a radical economic policy on greased rails. In process-loving Seattle, the minimum wage is happening as quickly as a lightning strike.

If the council fails to hit the spot on its $15 law, or punts the issue to the November ballot, Sawant and $15 Now will get a prime-time political brawl with the National Restaurant Association and other opponents. Sawant is a powerful debater when she’s on the offensive; having an opponent on the defensive, and backed by McDonald’s, offers strong political friction, and that offers $15 Now a chance to harness pure grassroots electricity.

Sawant is a strong political strategist with her eye on the political long game. A Seattle ballot fight would offer a chance to build a broader movement transportable to other cities.

I’m skeptical the debate will be healthy. I wrote a column about the overheated rhetoric of the $15 debate; a full-on election fight would split Seattle’s business and labor communities, creating what Murray called “class warfare.” The Seattle Times’ editorial board supports an increase in the minimum wage, but not to $15, not via the ballot and not without careful implementation.

Mayor Ed Murray, with minimum wage advisory co-chairs David Rolf and Howard Wright (Bettina Hansen / Seattle Times)

Mayor Ed Murray, with minimum wage advisory co-chairs David Rolf and Howard Wright (Bettina Hansen / Seattle Times)

As for Sawant, I see a pair of ironies about her success. First, Murray has worked hard to seize this issue by appointing a minimum wage advisory committee, and giving it just four months to reach a recommendation (see Ask the Mayor video below). He wants to be the mayor with the highest minimum wage in the country. But if the debate moves to the City Council without strong consensus, Sawant’s grassroots organization will overshadow Murray’s process-driven approach.

Second, Sawant’s success could very well cost her the City Council seat. The city’s shift to district elections for the council in 2015 means she’ll likely run in a district which includes not just her base on Capitol Hill, but in the Central District, Madrona, Madison Park and Leschi. The food-nightlife industry, as well as many small minority-owned business, are rallying in opposition to Sawant’s approach, which doesn’t soften the blow of $15 enough. A liberal candidate with strong financial backing could portray Sawant as a brittle ideologue too edgy for Seattle’s more cautious political history.

Either way, Sawant has already won the debate.

* Sawant did win 20,000 votes in a 2012 campaign against Speaker of the House Frank Chopp for the 43rd Legislative District. But she lost by nearly 30,000 votes.

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