College professor and Occupy activist Kshama Sawant beats a longtime incumbent with her message that workers need 'a mass political alternative' to the two main parties.

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Socialist to occupy Seattle City Council

Kshama Sawant campaigns in Seattle, emphasizing her support for raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour for all workers in the city. (Ted S. Warren / Associated Press) More photos

College professor and Occupy activist Kshama Sawant beats a longtime incumbent with her message that workers need 'a mass political alternative' to the two main parties.

November 20, 2013

The rain was cold, dripping down her blue poncho, but the newly elected city councilwoman's words sizzled.

Surrounded by union workers gathered to support Boeing's machinists, Kshama Sawant denounced the two-party political system, corporate greed, military contracts and the leaders of the aerospace giant whose name has long been synonymous with Puget Sound.

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"We don't need the executives!" cried Seattle's first elected Socialist in living memory, as the damp crowd cheered and rush-hour traffic hummed slowly by. "We need Boeing to be under democratic public ownership by workers — by the community!"

Sawant is the rare elected official with roots in the Occupy movement — the leaderless resistance effort that drew thousands of protesters around the globe to encampments including those at Wall Street, Los Angeles City Hall, the Mexican Stock Exchange and Seattle's Westlake Park, where they demonstrated against income inequality in 2011. Her ascendance is an indicator of shifting Seattle politics — of how elections are run here and what voters are thinking.

Seattle's City Council — ostensibly nonpartisan but stocked with Democrats — will soon be a two-party body. And there isn't a Republican in sight.

Two weeks ago, on election day, the 41-year-old software-engineer-turned-far-left-sweetheart was trailing longtime incumbent Richard Conlin, 46% to 54%, and it looked like the environmentalist who rode his bike to City Hall had won a fifth term.

But Washington is a vote-by-mail state, only a fraction of the ballots had been counted, and Sawant swore that she would unseat the fleece-vest-wearing Democrat — if not this time, then the next. She was certain, she told supporters, that late voters would break with tradition and veer left instead of right.

On Friday, trailing his challenger by 1,640 votes, Conlin conceded. On Sunday, Sawant held a victory rally. And on Monday, she was out with the proletariat, declaring, "It is time, high time, that we workers opt for a mass political alternative to the two big-business parties!"

Historian John Findlay, a University of Washington professor who specializes in the Pacific Northwest, calls this a stark moment in the Seattle story, one that underscores "the clash between different visions of economic justice."

Yes, this has long been a liberal city, a place where great concern has been voiced, he said, about big corporations and "the power of capital." One clear example came in 1999, when anti-globalization demonstrators swarmed the World Trade Organization gathering, shutting down the city. The National Guard was called out.

At the end of a campaign that saw Sawant promise to push for a $15-an-hour municipal minimum wage, Boeing announced that unless it got major concessions from the machinists and deep tax breaks from the state Legislature, it would look elsewhere for a site to build its 777X airliner.

Olympia, the capital, said yes; the machinists said no. The fate of thousands of Pacific Northwest aerospace jobs is now an open question.

Kshama Sawant hugs campaign worker Carlos Hernandez after they learned she had pulled ahead of opponent Richard Conlin. (Greg Gilbert / Associated Press) More photos

"We've just elected a City Council member who's a socialist, and the Boeing Co. is wanting the machinists to give back what was won with bargaining," Findlay said. "It's a moment where there's a lot of conflict over what economic justice is and who deserves what and what corporations will get away with."

Just look at Seattle, Sawant said in an interview Tuesday: "It has become an unaffordable city for the vast majority. We have a proliferation of low-wage jobs. The cost of housing has been rising astronomically.... There is a deep dissatisfaction and disgust that the system does not offer much for working people."

Sawant did not officially call herself a Socialist until after she moved here in 2006, but she says she thinks she always leaned that way. "I just didn't know it for most of my childhood," she said. "My earliest memory growing up in Mumbai was looking at the ocean of poverty and misery around me and seeing great wealth at the same time."

That disparity sparked outrage in her, along with the belief that there is money enough to salve human suffering — "but that there are political obstacles," she said.

Sawant prefers not to speak about her personal life lest it shift the focus from her political goals. Ask her a question with the word "you" in it, and chances are she will respond with the word "we."

As in, "Didn't you run for office once before?"

"In 2012, we ran for the Washington state House of Representatives. We ran against the Democratic House Speaker Frank Chopp. With two p's. We got 29% of the vote; that represents over 20,000 people who voted for us."

She perks up when talking about her work with the Occupy movement, about a demonstration called the Night of 500 Tents when she camped along with hundreds of other activists in Westlake Park, only to have her camping gear confiscated during a police sweep. It was, she said, "a roaring success."

The "Meet Kshama" section of her campaign website begins with an angry quote from the candidate: "At a time of budget cuts, the Seattle City Council pays themselves nearly $120,000 a year, more than any other council in the U.S. except LA!" she says. "If elected, I will only take the average worker's wage and donate the rest to building social movements."

It is the most personal element on the page.

The Socialist member-elect of the Seattle City Council speaks at a rally in support of machinists union members who voted last week to reject contract concessions that Boeing said it needed to build the new 777X airliner in Washington state. (Elaine Thompson / Associated Press) More photos

When pressed to divulge more than just vote counts and policy planks, the reticent councilwoman-elect said her entire family still lives in India. Her mother, a high school history and geography teacher who retired as a school principal, lives in Bangalore, the capital of India's Karnataka state. Her civil engineer father was killed by a drunk driver when she was 13.

After working as a programmer for a year and a half, she enrolled in graduate school at North Carolina State University, where she earned a doctorate in economics. She and her husband live apart, she said, although they are not legally separated. She teaches economics at Seattle Central Community College. She does not know whether she will continue there after she is sworn in this January.

She does know that she is "one of the 20% of [her] union who are forced to accept part-time jobs" because of what she calls the "abysmal state of public education funding."

"I was offered a class for the fall quarter but I declined it," said Sawant, who wanted to focus on the campaign instead. "I just get offered classes, quarter by quarter."

Which brings the Socialist Alternative party member back to her comfort zone: the campaign and what she wants people to take away from it. Hope, the possibility of power, "a political alternative that represents us, not the corporate bosses."

Or as she told the crowd in downtown Seattle on Monday night, standing in support of the International Assn. of Machinists and Aerospace Workers:

"Brothers and sisters, let's work on this together.

"Let's stand with Boeing workers, and we will end with a chant.... When workers' rights are under attack, what do we do?" she hollered.

"Stand up!" the group cried as one. "Fight back!"

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