What Madison Can Learn from Kshama Sawant

A Q&A with Teddy Shibabaw

Photo from Socialist Alternative

A number of exciting activists are running for Madison’s Common Council this year, including several open socialists. You can see a full list of Madison Area DSA-endorsed candidates here. That so many movement leaders and organizers are seeking public office is connected to the upsurge in struggle that we witnessed last summer, which had a profound, radicalizing influence on millions of people all over the United States. It also reflects a growing recognition that our current elected officials are both unwilling and incapable of taking the kind of dramatic, transformative action that would actually improve people’s lives, most particularly the lives of Black people in Madison.

But this is not the first instance of activists, organizers, or even socialists running for local office and there is a lot to learn from other efforts. One organization that has gained extensive experience over the last decade is Socialist Alternative, whose member Kshama Sawant has been instigating class struggle from her seat on the Seattle City Council since 2014. She was heavily involved in the successful fight to win a $15/hr minimum wage in Seattle and has been battling to make businesses headquartered in Seattle, such as Amazon, pay their fair share in taxes to improve living conditions for working class people. Sawant has been so effective as to become the target of a right-wing, business-fueled recall campaign. Red Madison reached out to Teddy Shibabaw, a long-time member of Socialist Alternative who lives in Madison, to learn more about Kshama Sawant and Socialist Alternative’s approach to elections.

RM: How long have you been a member of Socialist Alternative? What experience do you have working on electoral campaigns?

TS: I joined Socialist Alternative at the end of 2004 after a year and half of being radicalized by US imperialism’s devastating war on Iraq. It didn’t seem enough to oppose the war. It was clear there was a deeper, foundational sickness in the society and after a lot of exploration, I found SA had the best possible combination of serious commitment to analysis, program and movement building.

I’ve participated in all 3 of Kshama Sawant’s election campaigns – 2013, 2015, 2019 and now to defend her seat against a serious recall campaign organized by big business, the Democratic Party establishment, Trump donors and rightwing organizations in Seattle. I’ve also taken part in 2 city council races we ran in Minneapolis in 2013 and 2017

RM: What makes Kshama Sawant different from other leftist, progressive, or even socialist elected officials?

TS: Kshama and SA’s primary strategy is to use the perch of the city council seat and office to galvanize social movements and to act as the tip of the spear for them. This strategy is based on a sober acceptance that if you are actually fighting for transformative change, you will have nonstop conflict with the establishment. There is no other way. No convincing corporate politicians by the strength of your arguments or by moral appeals. You can’t go in there and follow the thoroughly bourgeois niceties and decorum, assuming you’ll make any friends or that any sort of quid pro quo politics will work. During her 1st inauguration in 2013, Kshama promised “There will be no backroom deals with corporations or their political servants. There will be no rotten sell-out of the people I represent.” I think it’s beyond question that has remained true.

Kshama is unique among left elected officials for her absolutely resolute and unapologetic defense of the lives and livelihoods of the working class and oppressed communities. Her commitment to accountability is very rare. This is most concretely guaranteed as all her campaigns were a product of democratic discussion and decision making by the Socialist Alternative membership. Yet, it doesn’t stop there. For the historic victories we’ve won in Seattle, the $15 minimum wage, ground breaking renters rights legislation and a tax on the richest corporations in Seattle to fund Housing and Green New Deal programs, we organized mass democratic conferences to widen the democratic input among the workers and youth who took part in the campaign.

Kshama is unique among left elected officials for her absolutely resolute and unapologetic defense of the lives and livelihoods of the working class and oppressed communities.

As policy for anyone running as a member of Socialist Alternative, Kshama only takes home the average workers’ wage in Seattle and donates the rest to a democratically administered solidarity fund. A Seattle City Councillors salary is an obscene amount of over $120,000 but Kshama only takes home $40,000.This is an ironclad policy for our comrades running for any office, which includes any position in the labor movement. It’s consistent across our worldwide organization, the International Socialist Alternative, which has organizations and parties in over 30 countries on every inhabited continent. This is done not as charity but as another means of making sure that movement leaders’ outlook is not clouded and alienated from the ordinary people they represent. I believe what Big Bill Haywood famously said “Nothing’s too good for the working class” but the point is that your standards should rise together with your class. It would do a lot of good if all left and labor leaders followed this policy.

RM: Why is it important for activists running for office to be connected to movements or political organizations? What does real accountability look like?

TS: Being firmly rooted in working class movements and organizations with democratic structures is vital as your basis of both support as well as accountability. If you really mean business, you will be at war with the establishment from the first to the last day in office. You will not make many friends. The whole weight of the pro-capitalist institutions will try to crush you. You can’t withstand that unless you have an organization and a movement behind you that can back you up, that can politically educate and mobilize as many workers and youth as possible behind your agenda. When fighting for the $15 min wage, every major corporation from Starbucks, the Fast Food giants and big property developers like Vulcan were pointing their guns at Kshama.

This is a very important question but only one side of the issue. This approach also has to be tied to clear political independence from the big business-run Democratic Party. Our approach to this is based on recognizing that even the most ferociously committed and strong willed activist can be either co-opted or marginalized by the corporate political establishment in the Democratic Party. One example particularly comes to mind. Keith Ellison was elected to Congress in 2006. He defeated the establishment favorite in the primary with the backing of the movement against the Iraq War, which he was very much a part of on the ground in Minneapolis but was not part of any mass membership based accountability structures. He promised the movement he would vote down any war funding bill that came to the House floor. He betrayed that promise the first chance he got, based on toothless language in the resolution which called for troop withdrawal. Ellison even defended the party leadership’s approach on the issue. He was rewarded for that with a high profile trip to the Middle East with Nancy Pelosi. On the opposite end of this was Cynthia McKinney, who was a principled anti-imperialist in Congress, but was completely marginalized and pushed out. Creeping institutional capture is a big danger that can happen little by little.

RM: People don’t always win elections. Can campaigns matter even if they don’t end in success? Does how activist candidates campaign make a difference to this?

TS: Yes to both questions. Bernie Sanders didn’t win but no one can argue that his campaigns haven’t had a transformative impact in US politics, especially when it comes to popularizing openness and support for socialist ideas and a working class mass movement approach to politics. Obviously much more could have been accomplished if it wasn’t for the many constraints of running in a Democratic Primary and his unwillingness to go for the jugular against both Clinton and Biden as rotten servants of Wall St, architects of the racist mass incarceration state and imperialist aggressors.

Socialist Alternative ran a city council race in Minneapolis in 2013. We got 42% of the vote and only lost by around 200 votes. The centerpiece of the campaign was a fight for $15 minimum wage and we treated the electoral side as part and parcel of building a movement around that demand at the doors, lit tables, public forums, street and workplace organizing, etc… All of this work allowed us to build the working class base that was critical to actually winning the $15 min wage 3 years later, even though we didn’t have a city council seat.

So the lesson from both is that you can make the most out of any outcome for an electoral campaign so long as it’s not built around a personality contest and a focus on the candidate as an individual. If instead you use the campaign as a means to bolster mass movements on the ground, you can build a base that can help you win serious victories for working class and oppressed communities.

RM: Seattle and Madison face similar constraints when it comes to state-level restrictions on what cities can do, especially when it comes to taxes. What’s Sawant’s approach to this challenge? How should socialists and activists respond to elected officials who say they can’t do something because of the Republican-controlled state legislature?

TS: During Kshama’s reelection campaign in 2015, the central demand was Rent Control and building permanently affordable city-owned housing paid for by taxing the rich, ending corporate welfare and slashing the bloated police budget. Rent control at a municipal level is prohibited by state law. Kshama, SA and supporters didn’t let that stop them. It became a massively popular demand as skyrocketing rent and gentrification in Seattle is probably among the nation’s top few worst after cities like San Francisco. The bill we pushed basically said that rent control measures will become law the minute the state pre-emptions are lifted. It also put the city on record demanding the state legislature lift the ban on rent control. This can inspire other cities to push for similar measures and build a critical mass to successfully pressure the state to lift the ban.

Even if that doesn’t happen in short order, the popular pressure around that demand can be used to pass other immediate reforms that ease the burden on working class renters. Using this approach, we were able to pass ordinances significantly limiting move-in fees, security deposit, and also crucially, Seattle landlords now have to offer a payment plan for the security deposit over a period of months. More recently we were able to win a first-in-the-nation, total ban on winter evictions as well.

In Wisconsin, Democrats have gotten very used to the excuse “Walker made me do it,” or now “we can’t do anything even though Evers is governor because GOP legislature.” But these are arguments based on a very sterile logic of parliamentary arithmetic, as though there is nothing that can be done about it. They could use their positions to organize mass action in the streets, workplaces and campuses, subjecting Republicans to sustained attack through mass mobilization until they wilt. They won’t do that because they know that a working class movement organized to defeat the rightwing will not stop there. Such a movement will go further with its new found consciousness of its own power. It can use the momentum to go after what will truly solve the problems facing working class people, which cannot be done without challenging the basic logic of neoliberalism and capitalism. This is the reason Democrats never organized mass rallies to support healthcare reform while the Republicans were going around doing town halls. They were afraid that anytime they organized a town hall or protest, advocates of Medicare for All would have a big opportunity to carry the day.

RM: Sawant has faced significant backlash in response to her successful efforts championing radical demands and her participation in the Black Lives Matter movement locally. She’s even fighting a recall effort. Was the backlash unexpected or is this something activist electeds everywhere should be prepared for? How do we defend elected officials facing attacks from the right?

TS: Kshama has been the subject of vicious personal attacks from the minute she stepped into office. The political elite and the right wing hate the fact that Kshama isn’t there to make friends but to fight for and with working people against the corporate establishment. They hate that they cannot get away with pretentious faux populist rhetoric because Kshama relentlessly exposes them and instills confidence in working class people’s capacity to fight and win. They are mortified by her not just as an individual but as a harbinger of a risen working class. In the 2019 reelection campaign, Amazon and other top corporations dumped several million dollars across the city of Seattle to defeat left candidates, with the bulk of it being spent against Kshama. We beat them in three different elections and they still want a do-over with this recall campaign.

Socialists and left leaders who are effective . . . should expect to be viciously attacked by the establishment. But those attacks can be defeated and in fact we can flip the script by using a defense campaign to go on the offensive and to widen the struggle.

Socialists and left leaders who are effective in doing this should expect to be viciously attacked by the establishment. But those attacks can be defeated and in fact we can flip the script by using a defense campaign to go on the offensive and to widen the struggle. That is exactly what we are doing right now with the Kshama Solidarity Campaign to beat the recall. We are doing this by combining the defense campaign with demands to urgently expand COVID-19 relief, real community control of police, housing justice and a socialist Green New Deal.

The rightwing and big business pushing this serious recall campaign are furious about the Defund the Police campaign, our movement’s historic Amazon Tax victory, our renters rights victories, the $15 minimum wage, and how Kshama has used her socialist City Council office to fight relentlessly for working people and the oppressed. As an example of this, what Black community activist Castill Hightower said is prescient: “Kshama was the only who didn’t break her promises to the BLM movement. Yet Kshama has been singled out for punishment by the political establishment. Not Breonna Taylor’s killers, not Jacob Blake’s killers, and not my brother’s killer.” Castill’s brother was murdered by Seattle PD.

RM: What challenges would you anticipate for a socialist in office in Madison?

TS: The biggest challenge is not unique to Madison. It will be a daunting but absolutely necessary task to change the balance of power between corporate developers, commercial landlords and the police/incarceration bureaucracy on the one hand AND working people, particularly marginalized and oppressed communities on the other. There is no clever argument or lobbying that will change this fact. NO moral appeals will work.  The pro-developer, pro-police liberal political establishment has gotten very well practiced at hearing without listening. They don’t have to because we have not yet successfully built a counterweight to their organized power. So a socialist in office has to be part and parcel of building a mass multiracial working class movement around key issues like housing justice, community control of police, a socialist Green New Deal jobs program and more.

We also have to raise our sights to beginning a serious statewide movement to challenge the preemption laws. That can start, for instance, by passing resolutions that will become law as soon as the state bans are lifted. We can do this for things like rent control, a tax on the super wealthy and real community control of police. There is plenty to be fought for in terms of immediate action along with fighting the state bans. We have to do both. A socialist elected official that consistently emphasizes the need to build democratically organized workplace, neighborhood and campus action groups to fight for these demands and raises their profile will be a huge boon for our movement.

On Saturday, February 20, Socialist Alternative branches in Madison and Milwaukee are hosting Defend Kshama Sawant! All Out Against The Right-Wing Recall Effort. Featured speakers include Madison Area DSA endorsed candidates for Common Council Tessa Echeverria, Brandi Grayson, and Rebecca Kemble, as well as Dane County Board Supervisor Heidi Wegleitner, who was endorsed by Madison Area DSA in Spring 2020.

To learn more about Kshama Sawant, Teddy shared these articles from Socialist Alternative, and also recommends listening to Sawant’s appearances on Jacobin Radio and Bad Faith podcasts.

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