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Magazine of Socialist Action in Australia

US: Amazon’s bid to unseat socialist too close to call

Kshama Sawant’s Seattle re-election hangs in the balance

The fight to re-elect Kshama Sawant was a powerful, record-setting grassroots campaign. Despite Amazon directing more financial firepower against Kshama Sawant and Socialist Alternative (Socialist Action’s sister organisation in the US) than any other candidate – helping to make it the most expensive, most polarized, and most-watched city council race in Seattle history – the election night results were too close to call.

At the same time, we were up against an unprecedented billionaire-backed attempt at a hostile takeover of Seattle City Council. Led by Amazon’s $1.5 million, corporate PACs as a whole spent over $4.1 million to try to flip all seven city council races their way – nearly five times the previous record!

Initial results give Sawant 46% percent of the vote and Amazon’s candidate Egan Orion taking 54%, but with only half the ballots counted we expect Kshama’s number to go up substantially as late votes are counted in the coming days. Following the August 6 primary, Kshama’s vote increased by 4 percentage points after late-arriving ballots were counted, and all signs point toward an even higher bump in the general election. In Sawant’s first come-from-behind victory in 2013, late arriving ballots boosted her over 4.5 points – enough to win this time around as well. Campaign volunteers and supporters at the election night party remained optimistic that victory was within reach.

Washington State’s mail-in ballot system allows voters to mail in their ballots up to three weeks before election day, and early returns are disproportionately from wealthy and older voters. The election night tally doesn’t count ballots submitted in the last few days, which are disproportionately from working-class people, people of color, and younger voters.

This year the final surge of late votes may be particularly large, fueled by anger at Amazon and our campaign’s unprecedented grassroots get-out-the-vote operation. On election day ballot drop-boxes were repeatedly stuffed so full that voters were forced to wait to cast their ballots as county workers rushed to empty them!

Just 20,926 votes have been counted of the 74,772 registered in District 3, or 28%. With turnout expected to exceed 50%, of the remaining ballots to be counted we’d need about 55-56%, (depending on the exact turnout) of those late returns to be for Sawant in order to win the race. This doesn’t factor in the all-out effort our campaign will launch to “cure” spoiled ballots. Each election around 2% of all ballots aren’t counted because voters didn’t sign them properly, or other mistakes. We stand a good chance of winning an additional boost of around 1% by reaching out our supporters with spoiled ballots to resubmit their correct signatures.

Defeating Kshama was the top priority for big business this election and if they fail in District 3 it will cap off a humiliating round of defeats for the billionaires citywide. Amazon-backed candidates appear set to lose in the other council races, with the likely exception of District 4 where Democratic Socialists of America candidate Shaun Scott has an uphill climb after he won 42% of ballots counted by election night, following an impressive first-time campaign.

A campaign of lies and distortions

A wave of outrage swept Seattle in the final three weeks of the election following Amazon’s $1 million “money bomb” dropped on Seattle on October 14. This brought Amazon’s total contribution to the Seattle Chamber of Commerce PAC to $1.5 million, and corporate PAC spending as a whole to $4.1 million.

National political figures weighed in against Amazon, followed by a wave of national media attention. The Wall Street Journal’s Editorial Board complained that “Bernie Sanders tweeted this week that Amazon’s spending in Seattle was ‘a perfect example of the out-of-control corporate greed we are going to end.’ Elizabeth Warren decried Amazon for ‘trying to tilt the Seattle City Council elections in their favor,’ adding that ‘I have a plan to get big money out of politics.’”

Warning that Bezos’s $1.5 million gamble to defeat Sawant and other progressives may have backfired, Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat said: “The election was playing out as a referendum on the performance of the City Council.” An Elway/Crosscut poll showed 67% of likely voters supporting “someone who wants to change” the Council’s direction. Westneat continued: “Now [the election] could well be a referendum on Amazon and corporate power” (10/23/19).

While certainly the massive spending by Amazon backfired with many voters, the $1.5 million spent also bought a torrent of ads, mailers, and paid canvassers, all of which swayed votes in the direction of Sawant’s corporate-backed opponent. Our members and volunteers repeatedly encountered the talking points trumpeted through these richly-funded attacks in the final weeks.

Alongside the unprecedented corporate PAC expenditures was a relentless corporate media propaganda offensive. The Seattle Times was at the forefront of long campaign to blame Sawant and other so-called “left ideologues” for the failed “performance of the City Council” in addressing Seattle’s homelessness and affordability crisis, the top concern for voters. The paper endorsed corporate-backed candidates in all seven council races, portraying them as “change” candidates.

In reality, Seattle’s housing crisis is part of the global failure of capitalism, which treats housing as a commodity to enrich billionaire speculators, rather than as a basic human right. Working people are right to be angry at the inaction of city, state, and federal authorities to address the crisis. But blame for this falls squarely on a political establishment that is complicit with corporate power, not on activists and political leaders like Kshama Sawant calling for universal rent control and taxing big business to massively expand quality public housing.

Amazon executives’ chosen opponent for Kshama was Egan Orion, a fully corporate candidate who posed as a “progressive” to win votes. Orion put posters up all over town saying he accepted no corporate PAC money despite the fact that he applied for corporate PAC money, interviewed with the PAC, and thanked them when he got their endorsement. He sent out mailers with lies about Kshama to every household.

Orion’s supporters tore down over 1,000 Kshama Sawant yard signs throughout the district, and in the final two weeks, they vandalized over 200 signs with spray-painted profanities and sharp objects to shred the signs. This attempt at voter intimidation turned off many District 3 residents and did not stop the Sawant campaign from running a tremendous get out the vote operation.

Crucial to overcoming the lies and attacks against our campaign was building widespread public awareness about this attempt to buy the election through thousands of conversations on the doors and at street corners by our members and volunteers.

While most working-class voters and young people came to see through the corporate media’s lies and distortions, what’s also clear is that the initial results reflect a historically high turnout in the wealthiest neighborhoods of Seattle. They also reflect the fast-changing class and racial make-up of District 3 and Seattle as a whole, with many working people and people of color displaced by skyrocketing rents since our last re-election campaign.

Republican voters normally sit-out local elections and openly Republican candidates don’t even bother running, but that changed this year. The King County Republican Party itself endorsed the slate of candidates backed by Amazon and the Chamber of Commerce, despite those candidates all calling themselves Democrats!

More broadly, Seattle is experiencing its own local variant of the right-populist wave which elevated Trump to power. Middle-class anxiety in the face of growing economic insecurity and social decay is exploited by big business and the rich, who are waging a ferocious struggle against the rise of socialist ideas and movements demanding limits to their wealth and power. Whipping up fears of fast-growing homeless encampments across Seattle, crime, drugs, and so-called “left ideologues” like Sawant in City Hall, groups like “Speak Out Seattle” and “Safe Seattle” emerged over the last year as a vocal conservative minority.

As we explained in an article last May, “[t]hese groups were indirectly supported and funded by Amazon and big business as a populist battering ram to push back the housing justice movement and defeat the “Amazon Tax” last year… In 2017, Jeff Bezos spent $350,000 on a corporate PAC to elect Mayor Durkan. Six months later, in June 2018, under enormous pressure from big business, she and the majority of the City Council repealed the Amazon Tax…. This capitulation, especially by the more liberal wing of the council, demoralized the left and emboldened big business and the right-wing forces mobilized behind them.”

Debate on Seattle’s left

In the aftermath of the Amazon Tax defeat, a de-facto alliance between big business, a section of labor leaders, and most local Democratic Party politicians had coalesced to try and defeat Sawant and block the election of Democratic Socialists of America candidate Shaun Scott in District 4.

The broad coalition built around the Tax Amazon campaign, in which Sawant’s office and Socialist Alternative played a central role, initially won unanimous passage of the tax on the top 3% of Seattle corporations to pay for affordable housing and homeless services. However, facing intense pressure from big business and a well-funded repeal campaign, this coalition was shattered and city council repealed the tax in a 7-2 vote just one month later.

From left-liberal and pro-business voices alike, blame for the defeat was put on the “divisive” approach of Sawant and Socialist Alternative. Despite support from a number of unions, a group of conservative labor leaders from the Ironworkers and other building trades angrily denounced the campaign as a “tax on jobs,” fearful that angering Amazon would slow Seattle’s construction boom.

In the August 6 primary, with labor publicly divided, with no endorsements from her fellow city councilmembers or other prominent Democratic Party politicians, Sawant received just 37% in the primary election. “No incumbent in recent memory has survived a primary showing that low,” wrote Danny Westneat in the Seattle Times (8/7/19).

If Sawant and Socialist Alternative had adopted the approach of most liberal and labor leaders to try and avoid a direct confrontation with Amazon, it’s likely Jeff Bezos’ bullying strategy and attempt to buy city council would have been more successful.

There was nothing automatic about the widespread working-class distrust toward corporate power getting organized into a coherent fightback. In fact, most elections across the U.S. don’t feature bold working-class challenges, given the corporate domination of the Democratic Party. Even in Seattle, where the local Democratic Party organizations have shifted leftward under the impact of Sanders and other left challengers, this hasn’t resulted in strong working class fighters or socialists running for city council in many races.

Socialist Alternative based our electoral strategy on confidence that, if offered a fighting lead, working-class and young people in Seattle were capable of defeating Amazon and big business. Crucial to this strategy was the potential for working class pressure from below to push progressive and labor leaders off the sidelines and into a united fight with us against Seattle’s corporate establishment. Socialist Alternative members provided the Marxist backbone of this strategy. Their energy, self-sacrifice, and political skills successfully built perhaps the most powerful grassroots election campaign in Seattle history.

Over 1,000 volunteers have helped us knock on over 225,000 doors and make 200,000 phone calls. A record-breaking 7,500 working people made financial sacrifices to donate to our campaign. We’ll be publishing a fuller report of this historic effort soon.

The fight for unity against Amazon

In the August 6 primary, candidates backed by Amazon and big business moved on to the general election in all seven council races to face off against more progressive candidates. With the looming threat of the Chamber of Commerce engineering a wholesale takeover of City Hall, our call for maximum unity against big business rapidly gained traction among grassroots activists, exerting pressure on bigger political players.

More endorsements for Sawant, as well as Shaun Scott, began rolling in from progressive leaders and groups who had sat on the sidelines in the primary. The scandalous effort of conservative labor leaders to win Egan Orion the Labor Council’s endorsement was defeated when over 300 union members signed an open letter in protest. By the final weeks, 22 unions had endorsed Sawant – a substantial majority of the union locals who endorsed in the District 3 race. A joint event promoting a Green New Deal for Seattle was organized with Sawant, Morales, and Scott speaking, an important display of left unity that was largely absent in the primary.

In a major defeat for the business-backed Democratic establishment who have long-dominated city politics, local Democratic Party groups endorsed both Shaun Scott and Kshama Sawant in September (they had already endorsed Morales in the primary). This victory, the product of an energetic grassroots effort, was linked to passing resolutions condemning corporate PAC spending through four Democratic Party organizations.

All this laid the basis for our re-election campaign to become the central driving force behind a unified response when Amazon dropped their $1 million money bomb on October 14. Alongside the Democratic Party groups, we organized a press conference two days later outside of Amazon headquarters, followed by rally called by Amazon workers a week later.

This broke the dam. A wave of national media coverage followed. Significantly, even Lorena Gonzalez and Teresa Mosqueda – the liberal councilmembers who had publicly called for Sawant’s defeat in the primary – felt compelled to speak at the rally against Amazon and announce their endorsement of both Sawant and Scott. A wave of other progressive Democratic Party leaders followed suit.

Whatever the outcome of our race, it’s clear the naked attempt by Jeff Bezos to buy Seattle City council will backfire in the long run. We met it with a well-prepared united front strategy to mobilize working-class anger into a unifying force, pushing even some reluctant labor and liberal leaders into alliance with socialists to fight big business. This unity forged will pay even bigger dividends for Seattle’s working class in the months and years ahead. The role of Socialist Alternative, with our clear analysis, strategy, and a politically self-confident membership, was absolutely vital to moving these wider forces into united action.

As the wave of socialist election campaigns across the country continues to expand, our experience in Seattle should be a sobering warning of the ruthlessness of big business. At the same time, there are rich lessons of how we fought back, laid the basis for further victories for our class, and potentially even how we came back to score a victory over the richest man in the world in this election.

By Ty Moore