It’s clear that after last week’s elections, Seattle is in no danger of losing its place as the new West Coast capital of socialist politics.
But a reading of results on ballot measures and Seattle City Councilwoman Kshama Sawant’s comfortable re-election may obscure other indications that Seattle socialist movement has stalled, at least for now.
In general, Seattle affirmed and intensified its reputation as a bastion of liberal politics. They passed a transportation package that will move bikes — but not cars — marginally more efficiently and substantially more expensively through downtown.
Seattle voters also stood apart from the rest of Washington by rejecting yet another widely popular measure meant to constrain the state’s ability to raise taxes — Initiative 1366.
For good measure, they enacted an arguably unconstitutional, property tax-funded public campaign financing scheme, one that must have union and community organizers salivating in anticipation of opportunities for graft and electoral corruption like Seattle hasn’t seen for maybe a century or more.
One might assume that if you’re a moderate Democrat in Seattle, after all of those harbingers of civic decay rolled in, Sawant’s re-election would have come as a coup de grâce — a finishing blow.
Nevertheless, it’s easy to imagine that some of Seattle’s moderate city council members and frustrated business leaders may have quietly celebrated Election Night 2015 as “Freedom from Sawant Day.”
That’s because amid all of the signs that Seattle’s political hue has darkened from navy blue to blue-black, Sawant’s brand of militant ‘eat the rich’ socialism failed to expand either its market share or its legislative power.
As Sawant’s influence over the Seattle City Council has been enabled by belief that she represented the leading edge of a surging socialist tilt, so would the rejection of two city council candidates who campaigned alongside her on the issue of rent control — Lisa Herbold (District 1) and Jon Grant (Position 8, at-large) — be recognized as the sleeper takeaway from the 2015 election: the empress has no coattails.
(Note: As of Nov. 12, Herbold only trails her opponent Shannon Braddock by six votes. Yes, that’s the number six as in half the number of eggs that go into the infamous mega-omelette at Beth’s Cafe. It’s hard to say whether a narrow win by Herbold would be interpreted as a mandate of any kind, but it seems certain that it can’t be seen as evidence of a socialist surge.)
Although Sawant’s ability to mobilize against her opponents has had moderates and progressives tripping over each other in a mad rush to move to the left, in order for those shifts to become permanent her ideological partners in crime needed to win.
Sawant may privately recognize the impact of Tuesday’s election, though socialist-friendly media may begin churning out cheap fan fiction featuring tales of secret Republican money and gerrymandered districts to explain away the losses by Herbold and Grant.
But money is just a means of activating voters, not a method of engineering votes. Voters spoke by rejecting candidates who did all but pinky swear to charter a Sawant-led caucus and form a new voting bloc if elected. Those losses dealt Sawant a double blow, politically, by depriving her of two reliable votes on her shoulders and by revealing to her adversaries that she lacks the power to unseat them.
Plain and simple: Sawant lost big time because elections matter more than choreographed protests when it comes to creating permanent political change.
I won’t cry for Kshama, but if she feels like forcing a tear or two she could reflect on the comparative success Tea Party and conservative groups have had in shifting the center of gravity in the Republican Party.
The stunning primary election ouster of then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor by Rep. David Brat (R-VA-7) in 2014 was one such event that sent a message to the GOP establishment.
Last Tuesday in Kentucky, another such message was pounded home by hardcore conservative Republican Matt Bevin, who had run an unsuccessful primary effort in 2014 to unseat Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, was comfortably elected to become the state’s next governor.
In Washington state in 2014, many Republicans held their breath through a narrow victory by Rep. Dan Newhouse (R-WA-4) against fire-breathing farmer and former pro football player Clint Didier.
Conservative wins are incentivizing the Republican establishment to face a reality: intense conservative urges still exist within its base. A craving for more active responses to fiscal nonsense and creeping codification of progressive social policy might have been dismissed if not for the wake-up call that only elections can provide.
Sawant is a key figure in a fringe movement within the universe of Democratic voters. Seattle elections this year were an early opportunity to transform the mobilizing strength of her movement into electoral victories and expand legislative power. She lost that battle to win the political heights. Whether more reasonable, pragmatic minds will read the tea leaves and move to circumscribe Sawant’s power inside a smaller, appropriately sized space remains to be seen.
[The story has been edited since publication to reflect the very close race in Seattle City Council District 3.]
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