Kshama Sawant (/ʃɑːmə sɑːˈwʌnt/; born October 17, 1972) is an American socialist politician, activist and member of the Socialist Alternative who sits on the Seattle City Council. A former software engineer, Sawant became a socialist activist and part-time economics instructor in Seattle after immigrating to the United States. Sawant ran unsuccessfully for the Washington House of Representatives before winning her seat on the Seattle City Council. Sawant was the first socialist to win a city-wide election in Seattle since Anna Louise Strong was elected to the School Board in 1916.
Sawant was born to Vasundhara and H. T. Ramanujam in Pune, in a Hindu middle-class family. Her mother is a retired principal and her father, a civil engineer, was killed by a drunk driver when Sawant was 13. Sawant's observations of poverty in her native country and her unhappiness with the Indian caste system helped shape her political views before her adoption of socialism. Sawant grew up in Mumbai where she later studied computer science and graduated with a B.Sc from the University of Mumbai in 1994. She married her husband Vivek, an engineer at Microsoft, and moved to the United States. They have since become estranged.
Education and teaching career
Shocked by the level of poverty she saw, Sawant decided to abandon the computer engineering field. She pursued studies in economics because of what she described as her own "questions of economic inequality." She entered the economics program at North Carolina State University where she earned a PhD. Her dissertation was titled Elderly Labor Supply in a Rural, Less Developed Economy. Sawant moved to Seattle in 2006 and became a Socialist Alternative party member. She became a United States citizen in 2010.
She was a part-time teacher at Seattle Central Community College, a position that was not renewed. She taught briefly at Seattle University and she was once a visiting assistant professor at Washington and Lee University.
Washington State House of Representatives campaign
In 2012, Sawant ran unsuccessfully for Position 1 in the 43rd District of the Washington House of Representatives, representing Seattle. Sawant also ran and advanced past the primaries as a write-in win for Position 2. Washington state law allowed her to choose the election in which she would run, but as a write-in candidate, she was not permitted to state her party preference. Sawant successfully sued the Washington secretary of state for the right to be listed as a Socialist Alternative member on the ballot. Sawant challenged incumbent house speaker Frank Chopp in the general election on November 6, 2012. She received 29% of the vote to Chopp's 70%.
Seattle City Council
After her unsuccessful run for the House, Sawant entered the race for Seattle City Council with a campaign organized by the Socialist Alternative. She won 35% of the vote in the August primary election, and advanced into the general election for the at-large council position 2 against incumbent Richard Conlin, making her the first socialist to advance to a general election in Seattle since 1991. On November 15, 2013, Conlin conceded to Sawant when returns showed him down by 1,640 votes or approximately 1% of the vote.
Sawant's victory made her the first socialist to win a city-wide election in Seattle since Anna Louise Strong was elected to the School Board in 1916 and the first socialist on the City Council since A. W. Piper, elected in 1877.
Sawant declared a victory in May 2014 after Seattle Mayor Ed Murray announced an increase in the minimum wage to $15, which was the cornerstone of her campaign for City Council, but she is not pleased that large corporations will be allowed a few years to phase in the wage hike. During a speech at the City Council on the day of the vote she said, "We did this. Workers did this. Today’s first major victory for 15 will inspire people all over the nation."
Several Democrats endorsed her candidacy. Celebrity endorsements included Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello and System of a Down frontman Serj Tankian.
Sawant received no endorsements from sitting Council members but councilor Mike O'Brien expressed support of the idea of third party candidates while explicitly declining to extend an endorsement of Sawant. The Stranger alt-weekly endorsed both her State House and her City Council candidacy. Councilman Nick Licata also declined to endorse her but spoke positively of her campaign saying, "...she has been able to craft a message that is understandable, simple and eschews most of the rhetoric" and when her eventual election victory seemed unlikely, he expressed his hope that Sawant would not "disappear after the election if she loses. She represents the poor, the immigrants, the refugees – the folks who are not in our City Council offices lobbying us."
During her campaign, Sawant said that, if elected, she would donate the portion of her salary as a City Council member that exceeded the average salary in Seattle. On January 27, 2014, she announced that she would live on $40,000 of her $117,000 salary. She places the rest into a political fund that she uses for social justice campaigns.
Sawant unsuccessfully called for the expansion of bus and light rail capacity with a millionaire's tax. She has also unsuccessfully called for "transit justice", which would free user fares; an increase in free transit services to the poor, especially communities in south Seattle; and restriction of transit options to communities that "can afford other options" until the foregoing measures are implemented.
Opposition to U.S. support of Israel
During the 2014 Israel–Gaza conflict, Sawant unsuccessfully urged the Seattle City Council to condemn both Israel's attacks on Gaza and Hamas's attacks on Israel, and called on President Obama and Congress to denounce the Israeli blockade of Gaza and to cut off all military assistance to Israel. Salon called the open criticism of Israel, "something an American politician is never supposed to do". Sawant's call to condemn Israel's actions prompted a response from Israeli ambassador Ron Dermer, calling for Sawant to retract the statement.
Regarding her re-election campaign, on April 7, 2015, progressive journalist Chris Hedges endorsed Kshama Sawant.
The core issues of Sawant's campaign were a successful minimum wage increase to US$15/hour, an unsuccessful "millionaire's tax" or income tax on wealthy Seattleites, and an unsuccessful rent control program. Back during the 2013 campaign, Sawant had said rent control is "something everyone supports, except real estate developers and people like Richard Conlin" and compared the legal fight for its implementation to same-sex marriage, and the legalization of marijuana in the United States, both of which she supports. Her campaign for a $15 an hour minimum wage has been credited for bringing the issue into the mainstream and attracting support for the policy from both Seattle former Mayor Mike McGinn and Seattle current Mayor Ed Murray. In response to criticism that a $15 an hour minimum wage could hurt the economy, she said, "If making sure that workers get out of poverty would severely impact the economy, then maybe we don't need this economy."
She is also a supporter of expanding public transit and bikeways, ending corporate welfare, ending racial profiling, reducing taxes on small businesses and homeowners, protecting public sector unions from layoffs, living wage union jobs, and social services.
Sawant's platform of non-local Seattle issues, like rent control, income tax, corporate welfare, supporting the miniumum wage outside Seattle, in SeaTac, Washington and other cities, and participating in the Seattle Arctic drilling protests drew as much criticism from Sawant's opponents as it won favor with her liberal supporters. Her District 3 opponent Pamela Banks said Sawant's status as a national figure, her travel and fundraising outside Seattle, speaking in support of her Socialist Alternative party, and her devotion to issues outside the jurisdiction of her City Council office were a dereliction of her primary duty to serve her constituents, "You can't represent the people without doing the work of government." Banks' campaign said that Sawant was out of touch with her constituents, too busy to meet with them, and that Sawant's strident political positions were divisive, alienating potential allies. The Seattle Times, in their endorsement of Banks, said the City Council "isn't a job for an ideologue" and that "the District 3 seat is more than a podium", that it "needs a collaborative leader to work with other districts and balance resources and investment."
Sawant advanced through the primary election for City Council District 3 representative on August 4, 2015 with 52% of the vote, 18 percentage points ahead of her closest opponent, Pamela Banks at 34%.
Voters returned Sawant to the City Council and made her the first District 3 representative in November 2015, with 17,170 votes counted for Sawant and 13,427 for Banks, or 55.96% to 43.76%. With incumbent O'Brien elected to District 6, and former Licata aide Lisa Herbold elected to District 1, they, along with Sawant, became the new progressive bloc of the Council, which became majority female with the addition of two other women, Debora Juarez and Lorena González. Sawant, as one of the four people of color on the new Council, also became part of a younger and more diverse Council, the first to seat members by district in more than 100 years.
Kshama Sawant is a member of the Socialist Alternative party, the United States section of the British-based Trotskyist international organization the Committee for a Workers' International (CWI). Sawant has stated that she does not advocate for any system like the "bureaucratic dictatorship" of the former Soviet Union, but for democratic socialism meaning "the society being run democratically in the interest of all working people on the planet, all children - everybody who has needs, and all that being done in an environmentally sustainable manner." The Socialist Alliance articulated the Four Conditions for Revolution. Sawant stated that her party had the lead for the anarchist 1999 Seattle WTO protests.
Involvement with Occupy
Before running for office, Sawant received attention as an organizer in the local Occupy movement. She praised Occupy for putting "class," "capitalism," and "socialism" into the political debate. After Occupy Seattle protestors were removed from Westlake Park by order Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn, Sawant helped bring them to the Capitol Hill campus of Seattle Central Community College, where they remained for two months. She joined with other Occupy activists working with local organizations to resist home evictions and foreclosures, and was arrested with several other Occupy activists including Dorli Rainey on July 31, 2012 for blocking King County Sheriff's Deputies from evicting a man from his home.
The Sawant state campaign criticized the raiding of Occupy Wall Street activists' homes by the Seattle Police Department's SWAT team. She also advocated on LGBT issues, women's issues, people of color issues and opposed cuts to education and other social programs. She gave a teach-in course at an all-night course at Seattle Central Community College.
Sawant has advocated the nationalization of large Washington State corporations such as Boeing, Microsoft, and Amazon.com and expressed a desire to see privately owned housing in "Millonaire's Row" in the Capitol Hill neighborhood turned into publicly owned shared housing saying, "When things are exquisitely beautiful and rare, they shouldn't be privately owned." During an election victory rally for her City Council campaign, Sawant criticized Boeing for saying it would move jobs out of state if it couldn't get wage concessions and tax breaks. She called this "economic terrorism" and said in several speeches that if Boeing moved jobs out of state, the workers should take over Boeing facilities and bring them into public ownership. She has said they could be converted into multiple uses, such as production for mass transit. Sawant maintains that a socialist economy cannot exist in a single country and must be a global system just as capitalism today is a global system.
Environment, education, and immigration
Sawant unsuccessfully opposed the construction of the Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement tunnel calling it "environmentally destructive" and "something most people were against, most environmental groups were against".
She unsuccessfully opposed the Seattle Public Schools Measures of Academic Progress test in public schools, and supported the teachers' boycott of the standardized tests. Sawant has called for a revolt against student debt saying that "the laws of the rich are unenforceable if the working class refuses to obey those laws." She is an active member of the American Federation of Teachers union and has been critical of American labor union leadership, saying the leadership, "...in the last 30 years has completely betrayed the working class. They are hand in glove with the Democratic Party, pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into their campaigns, and they tell rank and file workers that you have to be happy with these crumbs..." Sawant believes the American Labor movement should break with the Democratic Party and run grassroots left-wing candidates.
Rejection of major political parties
Sawant said she rejects working with either the Democratic or the Republican party and advocates abandoning the two-party system.
Sawant has encouraged other left-wing groups, including Greens and trade unions, to use her campaign as a model to inspire a much broader movement:
On November 19, 2014, Sawant was arrested on a charge of disorderly conduct at a $15 minimum wage protest in SeaTac, Washington. She was released on $500 bail. On May 1, 2015, a SeaTac municipal court judge dismissed charges against Sawant. The judge determined that testimony provided by police demonstrated that it was technically the police themselves, not protesters, who had blocked traffic.
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