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Truthdigger of the Week: Kshama Sawant

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Posted on Nov 24, 2013
Vince Hosea

Seattle City Councilwoman-elect Kshama Sawant.

By Alexander Reed Kelly

(Page 2)

With Sawant’s election, it appears that Seattle residents have never had a better chance at determining their future. But they cannot treat Sawant as a conventional politician, or as the rest of their elected leaders have generally treated them—as dissociated individuals left to fend for themselves. To stick to the principles that distinguished her campaign—increased taxes on the rich, housing cost controls and a citywide $15 an hour minimum wage—Sawant will have to be a fundamentally different kind of political leader. Her success will still require her to get along with her colleagues, but her capacity to do so in the service of her causes will depend entirely upon whether enough of her constituents stand with her. Sawant knows she has no chance of accomplishing anything on her own. She will succeed or fail in direct proportion to the public’s continued participation in her campaign. City leaders will be forced to listen to her if thousands of people show up every time she endorses an initiative. If they don’t, they risk painting a clearer picture of their disinterest in the public interest. The push for a $15 minimum wage is one of the first priorities on Sawant’s agenda. She points to the struggle by workers at the Seattle-Tacoma airport to gain the support of voters in that measure as one of noble the models for more gains. Across the city, those who want such improvements have a shot at getting them. But only if they continue to overcome the inertia and cynicism that infects American politics everywhere, just as they did by putting Sawant in office.

It’s better to let the councilwoman-elect state her purpose in her own words. As she said to me, “We don’t have any naive idea that simply getting one voice in city council will solve all the problems in Seattle. No, if we’re to do any of the things we’re trying to do, we need masses of people to be involved in the political struggle.

“We will help to play a role in raising the confidence of working people everywhere and realizing that we have a lot of power in our hands and we can change, make change happen if we get organized,” she continued. “It’s not automatic. It’s not good enough to want it. You have to organize. You have to make a sustained and conscious and strategic effort to make that change.

“We have to build our side. We have to build the force and that is going to come from actively energized and politicized working people. Fast food workers, child care workers and everybody who needs a living wage has to come out and demand their right. ... We are only limited by our own diffidence.”

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Finally, she offered this simple and profound expression of democratic virtue, which is mouthed by leading politicians in various ways but almost never credibly said, and which, given the power and determination of the forces arrayed against her, should influence the way observers measure success in her first administration: “The benchmark [for our success] is how many people we succeed in empowering so that they become part of a process that determines their own destiny.”

After it was brutally dispersed by local governments around the country—sometimes with federal help—the Occupy movement was ridiculed as ineffective and broadly pronounced dead. But the pervasive need that underpinned that movement still exists, and Sawant’s election to Seattle’s City Council by a majority of the city’s voters gives it new, undeniable legitimacy. Those who oppose Occupy’s core goals—a society in which the needs of the vast majority of people are prioritized over the profits of a small number of corporations, and a democratic process capable of holding officials accountable—will deny the significance of any measurable progress that hits against their interests. Bizarrely, in the same breath in which they acknowledged the unheard of event of the election of a socialist to city government, some of the people I spoke with in Seattle suggested that victories by the genuine left-wing in city government were impossible. By electing Sawant, Seattle voters showed they know better. They now have two years to confirm their commitment to themselves.

Career politicians culled from the upper class merely say they want citizens to participate in government. They don’t. Neither do their friends at Goldman Sachs, or Amazon, Microsoft and Starbucks. Kshama Sawant didn’t take a dime from corporations for her campaign, and the whole of her actions so far cast her as a genuine people’s politician. For helping to empower her fellow citizens to take control of the political forces that shape their lives, and in a manner that proves the traditional process of politics is not dead, we honor her (and by extension, the entirety of her hardworking campaign team) as our Truthdigger of the Week.


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