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Originally published Sunday, August 11, 2013 at 6:22 PM

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Growing wealth gap spurs on socialist in Seattle council race

Kshama Sawant is the first socialist candidate in 22 years to advance to the general-election ballot for Seattle City Council.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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When was the last time a Seattle City Council candidate argued there was nothing extraordinary about herself? Or volunteered details about her recent arrest? Or freely admitted she expects her opponent to raise more money — by tens of thousands of dollars?

It’s been awhile, if ever, is the safe bet, which is also the answer to yet another question about the curious campaign of Kshama Sawant: When was the last time a socialist advanced to the city’s general-election ballot?

Sawant — who last week did just that by winning more than a third of the vote in a three-candidate primary field for the Position 2 council seat — is not your conventional candidate. And that’s exactly what she’s aiming for.

“There are some things that really set us apart from your-business-as-usual, corporate election campaigns,” said the 40-year-old Seattle Central Community College economics instructor and latest challenger to four-term incumbent Richard Conlin.

“Those campaigns revolve around the single-minded goal of advancing the political career of an individual. Everything else — including the needs of the people — is sacrificed.”

In a recent interview, Sawant largely deflected questions about herself, the individual, to instead focus squarely on the collective — or what she describes as her party’s primary goals: “fighting for social and economic justice.”

“There’s nothing unique about me,” she added. “I don’t want the main ideas of what we’re fighting for to be distracted by my stuff.”

What Sawant did offer, begrudgingly, about her own background were some generalities from an immigrant’s life that helped shape her into the activist she is today.

Born in Pune, India, Sawant largely grew up in Mumbai, formerly known as Bombay, India’s most populous city now with some 20 million residents.

“I grew up in an apolitical family full of doctors and engineers and mathematicians,” she said. “I wasn’t exposed to any particular ideology.”

She earned a graduate degree in computer science. But rather than seeking a well-paid career, Sawant sought answers to deeper social questions that resonated during her formative years, and became more pronounced after she came to America.

“Coming from India, what was striking is that you expect that in the wealthiest country in the history of humanity, there shouldn’t be any poverty; there shouldn’t be any homelessness,” Sawant said. “ ... But when I came here, I found it was exactly the opposite.”

Growing divide

The gap between rich and poor — and the social and political constructs that created it — fascinated and appalled her, Sawant said. After obtaining a Ph.D. in economics from North Carolina State University, in 2006 she moved to Seattle, where the social divide became even more stark.

“The vast majority of Seattle people are facing a city that is becoming increasingly unaffordable for them,” she said.

Sawant became active in immigrant-rights causes and with other progressive movements, before finding what would become her political party in 2008.

Formed in Europe in the mid-1980s, Social Alternative is an independent political organization that came to America with the working-class immigrants who supported it. In the 1990s, the group took root in cities with strong labor unions, including New York, Philadelphia and Seattle.

Now active in at least 15 major U.S. cities, the group denounces Republicans and Democrats as the puppets of big business. Its website declares it’s “fighting in our workplaces, communities, and campuses against the exploitation and injustices people face every day.”

In 2011, Socialist Alternative caught fire behind the “Occupy” movement, which articulated the frustrations among the politically and economically disenfranchised who blame corporate America for society’s failures.

Sawant became a key political organizer in Occupy Seattle.

“Our decision to run a candidate in 2012 came out of that experience and the prominence that Kshama played in the whole Occupy movement,” said Philip Locker, Sawant’s political director.

Sawant’s first campaign challenged Democrat state Rep. Jamie Pedersen in the 2012 primary. But she moved on as a write-in candidate to the general election in a different 43rd Legislative District race, against House Speaker Frank Chopp. She lost, taking 29 percent of the vote.

Now, in her second bid for office, Sawant advanced from last week’s primary as the runner-up in the Position 2 council race. She’ll face Conlin, who failed to crack 50 percent against two challengers.

Two decades ago

It has been 22 years since the last socialist advanced to the general election in a Seattle council race, city archivist Scott Cline said. In 1991, Yolanda Alaniz, a Freedom Socialist Party member, faced incumbent Sue Donaldson and lost badly.

Beyond Seattle, Socialist Alternative candidates are running this year in Boston and Minneapolis. But Sawant’s campaigns are hailed by her party as its most successful to date.

Although she touts her campaign results as signs of political momentum, Sawant still lost each race by double-digits.

Sawant has vowed she won’t take money from corporate executives or political-action committees but insists she can mount a legitimate grass-roots campaign against the well-financed Conlin.

Sawant’s campaigning so far has largely taken her to worker-rights rallies and other protests. In late July, deputies arrested her among a group peacefully protesting the eviction of a South Park man from his foreclosed home.

“If I’m elected, I would make my first order of business introducing an ordinance to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour,” she said. “Others may talk about it, but I’m the only candidate who’s committed to doing it.”

Sawant also said she’d seek to reform the city’s tax system to impose a fee on millionaires that would pay for public transit and would implement rent control.

She vows to “take only the average worker’s salary” — what she estimates at $40,000 — from a council member’s $120,000 of annual pay. The rest would go to social-justice causes, she said.

“It’s a scandal the City Council is paid that much,” she said.

Among her supporters, University Temple United Methodist Pastor Rich Lang said Sawant offers a true alternative that’s good for democracy in Seattle.

“If every City Council person was a socialist, I’d be for Conlin,” Lang said. “But given our culture, I think our option for socialism is almost necessary because there’s really no difference between Republicans and Democrats anymore. And, in this city it’s a moot point. Everyone’s a Democrat.”

Lewis Kamb: 206-464-2932 or lkamb@seattletimes.com. Twitter: @lewiskamb

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