It didn’t take long after my departure from The Stranger for my former colleagues to start going McGinn all over Kshama Sawant in a half-hearted attempt to, I dunno, look all serious and independent at her expense? Or something.
Coincidence? Feel free to speculate all you want.
The post could use a thorough fisking, but suffice it to say that Dom’s thesis is silly. Refusing to answer a question is not the same thing as saying “no.” Besides, to imply that Sawant’s steadfast support for $15 now somehow equates to a refusal to compromise would be like saying that I oppose Obamacare because I passionately support a single-payer system. What we want in life and what we ultimately accept are often two different things. How we get there is the game that’s currently afoot, and by refusing to compromise early, Sawant is playing the game a helluva lot better than Democrats did on health care reform.
But I must say that I am generally amused by the larger air of consternation from political and media know-it-alls over both Sawant’s posturing and her relentless execution of the 15Now.org campaign. Oh, the powers that be should be concerned, but not for the reasons they imagine. For the conventional perception of Sawant as an accidental council member is obstructing their view of what is arguably the most ambitious grassroots organizing effort Seattle has seen in the ten years I’ve been covering local politics—and a very real threat to the Democratic Party’s virtual monopoly on city government.
For the record, 15Now.org serves three distinct (though related) purposes:
The first and most obvious purpose is to prepare to fight a ballot measure campaign. Whether this is the $15 minimum wage now initiative—with no exemptions or phase-ins—that the organization threatens, or a campaign to defend a Sawant-blessed council-passed compromise ordinance from a business-backed effort to repeal via referendum, makes no difference. Sawant and her Socialist Alternative comrades believe that something is likely to go to the ballot in November, and so they are building a campaign organization to support or oppose it. That’s just plain smart.
The second purpose served by 15Now.org—the one that so many establishment types and their surrogates appear to resent the most—is strategic. Do you think Sawant really wants to go to the ballot? Of course not. “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting,” wrote Sun Tzu in The Art of War, and that is Sawant’s goal during these minimum wage negotiations. To this end, 15Now.org serves as the threat of force necessary to make diplomacy possible. Either produce a compromise ordinance that Sawant can accept, or face the hundreds of volunteers she is organizing throughout the city in a public battle over the already popular $15 minimum wage. Does the business community really want to take that risk?
Which brings us to the final purpose of 15Now.org, and the one that eye-rolling establishment types appear to miss entirely, despite the fact that it is occurring right under their noses: Sawant is using the $15 minimum wage issue as an opportunity to build the equivalent of a political party capable of pushing her socialist agenda far beyond the minimum wage issue itself.
Want to know why folks always show up at Sawant events? Because her volunteers are relentlessly contacting the growing list of fellow travelers they are assembling. Before every event I get an email. And a text message or three. And a bunch of tweets. And a robocall. And most impressively, a live person calling me to ask me to show my support. Seattle has rarely seen such an effective GOTV campaign for a local issue, and never outside of an election campaign cycle.
At every event 15Now.org volunteers are there with clipboards signing up even more volunteers and supporters. They’ve already organized eight neighborhood “action groups” scattered throughout the city, with a goal of organizing as many as 100 over the next few months. This is the equivalent of the established parties’ LD system—semi-autonomous neighborhood groups available for door-belling, phone-banking, fund-raising, and everything else that makes a party function. It’s a low bar, sure, but after just a few months it is safe to say that 15Now.org has already surpassed the Republican Party in terms of actively participating members within Seattle city limits.
To be clear, Sawant and her Socialist Alternative colleagues are not one-issue activists. They are using this one issue as a means of building a permanent organization capable of pushing forth their broader agenda on affordable housing, progressive taxation, and more. And their sights are not set simply on Seattle. Socialist Alternative chapters in New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and elsewhere are using 15Now.org‘s efforts here as a model for expanding the campaign nationwide. The word “now” may be prominently emblazoned in the organization’s domain name, but their emphasis is clearly on the future.
It is an outrageously ambitious goal. But those who laugh at Sawant as naive and out-of-touch and easy pickings for a Democratic machine-backed challenger in 2015, are in for a shock. For outside of the quadrennial statewide coordinated campaign, there is no Democratic machine. Only labor can man the type of campaign organization 15Now.org is attempting to build, and if you think that labor is going shiv an incumbent Sawant in favor of some mushy Dem, think again. Sawant is useful to labor, even if they don’t fully trust her, because she drags the whole council to the left.
You don’t need to be an ideological ally nor a pollyanna about their prospects to be impressed by what 15Now.org is doing. But you do need to be an idiot to ignore it.