You’ve seen the banners at political rallies and the sea of red t-shirts packed into City Hall. Socialist Alternative, a little known group outside Occupy and social justice circles just a few years ago, is a significant force in Seattle political activism.
The rise of SA has almost everything to do with the rise of it’s most prominent member, City Council member and District 3 candidate Kshama Sawant. With Sawant as the frontrunner in the August 4th primary, SA’s foothold in District 3 politics only seems to be growing stronger.
So, what is Socialist Alternative, exactly?
Technically, SA’s Seattle chapter is a registered nonprofit advocacy organization in Washington state. The national organization, a 501(c)(4) nonprofit, is nominally based in New York City. The organization doesn’t qualify in Washington as a “major political party” because it hasn’t run a candidate for president that has received at least 5% of the vote. Since Seattle elections are officially non-partisan, it is mostly irrelevant in regards to how the primaries play out.
It’s a much different story when it comes to the politics.
In practice, SA is an activist organization pushing a democratic socialist agenda that only recently became involved with electoral politics, beginning with Sawant’s unsuccessful 2012 challenge to House Speaker Frank Chopp. SA member Jess Spear also failed to unseat Chopp in the 43rd District last year. Sawant has said that she originally joined the group in 2009 after hearing a speech by a SA member.
The membership-based organization receives most of its funding through member dues. In 2012 (the latest year information publicly available through IRS filings) the national nonprofit accumulated around $140,000 in revenue, mostly through dues. SA says it doesn’t fundraise for Sawant’s campaign:
While the organization lists leadership positions for tax and legal purposes, SA organizers say major decision making is made through a 30+ member national committee with representatives from around the U.S. and Canada.
The elected body, which Sawant sits on though is not listed on SA’s website, only meets every other year. Otherwise, the organization is relatively decentralized with branches of varying sizes and levels of activity in some 50 cities. A Socialist Alternative newspaper is published out of New York City.
According to New York-based national organizer Bryan Koulouris, SA has its highest profile in Seattle, with Sawant acting as the veritable face of the organization nationwide.
“Socialist Alternative more than tripled its membership nationally in the last two years,” said Koulouris, who is in Seattle this week to help out in the the last push for Sawant’s campaign. Koulouris declined to say how many members SA currently has nationally or in Seattle.
Beyond attending rallies and marches en-massse, Seattle’s Socialist Alternative membership has been a pool from which Sawant has repeatedly drawn from. SA members are heavily represented in Vote Sawant, $15 Now, and Sawant’s City Council staff.
Philip Locker serves as both the political director for Vote Sawant and SA’s local spokesperson. Like SA, Locker said Sawant is ultimately trying to build a broad political movement where holding elected office is more of a means to an end.
“Her election and her campaigns have helped advance (SA’s) message and that’s part of her intention,” Locker said.
The organization traces its roots back to a group of activists who started organizing in 1989, though it didn’t become Socialist Alternative until 2000. Koulouris said the organization was hesitant to use “socialist” in its name as negative Cold War-era associations with the word remained prominent through the 90s. The distinction is still spelled out as a part of the organization’s mission:
The dictatorships that existed in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe were perversions of what socialism is really about. We are for democratic socialism where ordinary people will have control over our daily lives.
Around Capitol Hill, SA is essentially mainstream. A strong contingent of Democrats in the area even gave a nod to Sawant in this year’s primary endorsement vote. James Apa, chairman of the 43rd District Democrats, acknowledged the party’s appeal with some of his members.
“From what I’ve heard of SA support, there’s definitely common ground with what 43rd Democrats have consistently supported: providing a living wage, making housing more affordable …” he said. “But you also need to be able to put action to the rhetoric to make a real difference for people.”
Even though Socialist Alternative insists it will remain an activist organization at its core, the benefits of raising the group’s profile through elections has been undeniable. More candidates could be in the pipeline.
“As we grow and develop … it’s definitely something we’ll be looking at,” Koulouris said.