“If we are serious about solving the most urgent problems that face the constituents, we have to do what works: having grassroots movements inside City Hall”
Since her first campaign for public office as the “Occupy” candidate in 2012, Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant has battled criticism about the effectiveness of activism in office.
With less than a week to go before Election Day on November 3rd, the socialist City Council member and candidate to lead District 3 says you only need to look at what she has accomplished on the minimum wage and housing affordability over the past year for an answer.
“A majority of people in the district are truly progressive and are looking at our record,” she said. “If we are serious about solving the most urgent problems that face the constituents, we have to do what works: having grassroots movements inside City Hall.”
Those grassroots movements have been fueled by galvanizing a small army of young workers, students, and activists — a group that had been detached from City Council campaigns.
Seattle Urban League president and Sawant challenger Pamela Banks has amassed a very different backing, one she says is more diverse and neighborhood oriented. Drawing on her years of experience in the Department of Neighborhoods, a founding board member of the Garfield High School Foundation, and organizer for little league baseball, Banks says she has an unparalleled relationship with district residents. Banks touts herself as a “city problem-solver.”
As president of the Urban League, Banks said she’s not opposed to activism in office as long as it focuses on local issues.
“You have to bring dark to light,” she said. “I know my community, I know the issues that are plaguing the community. It’s not about doing a rally. I keep telling people, ‘I want to do the work.’”
On issues, Sawant expands most of her causes to a global, universal scale while Banks focuses on the nuts and bolts. Both candidates are courting small business support as they enter the homestretch — but Sawant, naturally, is doing so by proposing forward looking, pioneering legislation while Banks champions building up existing programs in her four-point plan, which includes a City-backed loan program. Sawant’s plan released Tuesday is rent control for small businesses.
The two different leadership styles have played out in fundraising. Sawant has sworn off corporate campaign donations and touts just over 3,200 individual donors as proof of her populist appeal (Banks has 1,299). On the other hand, Banks has amassed 38% of her donations from within District 3 compared to Sawant’s 22%.
While district elections were supposed to get us less costly elections, that certainly hasn’t been the case in its inaugural year. Sawant has possibly set a new record for the most raised in a Seattle City Council race.
Even more money has flowed in recently thanks to independent expenditures. Progressive Seattle PAC has raised at least $15,423 for Sawant while the recently created Neighbors for Banks group has raised at least $18,000. In response to Banks’s call for both candidates to reject the groups, Sawant said there was a clear difference between the union-backed political action committee supporter her and the developer-backed group supporting Banks.
“There’s not a difference,” Banks said. “That doesn’t make sense to me.”
Sawant’s time away from City Hall at speaking engagements and rallies has been a cornerstone of Banks’s criticism. A longtime political consultant who was hired by Sawant in 2014 tells CHS a major part of his job was to help the City Council member connect with constituents and policy experts.
City Clerk documents obtained by CHS show Sawant spent $46,000 of her 2014 City Council office budget to hire longtime political strategist Jeff Upthegrove. According to Upthegrove, Sawant wanted to hire as many people as possible upon entering office, but could only offer benefits to a limited number under city rules.
Each council member gets roughly $323,000 in city funds for staffing and an additional $8,500 for non-staffing expenses for things like travel and magazine subscriptions according to Eric Ishino, finance manager for the city’s legislative department. Any leftover funds from staffing expenses can be used for other expenditures, like consultants.
To better understand how Sawant’s activist style fits in with the rest of the current City Council, an itemized list of member office budgets shows Sawant was the only one to spend city funds on consulting services. Invoices from Upthegrove meetings show he advised Sawant on energy committee issues, budget planning, and coordinating town hall events.
With all that, it’s decision time for anybody left undecided. After re-reading all of CHS’s District 3 coverage and mailing your ballot (c’mon District 3!), your final order of business will be deciding which election night party to attend. Banks will take over 18th Ave E U’s Tougo Coffee and Bannister while Sawant will be at her usual party spot inside Melrose Market Studios.