March’s opening ceremonies for U-Link light rail and the Capitol Hill Station were the type of backslapping events that delight most politicians. Officials got to deliver a tangible and popular project while local representatives bolstered their profile and political resumes.
It was also the type of event Kshama Sawant has, for the most part, completely avoided during her time on the Seattle City Council leading District 3.
For better or worse, Sawant has freed herself from the provincial politics and symbolic neighborhood appearances — the opening of Broadway Hill Park being another example — you might expect from a district representative. Along the way, she has chosen to steer clear of some more serious issues. Sawant was not out front in the response to this summer’s drugged drinks scare on Capitol Hill or the string of late night shootings around Pike/Pine. Neighborhood efforts like the Melrose Promenade and improving lighting at Cal Anderson Park have also been the kinds of topics and initiatives Sawant’s camp has chosen to keep out of the representative’s Twitter feed and talking points.
But where some might see missed opportunities, many Capitol Hill leaders CHS talked with look favorably on Sawant’s alternative leadership style. While some told CHS they would like to see more engagement at the neighborhood level, there was also a sense that Sawant is playing a crucial role on the council by bringing it further to the left on many issues important to Capitol Hill.
“Of course I wish she would be more explicit in leadership and engagement in our district, but I really appreciate the fact that when she’s had a vote … she’s landed on the side of social justice,” said Zachary DeWolf, president of the Capitol Hill Community Council.
Early on in Sawant’s first term at City Council, she and her office gained a reputation as difficult to reach and uninterested in neighborhood-level concerns. Sawant’s staff was, and continues to be, largely drawn from Seattle’s socialist activist community and presumably less familiar with City Hall’s brand of constituent outreach and “retail politics.”
Those that spoke with CHS agreed Sawant’s office has turned things around in 2016, although other council members have made more overt gestures at district representation. Council member Debora Juarez has carried the mantel so far, holding regular open meetings in her North Seattle district.
Sierra Hansen, executive director of the Capitol Hill Chamber of Commerce, said she wishes Sawant would take some cues from the District 5 rep.
“There is a sense that she doesn’t listen to a broad range of business interests,” Hansen said. “The district council system was supposed to get council members back to issues on the ground, and we just haven’t seen that.”
Troy Meyers, who chairs the East Precinct Advisory Council said he was worried that when Sawant was first elected that she was too much of a “one-note” candidate on minimum wage and was not paying close enough attention to public safety. But this year Meyers said Sawant has come three EastPac meetings and the council maintains an open dialogue with her office.
“She takes copious notes and shares her position,” Meyers said. “It surprised me to see how she developed from when she first ran.”
It is hard to imagine District 3 voters did not know what they were getting when they elected Sawant into office last year. A member of Socialist Alternative, Sawant was known as the Occupy candidate when she entered her first race for state rep against House Speaker Frank Chopp in 2012. Since then, she has been a vocal and consistent opponent of capitalism, which along with appearances in Washington D.C. and New York City, have earned her some national attention.
During her election night victory party in 2015, Sawant gave a rousing speech but included no mention of District 3. When asked why, she said separating the issues facing District 3 from broader social struggles was a false dichotomy.
“If you look at the issues that are the most urgent issues in District 3 … it’s the problem with the affordable housing crisis, the problem we have with traffic gridlock and the need for world class mass transit,” she told CHS at the time. “What stronger referendum are you going to find on what the people of District 3 want than the election itself?”
To her point, there is little in the way of a specific “District 3 agenda” for her to represent. So far, District 3 as a vessel for citizen organizing has been mostly empty in city politics despite some early excitement about a forging a new political identity in town. A District 3 Facebook page remains active with over 1,700 members, but the group has little presence offline.
In many ways, the City Council remains a body of issue-based representatives. Capitol Hill community leaders that spoke with CHS said they usually seek out the council member working on their specific issue rather than automatically going to Sawant. For instance, members of the Capitol Hill Champion, which worked to insert community priorities into the future Capitol Hill Station development, worked closest with District 4 rep Rob Johnson given his interest in transit and position on the Sound Transit board.
Workers rights, police accountability, and social justice are Sawant’s bread-and-butter issues. She is also the go-to member for those seeking to pull debate on any issue farther to the left — one of her strongest selling points in her two successful bids for City Council. Sawant may have even set a precedent for future District 3 reps to be the council’s far-left counterweight.
“I’m not used to the district system enough to know if it’s worth the sacrifice,” said Brie Gyncild of Central Seattle Greenways. “She’s not the typical council member, and I think that’s OK.”
That’s not to say there isn’t room for districts and issue-focused representatives. In theory, districts open possibilities for neighborhood level leaders to get elected to office and run across a smaller geographic area. And for residents who are new to city politics and don’t know what council members work on which issues, having a district representative provides an obvious first contact.
Not helping matters is a major upheaval in the city’s system of citizen lead neighborhood representation. In July Mayor Ed Murray made a surprise announcement that the city would begin a process to sever ties with the 13-district council system and replace it with the help of a new Community Involvement Commission. The future of the council’s is unclear, but Capitol Hill’s East District Council appears set to fold.
Meyers, who also sits on the Central Area district council, said he wants to see Sawant fight to ensure the Central District maintains a strong position in being able to secure neighborhood grants — a primary function of the neighborhood council system. He said the district council would be reaching out to Sawant soon.
“She tends to not engage unless you engage her,” Meyers said. “I can’t say that if you engage with her she is not willing.”