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Kshama Sawant representing District 3 in effective ‘alternative’ style

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.

Sawant this summer with 7th District Congressional candidate Pramila Jayapal. Sawant has not been shy about her support for Socialist Alternative-leaning candidates (Image: CHS)

Sawant this summer with 7th District Congressional candidate Pramila Jayapal. Sawant has not been shy about her support for Socialist Alternative-leaning candidates (Image: CHS)

“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.”

Sawant as she was sworn in earlier this year (Image: CHS)

Sawant as she was sworn in earlier this year (Image: CHS)

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.”

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20 thoughts on “Kshama Sawant representing District 3 in effective ‘alternative’ style

  1. “alternative” ‘is another word for not representing us at all. I hope we aren’t so stupid when she is up for reelection.

  2. At the very least she should at least fake some interest in these local issues. I thought district representation was supposed to enhance the idea of neighborhood engagement rather than diminish it. Anyway, if it’s not something Sawant’s interested in, she definitely does her best to belittle it while mocking those who are. It’s so weird how someone with such high minded egalitarian goals can be so unkind (and less than generous) at a more personal scale.

  3. Grouchy commenters are grouchy but Sawant still won her primary with the highest turnout of any district. And I don’t think she has lost any support since then. To me the question is who is next to be surprised by the strength of a challenger from the left? Better look over your shoulders, council members and Ed Murray.

  4. “There is a sense that she doesn’t listen to a broad range of business interests,” Hansen said.

    Hopefully, she listens to them, then focuses on what is important to the majority of her constituents. Approximately what portion of Sawants’ constituents are business owners? One in a thousand?

    • It seems likely that a tiny fraction of Sawant’s constituency are accustomed to and very comfortable with “business interests” receiving a disproportionately-large amount of attention from City Council. I would expect lots of pouting, foot-stomping, and fear mongering from that minority as some sort of balance is achieved. Good job, Sawant.

    • A majority of her constituents patronize those businesses and might not be too happy if her policies cause those businesses close up shop. Some of her constituents may also be employed by those businesses.

      So until we reach the worker’s paradise of everything being owned by the state, businesses sort of matter.

  5. She’ll have a chance to advocate for District 3 when it comes time to site the Mayor’s proposed “safe consumption facility” for heroin users. Everybody agrees that a safe heroin administration space is a good idea- nobody wants it in their neighborhood. Sawant should argue for extra funding or concessions to the community if the council wants to locate the clinic in District 3.

    • Honestly, can’t we let natural selection run its course? No jail, no hospital… it’ll solve itself eventually. #SorryNotSorry.

  6. A representative from Councilmember Sawant’s office attended the memorial walk for Max Richards last Sunday. Her office has been front and center around this issue and I hope to see the progress continue. I want to commend her for it.

    Is there any other council member holding a “people’s budget hearing”? Nope.

  7. When does she next stand for re-election? It can’t come soon enough, and I look forward to her being booted from the Council.

  8. I have found her office to be responsive. Statements that imply that there “sense that she doesn’t” don’t really mean anything. A majority of the council supported such things as the minimum wage and it is now law. I am curious what types of issues people feel she is ignoring. Yes, the City Council and Rob Johnson is the chair of Planning, Land Use & Zoning and is the likely member to be most involved in much of this. I believe Sawant would likely become involved if a good number in the community became upset with what was being planned. She is a bit different. She is smart and so far seems to listen as much as any other council member. If there is broad dissatisfaction, it would be interesting to know exactly what it is–not just some vague dislikes. And as someone pointed out in an earlier post, District 3 had the highest turnout of any district and she did very well in both the primary and the general.

  9. I think people are missing the point with Sawant. She is, at heart, a symbolic candidate, whose main use to is to pull the city council leftward and be a legitimate socialist candidate. She’s never really advocated for district level needs, but she is ours because we are the ones liberal enough to elect her.

    • Silly me, I thought that a district representative’s main job was to represent her district. Wasn’t that the point when the council was changed to mostly district elections? If Sawant wants to represent the entire city, she should run as an at-large candidate.

  10. Given the number of votes she received, many must have supported her agenda. Also each of the council members are chair of some committee that is suppose to serve the entire City. Again, I just have not heard anyone able to come up with something they want her to do here that she is not doing in the District. One of the problems with the school board is that they are all district representatives and no one feels really accountable to or for the whole city. As long as the incumbent keeps those in the District happy he/she will not attract substantive opposition. I hope the City Council with its two at-large representatives will be better at looking at the big picture, while representing the whole city. Remember they all vote on issues in your neighborhood.