Critics have long accused Kshama Sawant of putting party before district in her work on the Seattle City Council. Documents published Monday by the Seattle City Council Insight news site seem to show that not only is the District 3 representative beholden to the tenets and causes of Socialist Alternative but that the Trotskyist political organization is also calling the shots in Sawant’s Seattle City Hall office. You can read the full report here — all the documents gathered by SCCI are posted here. SCCI provided copies of the documents to CHS in advance of publication for review and so we could begin our own reporting.
“The IEC agrees that the running and staffing of KS’s office in Seattle be agreed by the national EC of the organisation in consultation with KS,” conclusion number four of a resolution adopted by the worldwide Committee for a Workers’ International and Socialist Alternative’s National Executive Committee in December 2017 reads.
The alphabet soup directive — International Executive Committee, Executive Committee, and, yes, KS for Kshama Sawant — came last winter after a round of infighting over concerns that the Seattle City Council member’s office had been “unaccountable” to national leadership.
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SA isn’t officially a political party or organization by federal IRS tax standards. Unlike parties — including Democrats and the GOP — the organization does not have to disclose its leadership or make regular financial disclosures the feds require of political organizations. Its larger socialist rival the Democratic Socialists of America is also not a party but does have political nonprofit status.
According to the resolution and other internal Socialist Alternative documents reviewed by CHS, the Sawant directive appears to be part of a framework for setting her policies right down to how the veteran council member votes, what she will say about her decision in the council chambers, and who works on her city payrolled staff.
The new revelations come as Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office is also facing harsh criticism for its relationships with consultants and lobbyists, putting two of the major players in Seattle politics in new, harsher light around City Hall decisions.
According to a Seattle City Council spokesperson, Sawant was traveling and unavailable for media interviews this week. Socialist Alternative representatives have not responded to our inquiry about the resolution and the influence of the organization in Seattle City Council legislation.
Sawant’s vote this summer to confirm Seattle Police veteran Carmen Best as the city’s new chief is one recent example of the Socialist Alternative system in action.
In a decision controversial enough to require a committee to later compose a letter justifying “our vote,” Sawant got the go ahead to join her fellow council members in a rare moment of agreement and added her “yes” to Best’s approval. It was a decision apparently made, in part, well outside City Hall:
The August 13th “Understanding Our Vote on Carmen Best” letter — prefaced with a statement stressing the write-up as an “internal document” that could “complicate” Socialist Alternative’s “work in Seattle” if it were to be made public — laid out the process that apparently included prescription for what Sawant should say during her time with the mic before the vote:
That Monday, August 13th afternoon, Sawant followed the outline, joining the 8-0 vote to approve Best — but not before adding a “skillful” speech. “What my vote does represent,” Sawant said that day, “is a vote of solidarity with my black and brown fellow community members who overwhelmingly have urged me to not stand in the way of Best’s appointment.”
The committee approach to managing Sawant’s office may help explain some of the council member’s more surprising positions including last year’s campaign and rally to “save the Showbox.”
According to other internal Socialist Alternative documents, decisions about who is — and is not — on Sawant’s city office staff are also made at an organizational level.
In a letter from winter 2018 outlining staffing decisions for Socialist Alternative’s political activities in Seattle, the committee memorandum also includes direction related to a staffer working in Sawant’s City Hall office:
“The Seattle City Committee is meeting over the coming weekend of January 27th,” the Socialist Alternative letter continues. “This meeting will discuss an NC report and also Seattle structures. EC members from outside of Seattle will be participating as well.”
The revelations about Socialist Alternative control and management of Sawant’s office come as the group’s brightest political star is set to face another challenge for her seat on the city council. Already, three opponents have come forward to oppose the incumbent including a Beacon Hill neighborhood activist and a pot shop entrepreneur. Beto Yarce, a member of Mayor Jenny Durkan’s Small Business Advisory Council and director of a nonprofit dedicated to economic mobility for Latino small business owners, is currently positioned to give Sawant her greatest challenge.
Though her potential future opponents say they expect her to join the race, Leschi resident Sawant has not announced plans for a 2019 campaign and her representatives have not responded to our inquiries about her plans. Born in Mumbai, Sawant’s political career in Seattle was formed out of the Occupy movement when the economist was still teaching at Seattle Central and Seattle University. Sawant’s leadership, the council member has said herself, has been focused on larger, sometimes global issues.
Like many of Sawant’s political causes, the Socialist Alternative management structure also has global implications as the memorandum from the Committee for a Workers’ International — the international umbrella for Socialist Alternative-related parties — lays out.
“This meeting of the IEC recognises the tremendous steps forward taken by the US organisation,” the document reads. “This is reflected in the outstanding victories we have conquered in Seattle and more recently the marvellous election campaign in Minneapolis. We also recognise the rapid growth of the organisation which brings with it new challenges to consolidate the new members on a solidly Marxist basis.”
“The opportunities which exist in the US to build a strong Marxist party are of international importance for the CWI and the working class,” it concludes.
But the trove of internal documents makes one thing clear about any international implications of Socialist Alternative’s strategy and accomplishments — the relatively small, 1,000 or so member organization has its hands full right now running a City Council office in Seattle.