On the surface, there is nothing particularly remarkable about the YouTube video. The clip from November 29, 2011, hasn’t been viewed much more than 2,900 times. Like many other ‘flash mob’ videos from the era, the camera slightly shakes as five dancers, surrounded by Black Friday shoppers at Westlake Center and Mall, swells to nine and then to over 20 in a rehearsed group choreography to John Mayer’s “Waiting on the World To Change,” and Jessie J’s “Price Tag.”
If anything about the video stands out, it’s the chant “Occupy Seattle!” heard from the performers. What’s most remarkable however is what the video does not show: it captures one of the few times the worlds of Kshama Sawant and Egan Orion’s overlapped before this years’ election. Now both are vying for the same seat on the city council.
Orion, who provided production support to the Occupy Seattle Flash Mob (according to the YouTube video), was a “Flash Mob King” then, producing hundreds-strong ephemeral public dance performances in Seattle and across the country.
Though she was not involved with the video, at the time, Sawant, teaching economics at Seattle Central College, had emerged as one of the most prominent voices and organizers to emerge from Occupy Seattle, an offshoot of the Occupy Wall Street protests against economic inequality.
Eight years on, the worlds of Orion and Sawant collide again. Both are running to represent District 3, which spans a wide area including Lake Washington-adjacent neighborhoods such as Madison Park, renter-heavy Capitol Hill, and the Central District, and part of the ID, on a City Council that will likely see historic turnover with seven of nine seats up for election. Sawant, who has served on the council for six years, is one of three council members up for reelection.
The city has changed immensely in the past eight years. Four — really, five — mayors, a new democracy voucher program, a declaration of a homelessness state of emergency, accelerated gentrification and displacement, a repealed employee hours or “head” tax and the appearance of “Seattle Is Dying” later, the fault lines — between visions of what Seattle has (or should) become — have hardened.
Sawant, of course, is a socialist. Orion is billed as the more business-friendly candidate. Sawant’s somewhat uncomfortable talking about her personal life. Orion, when we meet him in Volunteer Park, offers up intimate details political candidates usually don’t disclose to a reporter. (Failures and heartbreak. A tequila-fueled spat in the streets of Mazatlán, Mexico. The name of the person he lost his virginity to.)
Born to two teachers in Auburn, Orion grew up a few blocks from Green River Community College, where he was one of the few kids who took part in its theater productions. As a closeted “theater gay” in “very white, very middle class” Auburn during the AIDS crisis, theater was a reprieve from bullying and a way to express himself outside of the confines of school. In high school, Orion ran Students Against Driving Drunk and led his school’s chapter of Students Opposed to Apartheid. For the MLK Day assembly, he invited then-mayor Norm Rice to his school and set up a U2 “Sunday Bloody Sunday” slideshow with music.
Summarizing what would come next is nearly impossible in just a few paragraphs. Orion has lived many lives, worked many jobs, traveled to many places.
“I don’t look to see five steps ahead to see where I’m going and how I need to get there,” he says. “Everything to me is sort of an end to itself. And so I get to enjoy the process of everything.”
He worked in a clothing store, stockroom, frame shop, movie theatre, dropped his last quarter at Central Washington University after studying abroad in France, and moved to Seattle to write a novel while working in a shop that sold “rocks and slugs you could throw against the wall” and Enya CDs.
He’s been a barista at Starbucks, a self-taught web designer, a production specialist at Microsoft, a night club event producer on Capitol Hill, organizer of a flopped environmental benefit music festival, a tour guide and naturalist on cruise boats in Alaska and the San Juans, and he once joined the boat crew sailing down the Pacific Coast through the Panama Canal to Antigua and the Caribbean.
But Seattle, particularly its LGBTQ+, creative heart of Capitol Hill, was where he felt like he’d come home. “It felt like I had finally landed in bohemia,” Orion says.
In the mid-90s, Orion founded a “vegetarian co-op” house in Wallingford and changed his name to Egan River Zigzyakutakek Orion. “I sort of felt myself become an adult finally, finding a settling place.”
The switch to his current name, Egan Kennedy Orion, came five years ago, on June 6, the day of Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1968.
Orion would rather discuss another reinvention. In 2007, he took over the financially troubled PrideFest, where he is now executive director, a mere six weeks before it was slated to start. He reinvigorated and reinvented the yearly LGBTQ+ celebration. Last year, he also took the helm of the Broadway Business Improvement Area. He was hired as executive director of the now-defunct Capitol Hill Chamber of Commerce in early 2019.
“I helped to make life a little better for folks, whether it be through the advocacy work we do with PrideFest, or the capacity[building] with local nonprofits or simple things, the joys of other events or someone participating in a flash mob. I want people to feel connected to one another and feel connected to community,” he says.
Running for office “is not necessarily been something that I’ve been cultivating a desire to be for a long time,” he says. “It so happens that I believe I’m the right candidate at the right time for the right office when our city needs new leadership.”
Orion had no plans to run before this year. He was fine throwing his weight behind the nonprofit director and former Capitol Hill business owner Beto Yarce running for city council in District 3.
But Orion’s first speech when he took over as executive director of the Capitol Hill Chamber of Commerce during ‘State of the Hill’ “felt like a campaign speech.” Then Yarce dropped out of the race. Orion didn’t see the other candidates standing a chance against Sawant.
So he considered running, and turned to LGBTQ elders, his parents, friends, and some well-connected people in the city, such as Louise Chernin of the GSBA and former council member and mayor Tim Burgess, for guidance and advice.
“He was asking a lot of kind of nitty-gritty questions,” Burgess says. “How do things get done at City Hall?” They also discussed homelessness, policing, transportation, and “good governance,” according to Burgess.
“Out of all the candidates running citywide, he impressed me the most as someone who started as pretty much a novice and has grown tremendously in terms of what he’s learned about how city government functions, where he’s placed his priorities on what I would call good governance and accountability,” Burgess says.
Burgess adds that his conversations with Orion stopped before he founded People for Seattle, a new Political Action Committee built on the creed of “accountability,” “good governance” and “pragmatism” — terms that recur in Orion’s campaign messaging and interviews — as well as top donations from prominent business people.
Orion is endorsed by People for Seattle, as well as CASE, the Amazon and Vulcan-fueled political arm of the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce. CASE has spent over $160,000 on his behalf, People for Seattle $18,937.
This year’s independent expenditures dwarf those of the District 3 campaign for city council in 2015. But the arms race then, between Urban League CEO Pamela Banks against incumbent Sawant, has echoes in this year’s election. In 2015 as today, the campaign money raised in the D3 race outpaced all others (currently at a total of over $500,000, with Sawant at $324,257) As now, the challenger had previously revived a financially troubled organization and was seen as either a “community activist” or “establishment candidate”, depending on who you’d ask.
Endorsements ran a similar path as well (Banks was backed by Tim Burgess, CASE, The Seattle Times and Vulcan execs, Sawant by The Stranger, O’Brien, and others, though some cracks have appeared in her labor base, as Crosscut reported), as did the criticism of Sawant. Opponents argued that she was too critical, a “berating” ideologue too busy rallying to care for her constituents.
Plenty has changed, too. PACs have become a flashpoint in this year’s elections, with some under scrutiny for negative ads or photoshopped mailers. Higher voter turnout, particularly in higher-income homeowner districts in D3, suggests a newly energized electorate, and perhaps a sharper focus on micro-district and neighborhood issues. And while Sawant easily bested challengers in the 2015 primary with 52.03%, she emerged from this year’s primary with 37%.
As in 2015, Sawant can fall back on a dedicated supporter base and tremendous name recognition. Thanks to many local and national profiles written about her when in 2013 she became the first socialist elected to the City Council in over a century, the outlines of her biography are largely known.
Sawant grew up in a working/middle-class household in Mumbai, India, where she studied computer science. Upon moving to the US, she briefly worked as a software engineer. But the questions she’d been asking herself since she was young — “why is the world like this,” and “why should it be like this?”— kept nagging at her, and a Ph.D. in economics was another way to find more answers. She finished her dissertation in Seattle after moving here for her then-husband’s job at Microsoft.
Around the same time, Sawant started attending political meetings and rallies. During an anti-war meeting where an Iraq war veteran spoke, her eye fell on some Socialist Alternative publications on a table outside. Their analysis of class-based capitalism was something she could get behind. “And then I attended a meeting and then I never looked back.”
While she cobbled together “a poverty wage” teaching at various universities and volunteering for nonprofits, Sawant’s star rose at Socialist Alternative, an international Trotskyist political organization. As the SA candidate, she unsuccessfully ran for the Washington House of Representatives in 2012, later beating four-term incumbent Richard Conlin for a seat on the City Council, where she’s served since.
Anyone who has seen Sawant speak in front of a rapturous, red-shirted audience will have a hard time imagining her quiet, uncomfortable. But when we meet her at the Central District coffee shop Squirrel Chops, she nearly shrinks in front of the camera. During our interview, even when talking about her personal life, she often makes herself disappear behind a cloud of points about inequality or politics.
Asked what it was like to move to the US, Sawant brings up Mumbai’s density, and the shock of moving to the US, a country so rich, but its public transit inadequate. Talking about her stint as a software engineer at Nortel, in North Carolina, where she worked on contract, is also a reason to mention contract workers at Google are unionizing. Explaining why she loves the intellectual challenge of computer programming is also an opportunity to make a point: Lots more people would be able to do it if we had better funding of public education.
Sawant says talking about herself makes her somewhat uncomfortable, but that she does it to show she is not “personally extraordinary.” The victories “standing up against big business”? That’s the movement, she insists. Not her.
Six years in, as Sawant’s track record on the council is measured, Orion and opponents argue she has moved the Council “to the left, but not forward,” and that she’s “divisive” and too beholden to Socialist Alternative.
Sawant argues there are many victories to celebrate: $15 minimum wage, replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous People’s Day, a cap on rental move-in fees, the “Carl Haglund law”, the “tens of millions of dollars we’ve won for affordable housing to the People’s budget” and more.
But, she adds, “far more important than any individual policy victory we have won, and of which we have won many, is the example of how working people can get organized and fight back and [that] you should reject the message that the capitalist society sends to you, which is: ‘You are a nobody. If you have student debt, if you are nearly homeless, if you can’t pay your rent, it’s your fault. You screwed up. And the billionaire who has all this money, he somehow did everything right.’ To push back against that message”
She also says she’s always been upfront about her membership of the party. And even after dismissed ethic complaints about their influence in her office, she doesn’t think her dedication to the party has become a liability.
The criticism, according to Sawant, merely attacks something she’s been clear about from the start: that using her elected office as an “organ of movement building” is the only strategy for winning “victories for working people.” She says she doesn’t accept the idea that one needs to stop being an activist once elected.
“My power comes from bringing transparency into city hall by forcing every politician to answer to the movement.”
“She helps make room for progressives to maneuver without being branded as socialist. Having an actual socialist allows progressives to be progressive,” says David Goldstein, who helped ghostwrite Sawant’s not-yet-published memoir, and is currently a senior fellow at Seattle-based think tank Civic Ventures. (Civic Ventures is a major donor of the PAC Civic Alliance for A Progressive Economy, which has spent $91.24 on Sawant’s behalf).
“She’s essentially kind of a conscience in Seattle. And it’s not always pleasant to listen to your conscience.”
As for listening herself, Sawant insists she does. She and her staff meet with “people from all points of view.”
“To give you a concrete example, when we were fighting for $15 an hour, we had many meetings with business representatives who totally opposed $15 an hour,” she says.
“So when they say, I’m not listening; they don’t actually mean I’m not listening because that’s not a fact… What they’re complaining about [is] that I don’t agree with them.”
The issue here is perhaps best exemplified in what both candidates say about what has essentially become Orion’s campaign origin story: as director of the Broadway Business Improvement Area, he wanted to get outreach workers back to Capitol Hill but says his pleas fell on deaf ears with Sawant, forcing him to work with other officials in what is Sawant’s district.
To Sawant’s office, the issue is not a question of responding (Ted Virdone, a policy analyst in Sawant’s office, said he had at least two phone conversations.) It’s a matter of agreement. It’s that the office doesn’t think the Chamber “which fiercely campaigned against the Amazon Tax and other funding for affordable housing and homeless services, should be given public money,” Virdone wrote (link included) in an email.
Sawant and Orion do agree on some issues. They are also both dog people (Orion has a yellow lab named Oke, Sawant named her husky and mixer Rosa and Ché, for Rosa Parks, Rosa Luxemburg and Che Guevara.)
But how they see the world, and this election, sits on different planes. Sawant speaks about “the movement” and “working people,” Orion talks about “diverse neighborhoods and communities.”
When asked, at a forum this month, how they’d solve the increase in hate crimes against the LGBTQ+ community on Capitol Hill, Orion proposed a dedicated, well-lit lot with security staff, food trucks and bike chariots. Sawant said the only serious way to address LGBTQ rights and priorities would be to tackle economic, racial, and gender inequality with policies such as rent control and progressive taxation to fund publicly-owned social housing.
Much as she built her past campaign around the $15 Now cause, Sawant’s camp teed up rent control, social housing and taxing Amazon as the rallying flags heading into November. Sawant also wants to make Seattle a carbon-zero city by expanding public transit and making it free and electric.
Orion’s priorities are twofold. He says “taking care of our fellow humans,” living outside is a priority (by increasing low-barrier shelters, an Atlanta-like program called “Open Doors,” tiny house villages, bonding with the county for permanent supportive housing and reactivating empty buildings) but so are “the basics,” such as “fixing potholes, cleaning up trash, and making sure our neighborhoods are safe.”
Sawant pinned down the crux of her reelection campaign in simple terms from the start. It would be a battle over who runs Seattle: Amazon and big business, or working people.
“I know I want to live in a city rooted in social justice and which is affordable for all,” Sawant said during her campaign announcement. “I don’t think working people can afford to return to big business politics as usual in our city.”
Orion calls it a “quality of life election.”
“When you’re getting pushed out of a neighborhood, that impacts your quality of life. When you can’t take your kids to the park because you’ve seen a lot of needles there and you don’t feel like it’s a safe place for them to play, that’s a quality of life issue. When you’re stuck in your car every day for three hours, one and a half hours each side of your commute, that’s a quality of life issue,” he said.
Which one will be right in November?
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