November, 2015, Election Results: Some local elections mattered most!

While the corporate-controlled media focused on the higher level election results (such as the victory of the Tea Partier Mat Bevin for governor of Kentucky), some important local votes were also held. These include:

  • The election campaign of long-time activist, working class fighter, fracking opponent and socialist Cliff Willmeng for the city council in Lafayette, Colorado.
  • The ballot initiative for an immediate $15/hour minimum wage in Tacoma, Washington.
  • The reelection campaign of socialist Kshama Sawant for Seattle City Council.

Cliff Willmeng

Cliff Willmeng campaigning against fracking

Cliff Willmeng campaigning against fracking

A former union carpenter who was an active dissident in the Carpenters Union, Cliff became a nurse and moved to Lafayette from Chicago. He became involved in the campaign against fracking*.  As part of this campaign, Cliff is involved in getting a ballot initiative in Colorado to empower local communities to stop any sort of investment (including fracking) that the majority of residents feel is not in their interests.

As an emergency room nurse, Cliff also came in contact with firefighters, and through that, he got involved in a campaign to get their union recognized. From these experiences, Cliff explained in this interview that “you’re always asking them  (the elected officials) to do favors for you…. And we decided that we needed to start to take some power ourselves…. Through the campaign for city council, we decided that we could advance the ideas of the movement itself and… should I win the campaign as a way to (further) build the movement of grassroots communities.”

Cliff campaigned around the issues of community control over investment, union rights for firefighters, a $15/hour minimum wage, and similar issues. In the event, there were four elected, and they gained from 20.5% to 13.2% of the votes. Cliff got 9.8%, which is not bad for his first time running. (One of the things used against cliff was the complete coincidence that his mother happens to already be a council member. It was implied – completely falsely – that this represented some sort of corruption.) Most important, in many ways his campaign can serve as an example for others.

15 Now Tacoma

15 Now Tacoma activists. They come from all walks of life, but all are from a working class background.

15 Now Tacoma activists. They come from all walks of life, but all are from a working class background.

Tacoma 15 Now was one of the only such campaigns that took the slogan seriously; they got enough signatures to put a measure on the ballot calling for an immediate $15/hour minimum wage. An interesting addition was that their measure criminalized wage theft by the bosses. Following a militant May Day (2015) rally put on by 15 Now Tacoma, that city’s Chamber of Commerce called a meeting at which its leaders showed a tape of part of the rally and told their members that if they didn’t organize some sort of increase, they would be facing a far worse alternative – 15 now. As a result, they got together with the mayor and other officials and maneuvered to put an increase on the ballot for $12/hour phased in over two years. So voters had a choice: They could first vote “yes” or “no” on whether the minimum wage should be increased at all, and then if “yes”, whether it should be the immediate increase to $15/hour, or the phase in to twelve. Significantly, both the Chamber of Commerce and the restaurant owners association backed the raise to $12/hour, which means that they were backing an overall raise of the minimum wage by what amounts to 27%  over two years, rather than fighting it altogether!

In a very low turnout, “yes” won 59% to 41%, but 1b ($12/hour) won by 72% to 28%.

From the chain of events, it’s indisputable that this increase was due to the uncompromising position of 15 Now Tacoma.

Kshama Sawant for Seattle City Council

Seattle City Council member and member of Socialist Alternative campaigning for a $15/hour minimum wage two years ago. She should have stuck to her guns.

Seattle City Council member and member of Socialist Alternative campaigning for an immediate $15/hour minimum wage two years ago. She should have stuck to her guns.

The entire issue of an immediate raise in the minimum wage to $15/hour is related to the election of socialist city council member Kshama Sawant in Seattle two years ago and her reelection this week. In 2013,“15 Now” was her main slogan, and after she won her main political advisor and speech writer, Phil Locker, promised: “The key task for our campaign — and unlike other campaigns who say one thing when it comes to election time and have a completely different agenda once they are elected – our number one priority going forward is to fight for a $15/hour minimum wage in Seattle not 5 years from now, not 10 years from now… Now. Now!” Her election helped spur discussion on this demand throughout Seattle, as well as advancing discussion on the cause of socialism. All of this was very positive.

Unfortunately, she and her group, Socialist Alternative, made the mistake of waiting some four or five months to start collecting signatures for a minimum wage ballot initiative. Given the deadlines, that made it too late to get enough signatures, so they didn’t have that alternative route to take. The reason they had waited so long was that they had focused on negotiating with the liberal Democrats on the city council and trying to consolidate their support among the union hierarchy, who function as the representatives of the Democrats (and the employers) within the labor movement. They supported the Hotel Workers union leadership in its demand that unionized hotel workers be excluded from any minimum wage proposal that they (Socialist Alternative) would put forward. They failed to campaign among low wage unionized grocery store workers to help them get their union to back a $15/hour minimum wage. Through such actions, they proved to the union hierarchy that they were reliable allies. But at the same time, they didn’t mobilize their own potential power base, leaving themselves in a weakened position, forced to accept a proposal that wasn’t all that very different from what a much smaller group who lacked a city council member won in Tacoma. While the ultimate minimum wage ordinance reaches $15 in Seattle, it takes a seven year phase-in for it to cover all workers (as opposed to two years for all minimum wage Tacoma workers to reach $12/hour).

Supporting Local Democrats

The focus of Kshama Sawant and Socialist Alternative can also be seen in their support for five local Democrats who were running for city council in districts other than Sawant’s. This is more than a mistake; it is a violation of principle for the workers’ movement and for socialists to call for support for representatives of one of the two parties of big business.

This whole approach explains why Sawant didn’t support 15 Now Tacoma. She didn’t want to conflict with union leaders like Adam Glickman of SEIU, who said he “prefers to work with the business community” on the issue.

Despite this course, it was positive that Sawant won reelection by over 52%. Had she lost, the “rejection” of socialism would have been trumpeted by big business. And, if there is a real movement from below, it is still possible that Sawant and Socialist Alternative could move to a more independent position. Meanwhile, she will help put some issues like housing more in the spotlight.

Some General Conclusions

One factor in the results in Tacoma was the extremely low voter turnout. This even included among minimum (or close to minimum) wage workers – exactly those who would have benefited most from 15 Now. Low wage workers active in the campaign reported that they couldn’t get their co-workers to even vote. Other activists had similar experiences. In an election which was all mail-in, it doesn’t exactly take a massive amount of time and energy to bother sticking an envelope in the mail box. But so many feel so hopeless, so atomized, so powerless to effect any sort of change at all, that even this simple act doesn’t seem worthwhile.

This mood is slowly changing, but it still is there and for many it may take some powerful political or economic shock to drive them into action.

As this changes, what sort of direction is a movement likely to take and, most important, how can an alternative to the Republicrats develop? Elections – both for public office and ballot measures – can only accomplish just so much; the movement in the streets, communities and work places is vital. But as Cliff Willmeng explained above, participating in elections independently of the Republicrats is one important tool in the working class movement’s tool box.


It seems likely that local (and not-so-local) movements will continue to develop – around the issue of racism and the police, fracking, the minimum wage, you-name-it. It also seems likely that other movements will draw the conclusion that the movement Cliff is involved in has drawn – that they have to start running their own candidates for office, almost certainly starting at the local level. As a general trend starts in this direction, and as a few more get elected, then this trend may start to come together, first as a loose network and then developing into a more formal organization, in other words, the beginnings of a true mass workers’ party.

Kshama Sawant, as the first such elected socialist, could play a very helpful role in this process. To do so, she and Socialist Alternative would have to break with the union hierarchy, which will bitterly oppose any serious steps she would take in that direction, and she would have to stop supporting liberal Democrats like those who ran for Seattle city council (also like her de facto support for Bernie Sanders). She and Socialist Alternative would also have to break with their method of refusing to collaborate in a truly democratic and equal manner with others on the left. So far, the signs that they will be willing to do this are not very positive, but stranger things have happened.

Meanwhile, the crisis mounts and there rarely has been a time in the US when a serious socialist movement was more needed… or more possible.

working class one fist copy

For those unfamiliar with fracking, this is a disastrous process which not only adds to global climate disruption/global warming but also massively pollutes the air, land and water, contributes to birth defects, etc. (See this link for a series of articles on the issue and this article  in particular if you aren’t familiar with what fracking does.

Categories: politics, United States

5 replies »

  1. The question of Sawant’s relationship to the other Council candidates is an interesting one. I don’t know or recall all the details. I believe that all the candidates sought endorsements from local Democratic Party committees, but only Sawant did so as a non-Democrat. This led to a Sawant victory where in at least one precinct committee, the vote for “no endorsement” was seen as a backdoor Sawant endorsement. I don’t have a problem with Sawant accepting this kind of support. I also don’t have a problem with Democrats like Larry Gossett and Pramyla Jayapal endorsing her. I agree it would be unprincipled for her to return this type of favor, like she did the time she attended the Larry Gossett fundraiser. On the other hand, I don’t think she can be faulted for acknowledging that some candidates are positioned closer to her than others. For example, it’s probably a safe bet that Jon Grant (who lost), liberal Democrat though he is, would have given her a few more votes on the issues than his opponent Tim Burgess will. Acknowledging this is not the same thing as endorsing Jon Grant or campaigning for him. A mass movement is still the key ingredient here, but just how strong a mass movement is needed at any given point, to make a particular gain, is hard to predict. It seems likely that Burgess, a favorite with developers and the police, may put up more resistance to Sawant’s agenda than Grant would have, at least initially. The fact that those who tried, at least partially, to align themselves with Sawant tended to lose, will be taken as a sign of weakness. It means that the imperative for building a strong mass movement is even greater.

    It may be that Sawant did go too far, and did actually exchange support with Democrats beyond Larry Gossett. I’ll need to see the evidence.

  2. How can there be the slightest doubt? In this article (http://www.socialistalternative.org/2015/10/22/seattle-city-council-seats-grabs-left/), they write about the need to “kick out the conservative majority” of the council. They write:
    “There are a number of progressive candidates running for council positions this year on a broadly anti-corporate, anti-establishment basis. Progressive workers and youth in Seattle will understandably vote for them, along with Councilmembers Kshama Sawant and Mike O’Brien, in an attempt to elect a City Council that will finally stand up against big business. There is no doubt their election would be a big step forward and would be a welcome relief from years of conservative domination of the City Council.
    These progressive candidates have agreed to join Sawant in pushing for a number of important reforms to begin to address Seattle’s affordable housing crisis. Citywide candidates Jon Grant (Position 8), and Bill Bradburd (Position 9) as well as Lisa Herbold (District 1), Tammy Morales (District 2), Michael Maddux (District 4), all joined Sawant to support a package of progressive housing policies they pledged to pass in the first year of the new council if they have the majority…”

    This is a clear call to vote for these individuals. There is no other way to interpret it.

  3. OK, I went back and gave the article you linked to a careful read. You are right. She endorsed them with criticism. I guess she thinks of them the same way she thinks of Larry Gossett, as “not part of the real establishment.” She appears to be placing her stock in the left wing of the Democratic Party. If her power base is the collective strength of the working class she shouldn’t need Democrats. However much they may feel they need to align with her to gain legitimacy and support, she is making a mistake to return the favor. It undermines her independence, and the independence of those she seeks to represent. She will end up replacing fierce support from radical and militant sections in the working class, with tepid support from Democrats. This is a failing strategy. She says she is a revolutionary socialist. Revolutionary socialists don’t wander off and play footsie with Democrats.

  4. The main point is this: What’s clearly happened is that Sawant and Socialist Alternative are not looking at how to organize a workers’ movement that is independent of the Democrats. That’s because, of necessity, that movement will come into conflict with the union leadership, with whom Socialist Alternative is aligned. So, since they can’t see themselves building such a movement, that leaves them with one political option: align themselves with the liberal Democrats.

  5. True. One thing that makes the idea that Sawant should have a hard and fast rule against endorsing Democrats a little confusing is that on some of the issues, some of her fellow candidates actually had better positions than she did. For example, her opponent in the race came out quickly in favor of the Black Lives Matter activists who disrupted the Bernie Sanders rally. Sawant never uttered a single word in support. There was at least on Democratic Party candidate for City Council in nearby Tacoma that endorsed the Tacoma $15 Now initiative. Sawant never did. Another Seattle candidate, John Grant made a good statement in favor of the Black Lives Matter activists and I can’t think of any other issue where he did not line up strongly or even lead Sawant on the issues. He also refused to take corporate money and at one point seemed to indirectly criticize Sawant and her tendency to achieve consensus on the council. He said if you are getting unanimous votes for your proposals, you are probably not pushing hard enough. Grant was outspent 8 to 1, in the campaign, unlike Sawant who actually outspent her opponent. Grant had $627,000 spent against him, Sawant only had $428,640 spent against her. I haven’t taken the time to document all this, but you can google search it, or I’d be willing to provide the links if anyone doubts what I’ve said.

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