Local Elections: Four Activist Candidates

In politics, crisis also means opportunity, so the crisis  that exists within the working class, also means an opportunity. Millions of workers are casting about for an alternative to the Democrats. Many have turned to the Republicans instead, but that is not necessarily the end of the story.

The tendency away from the Democrats, expressed in the streets, is also being expressed in upcoming elections at the local level. Four local candidates for public office are an expression of this tendency. In three of these cases, they also are an expression of the lack of clarity of what a real, working class alternative to the Democrats means. On the other hand, one of these four really clarifies exactly that:

Tacoma: Sarah Jane Morken for City Council

Sarah Morken (standing) taking part in a lock-down to stop the construction of the environmentally destructive LNG plant in Tacoma.

First is Sarah Morken, who is running for city council in Tacoma, WA. Oaklandsocialist was able to interview her on the phone. (We asked the other three candidates for interviews but none of them responded.) In that interview, she explained that she became politically active due to the US invasion of Iraq, and started out supporting Obama in 2008. “That kind of burned me out,” she said, “because (it was) going down the wrong path.” She then became reactivated due to the Occupy movement, where she first encountered socialist politics through Socialist Alternative. Disillusioned by their support for Democrats, she left that group but has remained just as active as always. “I’m a union health care worker… a shop steward… and I was the secretary of Jobs With Justice for two years,” she said. She was also a core organizer in the 15 Now campaign in Tacoma – the only such campaign nationally that put an initiative on the ballot that actually called for a $15/hour minimum wage now as the name “15 Now” implies. She has also been active in the Justice for Jackie (Salyers) campaign. (Jackie Salyers was a young Puyallup woman who was killed by the Tacoma police.)

In the last year, she has been immersed in the campaign against turning Tacoma into “a fossil fuel corridor” as she puts it. Our elected leaders are trying to get a very large LNG plant here….” she explained. “We tried all the official channels…. There’s quite a vibrant really true grass movement here against the thing…. No one was running for office at this…. I’ve been wanting to run for awhile, my friends have been wanting me to run for awhile… but activists are so busy… but sometimes there’s an issue that makes you realize ‘you have to do this.’ And this is the final straw.”

Morken also is critical of the union leadership in general. “It seems like our union leadership, a lot of the campaigns that they work on are really geared towards whatever the Democratic party wants them to work on or whatever the Democratic Party decides is a reasonable ask” she said. “So we’re already hamstrung from the start because the Democratic Party is not going to do anything that will negatively affect corporate profits.”

She is also crystal clear on the role of the Democratic Party. “We simply have to have a workers party,” she said. “I understand all the reasons why people want to stay with the Democrats out of fear, but it’s not impossible to break from that…. We cannot use the Democrats as a vehicle for change. That party is a capitalist party, a party of Wall St., it always has been. It’s not going to be able to be changed…. People that get get very involved with the Democratic Party get changed by the Democratic Party; they’re not going to be able to change the Democratic Party…. Wall St. has two parties and the working class needs a party of our own.”

Elsewhere  she calls for quality public housing, democratically run by the tenants, for a community climate bill of rights including a green jobs program and legal protection for community members to take non-violent direct action to stop fossil fuel projects; for community control of policing/public safety (by which she has explained she means community run public safety committees, not attempts to take control over the police); to make Tacoma a sanctuary city and shut down the Northwest Immigration Detention Center; and finally for a workers’ party in the US “run by and for the working class.”

Morken is crystal clear on this all-important issue.

Seattle: Nikkita Oliver for mayor

Nikkita Oliver “presente”

Nikkita Oliver is running for mayor of Seattle. A community organizer and activist, Oliver emphasizes that she is also an educator and attorney. She has campaigned around the issue of gentrification and maintaining Seattle’s diverse population. “I believe that we are a city that wants to be diverse and wants to make sure we have equitable access to opportunity,” she says. She has also visited Standing Rock and that visit evidently made an impression on her regarding the police. “It was so glaringly apparent that the law and justice are not the same thing as you watched law enforcement openly protect corporations that were drilling on land that at that time, they had absolutely no permits to drill on,” she commented.

Following the election of Trump, Oliver explains that she “really starting to question why is it we do not view community advocates or organizers as having a political role and why is it that public service, when it comes to being elected to office, has been relegated to career political or those who have enough money and access to become politicians.” This is an important observation of Oliver’s and may become more of a general trend. In other words, the objective situation – including the election of Trump – drove her to run for office as a representative of the movement in the streets of which she has been a part.

An important part of Oliver’s campaign is the building of the People’s Party. The party criticizes the “dysfunctional” political system. “With each successive election the two party system has become more adversarial,” it says. ”

They write: “We are pushing a solution-based agenda which focuses on the issues faced by everyday working people rather than party politics. We, the Peoples Party, will engage in transformational hyper-local grassroots-led campaigns which 1) restore public trust in the democratic process, 2) encourage individual and community self-determination, and 3) transform the government and political process in the United States into an accountable, transparent, equitable, and accessible process…. It is our belief the whole of society will be healthier when we effectively listen to the grassroots, pull from the margins, and lift from the bottom.”

She writes on her web site that she will establish a local government that is accountable to all of Seattle’s residents…. (and) aims to work in coalition with city leaders, developers and community members to create a plan that provides truly affordable housing for all.” Oliver has been endorsed by Democrats Larry Gossett, and Mike O’Brien, Socialist Alternative’s Kshama Sawant, a number of socialist groups and a series of small businesses.

So, Oliver’s background, her base, seems to be moving her away from the Democratic Party. However, just as with the movement itself, her “People’s Party” is unclear (at best) about the class basis of this issue, about the fact that the Democrats represent the class that owns capital, the capitalist class, and that those who work for them – the working class – must have their own party; that that is the basis for a new party. Her talk about the interests of the “whole of society” seems geared towards stabilizing capitalism. Hopefully, these issues will be clarified. Without that, it’s hard to see how the “People’s Party” is very different from the Green Party at best.

Jon Grant

Jon Grant being arrested at Chase Bank, protesting that bank’s helping finance the pipeline at Standing Rock.

Jon Grant is running for Seattle city council. He ran for the same seat in 2015 and lost, but he says this time his campaign will be much better financed (due to Seattle’s “democracy voucher” system) and he will win. Grant was the director of the Tenants Union and prior to that a housing advocate with the nonprofit “Solid Ground”.

Grant has also been active around other issues, including Standing Rock, and he was arrested at Chase Bank protesting that bank’s involvement in financing the pipeline there.

As might be expected, the issue of housing is central to his campaign. According to Seattle’s liberal free weekly, “The Stranger”  Grant is proposing one specific policy goal now: The city’s new affordable housing requirements should mandate that at least a quarter of all new apartments are rent-restricted.” The city of Seattle is requiring developers to set aside between 5 and 11% of any new development for “affordable” housing; Grant says it should be at least 25%. One problem among several with this demand is the fact that what is defined as “affordable, is based on the income that is a certain percentage of the average income in the area. So, as a neighborhood gentrifies, and as more and more low income people are driven out, the average income increases, raising the definition of “affordable”.  The fact is that, just as in the health care industry, the “free” market and investment for profit has totally failed to meet the needs of working class people in the US. What’s needed is a mass program of public housing, not like the huge prison-like tenements, but attractive housing units which are under the control and management of the residents and the workers themselves, from the very drawing board on forward.

A registered Democrat, Grant has recently joined the Democratic Socialists of America. He is also endorsed by liberal Democratic city council member Lisa Herbold, former Democratic city council member Nick Licata and Socialist Alternative city council member Kshama Sawant, and “Democratic Party activist” Kiku Hayashi, among others. Some activists in Seattle seem to believe that Grant is not in the same category as are the other three candidates listed here as he is not really based on and from activism. From here in Oakland, we can’t really comment on that, but we are including him here because he has similar endorsements as Oliver and Jentzen and his program is not that different.

Ginger Jentzen
Ginger Jentzen is running for city council in Minneapolis, Minnesota. An organizer for the same group as Sawant’s, Socialist Alternative, she presents similar politics. She writes Minneapolis is at a crossroads. Nowhere is this more evident than Ward 3, where US Bank stadium sits on one edge while working class people are increasingly getting

Ginger Jentzen campaigning.

priced out of the city. We can’t afford a city where big business and developers decide what happens in City Hall. A $15 minimum wage is just one step in dealing with the devastating inequality in the Twin Cities. Our campaign is about building a new kind of politics based on the needs of people and the environment, not what’s acceptable to the billionaire class and big business.

“We need representatives who fight unapologetically for working and oppressed people, refuse donations from corporate executives and big developers, and view the social power of ordinary people as the key force of change.”

Also on her campaign web site, she vigorously attacks Trump and the Republicans, but not Democrats. Elsewhere she calls for a “left alternative” to Minnesota’s Democratic Party “establishment”, and attacks several funders who opposed the city’s $15/hour minimum wage ordinance. She also writes: To hold on to their conservative majority, the DFL establishment is going after the only sitting City Council members who dared to oppose poverty wages: Cam Gordon and Alondra Cano…. I will continue building the movement for $15 alongside Cam Gordon and Alondra Cano, and I want more pro-worker City Council members….. I’m prepared to work with anyone on concrete initiatives that benefit working people – both as a council member and as an organizer – even though I don’t think that the best path to do this is through the Democratic Party process.” This is the closest she comes to openly criticizing the Democratic Party as a whole – not just “the establishment” of the Party, but the Party itself, as a party of the owners of capital, the capitalist class. And there is the implied support for the liberal Democrats Gordon and Cano, who she implies are “pro worker”.

These four candidates represent something different from the run-of-the-mill liberal Democrats. That is what millions of people are looking for. And Oliver’s explanation of how she made the link between activism in the streets and running for office is extremely important; it may foretell a future larger wave.

However, the lack of clarity in the minds of millions is also seen in three of the four candidates, themselves. What to make, for example, of Oliver’s commitment to even work with with developers in getting affordable housing? Isn’t that similar to Obama’s working with the health insurance companies in devising the Affordable Care Act? Or both her and Grant’s apparent continued ties to the liberal Democrats? And as for Ginger Jentzen: Why does she not outright call for a break from not the “establishment” of the Democratic party, but the entire capitalist-controlled Democratic Party itself? Why doesn’t she clearly call for the building of a mass working class political party instead?

Unfortunately, it is only Sarah Morken who is crystal clear on these issues.

Union Leadership
Morken is also the only one who has expressed criticism of the union leadership and their close links not only with the Democrats but also with the employers. (She recounts an experience where her union leaders brought a boss – “Chef Jeff” – to lecture union shop stewards on how their job was to maintain a good relationship with the employers, for example.) But it is exactly these union leaders, along with many non-profits, who act as the nexus, the point of connection, between the working class and the capitalist controlled Democratic Party. They do it through the “progressive” wing of the Democrats, not through “the establishment” of the Democrats as Jentzen and her comrade, Kshama Sawant, always talk about. And as long as a candidate counts on the support of this leadership or is trying to count on it, they will be unable to take a clear position on the Democratic Party.

Politics: An Unforgiving Task Master
Politics is a very unforgiving task master. Lack of clarity on fundamental issues today leads to huge mistakes – and worse – tomorrow. Here in Oakland there is the indelible example of Ignacio de la Fuente. By far the most militant union business agent in the area bar none, de la Fuente ran for and got elected to the Oakland city council through the Democratic Party machinery. Within a short time he became the most corporate/landlord-controlled local politician in the city. The political forces overwhelmed him.

Where will the other three end up if they are elected? If their base doesn’t clearly understand the forces at work and what to expect of their candidate, how will that base be able to control their representative? What will stop the representative  from becoming the equivalent of just another liberal Democrat? Maybe, the best hope is that a renewed movement in the streets develops which will overwhelm any connections these three candidates have with the Democrats and their representatives in the workers’ movement – the union leadership. And as for Morken, maybe such a movement will propel her into office and will form a solid, clear base on which she can depend. But the working class movement is littered with case after case of leaders and would-be leaders who ended up getting caught in the trap set by the liberal Democrats and their representatives in the workers’ movement.

Oaklandsocialist urges support for Sarah Morken, based on her record and her program. We hope that activists in her area will participate in her campaign and that others will donate to it. (Do it online here.) As for the other three, given that we were unable to get to talking with them, and given the problematic positions they take on some issues, it’s not clear enough from here in Oakland whether their campaigns are actually clarifying the central task of today – the necessity of linking up their campaigns with the building of a mass working class alternative to the Democratic Party. This includes breaking with all the representatives of the liberal wing of that party. It is also unclear if their three campaigns might develop in that direction of clarifying and thereby helping accomplish this historic task.

We certainly hope so.

Since this article was posted, several people have commented that it didn’t include the fact that Sarah Morken is chair of her local chapter of the Green Party. We were not aware of that fact and would have mentioned it if we had been. We apologize for that. We don’t think that Sarah’s failure to mention it was intended to be misleading; it simply resulted from the fact that she has so many irons in so many different fires, which is a problem that a lot of socialist activists have and should be considered. As we see it, the Green Party is a petit bourgeois party, not a capitalist one, so there is nothing in principle wrong with being involved. But our experience with the Green Party here in Oakland is that it is largely not worth the time.

Sarah explains her position in the Greens this way:

“I accept and agree with the criticisms here.

My resources are limited, primarily the time resource. I jumped into the race at the last minute, because the other people running for that seat were either supportive or neutral on a dangerous fossil fuel project in our port.
City council has power to slow down the project and possibly stop it through legal means.

I understand and agree with many criticisms of the green party.

Thing is, in Tacoma, the Tacoma socialists CLP [Communist Labor Party – one of the local socialist groups there] were neutral on the fracked gas plant. Their local leadership made comments in private that were supportive of it. I heard that may finally be changing, based on some recent fb posts.

The DSA [Democratic Socialists of America] local has been neutral on it. 

Socialist Alternative is [against] the fracked gas plant, but they aren’t active in the campaign against it.

Green Party has been very active in that struggle. The co chairs of green party tahoma organized and took part in direct action at the construction site snd were arrested in may.

So I get the criticisms. There are reasons I joined and became chair of our gp local. I’m not convinced that the gp is a great vehicle for change, but in Tacoma it was the best option for me.”


Protester in Ferguson, August, 2014

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