Rocking the Billion-Dollar Boat in Seattle – Next City

Seattle City Council Member Kshama Sawant in her office.

Photo by Gregory Scruggs

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Rocking the Billion-Dollar Boat in Seattle

In the push to tax Amazon and other big businesses to pay for affordable housing amid an acute homelessness crisis, City Council Member Kshama Sawant rallies the troops — but also stokes division.

Story by Gregory Scruggs

Published on May 14, 2018

On an April evening, with skies clear enough to signal the end of Seattle’s winter gloom, Seattle City Council Member Kshama Sawant strode to a podium in front of the Amazon Spheres, a biodome for employees that has become the architectural symbol of the company’s massive downtown campus.

Sawant’s background — she grew up in Mumbai and studied computer engineering — is similar to many of the software engineers employed at Amazon, the world’s second most valuable corporation. Some of those employees peered curiously from mezzanine windows as protesters beckoned them to join the rally, held in support of a new local tax on large employers, the proceeds of which would directly fund affordable housing in a city whose homelessness crisis has reached unprecedented levels.

Other Amazon employees played with their pooches in a company-sponsored dog park only a few feet away from the rally, trying to ignore chants of, “Ho ho, hey hey, Amazon has got to pay!” Tourists snapped selfies in front of the cashier-free Amazon Go next door, while rally speakers decried how the company paid zero federal taxes last year while receiving a $789-million windfall from the newly reformed tax code.

“Every square inch of this city is starting to be a space that only the very wealthy, only the billionaires, only the most massive profitable corporations can inhabit,” Sawant yelled into the microphone.

Seattle house prices and rent-burdened households have soared ever higher, and the metropolitan area now has the third largest homeless population in the country. The consulting firm McKinsey & Company estimates that the region must spend at least $410 million annually to stem its homelessness crisis, which was declared a civil state of emergency in 2015.

“Are we going to accept this?” she asked. The few hundred before her waving signs roared back, “No!”

“That is why our movement to tax Amazon and other big corporations is gaining ground,” she said.

Today, the Seattle City Council is expected to vote on implementing the so-called “head tax” for companies grossing more than $20 million a year, taking direct aim at big-revenue tech firms — chiefly Amazon — that have made the city their home. The tax, which would charge a company approximately $500 annually per employee, is expected to raise $75 million a year for affordable housing and homelessness services. On May 11, the Council voted 5-4 to reject a watered-down, more business-friendly proposal by Mayor Jenny Durkan, which would have charged $250 per employee and raised about $40 million per year. Mayor Durkan has indicated she may veto the bill in its current form.

Kshama Sawant speaks at an April rally in support of the so-called “head tax.”(Photo by Gregory Scruggs)

The business community vociferously opposes the tax. Amazon itself recently made its biggest public political move in Seattle when the tech giant announced a construction pause on a new tower and signaled it may sublease Seattle’s second-tallest office building instead of filling it with its own employees, all pending the outcome of the vote.

Construction unions, fearing lost jobs, have packed city council hearings to oppose the tax, while homeless advocates insist the money is desperately needed as people die on the streets. Although Amazon is not a sympathetic character in Seattle, some homeowners have banded together in a show of neighborhood activism to protest the city’s desire to collect more revenue when they don’t believe existing funds are making a dent in the rising number of unsheltered people.

The heated debate around the tax has sharpened some divisions and created at least a few new ones, most notably between the corporate behemoth, Amazon, and the city with which it has become so closely associated. Somehow, Sawant has made her way to the center of it all.

A Socialist Awakening

Sawant was born in Pune, India and had a middle-class upbringing in Mumbai, with a family she describes as “protective and loving,” while also “apolitical and math-oriented.” The omnipresent suffering on Mumbai’s streets, she says, planted the seeds of her political awakening.

“I was obsessed with the question of poverty, injustice, and oppression from a very young age,” she said in a recent interview at City Hall. “But I was frustrated with the answers I got of why poverty exists.” Arguments that the poor didn’t work hard enough, for example, she found ludicrous.

“Human society has more than enough resources to solve this problem,” she said. “Was there a logical explanation?”

Sawant mulled those thoughts after she received her bachelor’s from the University of Mumbai in 1994, and then pursued a career in IT, first in India and then in North Carolina at the now-bankrupt Nortel Networks. As her philosophy on poverty and injustice continued to evolve, she enrolled at North Carolina State University to pursue a doctorate in economics. In 2006, she moved with her then-husband, another Indian software engineer, to a Seattle suburb, where he worked for Microsoft. She defended her doctoral dissertation, “Elderly Labor Supply in a Rural, Less Developed Economy: An Empirical Study”, in 2009.

That same year, she moved inside Seattle city limits and began attending political meetings while teaching economics and statistics at local colleges. “I was looking for somebody who could confirm my analysis that obviously poverty and suffering of the kind that we see — caste oppression and sexual violence — is not endemic to human society,” she said.

Around the time she became a U.S. citizen (in 2010), Sawant stumbled upon a Socialist Alternative Party meeting in Seattle. “It offered me exactly what I was looking for: a Marxist critique of capitalism and an argument for a different kind of society,” she said.

Ironically, as her first marriage fell apart, Sawant took up the cause of marriage equality as an activist within the Socialist Alternative Party, helping to organize marches in support of the cause (which Washington voters eventually approved, in November 2012).

2011 proved to be a pivotal year. Labor unions took over the Wisconsin State House. Sawant recalls seeing the occupiers wave Egyptian flags, which stuck with her as evidence of a growing solidarity between workers’ movements in the U.S. and abroad. And Occupy Wall Street gained traction, with Seattle hosting its own encampment, first downtown and then on a plaza in front of Seattle Central College, where Sawant taught. She claims to have played a role through her union, American Federation of Teachers Local 1789, in bringing the protest to the college.

She did not sleep overnight at Occupy Seattle, but visited daily, building relationships and learning more about the causes joined under the Occupy banner. She recalls showing up with carafes of hot chai on the cold, rainy night that Occupy Seattle’s camp moved the several blocks to her community college.

The next year revealed the limits of outsider activism. “Occupy was such an inspiring movement and then suddenly you had the Obama re-election year and no political alternatives were being offered,” she said. “Movements die a slow death by not having a political avenue for the movement to build itself.”

Spurred by that desire for alternatives, Seattle’s Socialist Alternative Party debated running a candidate for city council in 2013. Sawant argued vigorously in favor, and was surprised when the local party chapter nominated her to be the candidate.

“I was not eager in any way,” she said. She feared her foreign name would be unpronounceable and her Indian accent would turn off local voters. As a self-described introvert, she was anxious about the kind of public scrutiny that comes with running for office. That anxiety was well-founded. After she called for protests during Trump’s inauguration, her office was inundated with racist, xenophobic, and misogynistic threats.

With a strong ground game, deep base of volunteers, and an influx of small-dollar donations instead of typical big-donor checks, Sawant upset four-term incumbent Richard Conlin, somehow overcoming an eight-percentage-point polling deficit on that election day in 2013.

The Fight for $15, and More

Sawant’s campaign posters offer a simple checklist: $15/Hour. Tax the Rich. Rent Control. Stacks of the red posters are always at the ready in her office. Her door is always open to community organizers. After a recent interview, staffers mobilized to join a standoff over a city sweep of an unsanctioned homeless encampment.

In 2015, Sawant achieved her first checklist item when Seattle became the first major U.S. city to set a $15 per hour minimum wage. The “fight for 15” spread to cities nationwide and became a fixture on the presidential campaign trail — during the Democratic primary, at least.

Labor union members are divided on the head tax. Some want big business to pay their share; others, such as ironworker Adilson Correia, fear the measure will prompt companies to disinvest, costing jobs. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

“Putting [the $15 minimum wage] on the national political map was a massive, historic victory,” Sawant says. “It represents a transfer of wealth of $3 billion from the bosses to the workers.”

Sawant calls the head tax proposal the “new fight for fifteen” and hopes this kind of big-business tax will spread, especially to potential Amazon HQ2 cities. (Denver already has a head tax; Chicago is considering reimposing one; Mountain View, Google’s hometown, is also contemplating such a tax.)

“That’s why the stakes are so high,” she said, and why Amazon has reacted so publicly with its plan to halt construction, a move that successfully divided organized labor on the issue and led a local ironworkers union to drown out Sawant at a rally in early May.

“We don’t question [the workers’] worry,” she told Next City a week after that rally. “Shame on Amazon and Bezos for holding their jobs as a club against all working people who are struggling for affordable housing. There is no financial compulsion that Amazon is facing to do this. They are simply doing this as a scare tactic. They are engaging in extortion.”

But the “fight for fifteen” aside, Sawant’s track record on other legislative priorities has had fewer victory laps.

Tax the rich? King County Superior Court quickly shot down a municipal income tax that tried to dodge a state constitutional ban (the decision is still moving through the appeal process)

Rent control? That’s still illegal under state law. But as part of a patchwork “tenants’ bill of rights,” she introduced legislation that clamped down on move-in fees and required minimum rental upkeep from landlords (a process that got her sued for defamation when she nicknamed the bill after a notorious local slumlord). She also proposed an ordinance requiring landlords to pay relocation assistance if they price out tenants.

Legislating on Her Terms

On the head tax — what has proven to be the highest-stakes legislation yet in her career — Sawant supports but did not sponsor the bill in the form that will be voted on today. Particulars of the current bill arose from the recommendations of a March report prepared by a 17-member city-sanctioned progressive revenue task force.

“Sawant isn’t a sponsor of the bill and is not guiding the [head tax] conversations,” Council Member Teresa Mosqueda said, via e-mail.

Sawant said that she declined to co-sponsor the bill because it asks for only half of the $150 million annually that the coalition Housing for All insists is necessary to adequately address the housing and homelessness crisis. But she also said she heard one of the co-sponsors threatened to withdraw support for the bill if she co-signed. None of the bill’s four co-sponsors answered queries about the bill’s sponsorship.

Former city council member Tim Burgess had an explanation for the tension among sitting council members. “There are two personas of Kshama Sawant. There is the private, one-on-one persona that you see which is kind, respectful, and considerate,” Burgess said. “And then there is the public Kshama Sawant and the public is definitely belligerent, loud, forceful, and denigrating to those who take a different position.”

Although Sawant served alongside Burgess in city council for four years, she was the lone dissenting vote in a council decision that made Burgess the mayor for 71 days last year, to fill a vacancy left by former Mayor Ed Murray’s resignation in the wake of a child sex-abuse scandal.

Burgess, who considers himself a centrist, said that his professional relationship with Sawant was “essentially non-existent.”

“There was not the kind of give-and-take, back-and-forth that happens between all the other councilmembers,” he said.

Sawant dismissed such criticism: “That your primary role is to get consensus behind the scenes? No.”

None of the eight other sitting council members agreed to comment for this story.

Kirsten Harris-Talley, another former council member who recently chaired the city’s progressive revenue task force, feels differently. Harris-Talley served on city council for two months last year to fill Burgess’ vacant seat when he became interim mayor in place of Murray. Her short tenure on the city council included budget negotiations that involved working closely with Sawant.

“She is extraordinarily easy to talk to and very pleasant,” said Harris-Talley, who had the office next to Sawant’s. “She’s really clear, bold, and declarative. A budget process is challenging and there was back-and-forth all the time.”

“The real boiling point that we should worry about is the question of who gets to occupy urban spaces. What has reached a boiling point is the absolute un-liveability and unaffordability of this city.”

Burgess fears Sawant’s confrontational style may backfire. “She has used the Socialist Alternative rhetoric of ‘tax the rich’ and go after Amazon,” he said. “Other council members don’t appreciate [that kind of rhetoric] and don’t agree that’s the right approach to build support for public policy, especially in the tax area where willful compliance of tax measures is so important.”

About Sawant’s rhetoric, Harris-Talley also disagrees. “She has a very direct, almost British style of commentary, which I think for American parliamentary process can feel a little overly acute. But I don’t think that’s actually the case,” she said. “There is a robust form of conversation that produces directness, emotion, and humanity in deliberation.”

Still, Burgess insists on more cordiality inside city council. “Where it crosses the line with me is when it becomes disruptive,” he said. “Kshama’s staff members — city employees — will be in city council chambers encouraging people to disrupt the council meetings. That’s totally wrong.”

Although her style may rankle fellow council members and alienate middle-of-the-road voters, Sawant also inspires admiration from supporters, emotion that was visible at the April rally and at other public events along the way to the May 11 vote.

“Kshama Sawant is the type of leader we need not just in Seattle, but in the nation,” said Stan Strasner, a Seattle substitute teacher, after attending one of last week’s city council hearings on the head tax. “On issue after issue, she’s on the right side.”

All Politics Is Local

Sawant’s focus on big issues may come at the expense of neighborhood politics. In 2015, Seattle switched to a district-based system. Sawant went from holding an at-large seat to being re-elected to represent District 3, which encompasses renter-heavy Capitol Hill, the historically black and rapidly gentrifying Central Area, and wealthy Montlake and Madison Valley, bastions of single-family homeowners.

Sawant herself owns a 114-year-old mortgaged house in the Leschi neighborhood with her current husband, Calvin Priest, a Socialist Alternative organizer. She reported a net worth of $270,000 in the most recent election financial disclosure forms.

Political analysts believe her district is safe, but her bold stands have captured the attention of international socialist movements. She traveled to Berlin and Dublin just in the several weeks Next City was in touch with her office for this story. Can she balance this higher international profile with attention to such granular constituent concerns as park maintenance and pothole repair?

Burgess, who in his time on the council was an at-large member, said he received regular complaints from District 3 constituents who felt they got little traction from Sawant’s office. “She travels a lot giving speeches and building support for her political party,” he said. “Rightly or wrongly, [Sawant’s office] did not seem to think constituent services were that important.”

Next City reached out to several community organizations in Sawant’s district — some of whom are still bitter about a recent restructuring of city-to-neighborhood consultation — and received a mix of responses. Knox Gardner, a community leader who voted for her twice, complained that he never sees her around the neighborhood, that he’s gotten no traction on a dispute with the transportation department over a curb project, and that she does not respond to neighborhood festival invitations.

“She has not pivoted AT ALL to actually being a DISTRICT representative,” he wrote via Facebook Messenger. “For actual ‘pothole politics,’ she is beyond useless.”

In contrast, the Capitol Hill Community Council feels she can balance both her district-specific and citywide responsibilities. Officers there told me that her fight for citywide issues such as homelessness and housing affordability helps their neighborhood with its most pressing needs.

“It is true that she is concentrating on the big issues. But really, what could be more important than solving the homeless issue?” asked Diane Snell, a Sawant donor and voter who serves on the board of the Leschi Community Council, in Sawant’s own neighborhood.

Sawant cites her efforts to expand a utility discount program and secure compensation for small businesses affected by a road work project as examples of her attentiveness to constituent services. However, at least one of those small businesses publicly disputes that Sawant was a helpful partner.

“I have no doubt in my mind that we can always do better,” Sawant said. “We approach all political questions with humility, working endless hours, completely dedicated to this work.”

In a district where resentment against Amazon runs high, a successful head-tax vote may propel her to re-election in 2019. At the same time, her perceived indifference to neighborhood concerns may prove her undoing, especially in the face of the head-tax backlash that has caused Seattle civic discourse to reach a boiling point — a discourse in which Sawant has deliberately turned up the heat.

“All of us are finding it hard to live in this city and it’s becoming a playground for the wealthy,” she said. “The real boiling point that we should worry about is the question of who gets to occupy urban spaces. What has reached a boiling point is the absolute un-liveability and unaffordability of this city.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: The original version of this article incorrectly stated which court struck down a Seattle municipal income tax. We’ve corrected the error.

Gregory Scruggs writes about cities and culture, especially in Latin America and the Caribbean.