Despite the interference of Amazon in the Seattle City Council elections, the people appear to have re-elected socialist incumbent Kshama Sawant over Amazon-backed candidate Egan Orion, an event of both local and national interest.
Seattle is the largest city and financial capital of Washington state, and a focal point of regional class struggle. The metropolitan area is home to over a dozen billionaires, including tech tycoons such as Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer. However, of late, the most visible of these elites has been Jeff Bezos, owner of Amazon. Last year, in 2018, Amazon and Bezos flexed their muscles, blackmailing the city into abandoning its plan to implement a business tax on large corporations.
In 2019, the situation degenerated even further, with Amazon and Bezos dropping an unprecedented $1.5 million dollars into the City Council elections, with the intention of unseating Sawant as well as other progressive incumbents. The backlash against this move was so severe that national Democratic Party figures such as Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders felt the need to speak out against Amazon’s interference.
Initial reports suggested that Sawant had been defeated by 8 points. This, however, represented only the ballots received before election day. In Washington, where all ballots are mailed in, late voters tend to skew more progressive. As these later votes came in, Sawant closed the gap. As of November 8, with the vast majority of ballots counted, Sawant maintains a 1,500 vote lead. In order to secure her victory, campaign workers and a mass base of volunteers have been mobilized to track down voters who failed to sign their ballot envelopes and allow them to sign so that their votes can be counted.
The statewide struggle
For years, the elites of Washington and Seattle have launched a nationwide public relations campaign to portray our state as the progressive “Left Coast” of the United States. Nowhere was this more apparent than the failed 2020 Presidential campaign of Governor Jay Inslee, who positioned himself as a climate change champion despite having little in the way of accomplishments to run on.
In reality, Washington state is a rainy neoliberal tax haven. Washington, a peripheral state, has long relied on tax incentives to attract capital from the U.S. core. The result of this is that Washington, as a state, has the most regressive tax code in the country. With low to nonexistent business taxes and no income tax, progressive or otherwise, the entire burden of funding the state budget, including the most critical services, is effectively placed upon the working people of Washington through high sales taxes, vice taxes and car tabs. Meanwhile, the Seattle area has become one of the most expensive urban areas in the United States.
This is the context in which Washington voters were faced with two referenda, one reactionary and one progressive. Initiative 976, limiting car tab fees to $30, took aim at the funding of public transit, critical to the survival of many poor, working class, elderly, and disabled Washington residents. This, as with many anti-tax initiatives in Washington state, succeeded by a considerable margin through the backing of local right-wing organizer Tim Eyman. Despite its victory at the polls, it will be challenged in court by the governments of Seattle and King County as well as by community organizations such as the Transit Riders Union. Meanwhile Referendum 88, which would have legalized affirmative action, appears to have been narrowly rejected as of the time of this article.
It could be easy for progressive observers to condemn the people of Washington for their votes on both of these referendums. After all, both of these were decided by a direct vote, rather than through elected representatives. However, such analysis ignores the material realities faced by the workers in Washington as well as the misleading tactics used to advance reactionary agendas. With so many workers struggling to get by, is it any wonder that so many voted to ease their burden through a reduction of the astronomical and regressive car tab taxes? Meanwhile, the campaign against Referendum 88 relied heavily on a false narrative about the measure encouraging discrimination—instead of rectifying it.
Billionaires and fascists, hand in hand
Instead of condemning the mass of voters, we should condemn reactionary crooks like Tim Eyman, a professional right-wing agitator and historical backer of many anti-worker and homophobic referendums. We should condemn the racist campaigners against Referendum 88, such as the Proud Boys and other explicitly fascist organizations. We should condemn hate groups such as Safe Seattle that led the street level campaign against progressive candidates while pushing an vicious anti-homeless agenda. But behind all of these enemies of the people are their billionaire backers. The Jeff Bezoses of the world continue to profit off keeping the workers of our state divided and pitted against one another. We should condemn these elites and their capitalist system, not the people who continue to suffer under its yoke.
As Friedrich Engels once said, bourgeois elections are “the gauge of the maturity of the working class.” What can we, as socialists, learn about the maturity of the working class of Washington and Seattle through the results of these elections? The passing of Initiative 976 reveals the the need for a movement to reverse the regressive tax structure of our state, as well as the potential success such a movement might have. The defeat of Referendum 88 reveals the capacity of a well-funded campaign to get workers to vote against their own interests. However, the narrowness of this defeat reveals that many workers of all backgrounds in our state are capable of looking past the lies to stand against racism.
However, the people’s victory in Seattle against Amazon reveals a more advanced working class consciousness. All across the city, workers rejected Amazon’s slate of well-funded right-wing candidates. The victory of Sawant over Orion on an explicitly socialist platform should give us hope for the capacity of socialist ideas to win over, inspire and liberate the working class. No amount of corporate money can keep us down forever. Let us celebrate this victory as we apply lessons from these elections to our movement going forward.