By Michael Sarko
– The Capitol Hill Times -
In 1996, Seattle University economics professor Kshama Sawant came to America from Mumbai, India. In 2012, she decided to run for the 43rd district seat in the Washington State House of Representatives, currently held by 17-year incumbent Frank Chopp. She is officially running as an Independent candidate but Sawant is far from coy about her position as a leader with Socialist Alternative, the labor solidarity organization that openly opposes the two-party system that has dominated American politics throughout the country’s history.
“Ever since I can remember, I asked the question ‘Why is it that some people are rich while others are poor?’ and none of the explanations I got satisfied me,” she said.
Sawant grew up in a middle-class family of teachers, pursuing a career in education herself. As a teacher at Seattle University and Seattle Central Community College, she has watched her classes grow more densely packed while school programs undergo cuts for reductions in state funding. As an economist and an activist, she is working to reverse this trend.
“This is not just an accounting problem or a math problem. This is a political question,” Sawant said of the economic disparity between the wealthy few and the average citizen in America. “When you’re in another country you have this rosy view of how things are going to be in the United States. You read about how the United States is the wealthiest country in the world, so what you expect to find is overall prosperity, overall good standards of living.” But immigrants often find the same problems here that exist in their home countries. “These are global problems,” she said.
On the larger scale, Kshama Sawant’s platform is about addressing the question of why poverty exists in the wealthiest society in the world, but her campaign isn’t national. She is running for office in a local election to try to influence social and economic justice policy in the district where she lives and works. She wants to raise taxes on the wealthiest individuals and businesses in Washington, then use those funds to scale back cuts to education and health care, while also bolstering existing programs like mass transit. She supports raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour and codifying rights for immigrants and LGBT individuals.
Sawant has already established herself as a political voice in Seattle by participating at the front of many grassroots events. She spoke to the demonstrators at the Occupy camp at Seattle Central Community College in November 2011 on behalf of the American Federation of Teachers. With her audience echoing her statements, she said, “The big banks, the big corporations, they are giving themselves not billions, but trillions of dollars and they are telling us there is no money for jobs, for education, for health care, for your basic standard of living. We are here to tell them that we are going to fight for an alternate future where the 99 percent can control the wealth and the decisions of what to do with that wealth democratically, together.”
The 43rd district seat Kshama Sawant hopes to win in November has long been a stronghold for Democrats. It was once held by Cal Anderson – Washington’s first openly gay legislator and namesake of the park in Capitol Hill – as well as current state senator Ed Murray. Frank Chopp not only holds the 43rd district seat, he is also the Speaker of the House in Washington.
Sawant’s campaign for the seat is not only an attempt to connect with a district that is sympathetic to her platform, it’s meant to be a symbolic victory over the perception of the Democratic Party as the liberal party in Washington. She likens the interaction between liberal voters and the Democrats to an abusive relationship, “constantly going into the same situation no matter what that person says.” The goal of Sawant’s campaign is not only to affect change within the Washington state legislature, but to introduce a political alternative to liberal voters who support Democrats when asked to choose between only Democrats and Republicans.
In order to qualify for the November ballot, Kshama Sawant must file her petition with several hundred approved voter signatures by June 18. As of late April, her campaign reports having gained over a third of their necessary signatures, though Socialist Alternative campaigned heavily over the weekend of April 28 to capture the crowd of the Rally Against the War On Women, resulting in a jump in petition participation. Those new numbers have yet to be released.