Kshama Sawant arrived in our office last week wearing a T-shirt that blared "Capitalism has failed the 99 Percent: Vote Sawant." It was swag from her last run for office, when she challenged the state legislature's most powerful Democrat, Speaker Frank Chopp, and carved out an extraordinary 29 percent from his general-election winnings—not bad for a capitalism-smashing Occupy Wall Street activist.
This election cycle, Sawant—a university instructor who holds a PhD in economics—is announcing that she will run for Seattle City Council against four-term fixture Richard Conlin (who didn't know that Sawant would be challenging him when this article went to press). She says that Conlin exemplifies the council's cozy relations with business lobbies, while he has personally voted against helping workers and the impoverished. "As a council member, I will use every inch of space as I am using it now—which is as an activist who is advocating on issues that affect the working class," Sawant explained. But if she wins, Sawant would make a salary of more than $120,000. Would it be ironic, I asked her, for a populist champion of the working class to make a six-figure salary, just like the corporate overlords she taunts?
"No, not at all," she said. "If I was to be elected, I will take home only the average worker's salary." Sawant said she would donate most of her paycheck to her Socialist Alternative party. In fact, she estimates she'd keep $40,000 or less.
In targeting Conlin, Sawant says she is tackling everything that is wrong with the Seattle City Council. Under Conlin's leadership—he served as council president for the two immediate previous biennial terms—most of the council has coagulated as a conservative bloc that scuttled meaningful policy reforms while backing mega-projects that benefit the wealthy (such as real estate and highways). Conlin himself was the lone council member to oppose paid sick leave, and he backed a controversial measure to fine panhandlers, against the unanimous recommendation of the city's human rights commission.
So if there's any council member ripe for an incendiary leftist opponent, it's Conlin.