I love me some good, honest, old fashioned muckraking. But there's nothing good or honest about the inept smear campaign incumbent Seattle City Council member Richard Conlin is manufacturing against Socialist Alternative challenger Kshama Sawant.
At a recent candidate forum, Conlin incredibly accused Sawant of a "lack of civic engagement" because she did not register to vote until 2012, two years after becoming a US citizen. It's a clumsy, ham-fisted attack that raises all sorts of uncomfortable cultural undertones due to its total lack of sensitivity to the immigrant experience. In fact, Sawant had registered to vote in her native India as soon as she came of age, and after immigrating to the US had worked as a political activist and an educator long before obtaining citizenship. So citing her US voter registration as evidence of a lack of civic engagement would be as idiotically context-free as accusing Conlin of the same for failing to register in Washington State until 1981, at the ripe age of 34.
Next, the Conlin camp apparently pushed out a smear whose dishonesty is only rivaled by its stupidity—accusing Sawant of being a hypocrite for relentlessly campaigning on behalf the interests of poor and working class Seattleites while allegedly living in the lap of luxury on a six-figure household income. "Isn't it weird," Erica C. Barnett coyly wrote in an October 9 post at PubliCola, that Sawant accuses the council of representing the interests of big corporations and the 1 percent, while her personal financial disclosure reveals that her husband earns "$100,000 or more" as an engineer at Microsoft.
"That's a pretty big chunk of change for a self-proclaimed representative of 'the 99 percent,'" smirks Barnett, who in a followup post negligently mischaracterizes Sawant as "a class traitor" with an income that "puts a person well out of the range of the middle class."
The very heart of this smear—that only the poor can legitimately champion the poor—is both shallow and insulting. But the most dishonest part of this Kshama-isn't-a-true-99-percenter meme is that it just isn't true. As Sawant ably explains on her campaign website in a post she never should have had to write:
To clarify my personal situation, I'm separated from my husband. We're officially still married but have been separated for close to six years. I am not sharing in my husband's income.
As for why we are not legally divorced, that is a deeply personal matter involving emotional and private reasons. Because I am legally still married, I have accurately reported that fact when filing for candidacy. I do not discuss my personal life partly out of respect for the privacy of others involved, who are not the ones running for office and have no choice in the matter, but also because these are distractions from the real issues that affect the lives of working people in Seattle.
Sawant and her husband grew up in the same town in India, and it was his career that initially brought them to the US, and eventually on to Seattle. She says her husband is a good man, but that their marriage just didn't work out. That happens sometimes. Relationships can be complicated. I know. But out of respect for certain family members back in India who would find the dissolution of their marriage painful, they had chosen to keep it to themselves.
So there. Are you satisfied, Erica? You now know more about Sawant's marital status than much of her family back in India. Because journalism! But while running for public office rightly opens a candidate to personal scrutiny, this sort of invasion of privacy surely pushes the boundaries of the public interest.
Sawant now shares a modest one-bedroom, 835 square foot Capitol Hill condo with her current partner, who Sawant assures me earns less than six figures. How much less? I didn't ask. Because it's none of my fucking business. And yes, it is his condo, not her's—she says he saved for years to afford the downpayment. According to Zillow he paid $230,000 for it back in 2010, a pittance by Seattle standards.
Sawant contributes to their shared household expenses as best she can—she only works part-time as a community college instructor, but not because she has the leisure to choose part-time work. Thanks to our legislature's irresponsible defunding of higher education, and the cruel cost-cutting strategies that has engendered, 70 percent of Seattle Central Community College instructors are now part-timers, with all the job insecurity and lack of benefits that entails! So if Barnett wants to write about a real scandal rather than this bullshit smear the Conlin campaign apparently fed her, she might want to look into how our community colleges have come to treat their instructors little better than the fast food workers Sawant champions.
So PubliCola's comically credulous characterization of Sawant as an "18 percenter" is totally fucking wrong. Whatever her financial disclosure form says, Sawant does not live with her husband, she does not share in his six-figure income, and she does not live a lifestyle "well out of the range of the middle class." Sawant only listed her husband's income and assets because that is what she understood the letter of the law to require. Surely the brashly feminist Barnett can't be insisting that a female candidate's credibility must be judged through the lens of the occupation and income of her estranged husband?
But the further outrage here is that even if Sawant did still live with her husband, the smear would still ring false. Sawant has never campaigned on her personal story, as compelling as it is: After graduating from college with a degree in computer science, she gave up her own prospects for a lucrative high tech career in order to dedicate her life to advocating for economic justice. But a vow of poverty is not a prerequisite for credibly advocating for the poor! Was the patrician FDR a hypocrite for championing the New Deal? Was the factory-owning Friedrich Engels a hypocrite for co-authoring the Communist Manifesto? The same people who canonize billionaire venture capitalist Nick Hanauer as some sort of progressive saint for advocating higher taxes on the rich (while spending millions promoting charter schools and other corporatist education reforms), have the temerity to imply that Sawant is a hypocrite for fighting on behalf of working class families while possibly (but not really) enjoying an upper middle class lifestyle? Conlin and his surrogates should be ashamed of themselves.
The good news here is that Conlin wouldn't be lashing out this way if he didn't feel threatened. My guess is that Conlin has polling data that shows Sawant is in striking distance, and that these desperately feeble smear attempts are his response. Not that they can't work. We all know how this game is played: Conlin pushes the smear to PubliCola. PubliCola publishes. Then Conlin sends out an attack mailer citing PubliCola as his independent source, giving the charge an air of credibility. That's electoral politics.
It's a strategy of distraction—an effort to distract attention away from both Sawant's populist agenda and Conlin's anemic record in office. Instead of talking about a $15 an hour minimum wage or paid sick leave or affordable housing, he wants us talking about Sawant's personal finances. And look: It's working! I was just compelled to counter with this long fucking post.
And that's why Sawant needs your help to respond in her own voice. She needs to raise an additional $50,000 to send out a mailer that would reach 150,000 Seattle households. For various reasons, I almost never give money to political candidates (I can count their names on one hand). But I'm so pissed by this smear campaign that I just sent Sawant's campaign $100 that I can't possibly afford on my alt-weekly salary. And as journalistically unprofessional as it might be for me to do so, I urge you to do same. Give to Sawant so that she can at least have a chance of getting her message out in the face of Conlin's corporate-financed smear machine.
And while you're at Sawant's campaign website, read her whole damn post for yourself. She makes her case better than I ever could. Yet another reason to enthusiastically vote for Kshama Sawant.