by Dae Shik Kim
When I used to live on Capitol Hill, I would run into Kshama Sawant a couple times a month at the Central Co-op. I would always take a quick peek into her shopping cart and knew right away she was about to throw down. Seattle is a small enough city where it isn’t out of the ordinary to see one of your local electeds in public. I’ve seen Andrew Lewis in his Indochino suit panic-jogging through Pioneer Square so many times and never really thought much of it. But seeing Kshama Sawant do “human” things always felt a little different. Maybe because most of us have never seen her break “character,” especially within the walls of City Hall. Or maybe because corporate media loves to portray “radical leftists” as joyless figures, quick to cancel others, perpetuating stereotypes that overlook multifaceted lives and passions.
Sawant has gone to war with the likes of Jeff Bezos and Howard Schultz; the richest, most powerful people in the world. And often, she has won. Her tenacity has always been evident in her refusal to align with mainstream Democrats, a stance that has left her with almost no institutional allies. But her adversaries finally have a reason to celebrate, and her supporters a reason to mourn. The menu at City Hall is about to change, as Sawant will no longer be a City Councilmember after her current term expires. She’s choosing to step down from her seat that she’s held for almost a decade.
In this interview, I sat down with Councilmember Sawant at the Central District coffee shop Squirrel Chops in hopes of unraveling her layers and looking into what makes her who she is — the human being behind the ideology.
Dae Kim: Remember when you came on Activist Class and said you shop on Amazon and the local media picked it up?
Kshama Sawant: I do remember that.
Do you regret saying that?
No, absolutely not. Because it’s not like there’s anything shameful about it. Half of American households are Prime subscribers, and [Amazon] is a behemoth, it’s a trillion-dollar corporation. It is one of the largest corporations in the world. So as far as a strategy for fighting back against these large corporations and the domination of the billionaires, the worst possible strategy is to say people should stop shopping.
Do you think the movement can get a little inaccessible? Like purity politics sometimes get in the way?
In terms of where you shop and all that? Yeah. I think purity politics can be an obstacle, and it’s very much part of the lifestyle politics. And not only is it a counterproductive strategy for movement building, it’s also contrary to statistical evidence. Look at the lifestyle politics around environmental issues, when people shame people by saying you are flying somewhere, or you are driving, and you should be using public transportation. Obviously, we should be using public transportation as much as possible. But the point is, if you start shaming people for that, especially in the context of a country where public transportation is deeply underfunded and people can’t get about their day and are forced to drive, it misses the point. If you just look at the statistics on temperature rise from the middle of the 20th century until now and the dramatic shifts that have taken place, they are not because individual ordinary people are doing something wrong. It’s because of the fossil fuel corporations.
So what is the last thing you ordered on Amazon?
[Laughs] I can’t remember. It was probably some regular household items.
Last thing I got were some dog poop bags.
Yeah. That’s a very utilitarian thing. You need to do that. How’s your dog, by the way?
My faithful companion, Bruno, had been a familiar presence at almost every Seattle political event. I let Kshama know that Bruno had passed away just a few weeks before and immediately saw a wave of empathy wash over her face. Kshama had met Bruno on several occasions and knew we were both dog people.
Oh, no. He was such a sweetie. I’m so sorry. My dog, Rosa, she also passed away, actually, during our fight against the recall attempt. It was really sad.
What a time for you. I’m sorry.
Thank you. Similar to Bruno, though, she lived a full life and was a really independent-minded husky. She lived life on her terms.
So she took after her mom?
In terms of being independent-minded? Hopefully.
People often told me that Bruno and I shared the same energy. Usually laid back but always down to bark at things we didn’t like. I’d like to imagine Rosa as a mini Kshama Sawant.
This is your 10th year, right? Have you known this would be your last year on City Council for a while?
Not for very long, because it’s not something we would take lightly … because if I am to stay true, genuinely true, to working-class politics, then such a thing could not be just a personal decision. Obviously, there are personal situations. If somebody had some family emergency or some health situation, of course it calls for compassion and then making a decision on that basis.
It came down to a question for us in Socialist Alternative: Does it make sense to run again in Seattle, or does it make sense to use those energies to build something bigger that can have a national, nationwide profile? Maybe even international? You know, every campaign, as you’ve seen yourself, Dae, every effort that we put forward, we have won the vast number of them. We have won four elections. So we have an unparalleled record of how to not sell out and how also to not be marginalized.
I could feel the confidence exuding from the councilmember. Kshama Sawant is the first and only elected official in Socialist Alternative history. And she’s going out like John Elway, on her terms, when she is ready. Would she have won another term against Joy Hollingsworth or Alex Hudson? To be honest, I have no idea. But it doesn’t matter. Since being elected, she’s never lost, and the “never selling out, never losing” narrative is hard to argue with.
Undefeated. It’s incredible.
Have you followed football at all in the past?
Not sure why I thought she’d get my John Elway analogy, but it was worth a try.
Uh, only to the extent that Calvin would have me follow it. He’s very much into sports. Did you know he’s really good at pool? He used to be a runner too. He used to be a triple jumper in high school.
Calvin is Kshama’s long-term romantic partner and one of Socialist Alternative’s most decorated political labor organizers. It was my turn to redirect the conversation.
Oh my god.
The first time I remember [seeing him run], we didn’t have a car at that time. We ran for the bus, and I was stunned at how fast he was running. We had just been together.
Was that impressive to you?
Kshama was practically blushing at this point. A look of instant regret took over her face after hearing my question. Uncharted interview territory for the councilmember: her love life.
It was impressive, but also made me feel like, “Oh, I’m so bad,” because I’m not athletic at all.
You guys met organizing together?
Yeah. We met at my first Socialist Alternative meeting. It was late 2008. It was a very difficult time for the left in the sense that there were a lot of illusions in Obama. I did not personally have illusions, but I also felt isolated. And so when I heard the people from Socialist Alternative, I thought, “Okay, I’m not crazy.”
One thing about Kshama is that she’s really good at always bringing things back to Socialist Alternative.
So was it business at first, or were you guys more friendly, flirting?
Uh, it was um, it was political. The only reason I’m feeling uncomfortable is I don’t want people to think that I’m making this about myself.
So you walked into this 2008 meeting looking for a place, a community, and you found that.
Yes. I did not feel more accepted and welcomed than I did in that very first meeting. And that doesn’t mean SA is an organization that shies away from debate. I mean, you have seen us, we take debate very seriously. We take political ideas very seriously.
I have seen them, and she isn’t lying. They debate for fun, they debate for sport. A very educated, sometimes nauseating, group of people. They have terrible snacks though. Mostly veggie platters and ranch.
How many debates have you done in life, you think?
I don’t know. like formal debates? If you include all the debates on the City Council, probably over 100, easily.
Who, in your opinion, was your most formidable opponent?
Honestly, and this unfortunately will come across as maybe not honest, but I am being truly honest, is that I actually haven’t really had any debater politically, like somebody from the establishment about whom I felt, “Wow, they’re formidable.” Because the truth is they actually don’t have facts and truth on their side. We do. We never approach any debate with complacency or arrogance. And that makes us formidable adversaries.
At this point, are you still having to do a lot of prep?
Everybody needs to do prep. If you stop doing prep, you will not do your best for the struggle. Obviously, there’s a lot of knowledge you accumulate, and that knowledge stands you in good stead increasingly as you go forward. But it’s actually dangerous to believe that “Oh, I’ve just got this.”
Personally, I think “over 100” is an understatement. Kshama treats everything like a debate. If you’ve watched any City Council meeting, Kshama would literally stand up any time it was her turn to speak. She took every opportunity to hit her talking points.
Wait a minute, you didn’t finish your love story about Calvin.
[Takes a sip of water] Okay, to be very honest, I think for both of us, it was, uh, you know, a real-life version of falling in love at first sight.
Unfortunately for Kshama, she didn’t prepare for these talking points.
And do you remember where the first date was?
It was at the Cherry Street Coffee Shop. Seattle downtown, 3rd or 4th, I believe.
Revolution romance, I love it. And you’d been living in Seattle for a while at that point?
I was living in North Carolina finishing my Ph.D. I kept commuting to Seattle, actually, for political meetings, like the one I met Calvin at. Like, I would just look at The Stranger or whatever.
You were reading The Stranger even when you were living away?
Yeah, because I was looking for some progressive event listings for political events in Seattle, and I would keep commuting here for anti-war meetings at that time. There were meetings about, you know, Nader and Obama and all that. I used to attend those meetings, and then at one of those meetings, I heard a Socialist Alternative speaker, and I was blown away because I thought this is everything I was waiting to hear. So in my case, and in the case of a lot of people, the starting point is not to feel like they are socialist. People are initially radicalized around a political issue. And then they’re won over to this analysis because the more they think about it, the more they see what’s happening in society. They see what happens to struggles and then they’re convinced. In my case, I always felt this certain way, but I didn’t have a name for it because, unfortunately, I come from a very apolitical family, and I didn’t have any political background. I was uninitiated on those aspects, and I almost felt like either the rest of the world is crazy or I’m crazy because nobody seems to think the way I do.
You grew up with both of your parents?
Yes. Although my dad was killed when I was 12.
I’m so sorry to hear that, can I ask what happened?
It was a road accident. He was a civil engineer. He and his colleagues used to carpool, and four of them perished in that accident. It was really bad. Including the driver, which was the worst situation. His wife … they were so low-income.
So it was just you and your mom?
How did that shift things for your household after the accident?
I think it made us very close. I mean, we were close to begin with, but it made us closer. And I think for my mom, obviously, it was a huge blow. It was her life partner, they genuinely cared about each other. My mom is a wonderful person, but my dad also was a wonderful person. They were the first-generation college graduates, working really hard all their life.
What did your mom do for work?
She was a teacher and then retired as a principal. She used to teach social studies, history, and geography.
Was it a culture shock coming to the richest nation in the world? Especially seeing the same problems you saw growing up?
You know, that was the one of the most clarifying things for me, actually. It was very helpful to come and see this because it helped me understand that I was on the right track in terms of having a systemic analysis. It’s not fully clear unless you see an industrialized country also having those problems. I came from Mumbai, where my mom taught us to use the bus from when we were about 10 years old. I don’t mean to romanticize poverty in any way, but we did have phenomenally funded public transportation there. I can’t even go to the grocery store until I get my driver’s license and a car here. It should be bizarre for people to have to drive to do their daily errands, you know?
All of this helped crystallize for me that you cannot eliminate poverty or ensure a society where basic needs are funded unless you get rid of capitalism. We must address the systemic issue, and move away from just focusing on individual responsibility.
Her vision of socialism was more than an economic model; it was a societal framework where everyone had a voice, where decisions weren’t made by a privileged few but by the collective. And for Kshama, that collective was Socialist Alternative.
But you still do individual sacrificial things all the time, like your salary cut you donate to Socialist Alternative. Don’t you still take just a portion of your City Council salary and donate the rest to SA?
Has the portion of your salary that you actually keep gone up at least a little bit, with inflation?
I used to take $40,000, now I take $50k, but it was only in the last year or so.
That’s below livable wage, right?
A new study has found that a Seattle/Bellevue renter needs to earn $40.38 an hour, or $84,000 a year, to afford a typical one-bedroom apartment.
I think so, yeah. But it’s the average worker’s wage. It’s not the median wage.
And that’s what you’re aiming for?
Yes. And, yes, it’s a sacrifice. I’m not going to say that it’s not, but at the same time, it’s a necessary one. We are not making a lifestyle point in any way. But what we aspire to is a livable wage for everyone. So it’s more than projecting sacrificial politics. However, we do think it’s important that those of us who are fighting for that society to embody that sacrifice because of the history of the labor movement. Social movements show sellout after sellout by leaders who not may not necessarily become millionaires. But they’re being paid a lifestyle that allows them to live comfortably. And that becomes part of the logic that they use to start selling out. And selling out doesn’t always happen like in a Hollywood movie. It happens one day at a time. It’s a slippery slope. So what labor bureaucrats often do is have a $100,000, $150,000, $200,000 salary. Some of them have far more than that too. It’s a scandalous salary. And then they’ll keep their membership in check, refuse to mobilize them, and refuse to activate them for strike actions. And, it’s not just about their salary, it’s also about their cozy relationship with their bosses. You are not there to build a cozy relationship with the bosses and sell out to the people you claim to represent.
Seems like a conflict of interest?
Exactly. And that’s why it’s very important for us. One of the things we are trying to educate workers on through Workers Strike Back is that the power for workers does not lie with the union staff that’s on the bargaining team and in that bargaining room. Power lies in the workplace and on the streets. And unless we have workers that understand and start building rank-and-file militancy, especially through building strike actions, we’re not going to make the kind of gains we need to.
You are trying to affect the profit margins.
Yes, exactly. Withholding our labor and shutting down the boss’s profit machine. That’s the only power we have, and if we don’t exercise that power, how do we expect to make any real shifts?
Still wonder why trillion-dollar corporations donate millions into campaigns aimed to dethrone candidates like Kshama Sawant?
Are you ever concerned about ideologies becoming too mainstream, or very commercialized? Whether it’s marches or even ads that virtue signal a lot of what you are talking about on the surface without really affecting anyone’s day-to-day? Or, to your point, the boss’s pockets?
Not from Socialist Alternative, but in general, yeah.
We couldn’t even say “socialism” 10 years ago.
What we are seeing is that capitalism is a malleable system. It can make superficial shifts to convince people that they are responding to “cries of justice.” And what did we see? We saw Black Lives Matter become this historic street movement. But if you look at the gains that were won from it, they do not commensurate with the strength of the movement. And part of the reason lies with the way the ruling elite are able to make these superficial things, like Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion officers. That’s a type of thing now. The corporatized version of response. And then attempt to convince people that this is the change that needs to happen. But in reality, the police violence, the funding for public education, job programs, none of that has changed. And now you are seeing all of those betrayals.
And what has happened because of those betrayals, especially by the Democrats in different cities, is that a whole generation of young people is turned off, and it has created an opening for the right wing. In fact, that was the opening for Trump in the first place. And we are staring into the prospect of a Trump 2.0 because of all those betrayals. And we are seeing a backlash. There are attacks from the right wing on trans rights. There’s a Cop City in Atlanta. These are horrendous developments. And these are happening in the wake of some of the most historic movements because those movements weren’t able to win the kind of victories they should have won.
You’ve had an interesting, combative relationship with many of our liberal Democratic mayors. How many mayors have you had?
I feel honored that you’re saying “combative relationship.” It started with Ed Murray, then it was Tim Burgess for a short while. Then it was Jenny Durkan, and now it’s Bruce Harrell.
It seemed pretty combative to me. Who gave you the hardest time?
Can I rephrase that question and say who, in my view, was the most dogged representative of the ruling class? That was Jenny Durkan.
That question was better than mine. Is it Durkan by far?
By far. But I wanna be clear that it does not in any way mitigate the role played by any other mayor. But if you are thinking about it from the standpoint of the ruling class — which mayor was the most useful in terms of how steadfast their position was held — that’s Jenny Durkan.
I mean, you and Jenny had a very rough 2020.
Uh, how do you mean? We won the Amazon tax, so I don’t accept that we had a rough time.
I mean, there was the recall campaign in 2020.
Yeah, but that’s not a personal thing though. It’s all politics.
Oh, so you didn’t think Jenny Durkan was personally attacking you?
I mean, I’m sure she wanted to attack, and she did make personalized attacks. The ruling class and their representatives like Jenny Durkan do rely on personalized attacks. My point is that the reason they make those attacks is because those are the easiest attacks to make against the working people. Just think about 2013, when we were running our first campaign for City Council, they attacked me personally about my former partner. It was really shameful and it backfired on them. It actually helped us win the election.
A former partner? Oh shit, it did get personal.
Early in Kshama’s political career, her opponent, Frank Chopp, resorted to a personal attack during a debate. He suggested she was only staying married to her former partner solely for health benefits due to his tech job at Microsoft.
And then, at the end of 2013, when it was clear that we might be winning the City Council election, our first win, Erica Barnett wrote a slimy hit piece related to my former partner. Whenever somebody genuine comes up, you attack them.
Are you worried about the state of the City Council after you leave?
Oh, of course. It’s moving back towards business as usual, Chamber of Commerce conservatism. It’s a very bad situation.
How many times have you been asked if you’re gonna run for future office?
More than I can count.
And what’s been your answer?
My answer is that nothing is ruled out. In fact, the left does need elected leaders as well to be immersed in a movement. I don’t buy into this false dichotomy of local versus national or electoral versus movement. That is a diversion from the actual reality. But at the end of the day, we do need a party for working people.
How much does personal legacy matter to you?
I do care about that. I have to live with myself. I have to be true to myself. I would not be able to look myself in the eye if I didn’t feel like our record was tremendous. Anything short of tremendous becomes a question: “What did you do in 10 years?” Like, “You held the office and what did you do?” That sort of thing. But also it’s important for working people as a whole to look at our record and see what we have accomplished in 10 years.
Before you move on to the next story …
The South Seattle Emerald is brought to you by Rainmakers. Rainmakers give recurring gifts at any amount. With around 1,000 Rainmakers, the Emerald is truly community-driven local media. Help us keep BIPOC-led media free and accessible.
If just half of our readers signed up to give $6 a month, we wouldn’t have to fundraise for the rest of the year. Small amounts make a difference.
We cannot do this work without you. Become a Rainmaker today!