The Socialist Alternative party, fresh off a surprise win in November, is setting up an office in Seattle and hopes to triple its membership by early next year.
Kshama Sawant’s defeat of incumbent Seattle City Councilmember Richard Conlin “was a watershed moment for the socialist movement across the country,” said Philip Locker, a national organizer for the Socialist Alternative party and the Sawant campaign’s political director.
While Sawant hires staff for her City Hall office, Locker is dreaming big about his organization. A recent recruiting event drew 35 people, and hundreds of people have expressed interest, he said. The party has about 80 active members in Seattle.
Locker’s goals reach beyond membership. He would like to see Seattle’s major labor groups leave behind their longtime allies in the Democratic Party to support Socialist Alternative candidates instead.
He wants to elect a slate of Socialist Alternative candidates, taking on housing, wages and health-care issues.
At a recent Sawant news conference, representatives from the faith community, the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) and SEIU (Service Employees International Union) Local 775NW stood alongside Socialist Alternative activists.
“We think there’s a real opening and a real opportunity to build the socialist movement here in Seattle,” Locker said.
Historically, socialists have won when voters are fed up with politics as usual and want to reset the system, said John Nichols, a columnist for The Nation, a progressive news magazine. Traditionally radical views are becoming more mainstream across the country, he said, and voters are not scared of the “socialist” label.
But Nichols said Sawant’s influence on the council and the larger political landscape in Seattle remains to be seen.
Democrats, who dominate Seattle’s political scene, say they don’t think Seattle will be a two-party town any time soon. Sawant pulled off a narrow victory by campaigning for a $15 minimum wage — a cause major unions and Democrats also are scrambling to endorse.
“We appreciate a variety of political voices, but at the end of the day Seattle races are nonpartisan,” said Dwight Pelz, the chairman of the Washington State Democrats. “We think Democrats will continue to vote for Democrats in partisan races.”
Locker, 35, is a New York City native who moved to Seattle in 2001 to work as an activist for the Socialist Alternative party, the U.S. offshoot of the Committee for Workers International.
For years, he has worked from home or from coffee shops, organizing about 40 active members to protest the Iraq war, ban military recruiters from Seattle schools and campaign for Ralph Nader for president, among other causes.
The Socialist Alternative organization, which has a presence in 20 cities in the United States, tries to appeal to voters who are not socialists. Their candidates take up tangible issues facing the working class. They sometimes have faced criticism from other left-wing groups for aligning too closely with the Green Party and other groups, but that is part of their strategy — they want to be the catalyst for a new umbrella party of left-leaning groups.
In political races, Locker said, they run to win and don’t consider themselves fringe candidates.
Last year, in the wake of Occupy Seattle, the party persuaded Sawant, one of its members, to run against state House Speaker Frank Chopp. She lost, but her write-in campaign was surprisingly successful — 29 percent of the vote — and it put her on the path to this year’s unlikely council win.
Her Seattle victory made national news. And she wasn’t alone. In Minneapolis, Socialist Alternative City Council candidate Ty Moore ran an energetic campaign for an open seat in a heavily working-class ward. He lost the six-way race by just 229 votes.
Moore, a party activist, said voters are fed up with the two-party system.
“We want to not just be sort of a marginal force on the sidelines, winning a seat here or there, but to build something that would be able to rival and compete with the two major parties,” he said.
“The message that we’ve had is becoming more and more popular,” said Ted Virdone, a Seattle teacher who has been involved in the Socialist Alternative Party for more than a decade. “We intend to leverage this victory in order to really win substantive victories for workers, like the $15 minimum wage.”
Seattle voters are used to seeing a few socialists on the ballot. The Socialist Workers Party runs a few candidates every year, but they rarely get more than a percentage point or two. When pressed, those socialists will admit they are not really running to win but to get their message out on the campaign trail.
In a recent article in the Socialist Workers Party newsletter, the party downplayed Sawant’s victory. Without a plan for revolution, the newsletter said, Sawant’s win will “only nurture workers’ illusions in democratic forms of capitalist rule.”
Asked about the other socialists in town, members of Locker’s group are hesitant to say much.
“We’re a completely different organization,” Locker said. “We have our own politics and methods, and they have their own politics and methods.”