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In These Three Races, the Establishment Fought Hard — and Still Lost

Progressive agendas carry the day in Seattle and San Francisco despite establishment money and endorsements.

Seattle Councilmember Kshama Sawant speaks to protesters outside U.S. District Court in Seattle, Washington, on February 17, 2017.

While the November election saw many wins for progressives, a few races remained uncertain: Kshama Sawant, who has fought to tax Amazon in Seattle, Washington; and in San Francisco, California, Chesa Boudin running as a reformist district attorney, and tenants’ rights activist Dean Preston running for board supervisor. All three faced fierce opposition from entrenched power. And all three have secured almost-certain victory as of Monday, November 11.

Sawant Wins in Washington

In 2013, Kshama Sawant became the first socialist elected citywide in Seattle in almost a century, since Anna Louise Strong in 1916. Sawant has made her name fighting for and winning $15/hour wages in the city, and pushing for a tax on Amazon to fund affordable housing.

On election night, Sawant trailed by over 8 percent — the same deficit she faced in her 2013 election; both times, she came from behind to win. Washington State’s vote by mail process means ballot counting can take many days: as long as a ballot is postmarked on Election Day deadline, it will eventually be tallied. This was especially true where Sawant was running: District 3 saw 57.6 percent turnout, which was almost three points higher than the city-wide turnout. When Sawant’s opponent Egan Orion had the lead on election night, he cautioned his supporters, “Kshama has a distinct advantage with those late voters.” Orion’s warning proved prescient. As of Friday night, Sawant had climbed 12 points to lead Orion by over 3 percent, standing at 51.6 percent to Orin’s nearly 48 percent.

Sawant is widely expected to emerge victorious, as her lead stands at 1,515 votes with only an estimated 1,000 uncounted ballots. Sawant declared victory on Friday, November 9, in front of a giant red banner reading “Tax Amazon.” When she is inaugurated next year, she’ll be the senior-most elected official in Seattle’s city hall.

Sawant was re-elected despite Amazon’s best efforts to unseat her. Amazon poured $1.45 million into the race, giving to a PAC run by the Seattle Chamber of Commerce called the Civic Alliance for a Sound Economy (CASE). This was a giant increase for Amazon, who four years prior donated just $25,000 to the PAC. The company’s increased spending came after a May 2018 “head tax,” which would have taxed businesses with at least $20 million in annual revenue up to $275 per employee, per year. The tax was projected to raise $45 million for affordable housing and it unanimously passed the council. Amazon, together with Starbucks, launched an all-out assault on the tax, funding a campaign to call a referendum to repeal the tax. Just a month later, the council voted 7-2 to repeal the tax. Only Sawant and at-large councilmember Teresa Mosqueda (who was not up for re-election this cycle) voted against the repeal. More than $443,000 of the $1.45 million Amazon gave to the CASE PAC was spent to help elect Orion.

But just as billionaires complaining about Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders leads to grassroots donations for both, Amazon opposing Sawant and other progressive candidates may have actually helped secure their victories. Sawant initially was not endorsed by two of the other progressives on the council, Lorena González and Teresa Mosqueda, who supported a challenger to Sawant in the six-person primary. But once Amazon began to throw its weight around, both councilmembers and the union UFCW 21 endorsed Sawant. Amazon’s involvement drew national attention, with Warren condemning it as Amazon “trying to tilt the Seattle City Council elections in their favor,” and Sanders tweeting, “Jeff Bezos and Amazon think they can buy elections.” In the end, Sawant’s opponent Orion blamed Amazon’s large contribution for his loss, calling it his “October surprise” and “a great gift to the Sawant team who previous to that clearly saw this race slipping away from them.” Amazon’s aggressive intervention in the Seattle City Council race appears to have backfired spectacularly, as it wasn’t just Sawant who beat Amazon’s preferred challenger. The Amazon-supported CASE PAC made endorsements for seven city council seats; all but two of their endorsed candidates lost.

Progressive Victories in San Francisco

Further south, in the Bay Area, Chesa Boudin, the deputy public defender for San Francisco, cinched victory in the race for district attorney on Saturday. Boudin defeated Interim District Attorney Suzy Loftus, who’s spent her career in law enforcement roles. Both candidates pledged to end cash bail, but Boudin pledged to increase diversion programs, which offer alternatives to incarceration, while Loftus ended a diversion program for those with first-time driving under the influence charges. Loftus racked up a slew of establishment endorsers, including the California Democratic Party, Gov. Gavin Newsom, and Senators Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris. Boudin was endorsed by Philadelphia’s reformist District Attorney Larry Krasner, by Bernie Sanders, and by Black Lives Matter co-founders Patrisse Cullors and Alicia Garza. Opposing Boudin was the San Francisco Police Officers Association, which spent over $600,000 on attack ads days before the election, calling Boudin “the #1 choice of criminals and gang members.” In the end, though, neither the establishment endorsements nor the scare-mongering by the Police Officers Association was enough to defeat Boudin.

The race was close however, and took four days to declare a winner. That’s in part because San Francisco has used ranked-choice voting since 2002, which allows second-choice (and subsequent choice) votes to count. In San Francisco’s process, if no candidate receives a majority, the last-place candidate is eliminated, and the second-choice votes for the eliminated candidate are counted; the process is repeated until a majority winner is declared. By Saturday afternoon, Boudin was the winner: 85,950 votes to Loftus’s 83,511.

Also in San Francisco, tenants’ rights activist and democratic socialist Dean Preston defeated the incumbent District 5 Supervisor Vallie Brown. Preston campaigned on making San Francisco’s Muni public transportation system free and building 10,000 new units of public housing over the next 10 years. And Preston pulled no punches in his campaign; when speaking in a June debate, he said, “If you’re a rogue landlord we should run you out of town.”

Big money went to attacking Preston through independent expenditure committees, including $100,000 from the California Association of Realtors, and $45,000 from a group called Friends and Neighbors in Support of Vallie Brown, which included money sourced from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and the San Francisco Firefighters Union, as reported by The San Francisco Examiner.

Preston initially trailed by 67 votes, but collected enough second-choice votes to ultimately defeat Brown. Preston is the first Democratic Socialist to be elected to the Board of Supervisors since 1979. Both Boudin and Preston defeated allies of San Francisco Mayor London Breed, and their victories are seen as a shift left that will be an impediment to the mayor’s agenda, which includes mixing market-rate with affordable housing.

Whether it’s Sawant spoiling Amazon’s nearly $1.5 million city council takeover attempt, Boudin overcoming more than half a million in attack ads from a police union, or Preston defying the incumbent San Francisco mayor’s preferred candidate, these latest progressive wins are just the latest sign that even with establishment endorsements and buckets of money, progressive messages are powerful enough to pull off unlikely victories.

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