Kshama Sawant is running against incumbent Democrat Jamie Pedersen in the 43rd District for Washington State House of Representatives. Sarah White spoke with Sawant about why she’s running and how she’d address some of the issues that are facing working people in Washington State.
Tell me a bit about why you are running for the Washington State Legislature?
What we’ve seen in the last several years is a staggering financial collapse that was caused by the big banks and hedge fund owners, and it’s grown into this global economic crisis. The burden of this crisis is being put on the shoulders of ordinary people. In our own state, we’re seeing unprecedented cuts to education and social programs. Since the crisis began, the Democratic Party-controlled state legislature has cut over $10.5 billion for these essential services. It has kicked 60,000 people off the roles of Basic Health, which is the only health option that the poorest people of our state have.
We’re in an election year and millions of people are going to be paying attention to the election, but these are no-choice elections. You vote for a Republican or you vote for a Democrat, and what are you going to get? More of the same! So we’re running this year to present a left challenge to the Democrats and to make sure that there are voices in Olympia for the working class.
How does a socialist campaign differ from the campaigns of big business parties?
For us, elections are interlinked with the process of building mass movements. It’s not electing Obama that is going to bring about progressive change. It’s when people come out on the streets and they say “Enough! We demand that society works for us, not only for the richest of the rich.” The election is another way of reaching out to those radicalizing, politicizing people who are going to be paying attention to the elections.
The way we conduct our campaign is radically different than the way Democrats and Republicans do. First of all, I’m a teacher, a union member and an activist. We are not taking any corporate donations; our campaign is a 100% grassroots, people-powered campaign.
Why are you running against Pedersen, instead of Frank Chopp as you’d originally planned?
Yes, we were planning to run against Frank Chopp, the Democratic Speaker of the House and the chair of Budget Committee. He has instigated the budget cuts, so he was an excellent target for us. But before we officially filed we found out there was another independent left challenger, Greg Gaddow, running against Chopp. One of the things that we’re trying to achieve in our campaign is to inspire other people, left groups and activists to also run in elections against the two parties.
So rather than have two independent anti-cuts candidates run in the same race and split the left vote, when Gaddow would not agree to move to the other race as part of a left slate with us, we thought the right thing to do would be to shift to the race against Pedersen. Pedersen ran unopposed in the last election, and we think it’s important for him to have a challenge. In terms of the political issues, Pedersen and Chopp are virtually indistinguishable in their records on budget cuts. The agenda for the Democratic Party is a big business agenda, no matter the candidate, and that’s what we’re challenging.
You call for free higher education, making public transit free and free health care, to name a few. Many have a hard time fathoming how these things will be paid for. Can you explain?
Free public services like education and health care are human rights and, yes, providing them costs money. The Democrats and Republicans say that they have to make cuts because there’s no money in the coffers; I can tell you that they’re being completely dishonest.
The reality is Washington is a very wealthy state, with some of the most profitable corporations, like Boeing, Microsoft, Starbucks, and Amazon. Over the last three decades, corporations have extracted over 500 tax exemptions for big business from the state legislature. These total an astonishing $6.5 billion per year in lost revenue – enough to reverse all the cuts and improve our state services!
The fact is that most of the wealth in the last fifty years has accrued to the top 1%. Many of those super-wealthy live in our state. Yet Washington has the most regressive tax system in the entire nation!
It’s clear how we can get revenues to fully fund public programs: by ending the corporate tax loopholes and taxing corporate profits and the super-wealthy. What the state doesn’t have is a political voice for doing that. Neither the Democrats nor the Republicans are willing to do it. The real constituencies that they’re representing are big business and the super-wealthy, so they’re not going to do it.
What is your environmental program, and what measures can be taken on the state level to address both our dependence on fossil fuels and rising levels of greenhouse gases?
We need to immediately address global warming. Washington State has already taken some important steps toward reducing emissions. Unfortunately, not enough has been done to meet these goals. For example, the policy requiring utilities with at least 25,000 customers to obtain 15% of their electricity from new renewables like wind and solar is insufficient and means our emissions continue to grow, not decrease.
If we are going to address global warming, it demands much bolder steps. The Department of Energy says Washington has an abundance of areas with high-speed winds that are untapped. So, why are we still using dirty coal? We need to take the energy companies into democratic public ownership and make serious public investment in developing renewable energy, rather than waiting for anarchistic market forces, which will take too long.
Transportation accounts for the largest portion of our state’s total emissions: 40-50%. We could substantially lower that number by investing in light rail and high-speed rail. We should fully fund and expand transit, and make it free to incentivize driving less.
How can communities fight back against the new plans for coal terminals up and down the Washington coast? How would you respond to calls to support coal terminals to create more jobs?
We’ve been told it’s either a clean environment or jobs, that the two are mutually exclusive. The environment is a wedge issue that is used to split labor and environmental activists. The environmental and labor movements need to link up to fight to stop the coal terminals and for a massive green jobs program to transition from polluting, unsustainable production to an economy that works for people and the environment.
What message would you leave with voters as they head to the polls?
Big business has two parties. Why shouldn’t working people have our own political voice and representation? It’s time workers, unions, activists and the left break from the Democratic Party and begin building our own political party.
I’m running for State Legislature to continue building a movement that fights for the needs of working people and the poor. If elected, I will relentlessly expose the corrupt big-business policies of the state government and provide a political voice for workers, youth and all those oppressed by capitalism such as women, people of color and LGBT people. Please support our campaign with your time if you can volunteer, with a donation, and with your vote!