In Seattle, Democratic Party activists have held enormous sway over the outcome of local elections.
But now, as campaign season begins, a non-Democrat is causing a rift in one corner of the party.
Kshama Sawant, a member of the Socialist Alternative Party, launched a long-shot bid for the Seattle City Council in 2013. With little money and few endorsements, she ousted a longtime Democratic incumbent, becoming the City Council's first Socialist member.
"It’s exciting to be able to run yet another grassroots independent working-class campaign,” Sawant said.
Now she’s back, running for the council again as the city moves to elect officials by district. And this time, prominent Democrats have announced they support her. They include King County Council member Larry Gossett and state Sen. Pramila Jayapal.
But the prospect of Democrats breaking ranks to support a Socialist doesn’t sit well with some party activists.
“Philosophically it’s a problem that we’ve never dealt with before,” said David Corrado, chair of the 37th District Democrats in Southeast Seattle.
The 37th District Democrats were set to co-sponsor a candidates’ forum with the 43rd District Democrats in which Sawant was invited to appear.
But when some members realized the Socialist would be sharing a stage with Democrats, they objected strongly.
“The concerns raised were that as a local Democratic group, our mission is to elect Democrats, and by lending our name, we were giving this stage to someone who is not a Democrat,” Corrado said.
So the 37th District Democrats' executive board pulled out of the forum and decided to hold its own —without Sawant. It also declined to extend an invitation to Josh Farris, a housing activist who is running against incumbent Bruce Harrell in City Council District 2. Farris, a Sawant supporter, says he's an independent.
You can imagine the response from Sawant’s supporters.
"I felt outraged,” said Jeanne Legault, a Democratic Party activist who supports Sawant. She helped draft a petition to have Sawant included in the forum. It was signed by 76 members.
Legault said it shouldn’t matter what party Sawant aligns herself with, as long as she agrees with Democrats on key issues.
“I think we need to open our tent a little bit, and include other minor party organizations, like the Green Party or the Socialist Party or whatever, because we are all on the same side and we are stronger working together,” Legault said.
After receiving the petition, the 37th District Democrats decided to cancel its candidates’ forum entirely.
Legault wants the organization to draft by-laws that would allow members to endorse non-Democrats. Meantime, for Sawant’s District 3 seat, Legault will be leading an effort for the 37th District Democrats to take no position on the race.
Corrado said it’s uncharted territory to have an incumbent who is not a Democrat and who sits far to the left of the Democratic Party.
He said the entire membership of the 37th District Democrats would need to decide how inclusive they want their party to be.
The 43rd District Democrats will go ahead with their candidates' forum at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Mount Zion Baptist Church in Seattle.