A Better Government is Possible: Women Leading the Way in Left Electoral Success

From the March 2014 PNL #832

by Ursula Rozum

As the planet burns, inequality accelerates and political elites slash public budgets, it should be no surprise that new political forces are emerging to challenge the status quo and provide solutions to today’s largest crises. Activists often disagree on whether participating in elections is a worthy use of our limited resources and energy.  Regardless of your attitude towards elections, the recent, high profile electoral success of women who clearly identify with the political left can give us  hope that a different kind of politics is possible.

Kshama Sawant, running on a platform that
includes a $15/hour minimum wage, is the first
openly socialist candidate to win a seat on the
Seattle City Council in 97 years. Image:

Camila Vallejo and Karol Cariola: Young Communists Rock Chile’s Elections

In November 2013, Camila Vallejo, one of the most recognizable faces of Chile’s 2011 student uprising, was elected to the Chilean Congress alongside three other former university leaders. The 25-year-old member of Chile’s Communist Party ran and won alongside fellow Young Communist Karol Cariola. Cariola, a midwife by trade, was also a former student leader. Both women ran on a platform seeking free and improved education in a country plagued with severe income inequality. Both criticize the economic model imposed on Chile during the Pinochet dictatorship that treats education as a commodity which, according to Vallejo, “immediately distorts the principal objective, which is to educate not earn profits.” The strategy to reach political power through elections by these high profile members of the Communist Youth and former leaders of the student mobilizations has been bitterly questioned by some student factions who consider it a betrayal of the student movement. However, Cariola and Vallejo maintain that the election of student leaders to Congress “will not only demonstrate that social movements can and should have their own representatives in congress, but also make it possible ...to build political spaces that allow us to make the structural changes our society demands.” Karol Cariola and Camila Vallejo will take their seats in Congress in March 2014. Their agenda includes replacing Chile’s current Constitution, which was adopted during the Pinochet dictatorship, and increasing corporate taxes in order to provide fully-funded public education to all Chilean students.

Kshama Sawant: A Socialist Wins in Seattle

Kshama Sawant of the Socialist Alternative party is the first openly socialist candidate to win a seat on the Seattle City Council in 97 years. In November 2013, she unseated a four-term incumbent Democrat. Sawant ran on a platform that includes a $15 per hour minimum wage, expanded public transportation, and increased funding for public housing.  As a city councilor, she pledges to use her position to unite and give political voice to the struggles of low-paid workers, youth, people of color, and all those who are shut out by the political machine run on behalf of a wealthy elite. The previous year, Sawant gained recognition in a State Assembly race, building momentum for the seriously well-organized 2013 City Council campaign. For her campaign, Socialist Alternative raised $141,000, over half of what their opponent raised. Donations came from 1,400 donors with a median donation of only $40.00. The campaign inspired 450 volunteers and earned around 150 media articles. Sawant’s campaign demonstrated that with an articulate spokesperson and a disciplined organizing strategy, activists can achieve victories that break the two-party chokehold on US politics.

Gayle McLaughlin: What an Activist Mayor Looks Like

Gayle McLaughlin, the Green Party mayor of Richmond, California, was elected in 2007 and since, has demonstrated what an activist in political office can achieve. Under McLaughlin’s leadership, Richmond has approved a business tax increase and defeated a casino development scheme; opposed Immigration & Customs Enforcement raids in the city and created a municipal ID card to aid the undocumented; sought fair property taxation of the city’s infamous Chevron oil refinery; and sued the giant oil company over the damage done by a huge refinery fire and explosion last year. Most recently, McLaughlin has gained national attention for advancing a plan to use the city’s eminent domain power to acquire troubled loans, so as to stop a new wave of foreclosures. When asked if it helps her to be a member of the Green Party, McLaughlin responds, It’s the independent thinking that makes the difference. One party is moving us into a brick wall at 100 mph. The other is moving us there at 50 mph. We’re still going in the wrong direction.” Like all Green candidates, McLaughlin did not accept any corporate contributions during her campaigns.

What these women have in common is that they have used elections to mount a viable challenge to a political status quo that has for too long neglected the rights of workers, young people, and the poor. They are unapologetic in their fight for the better world that’s possible and the better government that’s necessary.

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Ursula Rozum is on staff at the Peace Council.