SEATTLE -- Seattle's first socialist City Council member in more than a century gave a biting inauguration speech Monday in which she slammed Wall Street, Congress, city government and capitalism where, she said, "the market is God and everything is sacrificed on the altar of profit" to the detriment of 99% of Americans.
Kshama Sawant, 40, who upset longtime City Council member Richard Conlin in the November general election, was cheered by supporters attending the inauguration ceremonies for mayor and City Council members at City Hall.
"This city has made glittering fortunes for the super wealthy and for the major corporations that dominate Seattle’s landscape," Sawant said to begin her speech. "At the same time, the lives of working people, the unemployed and the poor grow more difficult by the day. The cost of housing skyrockets, and education and health care become inaccessible.
"This is not unique to Seattle. Shamefully, in this, the richest country in human history, 50 million of our people – one in six – live in poverty. Around the world, billions do not have access to clean water and basic sanitation and children die every day from malnutrition.
"This is the reality of international capitalism. This is the product of the gigantic casino of speculation created by the highway robbers on Wall Street," she said to cheers. "In this system, the market is God and everything is sacrificed on the altar of profit. Capitalism has failed the 99 percent...
"In our country, Democratic and Republican politicians alike primarily serve the interests of big business. A completely dysfunctional Congress does manage to agree on one thing – regular increases in their already-bloated salaries – yet at the same time allows the federal minimum wage to stagnate and fall farther and farther behind inflation. We have the obscene spectacle of the average corporate CEO getting $7,000 an hour, while the lowest-paid workers are called presumptuous in their demand for just 15."
Sawant, 40, who was born in India in 1973 and became a U.S. citizen in 2010, said that to enact change in the United States, "we need organized mass movements of workers and young people, relying on their own independent strength. That is how we won unions, civil rights and LGBT rights."
She said that on the City Council, "I will do my utmost to represent the disenfranchised and the excluded, the poor and the oppressed – by fighting for a $15/hour minimum wage, affordable housing, and taxing the super-rich for a massive expansion of public transit and education. But my voice will be heard by those in power only if workers themselves shout their demands from the rooftops and organize en masse."
Sawant told the City Hall crowd that she would sit down to discuss issues with others in government and elsewhere, but "let me make one thing absolutely clear: There will be no backroom deals with corporations or their political servants. There will be no rotten sell-out of the people I represent. I wear the badge of socialist with honor."
Sawant's victory made her the first socialist to win a citywide election in Seattle since the radical progressive Anna Louise Strong was elected to the School Board in 1916, and the first socialist on the City Council since A.W. Piper, elected in 1877.
Sawant was born in India and grew up in Mumbai to a mother who was a retired school principal and a father who was a civil engineer and who was killed by a drunken driver when she was 13. Sawant studied computer science and graduated with a bachelor's degree from the University of Mumbai in 1994. A former software engineer, she married her husband, Vivek, an engineer for Microsoft, and moved to the United States, where she decided to turn her attention to economics. She received her PhD in economics from North Carolina State in 2003.
She holds part-time teaching positions at Seattle Central Community College and Seattle University and was a visiting assistant professor at Washington and Lee University.
Sawant, who was an activist in the Occupy Wall Street movement, ran as a Socialist Alternative candidate for the Washington House of Representatives in 2012, but received only 29 percent of the vote.
During her 2013 campaign for the Seattle City Council, she received criticism from some for pushing her socialist views while her husband makes a six-figure income at Microsoft. In response to that criticism, she issued a statement that she and her husband had been separated for nearly six years and "I am not sharing in my husband's income. As for why we are not legally divorced, that is a deeply personal matter involving emotional and private reasons."