City Council member Kshama Sawant, who’s running to represent the city’s new District 3, invariably plugs the fact that she is “taking only the average workers’ salary,” $40,000, as a council member and contributing the remaining $80,000 or so to a “solidarity fund” to support various workers’ causes, on the campaign trail.
Yet a large chunk of that money, according to campaign finance filings, has paid for Sawant to take trips overseas and stateside to represent the Brooklyn-based group Socialist Alternative—an indirect subsidy by city taxpayers for Sawant to promote her personal and party brand in the United States and abroad.
According to a financial disclosure report filed with the state Public Disclosure Commission in 2015, Socialist Alternative paid for about $6,000 in travel expenses in 2014, including trips to rallies and conferences in Belgium, the UK, and Brazil. That means that the Socialist Alternative organization effectively served as a revolving fund for Sawant to deposit part of her city paycheck, then use that same money to send her around the world.
Philip Locker, Sawant’s generalist staffer and campaign spokesman, says the contributions from Sawant’s solidarity fund to Socialist Alternative “are not related to and are independent of any travel she undertakes on behalf of Socialist Alternative (or any other organization),” and that it’s typical for a group that “asks someone to travel to a conference to represent their organization” to pay for that travel. However, that group is, again, partly funded by Sawant.
There’s nothing ethically sketchy about that (Sawant could certainly spend $6,000 of her full paycheck on travel), and Sawant did report it appropriately, but it raises questions about how much the “solidarity fund” is for promoting workers’ interests and how much it’s for promoting Sawant and her growing international name recognition. Sawant could have just as easily paid for her travel out of her own $117,000 annual paycheck, but that expenditure wouldn’t have counted as money on the books for “worker solidarity.”
At a forum on June 19 at the New Hope Baptist Missionary Church in the Central District, for example, Sawant ignored a question about how she manages to live (and, for that matter, buy a three-bedroom home)— on $40,000 a year. The forum, which was already heated (it was around 9pm by this point, and three other council races had already preceded District 3), grew even more so as Sawant opponents/Banks supporters demanded that she answer the question and Sawant supporters/Banks opponents responded just as vehemently that the question was off-point and rude.
Sawant self-reports the uses of her solidarity fund on the Socialist Alternative website. So far in 2015, for example, Sawant has given $15,000 to the Seattle-based 15 Now minimum wage group (Locker says the group was having trouble educating workers about their rights under Seattle’s new minimum wage law, so Sawant helped their rollout campaign with $10,000) and $4,500 to Socialist Alternative. In 2014, also according to Sawant’s self-reporting, she gave away $15,000 to 15 Now and $14,500 to Socialist Alternative, in addition to groups like the Transit Riders’ Union, Casa Latina, and Puget Sound Sage, (Sawant’s net take-home pay is $40,000 after taxes of about $35,000, leaving about $42,000 for the solidarity fund.) In 2012, Socialist Alternative reported revenues of $138,544 to the IRS, so a contribution in the neighborhood of $15,000 would represent around 10 percent of the group’s total budget. Ted Virhone, one of Sawant’s council staffers, was listed that year as one of four Socialist Alternative directors.
Questions about Sawant’s financial situation have dogged her since her first campaign, when she refused to answer questions about her then-husband, Microsoft engineer Vivek Sawant, who was listed as contributing more than $100,000 to her annual household income on her financial disclosure funds. The couple was separated at the time and have since divorced, and Sawant’s supporters have said consistently that she did not benefit from her husband’s Microsoft income. (Legal spouses must be listed on financial disclosure forms).
Nonetheless, the question about her income (which Sawant and her supporters attributed to a “smear campaign” by the council incumbent she defeated, Richard Conlin, when I first covered the issue for PubliCola in 2013) has lingered, especially with her recent purchase of a $350,000 house in Leschi. Locker says Sawant is able to afford the house because she bought it jointly with her partner Calvin Priest, who works for Sawant’s campaign and sold his old house to help make the down payment.