Against Identity Politics

Pamela Banks: Big Bank, not grassroots. Photo courtesy of the Seattle Channel
Pamela Banks: Big Bank, not grassroots.
Photo courtesy of the Seattle Channel

The decisive results of the District 3 contest in Seattle’s August 4 city council primary elections have given us an excellent opportunity to discuss the folly of identity politics.

As most local political geeks likely know by now, council incumbent Kshama Sawant and her main challenger Pamela Banks will now compete for victory in the November 3 general elections. Obviously, Sawant and Banks are both women of color. The similarity ends there. Essentially, Sawant is grassroots while Banks is Big Bank.

And she’s not the only one: as of August 4, more than $200,000 worth of corporate PAC money had already flowed to certain council candidates from such groups as the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, the Washington Restaurant Association, the National Association of Realtors (a national lobby group for real estate interests), NAIOP (a commercial real-estate industry lobby group), and the Rental Housing Association (the biggest lobby group for Seattle landlords).

Banks, the current president and CEO of the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle, has been the prime beneficiary of such apparently colorblind capitalist gifting, having already received a combined $100,000 in maximum donations from a long litany of corporate executives, real-estate developers, and other business interests. Several of those District 3 donors began actively organizing to unseat Sawant well before the primary, and Banks was their ideal Manchurian candidate.

Another key difference between the two District 3 candidates — and a key reason for such high-rolling corporate financial support — is that Banks, unlike Sawant, has publicly opposed the $15 minimum wage, rent control, and linkage fees. Expect her donations to be spent on glossy campaign advertising attacking Sawant for the latter’s alleged ideological extremism.

Let’s now talk about identity politics.

For many years now, Seattleites have allowed social identity to determine our political choices at the expense of economic justice.

Our city has long been famously liberal and therefore welcoming to women, gays, and people of color — especially in our city government. This is fundamentally a good thing. However, where we’ve failed as a city, especially in recent years, is in our attitude towards the underclass — especially in our city government. Indeed, the derisive term “limousine liberal” can be easily applied to several Seattle City Council members of recent years. Current incumbent candidate Tim Burgess is a prime example. While Burgess is a straight white male, examples abound within Seattle’s recent political history of how electing women, gays, and people of color to public office is no guarantee of genuinely progressive government. Witness the deep-bore tunnel supporters Tom Rasmussen, Sally Clark, and Bruce Harrell, for example.

This trend began with Seattle’s historic 1989 municipal elections, and has only increased since then. Too many Seattle City Council members have since then given lip service to providing for the city’s homeless and underclass populations while ultimately failing them in favor of serving real-estate developers, tunnel boondogglers, and other such wealthy constituents. Pamela Banks, if elected, would most likely become such a legislator — despite her past record as a progressive activist.

The District 3 contest will now be unique in Seattle city politics: a contest where race and gender will be irrelevant while economic constituency will be front and center. District 3 voters now face a clear choice between the grassroots rabble-rouser Sawant and Banks — who is obviously owned.

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