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September 26, 2012 at 12:06 PM

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Left v. left: Frank Chopp debates Kshama Sawant

Rep. Frank Chopp debated a socialist Tuesday night: Kshama Sawant, an adjunct lecturer in economics at Seattle University and Seattle Central Community College and his opponent on the November ballot.

It’s unusual for a third-party candidate to make it through Washington’s top-two primary, but Chopp is in the left-leaning 43rd district, and Sawant came in second Aug 7 as a write-in. The debate was sponsored by her group, Socialist Alternative, at Seattle University. About 100 people showed up, most of them her supporters.

Chopp is a progressive, making this debate, in the words of the moderator, SU Prof. Ruth White, “left to left.” The difference was of degree. Also position. Chopp is a big player in the system, to get things he wants from it; Sawant stands outside.

Sawant, who is a Marxist, tarred Chopp with responsibility for “enormous and horrific budget cuts” to education, early retirement for public employees, workers' compensation, etc. Those may have been Republican ideas, she said, but the Democrats went along.

“The Democratic Party has been in power for decades,” she said. “They even had a supermajority for a couple of years. What have they done with it?” Had they passed a massive green-jobs program? A statewide single-payer medical system? No.

Chopp’s reply was that he had secured real programs, worth millions of dollars: Medicaid money for children, public housing, an increase in the state need grants for college students, etc., and that when he had the votes, new tax revenues. (He mentioned Washington’s estate tax.) Chopp was gentlemanly, taking care not to attack Sawant, though she was attacking him. About the most pointed thing he said was, “It’s not good enough to talk about it. You’ve got to assemble the votes. That’s what I’ve done.”

He said that with the state Medicaid program, 98 percent of children in Washington have health insurance. He said he wanted to get the other 2 percent covered, and invited the audience to help him in the effort.

Sawant argued that Chopp’s acceptance of corporate donations shows that he is inai corporate party serving corporate interests.

As of today Chopp has raised $136,000 to Sawant’s $14,000. Chopp’s donors include Aetna, AT&T, Avista Corp, BNSF Railway Co., CenturyLink PAC, Delta Dental, Pemco, Pfizer, Bristol Myers Squibb, Premera, Regence, Puget Sound Energy, Microsoft, Southern Wine & Spirits, Youngs Market, Waste Management, Weyerhaeuser, etc. They also include a number of unions (IBEW, SEIU, WFSE) trade associations (realtors, doctors, dentists, hospitals, dairy farmers, restaurants, timber owners), tribes (Jamestown S’Klallam, Chehalis, Colville, Muckleshoot, Nisqually) and political consultants (Strategies 360). I don’t agree that this means he does their bidding. In the first place, the donors don’t agree among themselves, and secondly, Chopp has clearly done things some of them don’t like. More likely, they are hoping he will not step on their toes without talking to them first. Their money is more of an offering than a retainer. Anyway, Chopp does not need it. In his district he has no problem beating the token Republicans, if any, and he should have no problem in November.

Last night, he told the crowd he donates his contributions to other progressive candidates. When he got money a few years ago from the payday lenders, he said, he donated it to their opponents.

But that was not the gist of the argument. The gist was what was possible for the left in the here and now. Given that the Democratic Party is the leftmost of the two parties, that it believes in social programs, and that it has held power in Olympia for a long time, should people on the left expect Washington to have a much more generous offering of state benefits than it now has, and much higher, and more progressive, taxes than it now has?

To Sawant, the question was having politicians “that have the political will and the moral clarity” to demand much more. But a politician in Olympia (of either party) would probably say that if the Democrats had tried to push through a hard-left agenda, they would have quickly lost their majority — that Speaker Chopp wants to keep his majority, and knows what he can get without putting it at risk. Yes, Washington is a state that tends to elect Democrats — but all sorts of Democrats, many to the right of Chopp and all of them to the right of Kshama Sawant. It is also a state that passes Tim Eyman’s two-thirds-for-taxes initiatives, again and again, and that rejects a state income tax, again and again. Neither of those votes reflects corporate money. They reflect an electorate, which leans left in some ways and in other ways not.

Of course, this contest is not about the statewide electorate, but about the 43rd, which includes the University District and Capitol Hill. And that is why a Socialist can make it on the ballot.

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