A candidate in October’s city council by-election received a lift today (September 1) from a notable out-of-town guest to Vancouver.
Kshama Sawant is a Seattle councilmember and a social-justice activist with a growing profile across the United States. She’s credited with leading Seattle to vote in favour of a $15-an-hour minimum wage and won her council seat with a campaign that favoured rent control and higher income taxes for the wealthy.
She spent the afternoon today in the Downtown Eastside, making a show of support for Jean Swanson, a long-time advocate for affordable housing who’s running for a seat on Vancouver city council as an independent.
In a telephone interview, Swanson said the endorsement was rooted in a genuine shared set of goals and interests.
“We talked about the similarities between our campaigns,” she told the Straight. “That we both want a $15 minimum wage, that we want a rent freeze, and about how we’re trying to expand the powers of municipal government, so that municipalities actually have the powers we need.”
Swanson said she also shares many of the same challenges that Sawant has faced during her two terms as a city councillor south of the border. She noted that the policies they are both trying to advance—a higher minimum wage and progressive tax frameworks that address inequality, for example—run into issues of jurisdiction. They are largely areas where the provinces—or, in Sawant’s case, the state—have authority. Swanson said they want to begin to change that.
“What happens with the Vision [Vancouver] council is, they say, ‘We’d like to do X or Y but our hands are tied because we don’t have that power’,” Swanson explained. “And so what we’re saying with my campaign is, if we don’t have that power, let’s get it. Or let’s put the pressure on the province to do the work and if they won’t, let’s put pressure on them to give us that power.”
It’s a struggle that’s increasingly shared by cities across North America. Burnaby, for example, has run up against the federal government in a dispute over the proposed Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion and to what extent a city should have power to reject energy infrastructure that poses an environmental risk.
Swanson said that Sawant inspired her to take these sorts of fights head on.
“Why should we be happy, as a municipality, not having the power that we need to have an affordable city?” Swanson asked.
She said an attempt for cooperation should be the first step in such debates and that, if elected, she would look forward to working with B.C.'s new NDP government. But, if that fails, she's ready to continue fighting.
“The first step is asking the province for what we need,” Swanson said. “The second step, if we can’t get it, is to ask them to give us the power so that we can do it ourselves.”
The council seat in question was left vacant in July when Vision Vancouver’s Geoff Meggs resigned to become Premier John Horgan’s chief of staff. The deadline for nominations is September 8 at 4 p.m. The by-election is October 14.
Sawant spent her afternoon with Swanson walking around the Downtown Eastside, meeting with low-income tenants, and then chatting with people on the front steps of the Carnegie Community Centre.
A media release distributed by the Swanson campaign quotes Sawant describing how as a candidate, she was dismissed as too radical but surprised people.
“I am so delighted to be here with you in solidarity," Sawant says there. “The only way we won in Seattle was because thousands of people went out doorknocking, phone banking, street canvassing and we spread the word and got so much support. We can accomplish that with Jean as well.”More