Organizers of what could become a new U.S. political party will gather in Washington, D.C., this weekend to decide whether to work within the Democratic Party for reform or launch their own progressive movement called the People’s Party, with Bernie Sanders as their preferred presidential candidate.
While the outlines of what the People’s Party might look like are still unfolding, organizers have already found a working model for guidance and inspiration — in Seattle.
The Seattle Peoples Party quickly established itself over the summer as a viable political alternative when its first-ever candidate seemingly came out of nowhere to mount a nail-biting finish in the city’s mayoral primary last month.
Nikkita Oliver, 31, a Seattle attorney, community activist and novice candidate, reluctantly agreed to run for mayor representing the Peoples Party. She quickly became a force in the race with a platform erected on the needs of women, people of color, the LGBTQ community and the financially pressed
Though she came up short, finishing third in a crowded primary behind two Democrats, engineer Cary Moon and former U.S. Atty. Jenny Durkan, she drew 31,000 votes and lost by 1,200. Moon and Durkan will square off in November.
The showing left supporters energized and wetted Oliver’s thirst for more populist politics (she refused corporate donations and campaigned door-to-door in poorer neighborhoods — familiar ground to her, she said).
Oliver proposed re-directing City Hall’s soaring revenue and tax income (the result of Amazon-ian growth that has made Seattle the country’s hottest real estate market) toward more social and health programs.
“We're living in one of the most wealthy cities in the United States, if not the world, and we know there’s enough,” Oliver said, “… if only we were willing to share it collectively.”
Oliver said “we have the ability to not just talk at a 30,000-foot view about equity, but to actually bring tangible, real solutions to the forefront of the discussion because we live these challenges.”
“As renters, as workers, as black and brown people, as the queer and trans community — we live these challenges every single day,” said Oliver, who is black.
The Seattle Peoples Party was formed this year “to develop equitable political strategies and solutions which place people over profits and corporations,” and is not directly affiliated with the budding national People’s Party, though there’s cross-support.
Leading up to the primary, the Seattle party — Democrats who find their party suddenly uninspiring, activists shell-shocked by Donald Trump’s 2016 victory and the emerging populist movement elsewhere in the world — was watched closely by community and political organizers nationwide, looking for ways to create similar movements across the U.S.
The national group, led by Nick Brana, a former Sanders campaign aide, said the timing seemed right to form a new third party based on progressive principles.
Rather than entrenched politicians, Wall Street hedge funders and mega-developers calling the shots, the national People’s Party said it intended to focus on candidates more concerned about affordable housing, health insurance costs, minimum wage, racial equity, criminal justice and human rights.
Among some there’s a feeling the Democratic Party — and the White House in the era of Trump — has been abducted by the Billionaire Class.
“The current model and the current strategy of the Democratic Party is an absolute failure,” Sen. Sanders told 4,000 faithful in June at a Chicago People’s Summit. Trump, he said, claimed to be a working-class candidate but as president brought “more billionaires into his administration than any president in history.”
Sanders has not indicated whether he has any lasting interest in the national People’s Party, and hasn’t said whether he will attend the formation meeting in Washington. But that hasn’t slowed a legion of “Berniecats” urging him to run for president in 2020 as the People’s Party candidate.
“The Democratic Party continues to rebuke Sanders’ progressive policies,” Brana said. “But given his overwhelming popularity among the party's base and independents, he has a unique opportunity to unite them in a new party rooted in the progressive policies that most Americans support but neither party embraces — Medicare for all, free public college, getting money out of politics, breaking up the banks, and so on.”
Among the speakers set to appear at the People’s Convergence Conference in Washington is Kshama Sawant, a Seattle council member and political firebrand who regularly engages in a war of words with opponents. She was recently sued by two officers who she called “murderers” after they killed an armed drug dealer. She refused to apologize after they were cleared of wrongdoing.
About 47,000 supporters have signed an online petition to form the new party. Despite the enthusiasm, a third-party candidate has never been elected president, unless you count Abraham Lincoln’s 1860 White House victory as leader of the newly-born Republican Party, beating Democratic and Constitutional Union Party challengers.
Brana counts it. “We hope Sanders will realize that he has a historic opportunity to replace an establishment party with a new progressive party, much like Lincoln's Republicans replaced the Whigs.”
Anderson is a special correspondent.