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Socialist candidate Jess Spear: “That’s not leadership”

This week, a weird thing happened over at the Stranger: There was dissent in their elections endorsement regarding the primary race for the position of Speaker of the House. While the paper formally endorsed long-time Democrat Frank Chopp, several members of the editorial board came out against him, issuing their own endorsement of socialist alternative candidate Jess Spear. 

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Spear follows in the footsteps of City Councilmember Kshama Sawant, who se first big race was also against Chopp, wherein she netted an impressive 29% of the vote. Sawant later went on to improbably unseat long-time City Council Chair Richard Conlin, the protypical Old White Dude who was considered a shoo-in.

Spear led Sawant’s campaign, in addition to leading the successful fight for an city-wide increase in the minimum wage as an organizer for 15 Now. 

Despite ACLU lawyer and potential future candidate Alison Holcomb’s regrettable, down-the-middle, please-everyone rhetoric regarding Sawant, the fact is that the ruthless progressiveness of socialist candidates in Washington — and Seattle specifically — is actually working. That kind of ideals-based (in the truest sense), anti-corporation, pro-people language, which has often been considered political suicide, is helping. It’s changing things. It’s not just scary-talk.

And it has the potential to go further; in 2015, some of the City Council’s most complacent, do-nothing members are up for reelection and, post-Sawant, will actually have to bring their game faces. It’s really starting to feel like politicians in the city and state are going to have to do more than appease and that is awesome. 

We at Seattlish are all about socialist alternative candidates. We’re also into young women running for office. But more than even that, we’re into young women being allowed to speak for themselves. Regarding this race, there’s been a lot of talk about Jess Spear, but, we felt, not a lot of talk with her. 

So, we asked her. And, unsurprisingly, we like her a lot. 

Ish: One of the main criticisms about you as a candidate is that you lack experience. What’s your response to that?

JS: My response is that yes, I lack experience sitting in back rooms and hashing out deals with big corporations where they get huge tax handouts and we get crumbs. And I lack experience trying to work out ways where we can throw a little bit of funding to education, but we can throw Boeing $8.7 million. That’s the experience I lack. 

But the experience I have is that I’ve organized over 400 volunteers and then went on to become the organizing director, launching action groups in the city to build support that lead the way in passing a $15/hr minimum wage. Of course, we didn’t do it alone. But I think nobody would deny that the charter amendment that we pushed really forced the process to move a lot quicker than other elected officials would have wanted.

Oh yeah. It outpaced the “Seattle Process” hard. Nothing has happened that quickly in a really long time. 

Yup. So that’s the community organizing experience I have. 

My own professional experience is as a climate scientist. I went into climate science as a young person really because I wanted to do something about global warming…But I realized pretty quickly that that’s not the way we’re going to be able to do it. It doesn’t matter how much more data you generate if policy officials and elected officials aren’t going to move on that data. So that’s how I got into activism in a really heavy way.

So, my experience really is in community organizing. I mean, the last two campaigns [Kshama Sawant’s run and the $15/hr amendment] were pretty successful.

I also think that I bring a youthful perspective and the need to be quite urgent, not just with homelessness, but with other issues, like climate change and the affordable housing crisis.

It seems to me that all of the people who have this “experience” because they’ve been in office for decades throw up all these excuses about why we can’t solve homelessness or fund education, when really what I think is that they don’t have this burning desire to do something urgent. I think if you look at their list of corporate donors, that’s one explanation. 

Right. I think the immediacy that young people feel is because we feel it all of the time, every day. When you don’t feel that crunch, like, “oh my student loans are drowning me,” it’s hard to see why acting quickly is so important. 

So why Frank Chopp? Why that election? Why Speaker?

Frank Chopp is representative of everything that’s wrong in Olympia.

You have somebody who has this thin veneer of progressivism over the top of a corporate-funded core.

He has definitely provided some support on issues like affordable housing projects — nobody would take that away from him — but when you look at the fact that what he proposes is these small Bandaids to cover up these huge wounds that the real policies he supports creates, it’s not good enough. 

He lives in my district, so that’s part of it, but he’s been there for 20 years and we still have the most regressive tax system. We have criminally underfunded education systems, and then we have the largest tax break in United States history given to one of the most profitable companies in the world. 

So it just seems to me that the priorities of the legislature, which is controlled by Frank Chopp, are very much skewed toward corporations. So he’s the person to challenge. 

What do you think the potential for having a socialist in Olympia would be, when Olympia seems to be — especially post-Rodney Tom, but generally — this horrifying place of intense gridlock? What could adding a socialist in the mix do?

I think taking the position of Speaker of the House would be a political earthquake, and that’s actually what’s necessary. Because too many people are complacent, and just sitting around doing the same thing, making the same excuses, while we’re all suffering. 

Which is what we saw with Sawant in City Council. Unseating Richard Conlin was unprecedented and, I think, it has ignited the other City Councilmembers. 

Absolutely, And just like the global economic recession really shook the ground for working people and made them seek out alternatives and find something better, I think it’ll shake the representatives that are held back by the leadership. And I think it’ll make the space for them to bring up more progressive legislation.

So, if anything, I think it’ll move the legislature to the left. 

There’s a lot of perceived safety. Do you feel like the momentum from Sawants campaign and her wins in City Council are helping with the campaign?

Oh, absolutely. Two years ago, we couldn’t get any press coverage. It was very difficult. And we really were running that campaign as a way to let people register their anger at the status quo, and to put forth socialist ideals. We did not have any illusions that we could win — but getting the 29% was pretty unprecedented. 

Going on and winning her council seat, and then my role in 15 Now…we have no trouble getting attention now. We’re just on a higher plane.

People know what a socialist looks like in office, how they fight. So actually, every interview that I’ve had, no one has asked me “why are you running as a socialist?” They know what it means.

I think there’s a lot of discomfort with the idea of putting someone young in Olympia, because it’s such an old-person institution. Like, I did some Olympia coverage a few years ago and I was always the youngest person in the room and feeling like that was a real problem, because I was like, “Man, none of y’all really grew up in my economy.” And there’s all this side-eying about our generation and talk about how we’re not engaged or we have these ridiculous political views…but at the same time, there’s that criticism that a young candidate doesn’t have enough experience. 

That’s an important thing to bring up. Because, I mean, I’m assuming you’re a millennial on the cusp of being a millennial like myself. So how am I supposed to be expected to have the same long list of accomplishments as a 60-year-old man? That’s not my experience. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have experience. 

I think it’s important to build confidence in the people behind you. They might be able to ignore you as a person, but they cannot ignore all the people that you represent. 

And even though we’ve demonstrated that in City Council, the response is still “yeah, that’ll never happen.”

Right. And I don’t know why the assumption is that it can’t happen; a surprising amount of policy has been passed in even just the past six months. I feel like Kshama’s presence has really brought a lot of other people toward the left with her. We’ve seen Nick Licata really stepping up, and Mike O’Brien being a lot less timid. 

Absolutely. And I think the same thing would happen in Olympia. I think that there’s a group of progressive legislators who, again, don’t really have the space to talk about their issues or their legislation is just killed in committee.

Like Jessyn Farrell’s minimum wage bill — why not bring that to committee? When Seattle has a debate raging? Even though it’s polling over 60% statewide? 

And I think that really contrasts the kind of leadership that we’re talking about. It’s one thing to say “Well, I support rent control, but it’s not viable,” which Frank Chopp has said. It’s another thing to say “I support it and I’m going to make it happen.” Because a year ago, no, there was not 74% for $15. We went out and built it.

That’s leadership. Leadership is not echoing the popular opinion. That’s not leadership. Leadership is pioneering a path and pulling people behind you.

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She’s got our vote. 

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    Hey Washington,Go get your ballot filled out and vote for Jess Spear. We have some big issues with little action for...
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