"Our Real Goal Was to Create a Movement"

20.12.2015
People waving signs for Marco Rossi to be elected mayor of Olympia, Washington

New Compass contributor Marco Rossaire Rossi ran as candidate for mayor for the platform Olympia for All in Olympia, Washington (USA). They demanded a range of progressive reforms to the city, such as raising wages and introducing participatory democracy. Rossi got around 1/3 of the vote and lost to Cheryl Selby from the Democratic Party. In this interview we talk to Rossi about how the campaign did go, and what the plans of Olympia for All is for the future.

- So Marco, you got 27.41 % of the vote in the mayoral election. I guess you're not happy since you hoped to win, as you told New Compass earlier this year, but how do you feel about of the result?

 I actually got around 31%. My numbers improved after Election Day. Washington State has mail in ballots. Election results are not determined until a few days after Election Day. In any case, I lost. We were running to win this election, but the spread was what I was expecting. In the past, insurgent leftwing candidates have been able to take about 1/3 of the vote. That is what I thought would happen. 

Of course I wanted to win, but I had no delusions about how difficult that would be. The real goal that we were aiming for was creating a movement that could sustain itself beyond the election cycle. I strongly believe that elections should be used to build movements, and not the other way around. Since the election is done I have started talks with people on how to keep the energy focused on movement building.

- Is it a good or bad result considering it was the first time you ran in the election, and that your group and platform is new in Olympia?

The results were expected. The good that did come out of it was that we changed the debate around certain issues in Olympia. People are talking about poverty in a new way. There is an awareness that people who live in apartment complexes and low-income housing units have been left out municipal politics. They are Olympia’s working poor and they don’t have a constant and consistent voice in city government.

Image: Marco Rossi expected that around 30 per cent would vote for him in the election, since that is what left-wing canidates get in Olympia, Washington.

I also think that the narrative on economic development has changed. Our campaign advocated for sustainable urbanism. We want Olympia to grow and develop economically, to want to become more urban and work towards universal employment, but we want to do it in a way that is in line with ecological principles. That means building up instead of out, encouraging tall buildings instead of suburban sprawl. Our focus was on creating a walkable downtown, not supporting shopping centers with large parking lots.

I think we also made inroads when it came to local democracy and police accountability as well. A citizen’s review board for the Olympia Police Department is been discussed among some sections of the city in a serious way, and I had many people, from a variety of backgrounds and political persuasions, who agreed that the city needed to breakdown into districts instead of having citywide elections.   

- Who is Cheryl Selby, the candidate that won the election for mayor, and why do you think she - and not you - won?

Cheryl Selby is a centrist to liberal Democrat. She was already on the council when she ran for mayor. I think she won because she had the backing of the Democratic Party and, over the years, has made many important political connections between various factions in Olympia. There are some issues where we agree, other issues where I think her thinking has changed in the last few years, and others where we strongly disagree.

Video: Cheryl Selby was Rossi's main adversary in the mayoral election. She won and has become mayor of Olympia, Washington. Here is a debate in between the two candidates during the election campaign.

For example, I campaigned on raising the minimum wage in the city to $15. As a business owner, Cheryl was opposed. She has also been opposed to a citizen’s review board the police. We also have not seen eye-to-eye on every issue regarding homelessness, but, to her credit, she has adjusted her views over the years and supports a “housing first” strategy for ending homelessness. She has also come to understand the importance of having a low-barrier shelter in the downtown.

- Do you have an overview over who voted for you? What kind of neighborhoods or sectors of society?

The majority of our support came from the downtown. Generally speaking, the farther you got from the downtown, the worse I did. That is typical of progressive and leftwing candidates. It also made sense in terms of our message. The majority of low-income housing in Olympia is concentrated in the downtown and the Westside, so obviously focusing on issues of poverty resonated with people.

Also, our theme of sustainable urbanism reframed the discussion on environmentalism in the city. We put poor people who live in heart of the city at the center of the narrative. We talked about how living in an apartment building, taking public transit, and visiting a public park where all far more environmentally responsible than living in a big house in the suburbs with a large lawn. Even if you were to add solar panels to your home, you still couldn’t compete with the inherent thrift of someone who lives near the urban core.

I also was quick to point out how the demographics on the council were skewed. Every single member of the council lives in the North Eastside suburbs or the wealthy Capitol Neighborhood except one.

- I see that the voter turnout was very low, only 22.34 %. Why do you think it is so low in Olympia? Are the ones who would benefit from your proposals also the ones who're not voting? In such case, why weren't you able to mobilize them in the election?

Unless there is a presidential election or major referendum issue on the ballot, turnout tends to be low. And, yes, the people who don’t tend to vote—poor people, young people, people of color—would have benefited most from the changes that I was advocating for. We weren’t able to mobilize more people to vote because we started our campaign far too late to have any meaningful impact on voter turnout. As a general rule, the more people who vote, the more likely leftwing candidates are able to be elected.

Unfortunately, it is extremely difficult to get people to vote, at least in the United States. Marginalized people don’t tend to have the type of institutions that support a politically conscious culture, and, because of this, they tend not to feel empowered and motivated toward any political engagement, much less social activism. That is why labor unions are so important. Historically, they have mobilized poor people in a way that other institutions have not.  

- Can you tell me how you and the Olympia for All group did your election campaign? What kind of supporters did you have? Who helped with the campaigning? How did you reach out to potential voters?

We had a variety of people who supported our campaign. The majority of our “on the ground” supporters, people who helped with doorbelling and sign-waving, were students from the college. A lot of young people were really excited about our campaign, surprisingly many of the militant radicals.

Image: The majority of Rossi's campaign supporters were students from college, but also other young people help out with doorbelling and sign-waving.

One of the things that I am proud of is that I won over a lot of the anarchist in the city. Toward the end of the election, I heard many of them were wearing my buttons. Older people, many involved in the faith community who were concerned with homelessness and poverty, were also very supportive.  

- What kind of reactions did you get from "average" citizens of Olympia? How did they react to your proposals?

It depends on a lot of factors. The average person in Olympia is not necessarily the average voter. I think we had more support among the general population, but this did not necessarily translate at the polls. Our platform was intentionally broad. This allowed us to find some common ground with almost anyone. A lot of people liked what I had to say, but unfortunately elections are not won on ideas alone. You have to build connections with people and form strong institutions. We had some good ideas—a lot of people recognized that—but not nearly enough social and political power to bring them to the top of the political agenda.   

- I would imagine that your platform would evoke negative reactions from what you might call the "establishment.” But then I read in the Olympian that even they endorsed Selby as the best mayoral candidate, they liked what you were saying and thought you deserved a seat in the city council. Can you tell about the reactions from the media, business sectors and other parties? And also why you got such a favorable mention from what seems like the main local news outlet in Olympia?

From the beginning I wanted to run a different type of campaign. Frankly, I am tired of elections in the United States that, even on a local level, seem to be nothing more than rivalries between cults of personalities. Most of the time, local candidates talk about trivial personal issues such as how long they have lived in the area, if they are married and have kids, what are their favorite places to go in the city. When deciding on a candidate, I don’t care about these issues and I think most people don’t either.

However, I am equally tired of the left’s self-marginalization. When all your ideas are so abstract and extreme that only a handful of people can even enter the conversation, you are engaging in a form of elitism. It does not matter if there is no official leadership in your group, your unwillingness to make yourself accessible to outsiders says it all. 

Image: Rossi and Olympia for All adopted a strategy of what they called "pragmatic-idealism". That means that they did not hide their long-term revolutionary convictions, but what they proposed were reforms that are winnable in the short term.

To counter both these quagmires, we developed a strategy of pragmatic-idealism. At no point did I hide my political convictions. When discussing my grander economic vision for Olympia with supporters, I told people that I believed in communism. When discussing creating districts for the city, I mentioned that I thought this was an excellent step in moving the city toward a system of direct democracy.

However, I realized that I if these grander concepts were to have any meaning then the burden of proof was on me to show how we could get there in concrete steps. We took on the reforms that we thought were winnable in the short term in the hopes that it would aid in inspiring people to consider a grander vision in the long term. People who wanted to help out the homeless, or who were uncertain about Olympia’s economic future, or who had concerns about police accountability saw that we were speaking to these issues.

Additionally, people who wanted to be part of a grander revolutionary struggle saw that we were sincere in our ideals. That is how we were able to win the respect of the local paper and some of the city’s anarchist.  

Politics is not about getting what you want. Anyone can draw up a utopian future or list of demands and insist that everyone follows their lead. That doesn’t create a political movement; it creates a politicalized fashion statement, or worse yet, a political cult. Politics is about knowing where the people are at and being able to take them to where they need to go.

We adopted a platform that we knew there was support for in our community, and we made sure we had the facts, figures, and formulas to make our platform a reality. A lot of the platform points were not original. What was original was the congealing of these points into a single struggle, and then tethering that struggle to a grander vision. In my view, that is critical aspect in going forward with a genuine democratic alternative.