Over the past month, no politician has generated a buzz quite like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. For some, the future of the Democratic party lies with highly progressive candidates like the 28-year-old Latinx Democratic socialist, who ousted longtime incumbent Congressman Joe Crowley in June’s primary election in New York City’s Bronx and Queens neighborhoods thanks to a strong grassroots campaign.
Sarah Smith believes she’s next. The 30-year-old Democratic socialist candidate is running against 21-year incumbent Rep. Adam Smith to be the Democratic nominee for Washington’s 9th Congressional District — which spans from Seattle and Bellevue to Federal Way and Northeast Tacoma.
“It’s not just that ‘Any blue will do’ anymore because we’re in an era of change and upheaval,” she said. “I don’t want the Democratic party to die out. I want them to survive, but I want them to be the party of the people.”
Sarah Smith — a registered Democrat, former volunteer for the 2016 Bernie Sanders presidential campaign, and current employee at a car mechanic shop in downtown Renton — is banking that voters in the 9th District have a similar appetite for a young progressive insurgent like Ocasio-Cortez. She’s similarly calling for Medicare for All, abolishing the controversial Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE), and a federal jobs guarantee.
The primary component of her platform, however, is getting corporate money out of politics through policy reforms such as banning lobbyists from making donations to political candidates.
“At the end of the day, campaign finance reform and how we allow money into our political system has to be our top priority,” Smith said. “Until we pry those fingers off, we’re not going to be able to get these things passed and get things done.”
Despite comments from some prominent national Democrats after Ocasio-Cortez’s win that her message could work only in deep-blue, diverse urban areas like New York, Smith claims insurgent progressive candidates are ascendant nationally.
“It’s really foolhardy to think that this is a one-off incident in New York. It’s not,” she said. “This is the next generation of Democrats.”
While she’s never run for office before, Smith has help from organized progressive activists. Toward the end of the bitter 2016 Democratic presidential primary, former staff and volunteers from the Sanders campaign launched Brand New Congress, an organization intent on recruiting House and Senate candidates to run on progressive policy platforms without corporate financing. The organization has pushed candidates in a slew of states ranging from Texas to New Hampshire. And Smith isn’t the only Brand New Congress-affiliated candidate running in the state of Washington, as Iraq war veteran Dorothy Gasque is vying for the 3rd congressional in Southwest Washington.
“Our candidates don’t accept corporate PAC money, they all sign on to the same policies, they help to develop the platform together,” said Zeynab Day, deputy communications director of Brand New Congress. “They serve as a pre-formed caucus of sorts that we are hoping to go to D.C. with.”
In April 2017, Smith attended a Brand New Congress workshop on the nuts and bolts of running congressional campaigns in Knoxville, Tenn., alongside Ocasio-Cortez and other prospective candidates. She officially launched her campaign on her 29th birthday in May 2017.
“We just hit the ground from there,” Smith said.
Her campaign now has a team of 36 field volunteers helping her canvas the 9th District, numbers that were boosted with a surge in interest after Ocasio-Cortez’s win in late June. They’ve knocked on roughly 13,000 doors so far, according to Smith. Additionally, Brand New Congress is sending some staffers and volunteers to the 9th District in late July to assist the campaign prior to the Aug. 7 primary. In addition to incumbent Adam Smith, she will also face Republican Doug Basler in the primary race.
With a platform that appeals to the left wing of the Democratic base, she’s received endorsements from organizations like the Olympia chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, the Justice Democrats, and the Washington Berniecrats Coalition. Keaton Slansky, a co-chair of the Seattle Democratic Socialists of America chapter, said that while his branch — which boasts around 600 dues-paying members — still needs to go through their internal endorsement process, he thinks it’s likely that they’ll vote to support her.
An overarching argument pitched by both Smith and Brand New Congress is that the Democratic party’s current tactic of holding a defensive and reactive posture to the Donald Trump presidency isn’t presenting an inspiring alternative for the Democratic base or the working-class voters on both sides of the aisle who are currently turned off by both parties.
Smith’s campaign messaging features no explicit attacks on Trump, nor does the messaging of Brand New Congress, which says it’s open to fielding Republican candidates, so long as they adopt their highly progressive platform — most importantly, campaign finance reform.
While Smith doesn’t hide the fact that she personally loathes Trump — she says he’s a “sad, narcissistic little man” who should be impeached — she also thinks that strictly focusing on bread-and-butter issues like universal health care, a $15 federal minimum wage, and getting corporate money out of politics will, in the long run, produce better outcomes for progressives.
“Pointing at him [Trump] and saying he’s horrible doesn’t actually change anything for any of us because at the end of the day, it’s about how hard Congress fights for us,” Smith said. “A reckoning is not just coming for red states, it’s coming for blue states too. There are working-class people everywhere.”
But whether this theory will result in electoral victory is another story. The 9th District’s incumbent, Rep. Adam Smith, is a formidable opponent. First elected in 1997, Rep. Smith has won his recent re-election campaigns by massive margins. He has the endorsements of most local Democratic organizations, several labor unions, and Washington Senators Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray, as well as Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal. Rep. Smith also boasts a massive campaign war chest of more than $420,000, which dwarfs Sarah Smith’s $36,000.
For his part, Rep. Smith welcomes the competition in the primary.
“I’ve had challengers from the left in every election that I’ve had,” he said. “I welcome a challenge from anybody. I’m odd as an incumbent in that I still believe in competition.”
He points to his voting advocacy record as evidence that he’s working to represent a blue district that went 69 percent for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election. Examples include pushing to make it easier for Somali-Americans to send remittances; a bill banning mandatory detention for undocumented immigrants that he co-sponsored with Congresswoman Jayapal in 2017; his early endorsement of the successful initiative to establish a $15 minimum wage in SeaTac; and co-sponsoring HR 676 — a bill that, while lacking in implementation details, intended to expand Medicare to the entire U.S. population.
In the wake of calls from certain Democratic activists and elected officials to “abolish ICE,” it’s been reported that Rep. Smith is working on another bill with Jayapal to effectively dismantle the agency to reduce the incarceration of undocumented immigrants.
“The bottom line is I’ve been out front on a ton of very important issues,” he said. “I’m the better progressive voice for this district than Sarah Smith by a wide margin.”
But for Sarah Smith and her supporters, these efforts aren’t enough. Her primary criticisms are that Rep. Smith accepts sizeable financial donations from corporations, as well as some of his past foreign policy and defense-related votes, such as his vote for the invasion of Iraq and his more recent vote against an amendment to a 2017 defense spending bill that would have banned the United States from selling cluster munitions to Saudi Arabia over the nation’s air war in Yemen.
The congressman has also accepted roughly $130,000 in contributions from the defense industry — companies like Northrop Grumman — for his 2018 re-election bid. His website says that he’s secured millions in defense contracts in his district, which, according to Sarah’s supporters, is more evidence of his cozinesses with the defense industry.
“Adam is very comfortable with the war industry and that really shows in a lot of his votes,” Sarah Smith said.
Rep. Smith said that his vote for the Iraq war was a “mistake,” but defended his stance on the cluster munitions amendment, arguing that those explosives are more targeted and less destructive than other types of munitions that the U.S. sells to Saudi Arabia.
Local political consultant and analyst Ben Anderstone said that the incumbent is in a good position.
“The fact that it’s become a quite solidly blue and progressive district doesn’t mean that it’s a bastion of anti-establishment Berniecrats. I think that the voters in that District see Adam Smith as a good reliable Democrat who delivers for that District,” Anderstone said.
In line with both Bernie Sanders’ 2016 bid for the Democratic presidential nomination and Ocasio-Cortez’s upset win in New York, there’s already animosity between Sarah Smith’s campaign and the local Democratic party.
Smith said her campaign has been denied access to the Democratic party’s extensive voter database, known as VoteBuilder, on grounds that party bylaws require that a candidate have the backing of local Democratic organizations before getting access. In other races across the country, far-left candidates have gotten into similar spats with the Democratic party when it comes to obtaining their voter data.
“Rather than give us a fair shake, rather than Washington Democrats committing to their principles … they just want to hold on to power,” Smith said. The Washington state Democratic Party did not respond to requests for comment on the matter.
“If a normal working-class person wants to run for office, it’s not easy. You have to have a lot of seed money and you have to have the right connections and you have to go and kiss the ring of the establishment. And unless you fall in line, that does not happen,” said Supreet Kaur, a 28-year-old volunteer for the Smith campaign and former Bernie Sanders supporter. “It’s hard for insurgent campaigns.”
Access to voter data aside, some Democratic activists argue that Smith is sidelining herself from potential party support by not proactively engaging. “She’s been pretty much a non-factor in Democratic party circles,” Chase Cross of the 37th District Democrats said. “[She] hasn’t really been hustling for our endorsements … she’s kind of out there on her own. The game usually goes to who shows up.”
Smith said that she submitted endorsement forms to the 37th District Democrats, along with several other similar organizations in other legislative districts, none of which endorsed her. But Stacia Jenkins, chair of the 33rd District Democrats, said that her campaign never contacted them to request an endorsement at a meeting. “I know we do have some members that are very supportive and she may have received some votes.” (Smith said that she couldn’t make the meeting due to a scheduling conflict.)
Democrats aren’t eager to write off Smith’s candidacy, but they do argue that infighting isn’t helping the progressive movement as a whole.
“The party is in danger of ripping itself apart,” Rep. Smith said.
“We don’t want to ruin good people,” said James Terwilliger of the 48th District Democrats in Bellevue. “We’re at a time right now when we need the best people possible in positions of leadership, and if we ever get into a discussion of Democratic-centrist versus Democratic-socialist, I think we’ve lost.”
But the fight over the soul of the Democratic party is likely coming to the 9th District regardless of local Democrats’ qualms. To advance to the general election against Rep. Smith, Sarah merely has to do better than Doug Basler, a Republican who has run unsuccessfully in recent election cycles, garnering only between 23 and 29 percent of the vote.
Smith argues that she isn’t trying to divide the party
“People like me and Ocasio-Cortez … we’re not trying to destroy the party. We’re standing on our mark on the line on the track waiting for them to give us the baton, but they refuse to give it to us.”