Opinion: Sawant and Parental Leave

Kshama Sawant has a guest editorial in the Stranger this morning, in which she once again makes a case for the City Council to pass through the budget amendment she proposed related to offering 12 weeks of paid parental leave to city workers.

It failed by the slimmest margin: 4-4, and Council member Bruce Harrell was not present (it is assumed he will be this week). So she’s giving it another run.

Council member Kshama Sawant
Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant

In her editorial, as in the email blast she sent out to her supporters last week, she makes a passionate argument for 12 weeks instead of the current 4. And she makes several very good points: there is a significant body of evidence that 12 weeks is important.

Based upon the public statements they have made, all nine Council members are in support of offering 12 weeks of parental leave. But that is not the issue with Sawant’s proposed budget amendment, and why it failed.

Her proposal doesn’t actually offer 12 weeks of parental leave to city workers. What it does is redirect $1.5 million of unexpected excess revenue from one specific source into a reserve fund, so that if the City Council figures out all the details and does put in place a 12-week leave next year, they will have some funds set aside to help pay for it in 2016.

So here are the problems with this. First, as one of the Council members pointed out last week, a parental leave policy needs to get negotiated with the city workers’ various unions, and there is no clear idea how long that will take or what the policy will look like at the end. Second, in that same vein, no one knows what the policy will cost in 2016 — let alone after that. $1.5 million might be more than enough; or it might be far too little. Third, finding the money in 2016 is not going to be an impediment to a 12-week parental leave policy; if there is one, it will be finding the ongoing source of funding in 2017 and beyond, and Sawant’s proposal does nothing to address that. In the worst case, a shortfall of funds in 2016 would only delay the policy’s implementation to the beginning of 2017.

What Sawant is offering is a gimmick, that at best could be seen as a gesture in good faith  that the Council intends to write a 12-week parental leave policy in 2016 (spoiler: they do). It doesn’t help to write the policy, or to research what should be in it — though the 2016 budget already has funds set aside to do that study. The four Council members who voted against it saw it for what it was.

But there is another dynamic at play here: this is Sawant’s standard operating procedure for getting legislation passed. Her colleagues — including Council members O’Brien and Licata — are skilled at coalition building, working with other council members to revise and improve proposed legislation and building majority support in the process. Sawant prefers to skip that part, especially with her colleagues that tend to disagree with her, and instead call upon the citizens of Seattle to put pressure on the Council to vote her proposals through. That’s not a recipe for good law; unfortunately it worked with her high-profile $15 minimum wage law (which is actually a good piece of legislation) and now has become her go-to approach. She has earned the ire of her fellow Council members for this approach, not to mention the public insults she slings at them when they don’t succumb to the pressure to vote through bad law.

What’s particularly striking this time is the extent to which Sawant is lying to her own supporters about what her proposal accomplishes — as if a “yes” vote tomorrow would actually enact a 12-week parental leave policy, instead of just moving $1.5 million around through internal accounting.  It’s also unclear why Sawant is doubling down on this one proposal, instead of one of her other failed ones such as the attempt to allocate money from the city’s emergency fund to address the homelessness crisis — with a few negotiated changes, I bet she could get some form of that through given the Mayor’s declaration of emergency and the Council’s demonstrated willingness to help (though not to the level Sawant was originally asking for).

Last week Sawant said “it’s clear the election is over” when one of her budget proposals got voted down, suggesting that her colleagues had temporarily swayed to the left to try to keep their jobs. That may be true. But what she fails to notice is that the new districting has also shown how weak her own support is. Sawant hardly ran away with her own election, with a 55%-45% win over Pamela Banks. Tim Burgess beat Sawant acolyte Jon Banks with a larger margin. Lisa Herbold is barely winning. Bruce Harrell looks like he’ll get re-elected. Sally Bagshaw, no fan of Sawant, stomped her opponent.  And Mike O’Brien, the incumbent most closely allied with Sawant, had a much tougher race than expected.  Seattle voters hardly gave a resounding endorsement of Sawant’s platform and approach. The other Council members seem to get this, and are not caving in to her demands.

For some reason, Sawant has decided to play high-stakes poker with this particular proposal. But her hand is weak, and her colleagues are likely to call her bluff tomorrow. The four who voted against it last week have little reason to flip their vote tomorrow, and in the end it will come down to what Council member Harrell decides to do. He is holding his cards close at the moment, but the smart Vegas money says that he will hand Sawant another defeat. And then we will see where that leaves Sawant going into 2016.