Sonics fans are getting a big chunk of credit for Socialist Kshama Sawant's surprising election to the Seattle City Council. And fans dedicated to bringing the NBA back to town vow it's not the last time they'll flex their political muscle.
The filmmakers behind the award-winning documentary Sonicsgate, which chronicled the sale and relocation of the Sonics to Oklahoma City, endorsed Sawant over incumbent Richard Conlin late in October. And there's little doubt their backing mobilized thousands of voters late in the campaign.
"I can tell you this. The margin by which she won, Sonicsgate certainly influenced it. They won that race for her," says Brian Robinson, co-founder of the group Save our Sonics.
Robinson, a small businessman in Seattle, personally endorsed Conlin. But he says the way the race turned is proof positive of the growing influence of Sonics fans, and sports fans in general.
So what drove so many Sonics fans to back Sawant? It was their long simmering anger over Conlin's lack of support for keeping the NBA in Seattle.
"Councilman Conlin has alienated many local constituencies including Sonics fans," wrote filmmakers Jason Reid and Adam Brown in their official endorsement of Sawant. "He was Seattle City Council President when its members unanimously approved the $45 million settlement agreement that let the Sonics out of the team's lease at KeyArena in 2008, officially sending Seattle's iconic NBA franchise off to Oklahoma City. Conlin missed a shot at redemption last year when he vocally opposed the SoDo arena deal and wrote an editorial letter attempting to justify his anti-arena position."
While Conlin led on election night by over 7 percentage points, a flood of ballots that came in the following days pushed her over the top. Conlin conceded the race last Friday. The latest numbers show Sawant leading by 3,008 votes.
"I'm really proud of Sonics fans as a constituency. They really stepped up and made a major difference," Robinson says.
But wouldn't Sawant, an avowed Socialist who this week called for Boeing workers to take over the plant if the company takes jobs out of state, be just as opposed to the taxpayers helping build a new arena for a rich hedge fund manager? Reid and Brown said they have received assurances she will give the NBA and the arena a fair shake.
"Although Sawant has not taken an official position on the SoDo arena MOU, her campaign shares in our outrage that Seattle was robbed of the Sonics by powerful, corrupt forces and that many local politicians, including Conlin, own a share of the blame," wrote Reid. "The Sawant campaign has met directly with the Sonicsgate team and will maintain an open dialogue on this issue. We believe Seattle's citizens will have a real voice in her administration. Living wage jobs and the enjoyment of sports are both rights we should enjoy in our community."
Sawant clarified her support for the NBA's return in a recent interview with Seattle Weekly.
"Richard Conlin did nothing to stop the stealing of the Sonics basketball team from Seattle by the NBA. I share Sonics fans' desire to have their team back," she said.
"I don't have a formal position on the current MOU, since it's not something I would vote on as a council member. My understanding is that the deal is far better than the huge giveaways to super-rich owners of the Mariners and Seahawks, both of which were undemocratically rammed through by the city's political establishment. NBA owners want taxpayers to foot the bill, and so opposed the deal in part because it sets a dangerous (for NBA) precedent that new arenas could be established without taxpayers getting stuck with the bill."
But Sawant said she would oppose any new agreement that threatens operations of the Port of Seattle, dockworkers or other small businesses, and any "public handouts to private investors."
The power of Sonics fans wasn't enough to help Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn win reelection. They actively worked on his campaign during both the primary and general election because of his aggressive support and work on the deal to build a new Seattle arena and help investor Chris Hansen bring the NBA back to town.
Still, Robinson says they made a noticeable difference in that race as well.
"You saw it in the outcome of the primary and general. McGinn finished within 4 percentage points," Robinson says. "It's been quoted that 25 percent of Mike McGinn's volunteer staff came from Sonics fans."
It's a movement that started back in 2007 as Howard Schultz sold the team to a group that ultimately moved the Sonics to Oklahoma City. Robinson vows the fans will remain politically active beyond this election, both in Seattle and around the state.
"There are hundreds of thousands of sports fans in the region, most of whom share some pretty common values around entertainment and family and civic pride, and I think sports fans are going to be a force to be reckoned with for awhile."
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