When the recession hit, her dad was laid off multiple times and the family lost everything, forcing her to be on her own at age 17.
Now she’s running for Congress.
Insurgent candidate Sarah Smith, a Democratic Socialist, is running a campaign in the same mold as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who in June unseated the fourth-ranking House Democrat, hoping to end the 22-year tenure of Rep. Adam Smith in Washington’s 9th Congressional District.
Smith joins dozens of other candidates across the country who are trying to oust Democratic incumbents that they see as too moderate for their districts. The 9th Congressional District includes south Seattle, Bellevue and north Tacoma.
Smith, who grew up in Connecticut and southern California, first engaged in politics at her public high school as a student activist protesting the Iraq War during George W. Bush’s administration. More recently, Smith says she’s volunteered with Planned Parenthood and the Neighborhood Action Coalition.
Sarah Smith, now 30, donated to her first presidential campaign just a few years ago. She heard Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders say things she had always thought, but had never heard from an elected official before.
“It was the first time I heard a politician talking about forgiving student debt, and talking about how we need single-payer health care, and he wasn’t afraid to say all of these things that I had been talking about forever,” Smith said in an interview with the Seattle Globalist. “He was speaking my language.”
After Sanders’s unsuccessful primary campaign, Smith began volunteering for Brand New Congress, an organization founded in April 2016 to recruit candidates to run for public office on a progressive platform of, among other things, Medicare for All, a $15 per hour minimum wage, and, most importantly, removing corporate money from the political process.
“Across the board, up and down this district, the thing that gets people to open their doors and not close them in our faces is when we talk about getting corporate money out of politics,” said Smith, who has waged an extensive canvassing operation throughout the region since announcing her candidacy on her 29th birthday in May 2017. “It’s probably the number one thing and the number one part of our platform that unites the entire district.”
Someone from the group nominated her to run and, after some convincing from her husband, she decided to take the opportunity to face Rep. Adam Smith. The incumbent has his own track record. He was an early advocate of a $15 per hour minimum wage in SeaTac and he signed on as a co-sponsor of H.R. 676, the Expanded and Improved Medicare For All Act of 2017.
“While my opponent has positions on issues, she has no record of having done anything on them in our community or any other part of Seattle,” said Smith, who is facing his first challenge from a member of his own party in a general election since winning the seat. He contrasted his 27 years in public office with his opponent’s lack of experience.
Sarah Smith’s campaign believes that the congressman only came around to single-payer health insurance because of her challenge from the left. Adam Smith became a co-sponsor of the Medicare bill in April 2017 — about a month before she officially announced her candidacy and three months after the initial introduction of the bill.
Sarah Smith says that her team of 300 volunteers — approximately 200 of whom do not live in the district — believe they can still take solace in the fact that they pushed Adam Smith, the ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, to the left on this issue.
“Not winning the seat means that you’re pulling the other person in your direction,” Sarah Smith said. “Victory is multifaceted in this race; if we don’t win in November, we’ve still succeeded in pulling Adam to our positions and now we can hold him there.”
On primary night, it might have appeared that her campaign was over. In early returns Sarah Smith lagged behind Republican Doug Basler, who challenged Adam Smith in this district in 2014 and 2016. Sarah Smith’s parents, figuring their daughter had lost, even texted her to express their disappointment and convey their sympathy.
As more votes were tallied in the coming days, the margin between Basler and Sarah Smith narrowed. She described the proceedings succinctly: “Nail biting.”
She heard that she had overtaken Basler during a conference call with her campaign staff, all of whom are volunteers. Her phone was instantly overcome with texts. She refreshed the page that reports vote totals and saw the unbelievable results. Sarah Smith received 26.9 percent of the vote, edging out Basler’s 24.7 percent. Adam Smith got the remaining 48.4 percent of the vote.
“That was probably the most exciting night,” Smith said. “I’m a little underdog nobody. I kind of came out of nowhere, and I was not the person who ever thought I would go into politics or I’d ever be the face of anything.”
At least two organizations, Brand New Congress and Justice Democrats, aim this year to put more progressive candidates on ballots across the country. The groups have recruited in races across the country — and not just in heavily blue districts. James Thompson, a Brand New Congress endorsee, will be on the ballot in Kansas’ Fourth Congressional District, which has been represented by Republicans since 1995.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democratic Socialist endorsed by Brand New Congress, brought this wing of the party attention from the establishment when she shocked Rep. Joseph Crowley, who represents areas of New York City, early in the primary season.
However, despite the shockwaves that this upset sent through the Democratic Party, Brand New Congress and Justice Democrats have had limited success. Of 17 candidates in such races, Ocasio-Cortez is the only Brand New Congress endorsee to defeat an incumbent in a primary.
Justice Democrats endorsed 68 House candidates; 26 won primaries or made it to the general election unopposed, while 40 lost. Two other candidates dropped out.
Nonetheless, the Democratic Socialists of America, which counts both Ocasio-Cortez and Sarah Smith as dues-paying members, has nearly doubled its membership in the past year, from 25,000 in August 2017 to 49,000 in August 2018, according to Lawrence Dreyfuss, program associate of Democratic Socialists of America.
In the day following Ocasio-Cortez’s victory in late June, the Democratic Socialists of America gained 1,000 members.
Troy Hewitt, Smith’s campaign outreach and engagement director, explained the conditions that have fostered the rise of this fervent progressive wing in the Democratic party.
“Work hard, get paid, buy a home, support your family. It isn’t working out like that,” Hewitt said. “It’s work hard, add a gig economy job, work harder, pay rent, get sick, cash out your 401(k), hope you can stay afloat, take a third job, hope your kids are doing OK, rinse and repeat.”
The Race Ahead
Smith and her supporters are optimistic about their chances come November. One reason why is sheer turnout in the primary election. Nearly 147,000 voters turned out in early August to vote, compared to less than 93,000 in the last off-year primary in 2014.
The candidate wakes up at 5:30 every morning to go to her day job as a tax law research assistant for a private firm. She quit her last job at a car mechanic shop in Renton a month before the primary to focus on the race, but Smith and her husband quickly learned that they couldn’t afford it. After work, she calls constituents and knocks on doors to spread the word, often working past 10 p.m.
Her campaign thinks that maintaining a constant presence in the community, which was the achilles heel for Crowley in New York, is key to victory.
Rep. Smith has brought in upwards of half a million dollars, more than $100,000 of which has come from defense electronics and aerospace companies, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a non-profit and non-partisan research group. But Sarah Smith, who has raised $105,121 total, is happy with the $20,000 per month she has raised since the primary and believes the campaign can sustain itself.
Rep. Smith has received the endorsements of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, the Alliance for Gun Responsibility and the Human Rights Campaign. Sarah Smith has been endorsed by The Stranger, the Washington State Progressive Caucus, as well as a number of nationwide organizations, like Brand New Congress.
That being said, Sarah Smith isn’t sure what she’ll do if she loses. Immediately following an electoral loss, she would go “radio silent” for a week to think about her future. Smith has toyed with the idea of pursuing a law degree for the means of poverty advocacy or mental health advocacy.
Maybe she’ll run for state legislature too.
“I definitely don’t want to stop. I think that my calling is in helping people and doing the most that I can for people,” Smith said. “Victory is not just winning a seat. Victory is starting a conversation where they’ve never been had before.”