What to know about the recall effort to oust Kshama Sawant, Seattle's socialist council member
Ballots asking "yes" or "no" to recall Seattle Councilmember Sawant are being mailed to voters ahead of the December 7 election, as are campaign fliers attempting to sway the outcome.
ost people have probably made up their minds by now," political analyst Joni Balter said on KUOW's Friday Politics segment. "Kshama Sawant is a divisive figure in our city politics. But it’s also true that December 7 couldn’t be a weirder date for an election. It’s likely to produce low turnout.”
Sawant was elected Seattle's first Socialist council member in 2013. She and her supporters were the muscle behind the $15 minimum wage movement. She has also championed renter protections and new taxes on the city’s wealthiest residents and corporations. But a movement to oust her has grown from various interests inside, and outside, her district, which spans Capitol Hill, Beacon Hill, the Central District, Montlake, and Rainier Valley.
Balter wondered whether the November election, which saw Seattleites favor more moderate candidates over progressive ones — Bruce Harrell over Lorena Gonzalez for mayor, Sara Nelson over Nikkita Oliver for city council position 9 — signaled the end of Sawant.
“Some of the sentiments you saw in the November election — this desire to change the makeup of the City Council, to get folks at City Hall to return to more basic work — could well carry over to the recall vote and sweep out Sawant," Balter said. "But overall, this is an advantage to Sawant – she has a better ground game.”
The Recall Sawant campaign has listed a range of charges against the council member. In short, the campaign charges that:
- Sawant inappropriately used city resources to promote a ballot initiative (electioneering). The "Tax Amazon" initiative (tax on corporate payroll for affordable green housing) was spearheaded by Sawant, who used city resources to organize and promote it — including nearly $2,000 in staff time, copy machines, food, wood pickets, etc. Event fliers for the initiative were distributed using the city's official seal. This is a violation of state law, which bars elected officials from using public resources for election purposes. Sawant was fined by the city's ethics commission for the violation.
- Sawant led hundreds of protesters to a rally inside City Hall after hours, in June 2020, during the pandemic and in violation of state Covid orders. The indoor rally came amid ongoing protests for racial justice following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
- Sawant led a march to Mayor Jenny Durkan's private home in July 2020, which is federally protected information due to Durkan's previous role as a U.S. attorney. Sawant has argued that she did not organize or lead the demonstration, but participated in it. Durkan had also been a target of threats prior to the 2020 protests related to her work as a U.S. attorney.
Balter argues that the most damning charge is that Sawant led a march to Mayor Durkan's home. But David Hyde, KUOW politics reporter, notes that “Sawant says to that — she didn’t organize or lead the march, and she doesn't know Mayor Durkan’s address...”
Sawant did speak to the crowd at the mayor's home. Durkan cites the marches to her home as part of her reason not to run for mayor again. She reports that her family has been targeted by a surge of threats and vandalism ever since. She says her son has not been able to come home at times, due to the threats.
“The pro-recall mailers are focusing a lot on these three charges, about breaking the law,” Hyde said.
But Sawant supporters, he said, "frame this more as an unfair war against someone, and that the charges are a smoke screen, and that this is really a battle between capitalists and Sawant and ‘Don’t let this BS recall overturn the will of the voters.’”
Indeed, mailers from the Recall Sawant campaign lean into the charges, citing the Supreme Court of Washington State as well as news coverage of the council member.
The Kshama Solidarity campaign, which defends the council member, argues that Republicans are behind the "racist right-wing recall." It claims that the election was set for December to intentionally produce low voter turnout. The Solidarity campaign further points to backers of the recall as Trump supporters, CEOs, and billionaires.
For example, the Kshama Solidarity campaign points out that George Petrie, a Seattle real estate head, supports the recall. Petrie, who lives in Ravenna, according to public records, and not in Sawant's district, has donated $1,000 to the recall campaign. He has also donated to campaigns for former president Donald Trump's presidential campaign as well as mayoral candidate Bruce Harrell.
Carl Haglund, a Seattle landlord who has been fined for not following tenant rights law, is another financial backer. He previously sued Sawant for defamation.
A closer look at financial backers of the recall campaign shows that also among its top contributors are a handful of unions, such as the Iron Workers District Council of the Pacific Northwest. Also, the Seattle Building and Construction Trades Council which represents a range of local unions.
Cracks in Sawant's union support have been years in the making. Some have accused the council member of butting into their negotiations where they felt she didn't belong. Others have stated she injects herself into their causes to grab "the limelight for her own political agenda." Other unions raise issues with Sawant's stances on businesses they rely on. And some object to her views on policing, head taxes, and other issues.
The recall campaign was initially launched by Ernie Lou, who describes himself online as a "very liberal Seattle native." The recall campaign has since moved on to committee leadership. After filing for the recall initiative, Lou was fired from his job at Capitol Hill's Three Dollar Bill Cinema for his involvement. Lou has described Sawant as a "far left version of Trump."
As of November 19, the recall campaign has raised $749,000, less than the Kshama Solidarity campaign, which has raised $866,000.