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First-Ever Seattle Council Recall Targets $15 Minimum Wage Champion Kshama Sawant

The avowed socialist came in behind after initial results in a special election were counted Tuesday night, but a larger-than-expected turnout makes it harder to predict the final results.

Solidarity Rally.jpeg
Despite lagging in the initial ballot count on Tuesday evening, Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant told supporters at an election night rally, "It appears working people may have prevailed in this fight." A second ballot count is due on Wednesday afternoon. (Photo: @King5)
When Kshama Sawant got elected in 2013 she became the rare socialist politician not named Bernie Sanders to win a race in the United States.

This year as she faces the first-ever recall election of a Seattle city councilmember, avowedly left-of-liberal elected officials are not as much of a rarity. The rise of Sanders, and Donald Trump’s presidency, have inspired leaders from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in Congress to dozens of legislators across the country.

As the first results were tabulated on Dec. 7, the recall was over 53 percent in favor of her removal. That leaves a lot of ground for Sawant to make up as mail-in ballots continue to be counted, but she’s closed similar gaps before.

“Seattle elections have a big shift between the early vote and the late vote, and with Sawant, it may be even more so because she's a uniquely polarizing figure,” says Sandeep Kaushik, a political consultant with the firm Sound View Strategies, who organized pro-recall PAC A Better Seattle.

Sawant’s recall comes in the midst of a more complicated electoral landscape for progressive candidates, as the traditional backlash against the party in the White House collides with a bizarre economy, a still rampant pandemic, racial tensions and violent crime increases in many localities.

Concerns, Complaints and a Coalition to Stop Her

The recall effort against Sawant, however, has its roots in more specific concerns. Her radical politics and combative style have inspired an impressive array of opponents over the years, including Amazon, the building trades unions, and even some progressive groups. Sawant maintains a passionate base of support however, as she inveighs against an increasingly unequal city and champions left-wing policy priorities.
Amazon HQ.jpg
Sawant lead the fight against the "millionaire class" on April 10, 2018 in front of the Amazon headquarters in Seattle.
“Her opponents would crawl on hands and knees over broken glass to vote against her, but her supporters would do the same,” said Kaushik.

The recall effort is based around three charges. She spent over $1,700 in city money to promote a ballot initiative to “Tax Amazon,” which Sawant says was an honest mistake on her part (she is paying double that amount as an ethics fine).

During the protests in the wake of George Floyd’s killing, she let hundreds of activists into City Hall despite lockdown conditions meant to stem the spread of COVID-19. (She does not deny this either.) Lastly, Sawant is accused of leading a march to Mayor Jenny Durkan’s house — which is protected by confidentiality rules dating to her time as a federal prosecutor. She claims to not know the mayor’s address and that she wasn’t leading the column of protesters, just participating in solidarity.

“I wasn't surprised by the recall attempt,” says Nick Licata, a retired councilmember and an ally of Sawant when he was in City Hall. “Put it this way: There's always been a bullet in the chamber for recalling her, just no one had an excuse to pull the trigger.”

The recall comes after hotly contested local elections last month, in which moderate candidates swept the mayoral and most council races. A socialist candidate also lost the mayoral race in Buffalo, N.Y., to the incumbent mayor who ran a write-in campaign against her.

“I don't think anyone could deny that the environment for progressives right now is not what it was in 2020 or 2018,” says Sean McElwee, founding director of the left-leaning polling firm Data For Progress. “These results are likely to reflect that. Nobody thought this was going to be a blowout in her favor.”

Leading To The Left

The recall is unprecedented in Seattle politics. That’s a testament to the level of animus Sawant has provoked, as she uses her council seat not as a dry, wonky perch but as the fiery sanctum of a movement leader.

Sawant does not have the reputation of a master legislator, crafting innovative bills or utilizing crafty parliamentary maneuvers. Instead she uses her position on the City Council as a bully pulpit to promote causes like renter protections and a $15 minimum wage, and to name those she considers enemies to progress — like Amazon, which is headquartered in Seattle.

“The legislation that's identified with her, she's the co-sponsor and got it on the table because of her influence, but it’s generally written by somebody else,” says Licata. “She is better on mobilization at a broader level, introducing ideas to the council that they wouldn’t have necessarily pursued. But getting legislation passed is often much more tedious and wonkish.”
She's more of an ideologue than a getting things done for constituents sort of representative.
Seferiana Day, Upper Left Partners
In 2014, Sawant helped build what she called a "fighting movement" for a $15 minimum wage in Seattle.
It would be hard to argue that her strategy hasn’t been effective. Sawant’s tenure clearly pushed Seattle’s politics to the left, beginning with her first campaign (and a union effort in neighboring SeaTac) which drove the $15 minimum wage to the heart of the 2013 elections.

Since then she’s championed an array of renters rights bills, many of them successful, and won a tax increase on higher income corporate employees after Amazon and other business groups defeated an earlier effort. (She also, in 2019, won an election where the home delivery behemoth spent heavily to defeat her.)

Sharp Elbows, Blunt Tactics

Despite her influence, Sawant would never win a popularity contest among her fellow city councilmembers. Her uncompromising attitude and blunt tactics alienated many colleagues and union leaders. In recent weeks, she’s incurred the wrath of much of organized labor by siding with rank-and-file dissenters in the Carpenters Union and encouraging illegal wildcat strikes.

Sawant is distinct from most of the socialist elected officials that came after her in that she has no real affiliation with the Democratic Socialists of America or the various leftist groups that spun off of Sanders’ presidential campaigns.

Amazon’s growing spending on Seattle politics includes a spate of donations from Jeff Bezos
Sawant speaks against big money in council races in October 2019 (Source: Ken Lambert/Seattle Times/TNS)
Ken Lambert/TNS
Instead she is a member of the Socialist Alternative, a much smaller grouping inspired by the theories of Bolshevik revolutionary leader Leon Trotsky. The recall organizers attempted to include a fourth charge against Sawant, which accused her of delegating the staffing of her office to the revolutionary group. The Washington Supreme Court did not find that accusation as credible as the others.

Despite these obscure origins, Sawant commands an impressive base of support. She’s the current longest officeholder on the Seattle City Council, proving herself with voters three times. She’s no slouch when it comes to fundraising either. By the end of November, the Kshama Solidarity Campaign had raised $941,477.68, with 40 percent of contributors from her own district (which includes Capitol Hill and the Central District) and 38 percent from outside Seattle.

Even with a slight fundraising edge — her opponents had $939,691.73, with fewer contributors from outside the city — the odds are looking close. But even if she doesn’t eke out a win this time, that doesn’t mean Seattle has seen the last of Sawant: The recall election doesn't mean she can’t run again.

"From a political standpoint, people know who she is, and she has a strong, if very divisive, reputation,” says Seferiana Day, a political consultant with Upper Left Strategies. “She's more of an ideologue than a getting things done for constituents sort of representative. As more of a visionary leader, I could see her running for something higher.”
Jake Blumgart is a senior writer for Governing and covers transportation and infrastructure. He lives in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter at @jblumgart.
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