Usually the Stranger Election Control Board spends the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas thinking up new ways to smuggle pot on an airplane, but this year a group of Kshama Sawant haters endeavored on some weaselly recall nonsense, so now we have to spend this time thinking about yet another fucking election. Luckily, this time only one question will appear on the ballot, and the answer is easy.
If you’re a registered voter who lives in Seattle’s District 3 — which includes Capitol Hill, the Central District, Madison Park, Madrona, Leschi, and parts of surrounding neighborhoods — then you should receive a ballot in the mail by Friday, November 19. (If you don’t receive a ballot that day, then check out VoteWA to see if you’re registered. If you’re not registered, you have until November 29 to do so online or by mail. If you believe you should have received a ballot but did not, then call the elections department at 206-296-8683 after Monday, Nov. 22, to figure out what’s going on.) When you get your hands on that ballot, rip open the envelope, fill out the “Recall No” bubble, slip it in the nearest drop box before December 7 at 8 pm, and then curse the Recall Sawant campaign for this goddamned tedious waste of time and energy.
Even if you harbor strong disagreements with Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant, it is plainly undemocratic to overturn the will of the 2019 electorate with a recall vote sandwiched between two major travel holidays. The district’s local Democratic Party organization opposed this recall for exactly that reason, and they’re right.
Though King County hasn’t scheduled an election in December since it started keeping records in 2004, so-called “special elections” such as this one draw 25% less turnout on average. If successful, the right-wingers and corporate landlords funding this campaign will use this same tactic to go after every progressive leader who threatens their financial interests in Seattle and in the 30 other states across the country that allow for recalls in local elections.
Let’s be clear on that point.
Though the people running the recall campaign claim the “progressive” mantle, the effort to boot Sawant emerged alongside a nationwide recall craze. Most of those recalls sought to punish politicians for supporting COVID-19 restrictions, but others sought to punish politicians who supported the Black Lives Matter movement in the summer of 2020. (See for reference: Oklahoma, Wyoming, California).
While the individuals who work for the recall campaign might say they vote for Democrats and oppose racism, they are ultimately taking money from hundreds of Republican donors (including at least 98 Trump donors) and using an undemocratic process to remove a woman of color from power for supporting BLM protesters two summers ago. That’s what’s going on here.
We would have loved to have pressed recall campaign manager Henry Bridger II on all of this, but he didn’t respond to the SECB’s request for a meeting, which was a little disappointing given his frequent appearances on right-wing talk radio. (Weird! Wonder what’s going on there!?)
The fact that Sawant faces trumped-up “charges” from a disingenuous campaign only adds insult to injury. And though we’re loath to respond in earnest to a cynical political ploy, this particular political ploy currently has over $733,000 behind it, so please join us on this stupid little stroll through the mud.
This whole thing began shortly after a group of progressives launched a recall campaign against Mayor Jenny Durkan for allowing the cops to gas Capitol Hill for days. In August of 2020, a guy named Ernie Lou filed his own recall complaint against Sawant, citing her “actions and policy proposals” and a list of grievances Durkan had forwarded to the city council president. Sawant’s rival in the 2019 city council race, Egan Orion, gave Lou his old email list, and the money started pouring in. Bridger eventually became the campaign manager, the complaints narrowed to a list of six, and the state Supreme Court ultimately allowed the campaign to move ahead with three “charges.”
Though the recall campaign repeatedly and falsely suggests otherwise, the Supreme Court’s decision to allow the recall to go forward did not mean the charges levied against Sawant were true. It only meant that the Court thought voters could legally choose to recall a politician based on those charges.
So let’s lay out each charge, and then let’s talk about whether they’re true, and then let’s talk about whether we give a fuck about them enough to remove Sawant from office before her term is up in 2023.
Charge 1: Used City resources to support a ballot initiative and failed to comply with the public disclosure requirements related to such support.
In February of 2020, the City’s ethics department accused Sawant of using her office money (our tax dollars!!!) to promote an initiative to Tax Amazon to build more affordable housing.
The ethics department said she created Tax Amazon posters with her office seal on them, posted three hyperlinks to Tax Amazon stuff on her official blog, and spent $1,760 of office money on Tax Amazon ads, posters, and phone/text banking.
In May of this year, Sawant acknowledged the violations and said she didn’t realize she was breaking the rules against using City resources to promote non-City work. Since she hadn’t actually filed the initiative at that time, she thought she wasn’t technically crossing streams. She then paid the City a $3,151 fine, which was double the amount of office money she spent.
Do we care? No. The City already set up a process for dealing with ethics violations, and Sawant went through that process and paid her debt (twofold) to society. Over the last two decades, other city officials have admitted to ethics violations and paid their dues (Councilmembers Lisa Herbold, Sally Bagshaw, Heidi Wills, Judy Nicastro, Jim Compton, Mayor Greg Nickels). Yet, for some reason, they did not inspire a recall attempt.
Charge 2: Disregarded state orders related to COVID-19 by admitting hundreds of people into City Hall on June 9, 2020 when it was closed to the public.
On Day 1 of CHAZ orientation, Sawant held a rally in Cal Anderson and then marched about 1,000 people to the steps of a shuttered City Hall. She used her key card to let the protesters in, chatted for an hour as the “City—including the Seattle Fire Department-–was monitoring and working to keep all the demonstrations safe and peaceful,” and then left.
Sawant aimed to show protesters—many of whom had little or no familiarity with local government—the place where their voice could be heard, arguing that the city council’s upcoming budget discussions, which began later that week, presented an excellent opportunity for the City to meet protester demands.
Do we care? Kinda, but not enough to remove her from office. Sawant did not deny knowing that going inside the building presented a health risk, but in an interview Sawant said it was the early days of the pandemic, and the distinction between indoor/outdoor risks wasn’t clear. Nevertheless, unlike the unvaccinated cops and firefighters who demonstrated against vaccine mandates inside City Hall without masks on, Sawant and the BLM protesters made good-faith efforts to protest safely. Though they didn’t practice social distancing, people wore masks, passed around hand sanitizer, and were careful to stay inside for only an hour. Health officials didn’t attribute COVID outbreaks to the protest. Even if you want to go all law & order on her, the state’s guidelines for enforcing COVID protocols recommend education and fines for compliance refusal. Next.
Charge 3: Led a protest march to Mayor Jenny Durkan’s private residence, the location of which Councilmember Sawant knew was protected under state confidentiality laws.
All the evidence we have suggests that this claim is just false. The Seattle Democratic Socialists of America organized and led the protest. The Seattle DSA—not Sawant—decided the route and the speakers, apparently choosing the Magnuson Park area for its proximity to the apartment of Charleena Lyles, the woman who two SPD cops killed after she reported a burglary.
Sawant spoke second-to-last in the street near Jenny Durkan’s mansion. Though she was standing on Durkan’s block, Sawant claimed she has never and still does not know Durkan’s address. We suppose she has a pretty good idea at this point, but that doesn’t have any bearing on the original claim of her “leading” the protest.
That hasn’t stopped the Seattle Times Editorial Board from making unsubstantiated claims about Durkan’s address being so protected that the info “had to come from an insider,” though. It’s an embarrassing argument coming from columnists working for the local paper of record. After all, Crosscut and The Stranger figured out where Durkan lived without talking to “insiders,” as could anyone else with an internet connection and one piece of extremely public information.
Do we care? No. After Mayor Durkan oversaw the cops deploying chemical weapons on Capitol Hill for a week—choking children with gas in their beds—Sawant accepted an invitation to speak at a protest honoring the lives of Black people killed by SPD, one that platformed the family members of the dead, who were still grieving their losses. At that moment, protesting in a wealthy neighborhood was the least she could do to represent her district. After all, by that point she’d already introduced bills to ban tear gas and chokeholds, which the council passed. And in any event, protesters have paid house visits to politicians in Seattle for years. Booting Sawant isn’t going to change that.
Ultimately, the benefits of Sawant’s former and proposed legislation far outweigh the sins the recall campaign accuses her of committing.
Sawant represents a renter-heavy district in a town where renters outnumber homeowners, and no one on the council has done more to balance the extreme power differential between the people who own the buildings and the people who pay exorbitant prices just to live near their workplaces.
In recent years, she sponsored and helped pass legislation to make landlords give tenants six months notice for any rent hike, to make them pay relocation assistance for certain low-income tenants who move out after large rent hikes, to limit the size of move-in fees and to allow tenants to pay those fees in installments, to prohibit landlords from raising rents if there are housing code violations, and to require landlords to provide voter registration information. That long list of renter-friendly legislation gets even longer. Before she supported the bill to give free lawyers to low-income tenants facing eviction, she fought to fund more eviction lawyers in the budget. She also supported the few pieces of pro-tenant legislation that emerged from the offices of other council members, all while supporting upzones so developers could build more apartments.
If she survives the recall, Sawant plans to continue to work for renters by proposing a rent control trigger law, which would cap rent hikes if the state ever lifts the ban, and by “exploring concrete steps” to cancel rent debt accumulated during the pandemic. She also wants to help increase the payroll tax on big businesses to help fund more affordable housing and the City’s Green New Deal programs. And, yes, she will continue to use her office to amplify the voices of working people fighting for justice on the streets, on the picket line, or in front of their price-gouged apartments.