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Sawant seeks to hold onto District 3 council seat in divided recall election

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Photo by Renee Raketty
Photo by Renee Raketty

Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant gave a rousing speech to her supporters on December 7, after the voting in the recall election in Seattle's District 3 had come to an end. The crowd gathered at Chop Suey, a music venue in Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood, to hold what they had hoped would be a victory party, but the Recall Sawant campaign was in the lead. Sawant left nothing unsaid, giving a fiery oratory about the recall campaign and Seattle's political establishment, while also giving one last full-throated defense of herself against the charges that had led to the recall effort.

"While we cannot be sure of the final result, if past trends hold, it appears working people may have prevailed in this fight," said Sawant. "Win or lose, we should not forget the ruling class keeps going after us because we have shown how to win for the working class. Not once, not twice, but repeatedly, with unprecedented victories."

The Recall Sawant campaign held a more downbeat election night event nearby. Henry Bridger II, the campaign manager, commented to the SGN about the race.

"We are very encouraged by last night's returns and owe a huge debt of gratitude to all the District 3 voters who have shown up to make their voices heard in this critical election," he wrote to the SGN on December 8. "We see last night's results as sending a clear signal: That District 3 is tired of not being represented on Seattle City Council by someone who is allergic to accountability; voters are tired of the vitriolic and divisive rhetoric that prioritizes Sawant's own political ambitions ahead of the needs of District 3 residents, families and business; and that District 3 voters are ready to restore civility and build a better and brighter Seattle."

The election was historic, the first time a city council recall made it to the ballot. Voters in District 3, which includes the Capitol Hill, Central District, First Hill, Madison Park, Madrona, and Mount Baker neighborhoods, were asked: "Shall City of Seattle Councilmember Kshama Sawant be recalled from office?" While the election is over now, the answer to that question is not. At press time Thursday, the two sides are separated by only 232 votes with Sawant's anti-recall campaign in the lead.

The recall comes just one month from the general election in November, when Seattle voters elected two new at-large council members and a new city attorney. Some saw that election as a sign that the electorate was moving away from progressive candidates, including Council President Lorena Gonzalez, who ran for mayor, and Nikkita Oliver, who ran for Council Position 8; both lost their races. Ann Davison, a Republican, won her race for city attorney against abolitionist candidate Nicole Thomas-Kennedy.

However, Bridger said the recall was not about politics but only Sawant's conduct. Recall supporters allege that she used city resources and abused public disclosure requirements; disregarded COVID-19 precautions by allowing Black Lives Matter protesters to gather at City Hall; and led a march to Mayor Jenny Durkan's residence in the Windermere neighborhood of Seattle. Durkan's address is protected due to her past position as a federal prosecutor.

The state Supreme Court found that since "[a]ll elected public officials in Washington State are subject to recall for malfeasance, misfeasance, or violation of their oath of office," that Sawant should face the voters who would "determine whether the charges are true and...whether they in fact justify recalling the official."

Sawant accused the state Supreme Court of waiting "nearly three months" to rule with "no explanation given," which, she claimed in her speech on election night, "allowed the recall to bypass the normal November election."

Photo by Renee Raketty  

"Working people are not nice, we cannot afford to be naive. This blatant voter suppression did not come out of thin air," Sawant said. "It came from the state Supreme Court—from the institutions of the capitalist class. And it's no surprise that the right-wing recall campaign took the opportunity for voter suppression that was offered.

"The laws under capitalism are not written for us. And the courts themselves uphold—just as much as they can get away with—the interests of the billionaires. They defend a deeply unequal racist status quo, in which the overwhelming majority struggle to get by, while the very wealthy live in enough opulence to last a thousand lifetimes."

Fernando Medina Corey, a software engineer and author, noted that interests on both sides of the recall had raised and spent huge sums. He said his research moved him to support Sawant through campaign donations and one volunteer shift.

"I think one of the most surprising things about the recall is how unsurprising the recall's core donors are," he said. "The same real estate and development barons keep coming in to fight. In this case, against the council member who has consistently put forward pro-renter policies like the economic eviction assistance and six months' notice of rent increases.

"The Solidarity Campaign is right when they call out the recall groups for having right-wing donors. A quick search of the [Federal Election Commission] contributions for the highest donors to 'A Better Seattle' also shows that some of them contribute to politicians like Cathy McMorris Rodgers, who is noted as one of the most conservative members of Congress."

Sawant noted on Tuesday that her campaign had "more in-district donors than any campaign in Seattle history," with over 5000 donors, "nearly triple...the number from the right-wing recall campaign."

Sawant is a former software engineer who won election to the City Council in 2013 in a major political upset. She defeated Councilmember Richard Conlin, who had been a four-term incumbent. Sawant has been shaking things up at City Hall ever since. She has been the lone dissenting vote on every proposed Seattle budget for the past eight years, one example her�critics say points to a lack of cooperation with her council colleagues. Her efforts have made both a champion and a foe, largely depending on one's point-of-view.

If the Recall Sawant campaign is successful, she would continue to serve until the results of the election are certified on Dec. 17. The remaining city councilmembers would appoint her replacement until a special election could be held in November 2022. Theoretically, Sawant could run to win back the seat or for any other elected office.