As the campaign to recall Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant draws to a close, financial contributions and endorsements help shed light on city and outside forces influencing the recall.
Both sides of the recall were closing in on $1 million in contributions on Tuesday, one week before the end of voting. The Kshama Solidarity Campaign had reported $949,310 in contributions, according to the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission. Recall Sawant and A Better Seattle, two groups supporting the recall effort, had raised a combined $961,121.
Sawant, who won reelection to represent the people of District 3 — which includes Capitol Hill, the Central District, First Hill, Madison Park, Little Saigon International District, Madrona, Mount Baker, North Beacon Hill and South Lake Union — by less than 2,000 votes in 2019, must now rely on the same district to vote against a recall effort on the Dec. 7 ballot.
After a year-and-a-half-long effort by some disgruntled constituents and a unanimous decision by the Washington Supreme Court, Sawant is facing three charges on the ballot related to her activism while in office.
The effort is spearheaded by Henry Bridger II, a District 3 resident and former Sawant supporter, who has spent the better part of the last two years working as the chair and campaign manager of Recall Sawant.
“It’s about her, a politician, not upholding the laws that they’re supposed to uphold for all of us,” Bridger said in an interview last week.
“It has nothing to do with her politics. It has to do with she’s not respecting the laws that she’s supposed to uphold.”
On the ballot, Sawant is charged with three counts of “misfeasance, malfeasance and violation of the oath of office,” pertaining to three specific incidents.
On the first, Sawant is accused of using city resources to support a proposed Tax Amazon ballot initiative, acting out of compliance with public disclosure requirements. In May, she settled with the SEEC for $3,516.
In an interview Monday, Sawant says she has openly admitted to the unintentional and “minor” finance violation, but says it was not deliberate.
“I don’t say it’s minor just because it’s against me. I’m saying it’s minor because it is actually minor. I already paid a fine,” Sawant told The Seattle Times. “I also told the SEEC I did not willfully disregard any rules, because my understanding at that time was — about ballot initiatives — was that I was allowed to use the resources of my office prior to any initiative actually being filed.”
She is also accused of disobeying state COVID-19 orders by unlocking City Hall to hundreds of protesters one evening during Seattle’s racial justice protests in June 2020.
Sawant says she did not violate any specific COVID order, and that the brief protest in City Hall was paramount to the Black Lives Matter movement.
“I can personally testify to how being in City Hall for that one hour — I mean, it was a very short rally and it was deliberately short because we didn’t believe that it should be any longer than that, just given the pandemic — but it was it was very clear that those few moments being inside City Hall meant everything in the world to some of the activists,” Sawant said.
Finally, she is accused of leading a protest march to Mayor Jenny Durkan’s house, though Durkan’s address is protected by a state confidentiality program because of her past work as a federal prosecutor.
Sawant admits she participated in the march, but denies any involvement in the organization of the march to Durkan’s house, which she said was led by the families of victims of police violence.
“I did not know it was going to the mayor’s house. In fact, I don’t think the organizers themselves had decided that,” Sawant said. “It was a spontaneous decision in my understanding. But in any case, it was not my decision. It was their decision.”
But regardless of the charges, Sawant called the recall “stunning voter suppression,” designed to target her socialist political efforts.
“The recall is an attack on the Democratic voice of District 3 voters because big business and the right wing were unable to defeat us in 2019,” Sawant said. “They are attempting a do-over.”
Sawant and her campaign manager, Bryan Koulouris, say the timing of the recall vote will keep many voters from participating.
“The final election day is smack-dab between the two biggest travel holidays in this country in the whole year,” Koulouris said in a phone interview last week, noting that many of Sawant’s supporters are working-class and likely to travel during the holidays.
“So it’s quite unprecedented and we face a big uphill battle with turnout,” he said.
Bridger says the recall effort is simply a matter of accountability for an elected official accused of breaking the law. Sawant says it’s indicative of backlash against radical progressive ideology. Both point to campaign contributions to make their cases.
Donations, endorsements pile up
The difference lies in who’s funding each side, according to Dean Ordello, a campaign assistant for Recall Sawant.
“Our support has been building and building from all communities of people in District 3,” Ordello said. “And you can tell because [Sawant’s] money is coming from out of state, ours comes from the district.”
According to the SEEC, nearly 4,100 contributors from outside Seattle have donated the majority of Sawant’s funding, accounting for $515,613, or about 54% of her total contributions. For the two groups funding the recall, just over 1,000 contributors from outside Seattle have raised $163,143 or about 17% of their total.
But Sawant says she’s proud of her outside contributions and that the sheer number of local donations shows the district’s sentiment.
“Our campaign has donors, working-class donors, from every state in the country. We are absolutely proud of that. We don’t apologize for that,” Sawant said.
“We’re not shy to have that conversation. But if you’re talking about outside Seattle influence, then you should be talking about the outside Seattle influence of these giant corporations,” Sawant said, citing wealthy donors from companies like Goodman Real Estate, Joshua Green Corporation, Sabey Corporation, Pine Street Group and Amazon.
While $224,824 (about 24%) of Sawant’s contributions came from her district, that money represents nearly 4,200 contributors (40%). The recall efforts have received fewer, larger donations from the district with just over 1,700 local donors representing $368,779, or about 38% of their funds.
Meanwhile, the recall efforts got the most contributions from other districts in the city, raising $399,646 (42%) from just over 2,000 contributors. Sawant raised just $187,973 (20%) from about 1,900 donors from other parts of the city.
But Bridger says the recall effort, with ballots due 8 p.m. Tuesday, is “grassroots” and run by concerned constituents.
“It’s truly financed by the people of the district and Seattle. It’s not financed by the right-wing billionaires, because there aren’t that many,” said Bridger, a self-identified “moderate progressive” who is unemployed.
The Recall Sawant and Kshama Solidarity campaigns each list dozens of endorsers on their websites, including organizations and individuals.
The recall campaign’s listed endorsers include unions that represent iron workers, plumbers, cement masons, roofers and laborers, among others. They also include former City Councilmembers Jan Drago and Judy Nicastro, the Rev. Harriett Walden of Mothers for Police Accountability and Jordan Royer, a former City Hall adviser and the son of former Mayor Charles Royer, among others.
The solidarity campaign’s listed endorsers include the 43rd Legislative District Democrats, the Democratic Socialists of America and unions that represent teachers, supermarket workers, truck drivers, hotel workers, city officer workers and health care workers, among others. They also include King County Councilmember Girmay Zahilay, state Sen. Rebecca Saldaña, the Rev. Robert Jeffrey Sr. of New Hope Missionary Baptist Church, former City Councilmember Mike O’Brien, former County Councilmember Larry Gossett and linguist and activist Noam Chomsky.
“The people in the district are the judge and the jury. And the jury already signed off on the petition,” Bridger said. “Now the judge, which is us again, has to sentence her. And if the sentence is that she gets to stay, she stays.”