Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan is asking the Seattle City Council to investigate Councilmember Kshama Sawant for taking part in a Black Lives Matter protest march to Durkan’s home and for other actions, noting the council may expel a member “for disorderly or otherwise contemptuous behavior.”

Durkan made her request public in a letter to Council President M. Lorena González on Tuesday, shortly before Sawant joined “Tax Amazon” campaign supporters for a news conference outside City Hall to announce the campaign has collected about 27,000 petition signatures — enough to qualify their proposal for the November ballot if the council doesn’t pass a similar tax on Seattle’s largest corporations.

The council’s budget committee is poised to vote as early as Wednesday to establish a tax on big businesses, championed by Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda, that could underwrite $86 million in coronavirus relief this year and that could raise as much as $200 million per year in the long term for affordable housing, business assistance and community development.

Asked about Durkan’s letter at the news conference about the potential ballot measure, Sawant criticized the mayor for allowing the Police Department to tear-gas people protesting police killings of Black men and described the mayor’s letter as “an attack on the Black Lives Matter movement.”

In her letter, Durkan wrote that Sawant should be investigated for several actions, such as opening City Hall to protesters on the evening of June 9 and taking part in the march to Durkan’s home on Sunday.

Durkan’s letter said City Hall was closed to the public because of the coronavirus pandemic and by opening the building, Sawant “put the safety of individuals and city workers at risk.” City Hall hosts an overnight homeless shelter that was open during the pandemic until May 30, when it was closed due to damage sustained during protests; it reopened on June 22.

Advertising
Councilmember Kshama Sawant speaks to demonstrators inside Seattle City Hall June 9. (Amanda Snyder / The Seattle Times)
Councilmember Kshama Sawant speaks to demonstrators inside Seattle City Hall June 9. (Amanda Snyder / The Seattle Times)

The mayor’s letter said Sawant led the Sunday demonstration. Sawant took part but did not organize the march, which began near the apartment where Charleena Lyles was fatally shot by police in 2017 and which partly focused on demands outlined by Lyles’ relatives, the council member said Tuesday.

“She and organizers knew that my address was protected under the state confidentiality program because of threats against me due largely to my work as U.S. Attorney,” wrote the mayor, who previously served as Seattle’s top federal prosecutor. “All of us have joined hundreds of demonstrations across the city, but Councilmember Sawant and her followers chose to do so with reckless disregard of the safety of my family and children.”

The mayor cited Article IV, Section 4 of the City Charter, which says the council has the authority “to punish its members and others for disorderly or otherwise contemptuous behavior in its presence, and to expel for such behavior in its presence any member by the affirmative vote of not less than two-thirds of its members.”

Sawant also should be investigated for involving her political organization, Socialist Alternative, in staffing decisions for her council office; for using her office to promote the Tax Amazon ballot measure; and for urging protesters to occupy the Police Department’s East Precinct where they’ve been camped out for weeks, Durkan wrote Tuesday.

“I completely respect that any of us may disagree on policy issues, sometimes strongly,” the mayor wrote. “However, policy disagreements do not justify a council member who potentially uses their position in violation of law or who recklessly undermines the safety of others, all for political theatre.”

Advertising

González didn’t comment Tuesday.

The Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission last year dismissed complaints against Sawant related to Socialist Alternative. It and the Washington State Public Disclosure Commission have open enforcement cases related to Sawant and the Tax Amazon campaign.

Durkan’s letter said Sawant encouraged people at Sunday’s march to occupy the East Precinct “at a time the city has been trying to de-escalate the situation and ask individuals to depart because of violence in the area” known as the Capitol Hill Organized Protest.

There have been four separate shootings in the vicinity in the past two weeks, killing a 19-year-old and a 16-year-old and injuring four people, including a 14-year-old. Sawant and González said Monday they didn’t think the protest area should be blamed for the violence. In 2019, the police investigated three homicides on Capitol Hill, spread months apart. 

The mayor attached to her letter a photo of a flyer, apparently from Sunday’s march, calling for people to “camp/occupy in front of the East Precinct.” Sawant’s name is not on the flyer.

Durkan and Sawant have long been at odds, and the council member earlier this month called on the mayor to resign over the Police Department’s militaristic response to the recent protests. “The City Council may choose to ignore and dismiss [Sawant’s] actions, but I think that undermines public confidence in our institutions,” Durkan wrote Tuesday.

At the Tax Amazon news conference, Sawant said she had just learned about the mayor’s letter but slammed Durkan for allowing police to use “barbaric weapons” against protesters. The council this month passed a law, sponsored by Sawant, banning Seattle from using crowd-control weapons like tear gas.

Advertising

The Rev. Robert Jeffrey, a pastor from New Hope Missionary Baptist Church in the Central District who participated in the Tax Amazon news conference, said he was “shocked and appalled” at the mayor’s move, arguing Durkan is trying to curb the racial and social justice movement by painting Sawant as a criminal, like opponents did to civil rights leaders during the 1960s.

In a written statement later Tuesday, Sawant again criticized Durkan’s response to the protests. “Our movement is demanding racial and economic justice, long withheld by a pro-corporate political establishment, whose leader currently is Mayor Durkan,” she wrote.

She added, “While her words are directed at me … I don’t take it personally. In reality, this is an attack on working people’s movements, and everything we are fighting for, by a corporate politician desperately looking to distract from her failures of leadership and politically bankrupt administration.”

In a statement about Durkan and Sawant going after each other, Councilmember Lisa Herbold said, “Can we call it a draw and get back to focusing on passing progressive revenue, redesigning community safety and investing in lifelines to help Seattle households recover from lost jobs?”

While Durkan’s letter stirred the political pot Tuesday, the council’s budget committee meeting Wednesday could prove equally or more consequential.

Five of nine council members — Mosqueda, González, Herbold, Andrew Lewis and Dan Strauss — have declared support for the plan that Mosqueda is calling “JumpStart Seattle.” It would tax pay of employees making at least $150,000 per year, excluding companies with annual payrolls under $7 million, to address the multiple crises Seattle is facing: a long-running housing and homelessness emergency, COVID-19 economic pain, a massive budget gap and widespread inequality.

Advertising

Two of their colleagues — Debora Juarez and Alex Pedersen — have expressed reservations, suggesting voters should decide whether to establish a new tax.

But Sawant and Councilmember Tammy Morales can also be counted as votes for Mosqueda’s plan. They teamed up earlier this year to propose a tax on pay of all employees at large companies, saying it could raise $500 million a year, and now are pushing to increase the amount JumpStart Seattle would raise.

The Tax Amazon campaign is prepared to put a $300 million-per-year tax on the November ballot unless the council does what Sawant and Morales are calling for, organizer Eva Metz said Tuesday. That the campaign has been able to collect 27,000 signatures in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic shows how committed many supporters and voters are to the concept, Metz said.

There are still opponents: Some business leaders in recent weeks have repeatedly warned the council against enacting a new tax as businesses try to pull through the pandemic. Durkan opposed the Sawant-Morales plan and has been noncommittal on Mosqueda’s plan.

“The local economy is cratering at a level we haven’t seen since the Great Depression,” the Downtown Seattle Association said Tuesday. “We need our local leaders to plan for recovery, not more plywood.”

But seven of nine council members — enough to override a mayoral veto — appear ready to pass a big-business tax. It was only two years ago that Durkan and the council, under intense pressure from corporate critics like Amazon and many voters, repealed a $47 million per-employee head tax they had approved less than a month before.

Advertising

“This is exciting,” said Katie Wilson, an activist with the Seattle Transit Riders Union who lobbied for the head tax in 2018 and who has been pushing the council to try again. “I think we’re in a really strong position.”

City Hall politics may have changed. In last year’s council elections, Herbold, Lewis, Strauss, Sawant and Morales all defeated candidates backed by Amazon. Mosqueda held talks with many business leaders while working on her proposal and Wilson said she thinks the COVID-19 economic recession and the Black Lives Matter protests also have altered the picture by “making it obvious to people how deep the need is” for housing and social services.

In 2018, concerns about City Hall spending loomed large. “This time, I think the momentum of popular opinion is on our side,” Wilson said.