The proposed recall of City Councilmember Kshama Sawant is based on charges related to particular actions last year, and only voters in her central Seattle district are deciding whether she should be retained.
But the Dec. 7 recall election could have sweeping consequences, beyond the allegations on the ballot and beyond District 3, because a case can be made that few figures have influenced the city’s politics as much in the past decade.
Sawant’s scorching rhetoric and uncompromising approach have pushed the council to the left on issues ranging from business taxes to renter protections and have altered the way City Hall operates.
Her recall could mark the end of an era in Seattle, augment wins earlier this month by moderates and disappoint hardcore socialists across the country. Her survival could buttress the council’s progressive wing.
Jan Drago, a former council member and lobbyist who’s endorsed the recall, says Sawant’s actions — including those spelled out in the charges against her — amount to flouting her responsibilities as an elected leader.
“Every elected official raises their right hand and takes an oath,” Drago said. “That’s what bothers me most.”
Katie Wilson, general secretary at the Transit Riders Union, which is opposing the recall, said the specific claims on the ballot are beside the point.
“The people behind this recall, they’re not actually doing this” because of any supposed misdeeds, Wilson said. “They’re doing this because they hate the policies she’s championed and they see an opportunity to get rid of her.”
A former software engineer and economics teacher who grew up in India, Sawant joined the Socialist Alternative political organization in Seattle more than a decade ago and cut her teeth as an organizer in the Occupy movement.
She vaulted onto the political stage in 2013, unseating longtime incumbent Councilmember Richard Conlin in an upset powered by her promise to fight for a $15/hour minimum wage.
Sawant neither came up with the $15/hour agenda nor brokered the negotiations in 2014 that made the wage happen in Seattle. But her success at the ballot box and agitation on the matter put other major players under pressure to strike a deal.
Once elected, she labeled other council members as corporate sellouts and urged red-shirted activists to pack City Hall. That style clashed with the consensus-minded process that Seattle was used to, making enemies and prompting changes. Colleagues thought twice about attending an annual Chamber of Commerce retreat after she blasted the practice.
Reelected in 2015, when seven council seats moved to geographic representation, and again in 2019, Sawant has established a stronghold in District 3, which includes Capitol Hill and the Central District.
In certain instances, the 49-year-old Leschi homeowner takes somewhat symbolic stances. She’s voted “no” on every budget since 2014 (calling for higher business taxes and more social services). Other times, her actions pack a punch. She once led a charge that blocked public-housing rent increases.
When the council is considering issues that she cares about, Sawant tries to move the current of discourse to the left.
Her tactics don’t always work. For example, her decision to target Amazon with harsh rhetoric may have helped persuade the corporate behemoth to help crush 2018’s head tax, frustrating some allies. Some constituents accused her of trying to hijack the Black Lives Matter uprising last year.
Yet her consistency on matters like homelessness and policing has set her apart (she’s pushed for more tiny-house villages and cast the only “no” vote on a controversial police-union contract in 2018), and her approach can yield results. Her renewed “Tax Amazon” push last year created political space for colleagues to successfully advance a payroll tax on high salaries at large corporations.
Sawant has been dogged by complaints that she ignores basics like constituent emails and crime, and some union leaders have accused her of meddling in contracts. Supporters note that she regularly rallies with workers and renters against exploitative bosses and landlords and helped the Central District regain a post office.
Sawant’s drive for renter protections illustrates her sway with colleagues and her lightning-rod status. In the past couple of years, she’s persuaded her colleagues to prohibit certain winter and school-year evictions and to mandate relocation assistance after substantial rent increases.
Those changes and others have made Sawant a villain for many landlords while winning applause from many renter advocates.
Sawant faces three specific allegations, which are listed on the recall ballots.
Two are true, while the third is disputed. Are they serious enough for Sawant to be thrown out of office? That’s what voters must decide.
First, Sawant is charged with using city resources to support a proposed ballot initiative.
Sawant agreed to a settlement earlier this year with the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission, admitting that she improperly used at least $1,759 in city money and other resources to support the ballot measure in the weeks before the initiative was registered.
Sawant or her employees created posters bearing the city seal that supported a Tax Amazon measure; posted hyperlinks on her council website to websites promoting the effort; and spent city money on advertising, phone banking and mass-texting services.
As part of the settlement, Sawant agreed to a fine of double the amount that she spent to promote the tax. She said she thought she was allowed to use office resources before an initiative was filed.
“There is one thing I can state unequivocally: I plead guilty to fighting unapologetically to tax Amazon and big business,” she said at the time.
Second, Sawant is charged with disregarding state COVID-19 orders by opening a locked City Hall to hundreds of protesters one evening during the peak of Seattle’s demonstrations for racial justice in June 2020.
She said she brought the protesters to City Hall because it was essential that the uprising evident in the streets be seen in the halls of power.
“It’s no crime to stand with Black Lives Matter as Kshama did at the peaceful City Hall rally,” Sawant’s official statement on the recall ballot says. “Big business and the right wing want to remove Kshama because she’s such an effective fighter for working people.”
Last, she is charged with leading a march to Mayor Jenny Durkan’s house as part of 2020’s racial justice protests. Durkan’s address is protected by a state confidentiality program because of her past work as a federal prosecutor.
Sawant joined the march to Durkan’s house and spoke at the rally but has consistently denied that she organized it or led anyone to Durkan’s house. The march was organized, at least in part, by the Seattle Democratic Socialists of America and Missing and Murdered Indigenous People & Families.
A fourth charge, that Sawant farmed out her office’s hiring decisions to Socialist Alternative, was rejected by the state Supreme Court as insufficient for potential recall.
How to weigh the three charges on the ballot?
State law only says that elected officials can be removed for “misfeasance, malfeasance or violation of the oath of office.”
Misfeasance, per state law, means “the performance of a duty in an improper manner.” Malfeasance means “the commission of an unlawful act.” Violation of oath of office means the neglect or “knowing failure” to perform a “duty imposed by law.”
Were Sawant to be recalled, she would be removed from office on Dec. 17, when the election is certified. The council would have 20 days to appoint a temporary replacement, via majority vote, to serve until a special election would be held next November, according to the city charter.
Sawant would be eligible to run again next year for the same seat, or for any other office in the future.
In the meantime, the appointment would likely occur in January, after Sara Nelson has replaced M. Lorena González on the council. Nelson, a moderate, won her Nov. 2 race for Position 9, which González vacated to run for mayor.
The new group probably wouldn’t appoint another out-and-out socialist. Still, District 3 includes some of Seattle’s most liberal neighborhoods, so the council would probably tap someone with left-wing credentials.
In the short term, a recall would affect the balance of power on the council and help determine what policy decisions are made in 2022.
With Sawant, the council could have a three-member left wing, a three-member moderate wing and three swing votes. Without Sawant, council members Tammy Morales and Teresa Mosqueda could be isolated, though alliances on the council can vary depending on the issue at hand.
“I have some hope they would appoint someone progressive, but it still wouldn’t be Sawant,” Wilson said.
In 2022, the council will debate whether to raise property taxes for parks and community centers; how to address homeless encampments in public spaces; where to allow new apartments; how to launch a participatory budgeting system and how to handle police spending.
Long-term, the picture is less clear. Socialists would lose their most prominent leader, while conservatives would lose the ability to demonize Sawant.
Drago thinks Seattle has reached a “turning point,” with voters tacking toward the political center whether Sawant is recalled or retained, she said. That process could accelerate sans Sawant, Drago said.
Wilson is also predicting “a more challenging environment” for left activists, with or without Sawant, she said. But the socio-economic conditions that spurred Sawant to victory in the past “are not going away,” Wilson noted.
“There will continue to be ample opportunities” for candidates with socialist and progressive agendas, she said. “Kshama is not our only hope.”