The Washington state Supreme Court on Thursday allowed the recall campaign against Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant to move forward, paving the way for signature-gathering and, potentially, an election this year that could oust Sawant from office.
Recall petitioners now have 180 days to collect more than 10,000 signatures from residents of Sawant’s Council District 3. If they collect the signatures, a recall election — an up-or-down vote on Sawant — would be held, either with the general election in November or by early next year.
It could be the first effort to recall a Seattle City Council member to reach voters. A search of municipal archives by the City Clerk’s office couldn’t find any recall elections for a council member.
The recall effort, launched by Seattle resident Ernest Lou, began last summer and has raised more than $294,000 and spent more than $107,000. Sawant’s recall defense campaign has raised more than $309,000 and spent more than $182,000.
In September, a King County Superior Court judge allowed the recall to go forward on four separate charges. Sawant appealed that decision to the state Supreme Court.
Lou’s recall petition charges Sawant with four distinct offenses: She delegated her office’s employment decisions to her political party; she used city resources to promote a “Tax Amazon” ballot initiative; she let demonstrators into City Hall during a nighttime June protest; and she spoke at a protest in front of Mayor Jenny Durkan’s house (Durkan’s address is protected by a state confidentiality program because of her past work as a federal prosecutor).
The Supreme Court, in a unanimous ruling, found the charges sufficient to move forward with the recall.
The court allowed the recall to proceed for the offenses related to the Tax Amazon ballot initiative, the City Hall demonstration and the protest at Durkan’s house, but rejected the charge about delegating her office’s employment decisions.
Sawant, a socialist representing Capitol Hill and the Central District, was elected in 2013 and reelected in 2015 and 2019. Normally, she would not face reelection again until 2023.
Previously an economics professor at Seattle Central College, Sawant came onto the council by defeating longtime incumbent Richard Conlin, promising to represent the interests of working people, renters and unions. At City Hall, she is not shy about about accusing her colleagues of being “corporate Democrats,” but has also been able to lead passage of the city’s $15 minimum wage law and several renters’ rights measures.
Her campaign fighting the recall, the Kshama Solidarity Campaign, said the court “gave a green light to the billionaire-backed, right-wing recall” and announced a rally, this Saturday, on Capitol Hill to build support for her recall defense.
“Big biz and the right wing are furious about the impact of socialist politics and social movements in Seattle & how we have inspired working people around the country,” the campaign wrote on Twitter. “They are now trying to use the courts & their deep pockets to overturn Councilmember Sawant’s 2019 re-election.”
Sawant, in a prepared statement, called the ruling “completely unjust.”
“But we are not surprised,” she said. “Working people and oppressed communities cannot rely on the capitalist courts for justice any more than they can on the police.”
At a Thursday press conference, Henry Bridger II, campaign manager and chairman of the Recall Sawant committee, said Lou filed the initial motion but is no longer in charge of the campaign.
Bridger described himself as a liberal and a Democrat and disputed Sawant’s claims that the recall push was billionaire-backed and right-wing.
“I’m unemployed, I live in a studio apartment here on Capitol Hill,” Bridger said. “It’s not run by any right-wing anything.”
Bridger said he previously worked in sales and marketing in the cruise industry, but was laid off last year due to the pandemic. He was friends with Lou, had time on his hands and started working on the campaign because “it just needed to be done.”
“If you’re one little inch off-step, you’re right wing and you’re against her,” he said. “It’s time that she get fired and the people can do that, it’s constitutional.”
Sawant’s campaign has been spending money on office space and staff salaries, while the biggest portion of the recall campaign’s spending has gone toward legal and consulting fees.
At least two previous Seattle mayors have been recalled. Mayor Hiram Gill was recalled by voters in 1911. “Seattle at 150,” a book produced by the city clerk and HistoryLink, called Gill “notably corrupt” and said the recall was focused on his firing of the police chief and the rise of gambling and prostitution. Mayor Frank Edwards was recalled in 1931 for firing the popular head of Seattle City Light.
Voters tried to recall Mayor Wes Uhlman three times, in 1970, 1974 and 1975, but the issue only reached the ballot in 1975. The recall attempts were related to his lowering of the flag to half-staff to honor students killed at Kent State, his appointment of a new City Light superintendent and his firing of the fire chief.
The Supreme Court’s role in the recall process is to assume the charges are true and to determine whether they are specific and serious enough to warrant potential removal from office.
The charges, by state law, must represent “misfeasance, malfeasance or violation of the oath of office.”
In October, the court ended an effort to recall Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, finding the charge against her — that she allowed police to use tear gas without concern for the health of the community — was “insufficient” to let a recall go forward.
Lou, represented by former U.S. Attorney John McKay, argued to the state Supreme Court that Sawant’s appeal is more interested in contesting the truth of the charges than their seriousness and “sufficiency.”
He wrote that the charges are all true and “based on an extensive record,” but that it’s up to voters, not the court to decide.
“The charges state how Councilmember Sawant endangered Seattle residents and City employees, violated the Seattle City Code and state laws, and her oath of office,” Lou argued in legal briefs. “The voters have the constitutional right to interpret those facts in our state’s recall process.”
Sawant, represented by labor lawyer Dmitri Iglitzin, argued all four of the charges against her fall short for different reasons.
The charge that she opened City Hall to a crowded nighttime protest despite COVID-19 restrictions fails, Iglitzin wrote, because protests were not prohibited and opening City Hall was within Sawant’s discretion.
The court disagreed.
By opening City Hall, Justice Barbara Madsen wrote for the court, Sawant “arguably obstructed city business and placed people at risk.”
“Councilmember Sawant knew the council had closed city hall to the public in response to the governor’s Stay Home – Stay Healthy order as she voted to permit the council itself to meet remotely,” Madsen wrote.
The recall petitioners, Iglitzin wrote, did not provide evidence that Sawant led the rally to Durkan’s house, only that she spoke at it.
But, the court ruled, “it is no coincidence that the protesters found themselves in front of Mayor Durkan’s house.”
The court found that Sawant’s actions in the protest did not amount to “criminal harassment” but that they could potentially violate Seattle City Code provisions about disclosing confidential information.
Sawant argued that at the time she used city resources to promote “Tax Amazon” it was simply a policy proposal, not yet a ballot proposition, and so there were no public disclosure requirements.
The court again disagreed.
“As a politician, she is free to sponsor events using her office and to provide food to constituents,” Madsen wrote. “But, by providing picket signs and phone banking for the initiative, her conduct crossed into the territory of promoting a ballot proposition because these are explicit actions taken in support of the ballot proposition.”
Sawant’s move to delegate decision-making on hiring and firing in her office to her Socialist Alternative party is “inherently discretionary,” Iglitzin wrote in legal briefs, and Lou has not presented evidence showing Sawant “intended to violate the law.” He compared it to politicians who sign pledges to support a party platform or not to raise taxes and said it was “simply not what [the law] was designed to protect against.”
On this charge, the court rejected the recall attempt, finding that Sawant “has the right to structure her internal decision-making process as she wishes.”