Seattle politics must be incomprehensible to the outside world.
For example our mayor, Jenny Durkan, has been the object of conservative scorn nationwide all summer for coddling the protesters (the president at one point dubbed her a “radical leftist” for this reason).
But here? There’s a Seattle movement to dump her from office — for being too rough on the protesters.
Or consider that on Wednesday in a King County courtroom, a drive kicks off seeking to also recall Kshama Sawant, the socialist City Council member. It’s an effort Sawant derides as the work of her usual enemies, “the billionaires and the right wing.”
But the originator of the petition actually is a “bleeding heart liberal” and anti-Trumper who, over the years, has donated hundreds to local Democratic groups and candidates, including to the current Democratic state party chair, Tina Podlodowski. What’s Capitol Hill resident Ernie Lou’s main beef with Sawant? It’s that she’s too much like … Donald Trump.
Specifically Lou’s recall petition, which a Superior Court judge will hear Wednesday, goes after Sawant for holding an indoor rally at City Hall that Lou contends violated both the state and local coronavirus restrictions — which is what Trump just did in Nevada over the weekend.
“She’s the far left version of Trump,” Ernie Lou told KUOW radio.
Both of these recall efforts remain long shots to actually make it onto a ballot. But if they do, they would test the image of Seattle as a liberal refuge. All of our political crosscurrents and muddled socialistic versus capitalistic impulses would be on full display.
The big news about the Sawant recall is that it’s suddenly got some major legal firepower behind it. Former U.S. Attorney John McKay, currently a partner at Seattle’s second-largest firm, Davis Wright Tremaine, is handling the petition.
McKay himself is tough to pigeonhole politically. He used to be a Republican (he was U.S. Attorney under George W. Bush), but he left the GOP in protest about the politicization of the Justice Department. He called for a federal civil rights probe of excessive use of force in the Seattle Police Department way back in 2011, and more recently signed a letter calling for the resignation of current GOP Attorney General Bill Barr.
“I’m doing this case both because they hired me to do it and because I agree with the case. As a Seattleite, I think Sawant has gone too far,” McKay told me.
The bottom line in this state is you can’t recall an elected official over a political disagreement. Recalls are sort of like impeachment — there has to be bad behavior, a high crime or misdemeanor, of which the definition is murky and mostly up to the political system. Determining whether the charges are true, for instance, is up to voters.
If the two recalls make it through the courts, then signatures have to be gathered, on paper. For Sawant, about 10,000 signatures are required, all from voters in her 3rd District of Central Seattle. For Durkan, about 55,000 signatures are needed citywide.
The Sawant recall alleges, among other things, that she broke the rules with that rally inside City Hall during the coronavirus shutdown and by aiding the “Tax Amazon” campaign with city resources. The recall has raised about $48,000 from 2,000 donors, while on Tuesday the City Council approved spending up to $75,000 on Sawant’s defense. If the recall makes the ballot, Sawant’s job could be subject to an up-or-down vote next spring or summer.
The Durkan recall is over one serious issue: Whether she should have, or could have, stopped Seattle police from teargassing protesters this summer. That case will be discussed by the state Supreme Court on October 8.
My two cents, as someone who lives in Sawant’s 3rd District, is that Sawant’s penchant for grandiose, activist stunts hardly comes as a news flash to the people. We had an election less than a year ago when Sawant could have been recalled, but the voters, eyes wide open, chose to rehire her anyway. Sorry, but there’s no democracy do-over for buyer’s remorse.
As for Durkan, she definitely did not handle the protests well. But did she act in bad faith or, worse, break the law? Seems like a major stretch. If she runs again, she would appear on the primary ballot in August 2021. So a recall vote next spring would come only a few months before her job performance will be up for review in the regular election anyway.
Democracy is running a fever in America. The legitimacy of elections is constantly in doubt, and as a result we’re in perpetual campaign fight mode. This recall fever is our local symptom of all that.
But absent egregious abuses of office (like, say, subverting U.S. foreign policy for your campaign or paying off a porn star to help tilt an election), we should resist joining in democracy’s spiral down. Even if we don’t always like its results.