After narrowly preventing an effort to recall her from office, Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant is doubling down on the socialist policies and blunt tactics that make her one of Seattle’s most polarizing politicians.
This month, Sawant became the first Seattle City Council member to face a recall election and kept her seat by just 310 votes.
With over 41,000 ballots counted in the Dec. 7 election, representing 53.5% turnout, 50.4% of her constituents who voted chose to back her. More than 20,000 others voted to recall her.
But in an interview Friday, Sawant said she’s not worried about her constituents who oppose her.
“I’m not going to change the way we run our office because those are not our politics,” said Sawant, whose campaign raised nearly $1 million.
“We have won three elections in the past and then we won against the recall. Every year, you will see that the vote is divided, more or less. It’s very polarized in our case, because we’re very clear what side we’re on,” Sawant said.
In her three terms in office and history as an activist, Sawant, who refers to herself as a Marxist, has prioritized policies that benefit the poor and working class, dividing some and uniting others with her far-left perspective and assertive approach with her peers and constituents.
On the recall ballot, Sawant was accused of misusing city funds to support the “Tax Amazon” initiative; disregarding rules around COVID-19 by letting a crowd of protesters in to Seattle City Hall one evening in June 2020; and for leading a protest march to Mayor Jenny Durkan’s house, though Durkan’s address is protected because of her previous work as a U.S. attorney.
In May, she settled with the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission over the Tax Amazon campaign for $3,516. Sawant admitted to the charge, but said she was unaware it was a violation. Sawant admits to and was photographed and recorded opening City Hall to activists, but says she did not violate any COVID orders in doing so. Regarding the Durkan protest, she has denied organizing the event or knowing the march was heading to the mayor’s home, despite the march being promoted in advance on social media.
Recall organizers say they are hoping that with such a narrow win Sawant will refocus her approach to government and her constituents.
“While this election will not end with removing Councilmember Sawant from office, her narrow escape sends a clear message: Seattle voters are yearning for constructive representation and will not tolerate slash-and-burn politicians who shirk accountability and divide the city,: said Recall Sawant Chair Henry Bridger II in a statement on Friday, after the election was certified.
“Sawant is supposed to represent all of us, not just those who agree with her, and we hope that this election leads her to see that,” Bridger said.
But Sawant and many supporters believe her recall was a veiled referendum on her socialist positions and willingness to fight those who disagree with her.
“What has been at stake with this election wasn’t only about one working-class city council position, neither for the working class nor for the ruling class. This has always been about the powerful example we have set of successful class struggle,” Sawant said at a party with supporters on election night.
Sawant’s status as one of few Marxists elected to office in the country — she’s a member of Socialist Alternative — has helped her amass a following not only in and around Seattle, but across the country. She raised over $500,000 from more than 4,000 donors outside of the city during her recall fight.
Irish politician Mick Barry said during Sawant’s election party that “when you realize what wealth and what power and what privilege is,” it’s natural to follow socialists like Sawant.
“And what a compliment it is, by the way, to Kshama Sawant and Socialist Alternative that they have singled her out in this way through the recall,” said Barry.
While Sawant prides herself on her commitment to socialism, others criticize her for ostracizing District 3 residents who don’t share her politics.
“She does not represent everybody in this district. But she was voted to represent everybody in the district,” Bridger said in an interview before the election. “I’ve never met such a divisive person in my life.”
Sawant says she’s happy to talk to people who disagree with her and “win them over” to her side, but will not compromise her political beliefs.
“When voters vote in elections where we’re involved, they’re voting their own politics,” she said Friday.
In the back half of her term, which expires in 2023, Sawant says she will continue to focus on renters rights, accountability for big businesses and other issues of importance to working-class voters, with rent control chief among them.
To do so, she has challenged her colleagues on the City Council to work with her on progressive policies, despite a shift toward more moderate Democrats in the November election.
“Progressive Democrats have lost ground on the City Council,” Sawant said to a crowd of supporters in a victory speech last week. She added, “many Democrats on the council want to try to drag Seattle politics to the right. We cannot let them.”
Sawant invited the progressive members of the council to join her in her efforts, but said the ball was in the court of those members who did not support her in the recall.
“If in fact the goal of the liberal Democrats [is] to fight unambiguously for working people, I would happily join them. I would meet them today and the next day to strategize for how we can go on the offensive for rent control, affordable housing to fight against institutional racism in this country,” she said. “But the choice is theirs.”
Sawant said she was not worried about ostracizing her colleagues on the council or the administration of Mayor-elect Bruce Harrell because she is not in politics to “make friends.”
“They are not my friends. I’m not looking to build any friendships,” she said. “I have enough friends among working people. I’m there to fight for working people.”
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