- Supporters call it an attack on her progressive policies and say the Indian American politician has used her eight years in office to win historic victories like the $15 minimum wage, the Amazon Tax to fund housing, and landmark renters protections.
In less than a week, voters in Seattle, Washington’s District 3 will decide the fate of Councilwoman Kshama Sawant, the council’s lone socialist, often described as the city’s “most controversial politician.” A special recall election is being held on Dec. 7, and more than 76,000 voters in the Indian American lawmaker’s constituency have reportedly received single-issue ballots.
District 3 includes Capitol Hill, the Central District, Madison Park, Leschi, Madrona, and parts of surrounding neighborhoods. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, citing data from King County, reported that by Dec. 2, “roughly 33 percent of voters” had returned their ballot. “The strong early turnout speaks to the embattled socialist’s schismatizing effect on Seattle voters,” the report said.
Reasons for the Recall
Sawant’s recall is being led by two groups — Recall Sawant and A Better Seattle. Both accuse her of misusing her office resources to promote a Tax Amazon initiative, misusing her position by letting protesters into City Hall after hours, and of leading a protest to Mayor Jenny Durkan’s house. All three charges — malfeasance, malfeasance and violation of the oath of office — have been laid out on the recall ballot.
The effort to recall Sawant has been ongoing for nearly a year and a half. Her opponents have spent months collecting signatures in an attempt to unseat her. This April, the state Supreme Court voted unanimously to allow the recall to go forward. It tossed out a fourth charge that claimed Sawant allowed Socialist Alternative to make hiring decisions for her office, saying it was not sufficient to trigger a recall.
It began in August 2020 when Ernie Lou, a resident of Capitol Hills, filed the complaint. Speaking to Komo-news, Lou said that through the recall complaint, the grassroots citizens of District 3 of Seattle are saying that they don’t support what Sawant is doing. “They were elected and voted in, but I really feel like the current makeup of the City Council does not represent the true values of the city of Seattle.”
Henry Bridger II, a District 3 resident and former Sawant supporter, is the chair and campaign manager of Recall Sawant. He told the Seattle Times that the recall is about Sawant. “[It is about] a politician, not upholding the laws that they’re supposed to uphold for all of us,” he said. “It has nothing to do with her politics. It has to do with she’s not respecting the laws that she’s supposed to uphold.”
Joshua Spivak, a senior fellow at the Hugh L Carey Institute at Wagner College told The Guardian there have been “at least 500 recall attempts” in the U.S. this year. Spivak is the author of “Recall Elections: From Alexander Hamilton to Gavin Newsom.” In September, California Governor Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, survived a recall that was spurred in part by safety measures in response to Covid. Even Seattle Mayor Jenny A. Durkan faced a recall effort after she was accused of mishandling protests, but last fall the state supreme court nixed the effort,” the Guardian report noted. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 19 states and Washington D.C. allow the recall of state officials, while at least 30 states allow the practice in local jurisdictions.
If recalled, the Seattle City Council would then appoint a replacement to fill out the term. Sawant’s current term is up in 2023.
A Right-wing and Racial Attack
The Kshama Solidarity Campaign calls the recall “a right-wing and racial attack on progressive policies that benefit people of color and other marginalized groups and on the right to peaceful protest.” On its website, it notes that Sawant has “unapologetically fought for working people” since she was first elected in 2013. “Kshama has used her 8 years in office to win historic victories like the $15 minimum wage, the Amazon Tax to fund housing, and landmark renters protections that infuriate the real estate lobby,” it notes. “This is why the Republican-backed recall has resorted to forcing the most undemocratic Seattle election possible.”
Crosscut reported that “since the summer, Sawant supporters have registered more than 1,000 new voters in the 3rd District,” adding that the Kshama Solidarity Campaign aimed to gain 2,000 new voters by Dec. 7.
Last week, Sawant issued a statement urging voters in District 3 to “vote no on the right-wing recall.” Noting that the charges against her are “dishonest,” and that “the courts haven’t found her guilty of anything,” she said as “an immigrant woman of color,” she is being “attacked for participating in peaceful Black Lives Matter protests. This recall is part of the racist right-wing backlash attempting to criminalize protest nationally.” She said “big business and the right wing” want to remove her because she’s “an effective fighter for working people.”
In an interview with the Seattle Times, Sawant said she has previously admitted to the first charge of misusing her office resources to promote a Tax Amazon initiative, saying it was an accident. She vehemently denies the other two charges. “Kshama didn’t lead the march on Mayor Durkan’s house,” says the statement from the Kshama Solidarity Campaign, adding that “it’s no crime to stand with Black Lives Matter as Kshama did at the peaceful City Hall rally.” The statement continues: “Kshama didn’t break the law, but like civil rights leaders and socialists before her, she’s always prepared to put herself on the line for working people.”
In an op-ed in the Jacobian, Sawant wrote that if the recall succeeds, “it will set a new and deeply dangerous precedent: when the ruling class fails to unseat left elected representatives through ‘normal’ means like flooding races with corporate cash, or neutralize them through cooptation, they can resort to extraordinary measures like this recall.”
Who is Kshama Sawant
Sawant, 46, is Seattle’s most famous, outspoken and controversial politician. A veteran of the Occupy movement she was elected to the Seattle City Council in 2013. Jacobin magazine says that “three years before Bernie Sanders entered the national stage with his 2016 bid for the Democratic primary, Sawant brought socialism back to the American vocabulary by becoming the first open socialist in nearly a century to win a citywide election in Seattle.”
The Mumbai-born and raised Sawant worked as a software engineer there, before migrating to the U.S., where she was “radicalized by the inequality and poverty” that she saw. After earning her Ph.D., Sawant moved to Seattle and began teaching at Seattle Central Community College, Seattle University, and the University of Washington Tacoma. She joined Socialist Alternative in 2006, and since then has helped organize demonstrations for marriage equality, participated in the movement to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and was a visible presence in the Occupy Movement. She has also been an activist in her union, the American Federation of Teachers Local 1789, fighting against budget cuts and tuition hikes.
In 2012, she ran as a Socialist Alternative candidate for Washington State Legislature where she won 29 percent of the vote. During her run for the Seattle City Council, she ran on a platform of fighting for a $15/hr minimum wage, rent control and taxing the super-rich to fund mass transit and education. Sawant was first elected to the council in 2013, defeating long-time incumbent Richard Conlin by the narrowest of margins: 51 percent to 49 percent.
Two years later, she had to run for re-election where she convincingly defeated Pamela Banks, then president of the Seattle Urban League – 58 percent to 44 percent.
Sawant was re-elected in 2019 in a close contest against Egan Orion which she won by 52 percent. At the time she told The Guardian that “the fact that a socialist who has been an unapologetic fighter for ordinary people and who has doggedly used a movement-building approach and shown herself to be extremely effective and successful, that you can win three elections, that should be extremely empowering for our movements.”
Support From All Corners
Although it’s impossible to predict whether Sawant will survive the recall attempt, the Kshama Solidarity Campaign, which has so far raised $953,174, is in full swing.
Sawant also has the support of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders who endorsed her last week, as well as from local lawmakers and unions. “Once again the wealthy and special interests are making a power grab for Kshama Sawant’s seat because she has the guts to stand up for working people,” Sanders said in his endorsement, posted on the Kshama Solidarity Campaign website. “We need to unite together to stop this baseless recall. If you live in Seattle’s District 3, vote ‘NO’ by Dec. 7th.”
However, there has been no statement of support on social media from Rep. Pramila Jayapal, who represents Washington’s 7th congressional district since 2017. Emails sent to her office were not returned.
John Wilkerson, professor and chair of the Department of Political Science at the University of Washington told The Center Square that Sawant will weather the storm. “The pendulum has swung back to the center in Seattle, but I think she will survive the recall election because her core supporters will turn out more than her opponents,” he told the news website.
Those supporting Sawant have flooded her Facebook page as well, with messages of support and solidarity. They are urging voters to say no to the recall.
Sonora Jha, who lives in Seattle, posted a note on Sawant’s Facebook wall. She writes of how she’s “barely seen” her son “on his visit home this time and the last few times he’s been in Seattle” is because “he’s been working all waking hours with his friends and grassroots organizers – knocking on doors and speaking to people at street corners – to get us to do the right thing and VOTE “NO” ON THE RECALL campaign” against Sawant. “I stand with the working class people of Seattle,” she writes. “I can see through the (very obvious) right wing strategy of pumping money into this recall to protect big business interests. I respect Kshama Sawant, an immigrant woman of color who has made Seattle more livable for low income and working class people as we shamelessly gentrified this city’s neighborhoods. It’s a Sunday. You have the time. Find that ballot, fill out that “Recall No” bubble, and keep that much-needed socialist voice on our city council.”