Court Rules that Sawant Recall Campaign Can Press Forward

by Jake Goldstein-Street

(This article was originally published by Capitol Hill Seattle and has been reprinted with permission)

A King County Superior Court Judge has ruled that a petition to recall Seattle Councilmember Kshama Sawant can move forward.

On Wednesday, Judge Jim Rogers ruled that a recall campaign launched by critics seeking to oust the three-term councilmember that calls for an election after alleged violations of her oath of office could proceed.

In the decision, Rogers outlined his role as gatekeeper and noted there is evidence to support both the recall effort and Sawant’s responses to some of the alleged improprieties. “(I)n this proceeding, this Court’s role is not to weigh factual disputes over allegations,” Rogers writes, “but to examine whether, if the allegations, taken as true, are sufficient.”

In the Wednesday morning hearing, Rogers heard Sawant’s legal counter, which argued against certifying the recall petition against her. If the recall petition succeeds, it would clear the way for a ballot decision next year.

In his presentation to the judge, Dmitri Iglitzin of the law firm Barnard Iglitzin & Lavitt representing Sawant argued the recall effort lacks “specificity” and said the issues cited are political and not legally substantial. “This is not a campaign event,” Iglitzin said.

Meanwhile, Davis Wright Tremaine lawyer John McKay representing the recall campaign said Sawant’s acts — including opening a COVID-closed City Hall to protesters and participating in a protest in front of the “confidential” location of the mayor’s residence — are violations worthy of the recall being sent to the ballot.

The hearing focused on four allegations against Sawant involving her participation in a brief June occupation protest inside City Hall, a rally and march to Mayor Durkan’s home at the end of that same month, the delegation of hiring decisions to Sawant’s political group Socialist Alternative, and the use of city resources to promote the Tax Amazon ballot initiative.

Two allegations from the original proposed petition related to Sawant’s involvement in protests at the East Precinct and the formation of CHOP were dropped by the recall group’s attorneys.

McKay argued Wednesday that Sawant’s leadership at the City Hall rally violated the mayor’s order for closure of public buildings during the COVID-19 crisis and that Sawant “used her passkey” to access a “locked city hall.” Iglitzin countered that the recall group failed to show “why she is not allowed to do that” and that there was “no clear legal basis” for arguing that having a rally about Black Lives Matter was a violation. “What rule or law is that supposed to violate?” Iglitzin asked.

Sawant says that City Hall was open to the public on the day of the protest occupation. “City Hall was open to the public on June 9, 2020, and no rules that I am aware of prohibit me from inviting personal guests of my choosing into the building with me at any time I choose,” the declaration reads. “My fellow councilmembers also invite guests, there have been nighttime rallies in City Hall previously, and I am additionally aware that City Hall has, until recently, hosted an overnight homeless shelter.”

Iglitzin also faced challenges in arguing against the allegations over Sawant’s participation in the June Black Lives Matter rally and march to Durkan’s home. McKay said it was impossible to believe Sawant’s stance that she was unaware of the location of the “confidential address” of Durkan’s “family home.”

Iglitzin told the judge he had “great personal sympathy for Mayor Durkan” and “the safety concerns she has but that the allegation that Sawant did not protect the confidentiality of Durkan’s home address was “a political attack” on her participation in activism. Sawant didn’t lead the march, Iglitzin said.

Durkan has accused Sawant of “using her official position” to lead the march to the mayor’s home “despite the fact that it was publicly known I was not there, and she and organizers knew that my address was protected under the state confidentiality program because of threats against me due largely to my work as U.S. Attorney.”

Sawant argues she did not know the mayor’s address and did not lead the march, so the recall campaign can’t prove she intended to commit an unlawful act.

The two sides also tangled over the two issues already raised with the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission.

The first concerns Socialist Alternative’s influence over Sawant’s office, including personnel matters that were  dismissed by the SEEC last year. McKay cited media coverage from Seattle City Council Insight detailing financial, staff time, and hiring decisions as providing substantial evidence for the argument that the issue should be part of a certified recall petition. Iglitzin, meanwhile, argued that the way Sawant runs her office illustrates only that the council member takes “ideology very seriously.”

“The issues involved there should be determined by the citizens of Seattle,” McKay said of the issues around the political group.

Most of the charges against Sawant are from this year and relate to her response to protests over the past several months against police brutality and systemic racism.

An ethics complaint alleging Sawant misused her position on behalf of Socialist Alternative brought to the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission last year by then-District 3 campaign opponent Logan Bowers was dismissed.

“Fundamentally, I believe that elected officials are free to structure their decision-making process as they wish, subject to the will of the voters every four years,” SEEC director Wayne Barnett wrote in his March 2019 decision. “Campaigns are won and lost based on voters’ estimations of whose interests elected officials are serving and whose interests they are not. I do not find the way Councilmember Sawant makes her decisions to be a misuse of the position.”

Bowers told Capitol Hill Seattle this week that despite disagreeing with the councilmember on issues, he doesn’t think a recall is appropriate, saying “I encourage anyone who — like me — is unhappy with Sawant’s performance, to support a better candidate to challenge her in the next election.”

The final allegation is the use of city resources to support a Tax Amazon ballot initiative earlier this year that also failed to comply with public disclosure requirements. The SEEC fined the campaign $2,500 earlier this month over late filings on more than $100,000 in contributions.

Since last month, the recall campaign has raised over $40,000, with most of its donors shielded from disclosure because they’ve given less than $25. Only more than a dozen donors listed their names and addresses while the remaining 1,700 contributors are considered “unitemized contributors” because they gave less than $25, as first reported by The Stranger.

Brad Augustine, owner of Madrona Real Estate and developer and manager of several Capitol Hill properties, says he has been involved in the early stages of the recall process and that a formal committee is forming to run the effort.

Augustine acknowledges that Sawant held off efforts he supported to defeat her last November.

“We lost and she won,” he says matter of factly. After facing a deficit on Election Night 2019, Sawant clawed back with late ballots to defeat Orion by over 4% — or less than 2,000 votes.

But he says the stakes have gone up with Sawant’s actions since reelection and during the Capitol Hill Organized Protest, the highly controversial space also known as CHOP that sprouted following the police vacating its East Precinct in early June.

Bridger, the recall campaign treasurer, acknowledges it’s an uphill battle for his side, noting “the standard for recall is high but we are very optimistic.” He added that the grassroots strength of the campaign proves there is an outpouring of people who want Sawant replaced. How many of the contributors so far are from District 3 is unclear, but almost all of the listed donors are from outside the district, including one from Renton and another from Bonney Lake, about 40 miles south.

If it makes the ballot, only voters in District 3 would be able to vote on the recall.

Bridger says the campaign is going to need lots of cash as court proceedings could get expensive, especially if appealed to the state Supreme Court. In one 24-hour period earlier this week, the campaign raised over $3,000 through its site, he said.

On the other side, while Socialist Alternative maintains a “solidarity fund” that accepts donations “to help build social justice movements” and the city council approved legislation Tuesday that means the city will foot the bill for Sawant’s legal representation.

Jake Goldstein-Street is a reporter with Capitol HIll Seattle

Featured image is attributed to the Seattle City Council under a Creative Commons 2.0 license.