Kshama Sawant speaks at podium with people in the background holding Tax Amazon signs.

State Supreme Court Rules Sawant Recall Can Move Forward

by Jake Goldstein-Street

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

The recall of Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant can go forward, the State Supreme Court ruled on Thursday, April 1. Recall proponents will have up to 180 days to gather a little over 10,000 signatures — or 25% of the nearly 43,000 votes cast in her November 2019 race — to send the issue to the ballot.

Organizers outlined four acts they say that warranted sending the recall to the ballot. Most of the charges were from 2020 and relate to her response to protests against police brutality and systemic racism.

The court did not uphold all of the allegations made by the recall effort, arguing that one of the acts outlined was legally insufficient.

In September, the King County Superior Court certified a recall petition against Sawant, a member of the Socialist Alternative party, on the four allegations, which was only ruling on whether the charges outlined could be grounds for removal. That court was not ruling on whether or not the allegations were true. Two allegations from the original proposed petition relating to Sawant’s involvement in protests at the East Precinct and the formation of CHOP were dropped by the recall group’s attorneys.

Over the spring and summer, if the signature gathering effort is successful, Sawant’s political fate will then move into the hands of District 3 voters.

“The recall law in Washington State is inherently undemocratic and well-suited for politicized use against working people’s representatives, because there is no requirement that the charges even be proven true,” Sawant said in a statement following the decision. “In effect, the courts have enormous leeway to use recall elections as a mechanism to defend the ruling class and capitalist system. It is no accident that Seattle’s last elected socialist, Anna Louise Strong, was driven out of office by a recall campaign for her links to the labor movement and opposition to World War I.”

“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 formed to defend Sawant against the recall posted on Twitter after the decision. “They are now trying to use the courts & their deep pockets to overturn Councilmember Sawant’s 2019 re-election and the historic victories she has spearheaded.”

After facing a deficit on Election Night 2019, Sawant in the end defeated Broadway Business Improvement Area leader Egan Orion by around 4% — or less than 2,000 votes — and now sits as the longest serving member of the City Council.

The recall effort argues Sawant misused her office and flouted coronavirus social distancing restrictions in opening City Hall to hundreds of protesters one night last June.

In arguing theSupreme Court should dismiss the recall petition, Sawant’s lawyers with the Barnard Iglitzin & Lavitt, LLP law firm have said that gatherings such as First Amendment-protected demonstrations are exempt from Gov. Jay Inslee’s proclamation and that city councilmembers can invite guests anytime.

The protesters occupied the entrance to City Hall for about an hour, chanting, making speeches, and even at one point singing that Mayor Jenny Durkan needed to resign from office.

The court, in a unanimous ruling, argued that while Sawant usually has discretion to admit members of the public to City Hall, this move to let protesters in was “not related to a city purpose.”

“By opening city hall when it was closed to the public in response to the governor’s Stay Home – Stay Healthy order, Councilmember Sawant arguably obstructed city business and placed people at risk by failing to ensure social distancing and sanitation measures established by the Washington State Department of Health guidelines,” the court writes.

Recall backers also argued Sawant similarly used her official position to lead a march to Durkan’s home in July, a confidential address protected because she had received threats during her tenure as U.S. Attorney for Western Washington, showing what the original complainant in the recall and District 3 resident Ernie Lou called a “reckless disregard for the safety of Mayor Durkan’s family and children” in a court filing last year.

Durkan 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.”

Opponents also say Sawant relinquished the hiring and firing of office staffers to the political organization and in one case allegedly allowed the Socialist Alternative Executive Committee to decide to terminate an employee. 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.

The Supreme Court found this allegation to be legally insufficient, writing, “Councilmember Sawant was free to consult with Socialist Alternative and structure her internal office decisions as she saw fit.” The other three charges were upheld as legally sufficient, allowing the recall to move forward.

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.

Sawant says she did not need to publicly disclose the city resources used to support the initiative because it was not a ballot proposition at the time she did so. The court said the voters should decide.

This is not the only time the court has weighed in on a Seattle recall recently — in October of last year, the Supreme Court tossed out a petition to recall Mayor Durkan over the Seattle Police Department’s response to last summer’s protests.

As the two sides waited for the Supreme Court’s decision on the Sawant recall, they amassed hefty warchests now totaling over $720,000 combined, according to SEEC filings.

As the Kshama Solidarity campaign rallies to support the councilmember, the well-financed Recall Sawant campaign now must gather the 10,000 or so signatures necessary to send the issue to the voters. A basic yes/no recall vote would then head to the ballot.

Only signatures from District 3 residents count in the tally and only District 3 voters will participate in the yes/no recall vote. If the majority of those voters choose yes on the recall, the council would select a temporary replacement until the next general election in the city. The winner in that vote would finish Sawant’s current term through the end of 2023.

Sawant is holding a rally at Cal Anderson on Saturday, April 3, “to build the Kshama Solidarity Campaign and defend against this attack on all working people,” supporters wrote on Twitter.

The full opinion from the Supreme Court can be read here.

Jake Goldstein-Street is a Seattle journalist and news editor at The Daily with bylines at The Seattle Times, Crosscut, Seattle Globalist, International Examiner, Geekwire, and Capitol Hill Seattle Blog. Follow him on Twitter.

Featured Image: Councilmember Kshama Sawant at an event unveiling  a “Tax Amazon” payroll tax on large employers. The Washington State Supreme Court ruled on Thursday April 1 that an effort to recall Sawant can move forward. Photo courtesy of Seattle City Council Flickr (under a CC BY 2.0 license.)

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