Photo depicting Kshama Sawant speaking on stage at an election night rally.

Sawant Triumphs Against Recall Effort

by Justin Carder

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

For some, it was a vote against recalls and political shenanigans. For others, their “no” votes were pledges of continued belief in her willingness to fight and lead on behalf of the working class and tenants. The math has been worked out. Kshama Sawant will not be recalled and can continue her term — her third on the Seattle City Council — through 2023.

Thursday, King County Elections released the final count of ballots in the District 3 recall before the vote is certified and made official on Friday ending two weeks of tallying and ballot challenges since the December 7th election.

The last tally shows No ahead by 306 votes — good enough for 50.37% of the vote and the majority required to stave off the recall.

As of Thursday afternoon, 385 ballots remained challenged. Elections officials say, in all, 820 ballots were challenged in this election, and the office typically sees about half of those issues resolved. Just over 53% have been cured so far.  By Friday afternoon’s certification, a handful of additional ballots challenged over missing or non-matching signatures may also be added to the totals if any last minute cure forms were submitted. But those small updates will be inconsequential. Kshama Solidarity’s December 19th “Victory Party” at Chop Suey can go off as planned.

The Election Night first count of ballots in the recall of Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant revealed that supporters weren’t kidding when they said they would need “the biggest get out the vote campaign the city has ever seen” to keep the District 3 representative in office.

The first count of the District 3 recall ballots the night of Tuesday, Dec. 7, showed “yes” on the recall on top with 53% of the tallied vote, leading by just under 2,000 votes. But those votes and six percentage points may very well be an impossible goal — even with the district’s propensity for left-leaning late votes. The challenge? The first count included 32,000 ballots. King County Elections totals show nearly 35,000 ballots were received as of 6 p.m. meaning the Sawant camp will need to produce a massive showing for “no” votes as the few thousand remaining ballots are processed. If turnout truly hits 50% as predicted by officials, about 6,000 ballots are up for grabs — Sawant will need more than 67% of them to have voted “no.”

Tuesday night in front of supporters, Sawant expressed optimism that her past success among late voters would prevail.

“In every one of our elections, there has been a dramatic swing after Election Night in our direction,” Sawant said. “Given the unprecedented nature of this undemocratic December election, while we cannot be sure of the final result, if past trends hold, it appears working people may have prevailed in this fight.”

The next update will come by Wednesday, Dec. 8, at 4 p.m., officials said.

Only voters in District 3 — encompassing Capitol Hill, First Hill, the Central District, Montlake, Madison Valley, and Madison Park — are participating. If the majority of the district’s voters choose “yes” on the recall, the Council will select a temporary replacement until the next general election in the city. The winner in that vote next November would finish Sawant’s current term through the end of 2023.

The Kshama Solidarity campaign defending Sawant gathered at Capitol Hill’s Chop Suey for a large event complete with vaccination and mask requirements plus mandatory temperature checks as socialist speakers and community activists took the stage in the lead-up to the first release of numbers to speak out against “corporate landlords” and Seattle Police’s “violations of the Geneva Convention.” “Which side are you on?” one speaker asked.

The Recall Sawant did not publicly announce a location for an Election Night gathering. The campaign stopped replying to CHS’s inquiries this week but has continued to post comments on the news website and on the site’s social media.

“Today is JUDGMENT DAY,” the Recall Sawant Facebook page read Tuesday. “Time for Sawant to face her constituents and be held accountable!!!”

The Kshama Solidarity campaign has been operating in a difficult arena, trying to drive turnout among the district’s youngest, most transient voters with on-the-ground tactics including “grassroots voting centers” in an unprecedented special election. The Dec. 7 vote has fallen in the middle of the holiday season after the Recall Sawant campaign failed to meet deadlines to be part of the November General Election and decided to target a December vote. Pandemic restrictions have not made things any easier. The Solidarity campaign said one of its biggest challenges was simply informing voters that an election was happening.

“It comes from exactly what the recall campaign intended — confusion and an intention of low voter turnout,” campaign representative Bryan Koulouris said.

Election Night’s first tally was dominated by early by-mail voting in the district’s more affluent north and along the wealthy shoreline of Lake Washington where support for removing Sawant is strongest and District 3 voters tend to be the most supportive of moderate and centrist candidates.

Organizers led by neighborhood opponents of the socialist city councilmember and powered by the financial contributions from a mix of residents and real estate developers have outlined multiple acts they say warrant Sawant’s recall including 1) using City resources to promote a Tax Amazon initiative, 2) allowing demonstrators inside City Hall during a protest in June 2020, and 3) marching to Mayor Jenny Durkan’s home address kept secret due to her past role as a federal prosecutor. A fourth charge of allowing Sawant’s Socialist Alternative political organization to influence her office’s employment decisions was rejected by the State Supreme Court.

A Recall Sawant social media post from Election Day

Sawant has admitted the Amazon tax violation and agreed to a small fine while maintaining that her actions during the June 2020 Black Lives Matter protests were justified by the cause. She has also maintained that she did not organize the march and did not know Durkan’s home address.

Critics say the recall is punishment for the longest serving member of the City Council’s record as a champion for tenants rights and her actions protesting Seattle Police during the Black Lives Matter demonstrations of 2020. Many point to the recall as part of what they say is a troubling trend to turn to recalls to target popular progressive and more left-leaning politicians. Over the summer, California voters rejected an attempted recall of Gov. Gavin Newsom, leaving the state to reexamine its recall laws. In Los Angeles, new recall efforts have been launched against County District Attorney George Gascón over his progressive policies. In San Francisco, voters will consider a June recall of Chesa Boudin, the district attorney many compared to Seattle’s unsuccessful police abolitionist city attorney candidate Nicole Thomas-Kennedy.

The recall campaign maintains it has the right to recall. “I’m so proud of them for standing up to the hate the Sawantanistas have thrown at them over the last 17 months, just because they have been exercising their constitutional right to recall an elected official for breaking several laws,” campaign manager Henry Bridger wrote in a social media update.

The Sawant recall attempt also follows a failed push to oust Sawant political opponent Mayor Jenny Durkan from office. The Durkan recall fizzled when the State Supreme Court ruled allegations stemming from the Durkan’s administration’s response to the 2020 protests as the Seattle Police cracked down on demonstrations with force and clouds of tear gas downtown and on Capitol Hill were legally insufficient.

Money has flooded in for both the “yes” and “no” camps with just under $2 million in contributions from more than 16,000 contributors reported in the recall election. A Better Seattle, the PAC set up to help boost the recall, was released from campaign contribution limits and has been using the cash on strategies including a $10,000 TV ad getting heavy play during NFL and sports broadcasts across the city thanks to a $100,000 Comcast advertising buy. The PAC quickly raised more than $200,000, closing the gap between the Recall Sawant campaign and the Kshama Solidarity campaign.

Unlike the Dec. 7 recall vote which is limited to only Sawant’s District 3 constituents, anybody can donate.

Kshama Solidarity has spent on mailers and posters but also a diverse set of in-the-field, get-out-the-vote costs like coffee for volunteers and wireless printers for tabling efforts where the campaign has offered to print ballots for voters who may have misplaced theirs. The group has also paid out thousands to campaign workers.

Both “yes” and “no” proponents have criticized the amount of cash coming from outside the city. According to the city’s campaign contribution data, 38% of Kshama Solidarity contributors live outside the city compared to 19% for Recall Sawant. But with 42% of its contributors in Seattle, the Solidarity campaign still has had more contributors living in the city — more than 6,700 vs. just over 4,100 contributors for Recall Sawant.

For Kshama Solidarity, the battle has been about saving Sawant’s job, yes, but also taking on the “right wing” effort to “disrupt democracy like Fox News” in Seattle. Sawant and the campaign have chosen to stick to the script, even bringing the fight to the very language of the councilmember’s defense that appears as the “no” statement on the ballot. “Kshama, an immigrant woman of color, is being attacked for participating in peaceful Black Lives Matter protests,” it reads. “This recall is part of the racist right-wing backlash attempting to criminalize protest nationally.”

Photo depicting the Dec. 7, 2021, Official Special Election Ballot for the Kshama Sawant recall election.
The Dec. 7, 2021, Official Special Election Ballot for the Kshama Sawant recall election.

Born in Mumbai, Sawant’s political career in Seattle was formed out of the Occupy movement when the economist was still teaching at Seattle Central College and Seattle University.

Sawant’s leadership, the councilmember has said herself, has been focused on larger, sometimes global issues. As other district leaders have made habits of community meetings and “coffee talk,” Sawant has mostly avoided that kind of interaction in favor of rallies and protests.

At the local level, this has left Sawant open to criticism about her office’s interest and availability in neighborhood issues and day-to-day problems around homelessness, drug use, and street safety. Some Capitol Hill community leaders have praised her “alternative” style and leadership on issues like the minimum wage.

Still, Sawant has been phenomenally successful, last besting the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce-backed Egan Orion — and many of her same critics this time around — for her seat in 2019. That win was bolstered by a nearly unheard of turn for the 43rd District Democrats as the organization dedicated, in part, to helping get Democrats elected endorsed the Socialist Alternative candidate. Why only nearly unheard of? They did the same thing in 2015 to help Sawant defeat Urban League CEO Pamela Banks.

In October of 2013, CHS was there as an upstart challenger squared off with incumbent Richard Conlin in a debate on rent control held at Seattle Central that would set the tone for the major political upset that would remove the veteran lawmaker from office a few weeks later. That win built on causes like the $15 minimum wage, a tax on big business, and controlling rents launched Sawant’s political profile to new heights.

Today, she stands as maybe the second most recognizable socialist leader in the country. Bernie Sanders, by the way, has endorsed the “no” side in the recall.

Tuesday night, Sawant and the Solidarity campaign also continued to make it clear they were ready to go it alone, calling out fellow councilmembers Lorena González, Teresa Mosqueda, and Tammy Morales for not lifting “a finger to oppose this recall.”

On the stage, Sawant blasted González for her being unwilling to take a more progressive fight and “allowing” Bruce Harrell to win in their race for mayor.

With her campaign shifting into watch and wait mode and hopes for turnout to climb to 50% and above, Sawant ended her night with a note of hope.

“If a small revolutionary socialist organization in Seattle can beat the richest guys in the world again and again,” she said on the Chop Suey stage, “you can be sure that the organized power of the wider working class can and will change society.”

Justin Carder is the editor and founder of the Capitol Hill Seattle Blog.

📸 Featured Image: Kshama Sawant speaks at an election night rally. (Photo; Alex Garland)

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