Seattle’s Socialist Councilwoman Faces a Recall

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The effort to unseat my city’s socialist councilwoman, Kshama Sawant, has finally begun. She has condemned it as a “right-wing recall campaign” — as if Seattle had a right wing. The recall is anti-radical left. I’m all for it, but I have to admit its chances are none too good.

Kshama Sawant is an immigrant from India. She was once married to a software guy. For a while, she taught economics — of what flavor I can only imagine — at the Seattle Central Community College. She entered Seattle electoral politics in 2012 by running against the most powerful member of the state legislature in Olympia, House Speaker Frank Chopp. He is a Democrat and friend of social programs, particularly public housing. In one of the most solid Democratic districts in the state — it includes the University of Washington — Sawant attacked Chopp from the Left, accusing him of being too timid in redistributing the people’s wealth. She called him a corporate tool.

Sawant initially ran against Chopp as a write-in, backed by the city’s “alternate” weekly, The Stranger. She came in second in our top-two primary. Running in the general election under the Socialist Alternative banner, she took 29% of the vote against the Democrat. She lost, but it was a remarkable showing.

Sawant attacked Chopp from the Left, accusing him of being too timid in redistributing the people’s wealth. She called him a corporate tool.

 

In 2013 she challenged an incumbent on the Seattle City Council, Richard Conlin. He was a liberal Democrat — they all were — though the position is officially nonpartisan. Openly running as a socialist, she beat Conlin in a city-wide vote with 50.9%.

That was really remarkable. In a one-party town suffused with a we-love-you liberalism, Sawant ran a hard-edged, issue-and-ideology campaign to the left of all Democrats. Her difference extended even to yard signs. Yard signs never say anything of substance — but hers did. They said she was for a $15 minimum wage — this, when the state minimum was about $9. I didn’t support a minimum wage, but I respected the fact that she offered a clear message, and that she wasn’t another mealy-mouthed Democrat.

Her victory in 2013 made her the first self-described socialist elected citywide in Seattle since 1916, when Anna Louise Strong won a seat on the Seattle School Board. Anna Louise Strong was a communist; she spent much of the 1930s editing a communist newspaper in Moscow, and later moved to China and was a pal of Zhou Enlai. Nobody in Seattle calls Kshama Sawant a communist — that would be “redbaiting” — but judge for yourself. Take a look at the Kshama Solidarity web page, the Socialist Alternative web page and the web page of its London affiliate, International Socialist Alternative. Sawant is a Marxist, which was obvious to me when I interviewed her. I put it to her campaign manager and he admitted to me privately that she was. But in 2012 a candidate couldn’t say that openly; you could be a Marxist, or a communist (is there a difference?), but you had to allow the progressives to pretend that you were acceptable.

Many people thought it wouldn’t matter that one of the nine members of the city council was that far left. But it did. She has pulled the whole council to the left. Since she joined, they approved the $15 minimum wage (which she voted against because it was imposed too slowly and had too many exceptions). They approved a “head tax” on large employers — a tax aimed at Amazon — which was challenged, repealed, and later passed in modified form. (Sawant calls Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos “the enemy.”) The city council has also put through a “Democracy Vouchers” program of public financing of elections — a system Sawant doesn’t use because it would cut her off from her socialist funding network. Sawant has pushed for rent control, which exists in Seattle only for houseboats — but rent control would require a change in state law, and that can’t be done by Seattle alone.

Yard signs never say anything of substance — but hers did.

 

In a city that’s home to famous companies, Sawant rails against corporations and their money. In 2019, it looked as if she might lose her seat to a challenger, a gay community activist named Egan Orion, but late in the campaign Amazon directed a million dollars into a political action committee that supported the Orion campaign That decision, made by one of the company’s dimwitted operatives, backfired. Voters were alienated and our Seattle socialist was saved.

The current recall effort has the support of the Seattle Times. I don’t think Sawant worries about the capitalist press; she regards it with the same disdain as do right-wing Republicans. Her advantage is her “ground game.” Her supporters are far from being a majority in this town, but they are committed. They march, they rally, and they pack the city council chambers. The one time she was decisively beaten, over the initial Amazon tax, was when the hard-hatted men from the construction unions, fearing that Amazon would cancel its building plans, faced her in a counter-demonstration in front of the Amazon building. It was a delicious moment, but it was one time only.

In the recall now underway, Sawant has the advantage of fighting the recall effort now, rather than last summer, when her antics were fresh in the public mind.

In Washington state a recall effort requires allegations of wrongdoing. An official facing a recall can challenge the allegations in court, which Sawant did. The court then decides whether the allegations, if true, would justify a recall. The court has now ruled that three of the allegations meet that standard, but it took seven months — precious months to Kshama Sawant — to figure this out.

The recall’s main allegations against Sawant are that she opened the City Hall on the evening of June 9, 2020, for a political rally even though the building had been closed to public meetings by order of Governor Jay Inslee because of COVID-19; that on June 28, 2020, Sawant led a protest march to Mayor Jenny Durkan’s house, even though the mayor’s address was protected by a state confidentiality law; and that she illegally used city money to promote a ballot measure. Petitioners had also charged that she illegally delegated hiring decisions in her office to the Socialist Alternative organization, and that during July 2020 she encouraged the George Floyd protesters to seize the East Precinct Seattle police station and declare the “Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone.” The court threw those charges out as legally insufficient. (Whether it was true was not the issue.)

In a city that’s home to famous companies, Sawant rails against the “deep pockets” of “big business and the right wing” and their “onslaught of corporate cash.”

 

If the recall can raise 10,739 signatures within 180 days, voters in Sawant’s district will be able to vote for or against her for whatever reason they want. The recallers’ plan is to collect signatures by mailing petitions to voters in the most anti-Sawant (read: wealthy) parts of her district, starting with a list of persons who contributed to her opponent in 2019. Their excuse for doing it by mail is not to spread COVID-19; the real reason, I suspect, is that they don’t have the people to circulate petitions in person.

I’ve never heard of a recall done this way.

Both sides are raising money. At last count (May 2) Sawant had raised $499,086, a sum 5% greater than the $475,027 raised by her opponents. Two weeks before, the difference was 41%. Sawant rails against the “deep pockets” of “big business and the right wing” and their “onslaught of corporate cash.” But according to the disclosure reports, most of Sawant’s money is from out of state. Only 37% has come from Seattle. The campaign to recall her has raised 85% of its money within the city.

On May 1, I took a look at the two lists of donors who made the legally maximum $1,000 gift. Each campaign had about the same number of in-state donors: 48 for the pro-Sawant side and 46 for the anti-Sawant side. The difference was that Sawant had 70 one-thousand-dollar donors outside the state, and the Recall campaign had zero.

Of Sawant’s $1,000 donors from out of state, 20 were from California, 16 from Massachusetts and 14 from Pennsylvania. Sawant has a particular nest of donors in Somerville, Massachusetts, the neighborhood of Harvard, Tufts, and MIT. The anti-Sawant side has nothing like this.

The two donor lists are strikingly different, even in their looks. Sawant’s contains more foreign-sounding and hyphenated names. And the donors work (if they do work) in different parts of the economy.

A large number of Sawant’s $1,000 contributors are listed as not employed. Eight frankly describe themselves as “unemployed.” Several work for city transit agencies or the Post Office — in what capacity the document does not say. The most common type of employer is state government, followed by the federal government. The list includes several $1,000 contributors who work for universities (Caltech, Harvard, U. Penn.), several whose employers, public or private, school or tutor children, and a couple who have employers with names like the Social Justice Learning Institute. Many are from technology companies: Motiv Power Systems, Celgene, Google, Compudyne, etc. Within the state of Washington, Sawant’s network of $1,000 contributors includes employees of Microsoft, Oracle, Facebook, Info Harvest, Optiv, and Sincro, as well as one contributor from Jeff Bezos’ rockets-into-outer-space company, Blue Origin. Several $1,000 donors are employees of the state’s University of Washington. One is a professor of global health; the others are mostly researchers.

Sawant has always pushed for rent control, an idea that to real estate investors is poison gas.

 

The people I googled on Sawant’s list of $1,000 contributors are mostly young, and most appear to be donating more than a person of that age and position could usually afford. There are motivated people in her socialist network.

The Recall Sawant contributors appear to be older and wealthier. Their list also has quite a few persons not employed, but that’s because they are retired. Some of these are people who have real money. Two of the names I recognized: Frank Shrontz, retired Boeing CEO, and Jeannie Nordstrom, wife of former Nordstrom CEO Bruce Nordstrom. A couple of the names are associated with McCaw Communications, a company that pioneered cellular telephones around here and sold out for millions. The Recall list also has a handful of people from Seattle’s tech companies.

What’s noticeable about the anti-Kshama-Sawant list is real estate. A number of the $1,000 names are professional real estate investors. The list also includes a homebuilder and an owner of a lumberyard chain. Sawant has no names like these.

A political analyst I know sums up the difference in the two sides as that of renters versus owners. Sawant has always pushed for rent control, an idea that to real estate investors is poison gas. The average apartment rent in Seattle is somewhere between $1,500 and $2,000 a month, and Sawant’s high-density council district — which includes last year’s Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone — has many more renters than owners. But that explains why people vote, not so much why they donate. Only hardcore supporters are willing to shell out $1,000.

That so many of Kshama Sawant’s supporters work for tech companies, some of them startups funded by venture investors, is disturbing to a supporter of the market. Engineering and software people paid out of venture capital are first-order beneficiaries of capitalism — and they are donating their personal money to keep a Marxist in power.

Seattle is one of the world’s economically successful cities — the home of Amazon, Starbucks, Nordstrom, Weyerhaeuser, Russell Investments, and, in its suburbs, Costco Wholesale and Microsoft. It is the original home of Boeing. That the longest-serving and most prominent member of its city council is a Marxist must seem strange when viewed from a distance. I live here, and it seems strange to me.

The Recall Sawant web page, here, should be interesting to anti-Marxists everywhere.

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