‘I don’t have regrets’: An exit interview with Seattle council firebrand Kshama Sawant

SEATTLE — Seattle is on the verge of a major change for its city council, highlighted by a slew of more moderate newcomers who will be sworn in come January.

That group will be without Seattle’s most polarizing -- and perhaps famous -- political figure, Kshama Sawant. Sawant will leave the dais after a decade in office, all while operating as the council’s sole socialist.

She reflected on that legacy in an in-depth interview, where we talked through some of her biggest victories and regrets over her time on the city council.

The fight for fair wages

A $ 15-an-hour minimum wage is hardly radical now, but it may have sounded like that a decade ago when Kshama Sawant made it a rallying cry.

That saw Seattle become the first major city to hit that mark, followed by dozens of others across the country.

“I think that the record and victories we have won, they belong to the working people in Seattle, and nationally, they should all be proud of this,” Sawant said.

Sawant considers that victory in particular to be a triumph of her tenure, another being the JumpStart tax, which she calls the “Amazon tax.”

The JumpStart taxed was passed during the pandemic, and has been levied on large businesses with earners. Much of that money goes toward housing, bringing in $277 million last year alone.

“It has become the backbone of holding the city budget aloft at a time of historic recession,” Sawant said.

Controversy, protests, and a recall

But between those bookend victories, there is another story, often narrated with a bullhorn.

One such instance was when Sawant was arrested for disorderly conduct in November of 2014. That after she and a group of demonstrators blocked traffic along Highway 99 as part of a protest for higher wages for Alaska Airlines employees.

“This is about political leadership,” she declared at the time.

Years later, she drew more controversy when she allowed Black Lives Matter protesters into a closed city hall, endorsed the takeover of SPD’s East Precinct, and even marched to the home of former Mayor Jenny Durkan, an address that had been protected for security concerns.

Sawant also acknowledged ethics violations in using city resources to promote the Amazon tax.

In the wake of all that, the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission found she violated city rules. That led to a recall election in 2021, which she beat back by around 300 votes.

That recall will likely end up in the history books as Sawant’s final time with her name on the ballot in Seattle after not running for reelection in 2023.

A new city council

The new council that arrives in 2024 will be decidedly different.

“This last election was certainly a wave of moderates,” I posed to Sawant.

“Loud and (Seattle Chamber of Commerce)-backed candidates,” she responded. “You’re calling them moderates.”

As for whether Sawant interprets that wave of new councilmembers as a rejection of more left-leaning politics, she has a different theory.

“I take that as the Chamber of Commerce winning its own candidates because of the absence of the larger left and because of the betrayals of the Democratic Party,” she asserted.

Replacing Sawant as Seattle’s District 3 representative will be Joy Hollingsworth. She comes from a family of Central District educators and community leaders.

Following in the tradition of presidential administrations leaving notes for their successors, we asked Sawant what her note for Hollingsworth might say.

“I think that’s a bit of an absurdity in the sense that she does not share my politics,” she answered. “She’s a big business representative, she’s a candidate of the Chamber of Commerce, so, I have no message for her.”

Hollingsworth’s family business is the state’s only Black-owned major cannabis farm. She campaigned on public safety, police accountability, small business protections, and downtown recovery.

While many would describe Hollingsworth’s platform as left-leaning, there’s no sliding scale for Sawant -- more often than not, it’s either for or against her movement.

One example came in Sawant’s response to a Tweet from the Woman’s March mourning the death of Barbara Bush, where she claimed it undermined struggles against oppression.

In 2018, Sawant criticized Paul Allen the day after the news of his death broke, challenging his status as a philanthropist and denouncing his private jets and yachts, as well as his opposition to a 2010 statewide push to tax the rich.

This all comes during a coarsening of political debate, that Sawant says is less the result of her own inflammatory rhetoric and more the fault of a much larger power.

“Coarsening is preexisting under the capitalist system,” she said. “What I have done is proudly fight for those who are never represented by capitalist politicians.”

Public safety, the CHOP, and policing

Seattle’s debate over policing came to a head after George Floyd’s murder in 2020.

Sawant points to the people who turned out after George Floyd’s murder in 2020 -- activists, families, students. All were angry, and for some, it burned as Capitol Hill turned into the flashpoint.

In a stare-down between protesters and the Seattle Police Department, police blinked first. They abandoned the East Precinct and the Capitol Hill Occupied Protest, or CHOP, took over with Sawant’s support.

Two weeks later, a 19-year-old was shot and killed in the CHOP. The city eventually paid more than $3 million for other crimes and destruction from that time when SPD would not respond.

“That was a difficult time for our city when a lot of different forces collided -- how do you look back on CHOP now?” I asked.

“That was not only a multiracial, working class unity against racism and police violence, it also captured the underlying anger at the fact that this society, this economy, works or benefits only a small elite at the top and the rest of us are left out,” Sawant said.

Sawant supported defunding SPD by half. That didn’t happen, but the department continues to have real problems with recruiting and retention. This year, they’ve hired 56 officers and lost 91.

“That because the police officers don’t want to be held accountable,” Sawant claims.

She points to controversies, like officers mocking the deaths of people killed by police, as evidence that fewer officers are necessary.

But with SPD struggling to hire officers and a record year for homicides, would the city be safer with more officers on the streets?

“What the data shows is the best way of addressing public safety concerns in society is to actually address inequality,” Sawant said. “Increasing the police budget throughout time has never provided public safety.”

This year, Seattle has had its most homicides on record dating back decades, while SPD stats show that between 2020 and 2022, property crime has risen by 10%. Over that same period, violent crime is up 21%.

“What would you say to them about this time that is passing in which they are dealing with more crime, more car break-ins, more home break-ins, and they believe that they need more officers out there?” I asked.

“I don’t agree,” Sawant responded. “I think most of the people you’re talking about, unfortunately, are people who are on the right -- they are right-wing people who have opposed $15-an-hour, Amazon tax, have opposed renters’ rights, and they want more police.”

She also says that those were the people who tried to throw her out of office.

Triumphs and few regrets

Although many parts of Sawant’s time in office were marred by controversy, she still looks back on that time with pride.

“It’s a really inspiring thought to remember how we spent this entire decade,” she said. “... It is imperative that those who profess to represent working class people, poor people, oppressed community members, never sell out.”

As for any regrets over the last 10 years, Sawant has few, if any.

“I don’t have regrets -- I’m really proud,” she said. “I mean obviously, there’s this or that where we could have done things better; there’s no lack of humility on our part.”

But was there anything in particular that she would have done differently?

“I can’t think of anything major, really; I can’t even think of an example,” she added. “What stands out is just the enormity of what we were able to achieve.”

Sawant is leaving office, but not leaving Seattle. She now heads up a new group called “Workers Strike Back,” a movement to mobilize workers and unions across the country.

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