Socialist Kshama Sawant faces recall vote in Seattle

SEATTLE — At first, Henry Bridger II supported Kshama Sawant, Seattle’s combative socialist city councilmember. A liberal voter in one of the most liberal neighborhoods in an extremely liberal city, he liked her fresh outlook and support for a $15 minimum wage.

Seven years later, Bridger is leading an effort to recall Sawant. With ballots due Tuesday night in Seattle’s Third District, the results could further shift power in the Northwest’s largest city and deal another setback to leftist activists who saw business-friendly candidates win a council seat and the mayor’s office in last month’s general election.

At stake is how the city approaches homelessness, police reform, taxation and other pressing issues. Sawant has been pushing for rent control, cutting police funding and expanding taxes on high earners such as Amazon to pay for affordable housing, schools and community services.

“She literally blasts people who don’t agree with her,” Bridger said. “If you’re not in lockstep with her ideology, you become the enemy. You’re called a right-wing Republican. You’re called a racist. You’re bullied and pushed around.”

Sawant, 48, an Indian immigrant and an economics professor, is the longest-tenured council member. She has had an outsized influence on the tone and direction of Seattle politics since launching her political career under the banner of the Socialist Alternative party in 2012, when she ran unsuccessfully for state representative.

She was elected to City Council the following year, and her threat to run a voter initiative drive for an immediate $15 minimum wage has been credited with pressuring business leaders and then-Mayor Ed Murray to reach a deal raising the wage to $15 over a few years. Seattle was the first major city in the U.S. to adopt such a measure.

But critics say she offers more rhetoric than substance, and that her brash antics are incompatible with good governance.

Seattle and other cities are banned by state law from adopting rent control, for example. And last month, a federal appeals court ruled that two Seattle police officers could sue Sawant for defamation, after she claimed a fatal shooting they were involved in was “a blatant murder.”

The recall question on the ballot cites three charges: a minor campaign finance violation that Sawant acknowledged and for which she paid a fine; her alleged leadership of a protest march to the home of Mayor Jenny Durkan, even though Durkan’s address was protected by a state confidentiality law due to her prior work as a federal prosecutor; and her decision to let a crowd of protesters into City Hall while it was closed due to the pandemic.

Bridger insisted that his motivation for bringing the recall campaign was to hold Sawant accountable for those transgressions, and that it has nothing to do with her politics.

But to Sawant’s supporters, the charges are merely a pretext for an effort by big business, developer and commercial real-estate interests to accomplish what they failed to do in 2019, when a late, million-dollar push by Amazon to defeat her and other progressive candidates backfired. Sawant was reelected by about 4 percentage points.

Sawant denies having led the march to Durkan’s house, though she did participate in it.

She has defended her decision to let Black Lives Matter demonstrators into City Hall in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police. She said the protesters were only inside for an hour and that it was important for them to be seen in the halls of power.

Bryan Koulouris, spokesman for the Kshama Solidarity Campaign, called the attempt to boot Sawant part of a national backlash against the Black Lives Matter movement. Even the timing of the vote is suspicious, he said.

The recall campaign needed to turn in nearly 11,000 signatures by early August to place the question onto last month’s ballot.

Sawant’s supporters hoped that would happen, believing that better turnout for the general election — more young and lower-income voters, especially — would improve Sawant’s chances for remaining in office, as opposed to a special election on some other Tuesday between Thanksgiving and Christmas. They went so far as to collect 3,000 signatures for the recall effort to ensure it made the November ballot.

But Bridger didn’t turn in the signatures in time to make the general election, saying the recall campaign simply hadn’t collected enough by the deadline.

“This is a blatant act of voter suppression,” Koulouris said. “From the nature of the charges and from when this election is happening, it begins to scratch the surface of why this is a right-wing recall.”

The two groups supporting the recall — Recall Sawant and A Better Seattle — have raised close to $1 million combined, as has Kshama Solidarity.

Andrew Villeneuve, the founder of Northwest Progressive Institute, suggested that going with protesters to Durkan’s house was the most serious charge. Even if Sawant didn’t lead them there, he said, she as a political leader should have spoken up against it. Villeneuve called it an act of intimidation.

Still, he expected that many voters might look at the charges and conclude they don’t warrant removing Sawant from office.

“When I read the charges, I can think of far worse sins committed by other people in office,” Villeneuve said. “There are people who think her advocacy is useful, and people who think her advocacy is counterproductive. Those who find her advocacy counterproductive seem to be the ones supporting the recall.”