Councilmember Kshama Sawant is the most polarizing member of the city council. Supporters of the former economics professor and Socialist Alternative member like what they see as her fearless willingness to challenge powerful interests and her fierce advocacy for the working class. Opponents dislike what they view as her rigid ideology, uncompromising positions, and disinterest in the teamwork required to be effective within a legislative body.
If one views the election as a referendum on Councilmember Sawant’s political record, the decision is easy - her supporters will vote no and her critics will vote yes. We believe that it’s more complicated than that and that the recall should be evaluated independently of how one feels about Sawant’s record on the council.
We are concerned that this recall fits into a growing pattern of using recall elections to undermine the validity of elections in the United States. Relatedly, we are skeptical that the charges levied against Sawant rise to the level of overturning an election and we believe that her opponents should challenge her at the end of her term in the regular election cycle.
The recall argues that Sawant misused her position and council resources on three occasions: 1) using her taxpayer-funded office to promote an electoral ballot initiative for a progressive tax on wealthy corporations in Seattle; 2) using her council access to allow protestors into City Hall after hours for a rally protesting George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police, in violation of COVID-19 protections at the time; and 3) leading another racial justice protest to Mayor Jenny Durkan’s private home, whose location is confidential because of her past work as a federal prosecutor.
These actions are problematic, but we are not convinced they merit removing her from office. Backers of the recall say these are significant lapses in judgment and ethics that should be disqualifying for a member of the council. Sawant supporters say politicians should be working with activists to pass bold reforms to help marginalized communities and that Sawant participated in but did not plan the march to Durkan’s home. Sawant did admit to using public resources to support the ballot measure in a settlement with the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission. It is noteworthy that the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that these charges were serious enough to warrant a recall election that could remove her from office.
We believe the national context for the recall is important. This is one of about 500 recall efforts around the country, most of which are focused on removing elected officials who have enacted COVID-19 precautions or have been supportive of social justice issues. Conservatives have sought to use low-turnout recall elections to replace progressives elected in places that vote reliably Democratic during higher-turnout years.
This national wave of recalls was headlined by the failed Republican attempt to recall Democratic California Gov. Gavin Newsome. In addition, a large number of school board members across the coast face recalls because of anger with COVID-19 safety precautions and fears about teaching accurate history in schools.
The Recall Sawant campaign is funded by donors across the political spectrum. It appears that the Recall Sawant campaign attempted to game the system for low turnout by refusing to turn in their signatures until after the deadline for the November general election. Instead, the recall will be decided in an unprecedented December special election that will cost the City of Seattle an estimated $250,000 to $300,000.
We believe recall efforts like this undermine the strength of our elections. Voters elected Sawant in 2019 despite more than $1 million of opposition spending. If Sawant is recalled, the city council – not voters – would appoint a temporary replacement. Those who oppose her policies or actions would be better served working to defeat her on the ballot in a little less than two years.
The progressive organizations that have taken positions on the recall are opposed to it. We recommend a No vote on the Sawant recall.