Seattle’s third district for city council is holding an election next week that should not be happening. Kshama Sawant, one of the most important public faces of the new socialist movement in the U.S., faces a crucial battle against the forces of big business, the real estate industry, and all of their well-funded allies. Her success as a legislator in improving the material welfare of the working class and her voice as a leader of the movement standing wherever and with whoever is in need of support against oppression has positioned her as a threat to business as usual. These forces have organized a years-long smear campaign against Sawant and paid for the signatures necessary to force a recall election that will take place next week on December 7. Tempest fully rejects this assault on democracy and stands in unconditional solidarity with Sawant in opposing the recall election and urges the voters in Seattle’s third district to vote No!
After an unsuccessful campaign for congress in 2012, Sawant turned her focus to winning a seat in Seattle’s city council. With the support of Socialist Alternative, of which she is a member, she was able to win 35 percent of the vote in an open primary, finishing second and advancing to face incumbent council member Richard Conlin in the general election. A razor-thin margin of about three thousand votes made Sawant the first elected socialist in any Seattle election in nearly a hundred years. She has been re-elected twice since then in 2015 and 2019.
Throughout her time in office, Sawant has been a fierce public advocate and often successful in moving the city council to the left, passing major legislation to help the working class and poor. Her efforts have led Seattle to pass what has become known as the Amazon tax to help fund affordable housing—along with other renters rights, including a requirement that landlords give 180 days advance notice on rent increases, banning evictions during the school year, and covering some of the costs when a low-income renter is forced to relocate on rent increases of more than 10 percent. She also made headlines after helping make Seattle the first major city to pass a $15 minimum wage. Beyond legislation victories, Sawant has been a stalwart supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement. Sawant continues to advocate for defunding the police and has voted against every police budget since she has been a sitting member of the city council. She has had limited success in advancing this agenda through the city council. The other major priority of unfinished business for Sawant has been her push for rent control.
The legislation that has passed—and her fights for rent control and reimagining public safety, beginning with defunding the police—has made Sawant a primary target for the ruling class in every campaign she has run. In 2019, Amazon stepped up its investment against Sawant, spending $1.5 million on city council races, mostly to support her opponent. Today, the effort to recall Sawant is being funded by millionaires and billionaires, including George Petrie, a real estate executive and top donor to the Trump campaign from the state of Washington. The recall campaign also used voter-suppression tactics when gathering signatures and delayed submitting them with the intention of avoiding putting the recall on the November general election ballot, where more voters are likely to participate.
It would be fair to conclude that this is primarily a right-wing backed effort, but one should also not ignore the fact that many wealthy and educated liberals also view Sawant as a threat to their economic standing. This is evident from the number of wealthier homes in Seattle that have signs that display symbolic support for Black Lives Matter and other liberal pet causes alongside signs endorsing the recall campaign.
The public charges leveled against Sawant from her opponents range from the dishonest to the absurd. Two of the charges stem from her unwavering support for the Black Lives Matter movement. In one case, she joined a march that organizers had arranged to confront Seattle’s Mayor Jenny Durkan’s illegal authorization to have the police use tear gas and pepper spray on peaceful protesters. The organizers had the march routed to the mayor’s residence where her address is confidential due to her prior service as a prosecutor. There is no evidence that Sawant knew about the route of the march beforehand.
The other unworthy charge is that Sawant led a riot in city hall when she organized a BLM rally again against the police’s illegal use of chemical weapons. The protest was peaceful, and the protesters took as many precautions as possible—such as wearing masks—when attempting to balance the need for public-health measures with the need to protest the police murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, as well as the use of chemical weapons. The protestors were ultimately successful in helping Sawant in passing the first in the nation ban on the use of chemical weapons by the police. The mayor did not sign it or veto it but sent the bill back unsigned with a list of complaints about the legislation, this effectively allowed the bill to become law without her.
The only charge with any merit is the accusation that Sawant used $1,700 of her office funds to support an Amazon tax ballot initiative. She did use the funds before the initiative was filed and was unaware that this was not allowed at this point in the process. She took accountability for her error here and settled with the city by paying a fine of $3,500. Other members in the past, and sitting member Lisa Herbold, have had to pay similar fines without any threat of a recall election. Of course, what matters here is not this minor discretion, but that she was successful in eventually passing a tax on companies like Amazon that is expected to see a transfer of $2 billion in wealth from the richest businesses to the working class and poor by helping to fund public housing.
It is not any of these underlying charges that have made Sawant a target by her critics. It is her legislative success and her voice for the oppressed against the ruling class that has made removing her from office a high priority for them. For us, she has stood with every working-class struggle that has presented itself, from Black Lives Matter to her recent support for the rank and file members of the Northwest Carpenters Union, which drew criticism from their ineffective leadership. She has also understood that representing a diverse cosmopolitan city like Seattle requires not just support locally for Black lives, but defending lives overseas as well. In 2014, she condemned Israel’s attacks on Gaza and has been a consistent ally for Palestinian liberation. Sawant has shown at a local level what can be achieved when one stands by their principles without favor to either capitalist party.
If the recall is successful, Sawant’s remaining term will be filled by an unelected appointee. More importantly, the Left will lose one of the few truly independent and successful socialists serving in public office today. Capitalists will be emboldened to engage in similar dishonest attacks to intimidate or remove from office by any means the other prominent elected officials that the establishment considers too far to the left. This recall election is about more than one individual socialist in Seattle, this is a counterattack by the rich and powerful against the workers and oppressed. For the future of the Left, we must defend Sawant at this critical moment and give her the opportunity to continue to fight for all of us. Tempest implores that everyone in the third district vote No on December 7.
Featured Image Credit: Seattle City Council, Modified by Tempest
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William Gifis is a bisexual, a socialist, a writer, and a mental health advocate originally from Hopewell, NJ. He is also a Co-Chair for the High Peaks chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America and a member of the Tempest Collective.