A Thoughtful Defense Of Sawant as City Council Sparkplug


Several Post Alley writers have provided thoughtful but falsely alarming predictions of a disaster in the upcoming Seattle City Council elections if District 3 Councilmember Kshama Sawant is reelected. These writers imply the same dire fate should other councilmembers espousing progressive legislation similar to hers remain in office or get elected.

I disagree. I do not share their trepidation because I believe a number of their assumptions are tenuous, if not wrong. And consequently, their conclusions are also dubious.

Dick Lilly writes that “Nothing changes if Kshama Sawant is re-elected.” And “Her deliberate high profile makes her the public face of the council.” But the council does not have a singular public face. Tim Burgess, Sally Bagshaw, and Tom Rasmussen were all on the council with Sawant. She was not their public face. I do not believe any of them were accused of being swayed by Sawant.

It has also been written that the “Reaction she sparks drives negative attitudes toward the whole group.” I don’t think that is true, nor that this factor is significant. Over the past two decades there is a steady percentage of voters who are dissatisfied with the council regardless of its composition. However, that level of dissatisfaction is also true for our various mayors, given their high turnover; in my years on the council, I served under four different mayors.

Another charge: Sawant’s invariable touchstone in answering questions at candidate appearances is to create a mass workers movement. So what? Some candidates answer as consistently to questions that their solution is to create a “free market,” although one doesn’t hear that from successful candidates in Seattle. In a democracy, candidates are free to champion a set of beliefs they advocate to promote the common good. We may differ on which ones will, but the voters will decide that. Personally, I think realistic and
useful answers to our most pressing problems are always more complex than
single a word or a slogan can provide.

Labeling which councilmembers are responsible “moderates” or irresponsible “radicals” seems simplistic and also skewed toward a conservative philosophy. For instance, Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda is described as strongly union, which makes her a leftist rather than a moderate. Her domestic workers legislation requires that they receive a minimum wage, rest and meal breaks, privacy protections and the opportunity to form collective bargaining units. These are legitimate democratic rights, not just a leftist cause.

And what does it mean that there is a “group to the left that aggressively looks to business taxes for revenue”? The “head tax” would have added one penny an hour to an employee’s paycheck. Is that being anti-business? Keep in mind that it would have applied to only the largest 3 percent of businesses in Seattle.

I urge readers to look at the Seattle Times Sunday, July 21 edition, which compares the annual salary for regional CEOs in comparison to the median wage for their employees. Nationally, the differences between CEO’s and their average wage earners is now twice as big in the US than in any other major industrial democracy. Is this something we want to continue? Is it too aggressive to minutely lower that ratio by having some businesses contribute more to the public’s greater welfare?

On the other hand, criticisms of Sawant’s organizing style are fair. At times these tactics divide, not unite, people. They can disrupt a public space (such as council chambers) designated to allow all to be heard not just those that speak the loudest. However, she has raised important issues such as rent control and pursued them aggressively, drawing the attention of the public and other councilmembers to them. I see her as a sparkplug, not necessarily hitting the right cylinders all the time, but one who has prompted the wheels of government to start turning.

Sawant’s faults are real, as is evident by the rise of challengers to her reelection this Fall.
But it’s unfair to make her a scapegoat. I see the major problem that Sawant critics are struggling with is how to stop Sawant from influencing the other councilmembers. The crude answer is to try to remove her from the council. A better solution is for those councilmembers who disagree with her strategies or her positions on issues to make their voices heard.

I have found all councilmembers to be smart people. To blame Sawant for their votes is misleading. They are not putty in anyone’s hands. They have the ability to explain their differences with Sawant or any other councilmember. That is the legislative process, and it will continue no matter who is elected.

Nick Licata
Nick Licata
Nick Licata, was a 5 term Seattle City Councilmember, named progressive municipal official of the year by The Nation, and is founding board chair of Local Progress, a national network of 1,000 progressive municipal officials. Author of Becoming a Citizen Activist. http://www.becomingacitizenactivist.org/changemakers/ Subscribe to Licata’s newsletter Urban Politics http://www.becomingacitizenactivist.org/


  1. Mr. Licata, given your support of Ms. Sawant despite her faults, I wonder if you considered her job performance and ethics?

    I’ve noticed her lack of leadership in the committees to which she is assigned, her absences from city council meetings, leaving early, not paying attention in chambers, her disagreeable attitude to other council members and her lack of interest in city governance that does not directly relate to her particular causes.

    Ms. Sawant’s disregard for civility in council chambers is well known. Her willingness to sit at the podium and disrupt meetings by calling upon advocates to yell and chant is also well known. Envision yourself a member of city council in 2020 and imagine that Ms. Sawant has been reelected. How willing would you be to sit next to her in a city council meeting, knowing she is willing to disrupt proceedings with bullying and manipulative tactics? Would you be okay sitting there as her followers berate, harass, and hiss at residents who came into council chambers to give testimony?

    Your support of her is an acceptance of these tactics. This is not a sparkplug. This is uncivil behavior.

    Does your support include an understanding of her performance?

    Any worker would be called to the carpet if we did not do the basics of our job, which for her is holding committee meetings, being present for the entire duration of the meetings to which she is assigned, participating thoughtfully and respectfully, and voting. Do you think it is okay to cancel 20 meetings of the Human Services, Equitable Development and Renter’s Rights Committee in 2018 and 2019? That is a job assignment, and I think it is important.

    Councilmember Sawant has brought ethics complaints upon herself more than the average council member, including an alleged misuse of position in deferring to her socialist organization (at the national level) for key decisions.

    Per SMC 4.16.070, a City official may not use or attempt to use his or her official position for a purpose that is, or would to a reasonable person appear to be, primarily for the private benefit of the covered individual or any other person, rather than primarily for the benefit of the City.

    Wayne Barnett with the Ethics and Election Commission shot down this complaint, stating,

    “We interviewed Councilmember Sawant, and she told us that the [Socialist Alternative party] SEC does not take votes on matters coming before the City Council. She told us she consults with the SEC, and said that she could not recall a single instance where she had taken an official action as a City Councilmember with which she disagreed because the SEC had directed her to do so.

    She noted that with the decision to dismiss the staff members, and the decision to confirm Chief Best, she had informed the SEC that she thought these were the proper decisions, and ultimately persuaded the SEC to side with her opinion.”

    I would say in that quote the attempt to persuade the SEC toward any position implies undue influence and therefore I disagree with Mr. Barnett’s assessment.

    Mr. Barnett went on to say,

    “Fundamentally, I believe that elected officials are free to structure their decision-making
    processes as they wish, subject to the will of the voters every four years. Campaigns are won and lost based on voters’ estimations of whose interests elected officials are serving and whose interests they are not.”

    The voters will decide if it is okay to cancel 20 meetings of a key committee. Voters will decide if they want a sparkplug activist or a responsible council member. Voters will decide if it’s okay that approximately half of Councilmember Sawants campaign war chest is from out of state.

    Fortunately there are highly qualified candidates in District 3 who are willing to do this work and do it well.

  2. Licata’s right. Most committees cancelled 12+ meetings too. Every ethics complaint was found meritless. We’ve deep problems & Durkan’s bad leadership, & need people who’ll step up, be “disagreeable” (forcefully push good policy, block bad policy, & get a fairer tax code, even if it takes “uncivil behavior” to get there). This is why I support Sawant. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UvC4xq32AX8

  3. Once a person in leadership sinks to the bullying antics to purposely intimidate, they have lost credibility. The ends never justify the means.

  4. “Some candidates answer as consistently to questions that their solution is to create a ‘free market’ …” Well yes, and when candidates simply spout idiotic right-wing statements (no matter what the issue) we vote ’em out. Same with Sawant. If a fanatically pro-business politician acted and spoke as she does, we would be disgusted. Why then does her broken-record mantra earn her a pass as an elected representative? Do we suspend all judgment on how people do their job just because their ideology passes the purity test?

  5. When conservatives or “moderates” try to make Sawant the face of the city council, it reminds me of how Trump tries to make Ilhan Omar the face of the democratic party.

    It’s ridiculous. She’s ONE council member out of 9. There will always be one or two council members who are further left than the rest. This is especially true because some of the council districts are more liberal than others.

    There has been a lot of noise around this election. However, I’m not really sure what’s going to happen. It seems like there is very little polling, and pundits have tried to set the narrative of what is going on in the absence of data.


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