Editor’s note: With the recall vote for Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant coming up (Dec. 7) for voters in Sawant’s District 3, we gathered three Post Alley writers, two of them former colleagues of Sawant on the City Council, to exchange inside accounts of the controversial socialist.
Joel Connelly: When Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant faced her first district election race, the St. Cloud restaurant invited my Madrona neighbors to Q-and-A sessions with Sawant and challenger Pam Banks on successive Sundays. Civic involvement was stoked with delicious cookies.
Very good turnout for Banks, who came and stayed for 90 minutes. By contrast, Sawant stood up St. Cloud. Our neighborhood didn’t even receive a polite note of apology from Seattle’s militant Marxist lawmaker.
The cold shoulder was as revealing as a hot City Council session where an amen corner sounds approval for Sawant’s oratory, boos and hisses those who voice opposing views, and exits happy after watching Sawant denounce her council colleagues and cast the day’s lone No vote.
A public servant’s job is to serve his/her constituents and to broker compromises. Sawant shows no interest in District 3 (Central Seattle) voters who do not march for a working-class revolution. A council member’s aides are usually tasked to help neighborhoods deal with city agencies. However, Sawant’s staffers spend their days tasking for the Socialist Alternative movement. Internal documents show that Sawant answers not to her constituents, but to her movement.
The “Seattle way” has long involved working out a city’s compromises. Sawant is the far-out outlier. Every controversy is an organizing tool. Claim credit where credit is not due. Sawant spiked the football for Seattle’s phased-in $15-an-hour minimum wage plan, even while Sawant abstained when a mayoral task force voted for it. She was front-and-center in Columbia City when then-Labor Secretary Tom Perez came to celebrate.
Households in District 3, including Madrona, will soon receive ballots on whether to recall Councilmember Sawant. Specific offenses are cited, e.g. use of taxpayer dollars in her crusades, unlocking City Hall doors to demonstrators at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. What’s really at issue, however, is more basic than Sawant’s deportment. Is Sawant a useful, valuable, effective public servant? Or a tumor on the body politic that should be removed before the 2023 election? The voters of District 3 get to decide. They are, after all, her employer.
Jean Godden: My first face-to-face encounter with Kshama Sawant dates from late November, 2013. The 41-year-old community college professor surprisingly had defeated 16-year veteran Councilmember Richard Conlin in a come-from-behind race for the Seattle City Council.
I was drinking coffee at the Cherry Street deli on Fourth Avenue when she arrived, accompanied by her campaign manager Philip Locker. When I recognized her, I took the opportunity to introduce myself as a councilmember. I asked her if she’d like to schedule lunch, thinking that I could be of help to a newcomer.
But Sawant curtly rebuffed my offer. She said her schedule was full. She wasn’t buying into any alliances. Instead she was looking to the Socialist Alternative Party to make decisions about who would be hired to work in her office and how to vote. When she did take time for lunch, it was with her office staff.
As soon as she moved into the former Conlin office on the Second Floor, her office quickly was turned into a party headquarters. There were red and white posters, some likely produced on city copying machines, stacked on desk tops.
At the council’s Monday morning council briefings, Sawant treated colleagues to rapid-fire anti-establishment rhetoric, backing rent control, millionaire taxes, and state takeover of Boeing, Microsoft, and Amazon. She was determined to be an activist first and a legislator second.
Nick Licata: I met Kshama and top aide Phil Locker right after she got elected at the Piroshki Cafe on Third Ave. It was a good, intelligent conversation. She wasn’t into propaganda mode.
I brought up democratic centralism and asked how Socialist Alternative, her party, handled it. She didn’t expect that question from a city council member. It made it easier to work with her during my last two years on the council. The only advice I gave her at the café was to smile more! And I believe she did. She has a charming smile. But alas, a smile is not enough.
Incumbent Richard Conlin lost the election to her for the same reason that my two good friends, Pete Holmes and Peter Steinbrueck, just did. They thought they had a nobody running against them. To win a campaign, every opponent is a somebody. Kshama was a well-organized somebody who touched a nerve of resentment that the lower-income older folks and the anxious youth felt toward the establishment. She still taps into that vein. But you can wear out veins; every drug addict knows that.
As for the Sawant recall effort, it’s a tricky legal argument to make. The courts threw out some of the charges and kept others. While the recall had to meet some legal standards to be on the ballot, everyone knows that’s just a technicality.
Three prominent reasons drive the recall effort. First, most of the money for the recall comes from those that don’t like her policies. For instance, as Jean points out, such policies as Sawant’s backing rent control and millionaire taxes. Second, she has built a track record of ignoring much of the nitty-gritty tedious work of fixing small stuff in her district. Third, her over-the-top repeated attacks on a wide assortment of “enemies of the people” are becoming tiresome to those who want something more substantive.
That combination of reasons might be growing among her district’s residents. It certainly fans the hopes of those who want to remove her as, in Joel’s words, “a tumor on the body politic.” However, the recall effort only intensifies her image, among supporters and those who distrust the government, as the most dangerous person to attack the corrupt establishment.
All she needs to secure a victory is a large donation from Amazon to the recall campaign.
Joel Connelly: As Nick Licata delivered his perceptive perspective on days as a City Council colleague of Kshama Sawant, I remembered Licata’s service at City Hall. He was a 1960s-rooted left activist who became a student of civic activism.
A sometime sharp critic of the Seattle Police, Nick was given chair of the Public Safety Committee. I recall the good natured razzing friends gave Nick when he begged off a social event because he was due to spend the evening on patrol with the SPD.
Kshama Sawant is into haranguing, not listening. She has, for instance, rushed to accuse police officers of “murder” whatever the circumstances of a fatality. A federal judge this week reinstated a suit by two Seattle cops who claimed she defamed them when she described the 2016 shooting of Che Taylor “a blatant murder at the hands of police.”
We’ve heard Sawant work herself into situations of which she is absurdly ignorant. During a Boeing strike, she declared: “The workers should take over the factories and shut down Boeing’s profit-making machine.” A second idea: “We can re-tool the machines to produce transit like buses, instead of destructive, you know, war machines.” The disaster that is rent control in New York City has not stopped our Socialist Alternative Council member from advocating it as a policy for Seattle.
Karl Marx shaped an ideology that bears his name during the 19th century, using the reading room of the British Museum to write and think. He created what has become, for some such as Sawant, a rigid secular faith which holds all the answers.
But those answers are of limited application in a technology-fueled 21st century American city. When she let demonstrators into City Hall, Sawant should have parked her ideology at the door. Listening and learning requirements are part of her job. Before you accuse cops of being killers, put yourselves in their shoes and ride a patrol car.
Jean Godden: When I left Seattle City Council in 2015, I knew I would miss the opportunity to continue to represent my fellow citizens. But I would never miss the tongue-lashings and aberrant behavior that her colleagues endured from Councilmember Kshama Sawant.
I had served two years with Sawant, forced to listen to her long scalding speeches, talking over others and leftist rhetoric. She damns her co-workers as “corporate defenders.” Not supporting some of her blatant grandstanding provokes outbursts that leave even the most tolerant feeling as if they’ve been dealing with a tantrum-tossing two-year-old.
I still cringe to recall her antics on the spring day in 2015 when council was voting to name someone to the vacancy left when Councilmember Sally Clark’s departed. Eight of the councilmembers were backing John Okamoto, the highly respected former Human Services Department director. Sawant, angered that her favored candidates had been passed over, delivered a tirade. She branded the choice of Okamoto, “scandalous.” She trashed him for what she called his “cesspool corruption” and “corporate leaning.”
Later that year Sawant scheduled an open meeting on rent control at City Hall. Although well attended by Sawant allies, only three or four councilmembers showed up. What we found was Sawant seated with Councilmember Nick Licata at a head table. Other CMs were directed to sit in the audience. We endured a long session with Sawant “demanding” that the state Legislature repeal the statewide ban on rent control. There was a lot of bashing of “big developers” and “big real estate.”
As the meeting broke up, I walked past a table at the front of the room equipped with sign-up sheets and stacks of Sawant campaign literature, an obvious violation of Ethics and Elections laws.
Joel Connelly: The prospects for Kshama Sawant to survive her December 7 recall vote depend in part on a political party that her Socialist Alternative movement wants to eradicate and supplant – the Democrats. Hear a Sawant harangue at city council and she is certain to dial up denunciations of corporations, the rich, and the“Democratic machine.”
She had her start with a futile challenge to then-House Speaker Frank Chopp in the 43rd District. And when “democratic socialist” Bernie Sanders ran for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination, Socialist Alternative moved in on the campaign. At a Bernie rally at Westlake Mall, a Sanders staffer newly arrived from the East Coast was taken aback at speakers advocating that Sen. Sanders break off and mount a third-party campaign in November.
Sawant treated conventional Democrat Hillary Clinton as a class enemy. She picketed a Clinton rally at Rainier Beach High School. She campaigned in the fall for Green Party candidate Jill Stein, who was draining votes from the Democratic nominee. In a reprise last year, Sawant was welcomed to the dais at Bernie’s big Tacoma Dome rally, where she delivered a fiery speech once again suggesting the need for a new movement. She had earlier led a protest outside a Joe Biden fundraiser at a Madison Park home.
Curiously, however, leftist Democrats have planted kisses on Sawant – even in the district where she challenged their legislator. The 43rd District Democrats and King County Young Democrats endorsed her in the 2019 general election. Sawant supporters were able to block King County and 37th District Democrats from endorsing challenger Egan Orion, an active Democrat. And in the recall, Democrats have lent support to the claim Sawant is targeted because she is a woman of color. The 43rd District Democrats have labeled the recall as racist and misogynist. King County Democrats’ chair Shasti Conrad told The Stranger: “Women and people of color, and women of color, pay a price that isn’t leveraged at others, especially white men.”
As for pro-Sawant Democrats, there’s the label that Lenin may (or may not) have coined to describe liberal fellow travelers: “Useful idiots.”
Nick Licata: Kshama Sawant is in the same mold as Leon Trotsky, someone she has self-described as a follower of his foremost thoughts. Trotsky was probably the most stirring speaker during the Bolshevik 1917 revolution, far outshining Lenin. He was also a brilliant theoretician, whom Lenin leaned on to justify his takeover of Russia. But alas, Trotsky was too acerbic for his comrades, failed miserably in building any support among them, and thus was ousted from their executive body and sent abroad, where he was assassinated in 1940.
That is too much history for Seattle, but the parallels in their approach to internal politics and organizing the people are there. Sawant can connect with her public audience. (As an aside, that is a skill that I’ve also seen Bruce Harrell exercise.) But when it came to working with fellow councilmembers, she could not resist pummeling them in public. Although I have seen her in one-on-one meetings with other councilmembers be very pleasant, unfortunately, those meetings were far less frequent than the public floggings she delivered.
In some people, the ideal solution burns so brightly that it blinds them to the destructive fire it unleashes. Her actions, such as unlocking city hall to admit a bunch of folks at night during the covid pandemic or being a visible leader at the rally outside the mayor’s home, are excessive expressions. However, they are not equivalent to burning trash cans or other far more destructive forms of property damage. They are also not within the framework of an elected public servant’s responsibility to maintain a level of decorum that allows for heated dialogue but does not promote disruptive actions that mock a democratic process.
Sawant has made her mark on the city council that will last for years. In some ways, she is like the last real rebel to sit on it, Charlie Chong. (Bias alert – he was the only councilmember to support me in 1997.) They both shaped the council by force of their personalities as much if not more than their ideas. They represented Seattle residents who have felt ignored. Yet, in grandly addressing their real needs, they were open to criticism for not doing enough leg work to address their more pedestrian concerns. While those mundane concerns do not light up one’s soul, they do get one reelected.