Sawant Recall: Why She Survived and What’s Next

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Pending further challenges and counts, Seattle City Councilwoman Kshama Sawant appears to have survived the recall effort very narrowly. No surprise at the outcome, though there’s a claxon in the closeness of the election. After all, Sawant is an incumbent, running solely in a very liberal district, with lots of national campaign donations and a famously strong ground game. Like Tim Eyman, Sawant’s main achievement has been to field an army.

Her disadvantages: there was no opponent she could stigmatize, and Amazon laid low.

It’s not surprising that the Seattle electorate wants to have it both ways. Throw out the radicals in the November (general) election, but rally behind a Socialist in a single-district election in December.

As for the dominoes falling from this just-short recall effort, one is that city councilmembers who are new at the job (as most are) will continue to be intimidated by Sawant’s bully tactics (marching to their homes, obscenity-screaming partisans packing the council chambers, death threats and streams of outrageous messages, Trump-style negative labeling of opponents, threats to “primary” the disloyal). On the other hand, seven of the councilmembers (including Sawant) will face reelection realities in 2023, so many will be scurrying to seem reasonable, to work with Mayor Bruce Harrell, and to make some progress on hot issues such as policing and homeless encampments.

The nine-person city council now has three moderates (Debora Juarez, Alex Pedersen, and just-elected Sara Nelson), making it easier for a swing vote (Dan Strauss, Andrew Lewis) to mosey to the center. Juarez may end up defeating Teresa Mosqueda as city council president, gaining the ability to name committees and bury radioactive issues. The reluctant Juarez is likely not to run in 2023, but her north end District 5 will probably stay in the moderate camp. West Seattle’s Lisa Herbold is debating whether to seek re-election; if she runs again, she will need to defend her moderate flank, but if she exits, she will be released to go out swinging — “full Lisa.”

Meanwhile, Sawant may hold her seat but she is increasingly isolated and disliked on the city council, as the budget wars just demonstrated. It may be, ironically, that the city council will “recall” her, by so ignoring her on the council that she too decides to leave the council and seek national glory. Would that the media could also ignore, as old news, the Sawant eruptions.

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David Brewster, a founding member of Post Alley, has a long career in publishing, having founded Seattle Weekly, Sasquatch Books, and Crosscut.com. His civic ventures have been Town Hall Seattle and FolioSeattle.

8 COMMENTS

  1. Sawant draws a lot of fire, not altogether undeservedly but it seems in some ways a potential benefit for other council members whose actions are more consequential for the city. I think despite all the time she wastes, some of them would be sorry to see their lightning rod go away.

  2. Latest intel from City Hall is that the contest for the new council presidency is now between Debora Juarez and Lisa Herbold, which suggests that a leading candidate for this hot seat, Teresa Mosqueda, is no longer seeking the job. The council presidency is a whole lot of work and very little love.

  3. Office holder Sawant could learn a great deal from a trail blazer and feminist Jolene Unsoeld.
    Jolene could inspire people to her visionary point of view and could clean up corruption.
    Jolene and Bob Kennedy could bring change without vilification or personal injury.

  4. Lots of votes, no changes, the same bombast……
    One way to sum Kshama Sawant’s tight but almost certain win in the recall campaign against her.
    The turnout, for an unusual late-in the-year election date was impressive, voiding the claim by Sawant supporters that the timing would keep people from returning mail ballots.
    Change was unlikely, as voters in the recall election were residents of District 3, the same folks who elected her to the City Council – the real surprise comes in the narrowness of Sawant’s apparent win – just a few hundred votes out of thousands cast — hardly a resounding endorsement.
    But – advice to Sawant – hold the ideological shouts. Those tens of thousands of votes for recall came from citizens across District 3, hardly, as you unsurprisingly characterize them, “racist, right wing, big-business backed [with] corporate media, the courts and the political establishment who sought to remove our socialist council office ……” A bit Trump-like, i.e. you’re either with me or part of some evil cabal.
    A bit of humility might have sufficed, even just for a moment……

  5. Sawant succeeded by eking out a few hundred votes by people who voted late. I suspect many of these voters were registered and corralled by Sawant supporters who set up mobile booths on Broadway and other locations in Capitol Hill. They reached out to all passerbys, offering to print ballots and deposit their votes. I am not sure if they also registered people to vote, but it is possible they registered people who aren’t District 3 residents by telling them that they could vote by claiming to live in a park or a street in the district (several people on nextdoor.com made such claims, but they remain unsubstantiated). This aggressive outreach campaign right near ballot collection sites did the trick for Sawant. I agree with the Seattle Times’ editorial comment that our voting laws should be amended to prohibit this type of high pressure voting campaigns on or immediately before election day. I also think that Seattle city council districts need to be changed. Reduce the number of districts so they include more residents, and increase the number of city-wide representatives. If we had 5 districts and 4 city-wide council representatives, the pressure to appeal to an increased number of voters should dilute the ability of ideological outliers like Sawant to get elected.

  6. Thanks for this piece. I agree with most of these comments, which are insightful rather than ranting. In general, I don’t think people like recalls. Voters like to complain and vent about incumbents, but most aren’t necessarily in favor of tossing them out. I believe there were many progressives that don’t like Sawant very much that voted against the recall because the devil you know is sometimes better than the devil you don’t know. Or as my Dad used to say “He may be an a-hole, but he is our a-hole”. With such a razors edge margin, I bet there were many progressives that voted against the recall but would gladly replace her with a more mainstream progressive of their choosing.

  7. Don’t forget the adverse consequences of our by-district election system. As scholars have pointed out, such districts tend to lock in the incumbents who, like Sawant, spend lots of time in building a loyal base. Indeed the Recall effort gave Sawant yet another high-visibility opportunity to rally her supporters and build mailing lists.

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