Today, the Washington State Supreme Court unanimously decided the recall effort against Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant can proceed, a ruling that the Court originally planned to come out in January.
The Court ruled on Sawant's appeal of a King County District Court decision to certify four charges from the recall petition back in September, and found three of the four charges against Sawant legally and factually sound.
The charges from the petition accused Sawant of violating Gov. Jay Inslee's COVID-19 restrictions when she allowed protesters into City Hall over the summer, leading a march to Mayor Jenny Durkan's home, allowing the Socialist Alternative to make hiring decisions for her council office, and using city resources for Tax Amazon promotional materials. The WSSC had to decide whether or not those charges were legally or factually sufficient enough to hold a recall.
When deciding on a recall, a court doesn't determine whether elected officials are guilty of the charges brought against them, but rather on whether the nature of the complaints—factually and legally speaking—involve an official committing malfeasance, misfeasance, or a violation of their oath of office.
In this case, the WSSC ruled that the charges alleging Sawant violated COVID-19 restrictions, led a protest to Mayor Jenny Durkan's house, and used city resources for non-council business were factually and legally sufficient. They did not find the claim that Sawant gave political power to Socialists Alternative legally sufficient.
During the Black Lives Matter protests in June, Sawant opened the doors of City Hall after hours and allowed protesters inside. She argued it was “essential that the power and uprising evident in the streets be seen in the halls of power in Seattle.” However, Gov. Jay Inslee's COVID-19 emergency proclamation "restricted public gatherings and prohibited using city property for anything 'other than a City purpose,'" WSCC Justice Barbara Madsen wrote in the court's opinion.
Though the court said its job wasn’t to determine the truth of the charges, that didn’t stop Madsen from taking the opportunity to give the recall effort some argumentative fodder.
Madsen continued, writing that Sawant "knew the council had closed city hall to the public in response to the governor’s Stay Home – Stay Healthy order as she voted to permit the council itself to meet remotely" and that "her action of letting protestors into city hall was not related to a city purpose." This was enough for Madsen and the rest of the WSCC to leave it up to the voters "to decide whether she exercised her discretion in a manifestly unreasonable manner or exercised for untenable reasons."
In the charge that alleged Sawant led a protest to Durkan's home, Sawant claimed she only participated in the protest and that she didn't know Durkan's address, which Durkan had kept confidential. Sawant said the charge was "factually insufficient" since the petitioners offered no proof that Sawant knew Durkan's address. That defense wasn't enough for the WSCC.
In the opinion, Madsen wrote, "Although [Sawant] says she did not organize the protest, it is no coincidence that the protestors found themselves in front of Mayor Durkan’s house. Further, since the subject of Councilmember Sawant’s speech at the protest was Mayor Durkan, a voter could find that Councilmember Sawant intended to protest at the mayor’s home and went to the mayor’s home to deliver a message to her."
On the topic of using city resources for the Tax Amazon ballot initiative, Sawant claimed she only did so when the ballot initiative was just a proposal, which didn't violate the law. The Court disagreed, saying that "by providing picket signs and phone banking for the initiative, her conduct crossed into the territory of promoting a ballot proposition because these are explicit actions taken in support of the ballot proposition.”
But the Court rejected the idea that Sawant could face a recall on the charge that she deferred her hiring decisions to Socialist Alternative, since elected officials can "consult with their political parties to advise them on their internal decision-making processes."
Out of the three recalls the WSCC heard in the last year, Sawant's is the first one the Court deemed sufficient to proceed. Earlier last fall, the Court overturned a recall effort against Mayor Jenny Durkan. As recently as last month, the Court determined that the recall campaign against Thurston County Sheriff John Snaza, who didn't enforce the state’s mask mandate, shouldn't go forward.
Back in January, Sawant's team wasn't confident that the Court would rule in her favor. They are withholding comment until a Friday press conference. However, Sawant sent out a statement via press release after the court released today's ruling.
“Big business and the right-wing are furious about the impact of socialist politics and social movements in Seattle and the inspiring example it has set for working people around the nation,” Sawant said in a statement. She claimed that her opponents were seeking a "do-over" for the 2019 election as well as legislation Sawant shepherded like the $15 minimum wage, the ban on winter evictions, and the newly-passed right-to-counsel legislation.
This ruling punctuates a long political fight between stalwart Sawant supporters and a coalition of Sawant critics that bankrolled a recall effort last summer. Since its inception, the Recall Sawant campaign raised $294,721 while the Sawant Solidarity Campaign, formed in defense of the recall, raised $426,518. According to the SEEC, nearly 900 people in District 3 have contributed to the solidarity campaign, while 511 people in the district have contributed to the recall campaign.
Now, the recall petitioners have 180 days to collect the required number of signatures. They'll need to gather around 10,000 signatures from District 3 residents, or 25% of the nearly 43,000 votes cast in Sawant's November 2019 race. If the recall petitioners get all their signatures, then the recall will be sent to the ballot of the next election, which will likely be the November general election at this rate. Only District 3 residents will be able to vote on whether or not to recall Sawant.
Notably, Anna Louise Strong, the last elected socialist in Seattle, lost her seat via recall back in 1918.