Unfortunately, election season is not completely over. On Dec 7, voters in District 3 — which includes Capitol Hill, the Central District, Madison Park, Leschi, Madrona, and parts of surrounding neighborhoods — will decide whether to keep or boot the council’s lone socialist, Kshama Sawant.
Here's everything you need to know:
When is the recall happening?
King County Elections will mail out ballots for the recall on November 17. Expect ballots to hit mailboxes November 19, and go apeshit if they don’t arrive by November 22. (That is, check to make sure you're registered in the district and/or ask the elections department what's up.)
If you live in District 3 and you’re not registered to vote, then you have until November 29 to do so online or in person. Ballots are due in drop boxes by 8 p.m. on Dec 7. You can also mail your ballot (no stamp required!), but if you want to go that route you should mail it the weekend before election day to ensure it gets counted.
Why are we doing this again?
In brief, after Sawant won her third term in 2019, her attempts to join in solidarity with the movement for Black lives in the summer of 2020 gave her longtime political enemies yet another opportunity to kick her out of office.
Shortly after a group of progressives launched a recall campaign against Mayor Jenny Durkan for allowing cops to gas Capitol Hill, in August of 2020 a District 3 resident named Ernie Lou filed a recall complaint against Sawant, citing her “actions and policy proposals" and a list of Mayor Jenny Durkan's grievances. Lou’s initial fundraising efforts benefited from Egan Orion’s email list and help from some of Sawant’s other political rivals. (Henry Bridger II eventually took the reins, and he has since become a regular on Jason Rantz’s radio show.) The recall petition narrowed its woes down to six complaints, King County Superior Court Judge Jim Rogers certified four of them, and the Washington State Supreme Court said the recall could move ahead with three of them.
Certification of the complaints is not a judgement of truth. A complaint is certified if it could as a matter of fact involve an official committing malfeasance, misfeasance, or a violation of their oath of office. The judge looks at the complaints and basically says, “Big if true.”
Before a recall craze swept the nation in 2020, recalls were incredibly rare. Before Durkan got all teargas-happy, Seattle had not attempted to recall a mayor since 1975. The last successful mayoral recall attempt was in 1931.
We just had an election. Why is this happening now?
If you ask the Kshama Solidarity campaign, they’ll tell you the recall campaign deliberately turned in its signatures later than they had to in order to suppress the vote. The recall campaign has offered different stories depending on the month.
In April of 2021, recall campaign manager Henry Bridger II told Capitol Hill Seattle Blog he wanted to avoid putting the question on the November ballot.
As the unofficial Aug. 3 deadline for making the November ballot approached, the recall reported collecting 9,000 of the 10,739 verified signatures they needed to submit. (The elections department recommended submitting a few thousand more signatures than necessary to account for bad signatures.)
Understanding that a November election was their best shot at saving Sawant’s seat — as general elections in King County have averaged 25% higher turnout than special elections in the last 12 years — Sawant’s canvassers decided to help their rivals collect signatures to prevent what they viewed as voter suppression. They collected over 3,000 signatures on behalf of the recall, including one from Sawant herself.
In response to the solidarity campaign's new strategy, in July Bridger claimed the campaign "has always" aimed to make the November ballot, privately thanked Sawant for her assistance, but publicly decried her "meddling."
After that, the Recall Sawant campaign moved its signature-gathering goalposts around a couple times and failed to submit the signatures in time to make the general election ballot. They ended up turning in 16,243 signatures on Sept. 8. On Sept. 30, King County Elections certified the recall petition with over 11,000 verified signatures. Law required the County to hold a vote on the recall between 45 and 90 days after certification. Dec. 7 is 68 days after certification, and so here we are.
Who is funding this thing?
As of November 2, the Kshama Solidarity campaign raised more than $792,800 from 8,841 donors for an average of $89.67 per donor. The other side raised more than $684,000 from 4,838 donors for an average of $141.40 per donor.
Most of the solidarity campaign’s donations come from outside Seattle, and the largest percentage of the recall campaign’s donations come from within the district, but the solidarity campaign boasts nearly double the number of in-district contributors.
Some of the same real estate interests, landlords, and Republicans who funded campaigns and PACs for Bruce Harrell, Sara Nelson, Ann Davison, and Compassion Seattle are backing the recall as well. You’ll remember real estate biggies John Goodman, George Petrie, Jon Runstad, Gregory Johnson, and money from R.C. Hedreen and Urban Visions.
Sawant presents herself as a champion for renters, and she her legislation tends to piss off landlords. She recently won a ban on school-year evictions, a first-in-the-nation winter evictions ban, and free legal representation for low-income residents facing eviction. Landlords can blame Sawant for soon having to give six months notice for all rent increases, and for needing to provide relocation assistance to low-income tenants who leave after a rent increase of 10% or greater starting in July. On the horizon, Sawant continues to pursue rent control legislation that would cap rent hikes at the rate of inflation for the cost of living despite a state ban on rent control.
Wait, what are the complaints?
The recall campaign argues arguing that Sawant misused her office resources to promote a Tax Amazon initiative, misused her position by letting protesters into City Hall after hours, and that she “led” a protest to Mayor Jenny Durkan’s house. Below I quote the official language on the sample ballot.
• "Used City resources to support a ballot initiative and failed to comply with the public disclosure requirements related to such support." In May 2021, the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission dinged Sawant for several ethics violations related to the Tax Amazon initiative that never materialized. She allegedly photocopied posters for the measure that included the official seal of Seattle, posted links to websites that support her tax on her city council website, and spent at least $1,758.87 in city funds to promote the campaign.
To settle the issue, Sawant agreed to pay $3,515.74, which was double the amount of city funds she spent. In a statement she said she thought she was allowed to use her office’s resources prior to the filing of the initiative: “Certainly, I did not willfully disregard any ethics rules.”
“There is one thing I can state unequivocally: I plead guilty to fighting unapologetically to tax Amazon and big business,” Sawant added. “I plead guilty to spending much of the year 2020, in the midst of a pandemic, fighting alongside hundreds of other activists to make Jeff Bezos fund affordable housing.”
Sawant went on to argue that under other circumstances a settlement and a fine would put the matter to rest.
• "Disregarded state orders related to COVID-19 by admitting hundreds of people into City Hall on June 9, 2020 when it was closed to the public." Sawant led Black Lives Matter protesters into an empty City Hall for just over an hour in June of 2020, contravening the governor's COVID restrictions.
She really didn’t win fans on either side with this one. During the demonstration, one protester took the mic to tell Sawant to stop co-opting the BLM movement to promote her initiative.
“I’m really sorry, I want to tax Amazon too, I want to do all these things too, but this is not a movement for you to be politically active, for you to be politically correct, and for you to gain all these votes. Please stop taking advantage of us,” the protester said.
Though she caught shit for clout-chasing, she was not criminally charged for occupying City Hall.
• "Led a protest march to Mayor Jenny Durkan's private residence, the location of which Councilmember Sawant knew was protected under state confidentiality laws." On June 28, 2020, Democratic Socialists of America helped organize a protest that began in Magnuson Park and ended near Jenny Durkan’s mansion. Speakers included indigenous activist Roxanne White, Katrina Johnson — the cousin of Charleena Lyles, who was killed by Seattle police at an apartment near Magnuson after reporting a burglary — and Sawant.
That night the mayor’s office released a statement pinning blame for the protest on Sawant: “Instead of working to make true change, Councilmember Sawant continues to choose political stunts. Tonight she did so without regard for the safety of the Mayor and her family.”
The following Tuesday, Durkan asked the council to investigate Sawant on account of several offenses including allegedly leading the march to her house.
Sawant claims on her website she did not lead protesters to Durkan’s house.
Protesting outside of a politician’s house is a bit of a tradition in the Seattle protest scene. Former Mayor Ed Murray’s house attracted #NoNewYouthJail protesters in 2016, and protesters made the rounds to every council member’s house in the summer of 2020.
Durkan’s case is different. As a former U.S. attorney, she’s enrolled in the state’s protection program, which keeps her address secret. Nevertheless, the location is easy to find if you have two eyes and access to Google.
What happens if the district recalls Sawant?
The Seattle City Council will appoint someone to replace her no later than 20 days after King County verifies the results. That person will need to run for the seat in the 2022 general election, and then, if they win, run again in 2023.
It’s hard to say whether Sawant is likely to survive the recall attempt, though Sawant certainly seems confident.
Two days after a conservative blowout in the general election, she hosted a drag show fundraiser at Chop Suey. A queen stripped to reveal the same sequined dress, a small dog got loose and peed in the audience during a performance, and one bartender kept the full house drinking – all-in-all a rowdy Thursday night.
“If it was up to the opinion of District 3, we would win 10 times over, but we don’t live in dreamland” she said during an intermission speech.
“Working class people are not moving rightward,” Sawant added. “They are looking for a true left movement that will fight for their real, material shit.”
Though Sawant successfully defended her seat in 2019 against Egan Orion, a well-funded LGBTQ community leader who claimed Sawant did not represent queer interest in a queer district, Jenny Durkan won the district in 2017.
And though the conservative slate won in the three big city elections, it’s hard to say whether that victory will activate more renters to defend their champion or put a spring in the step of D3’s Sawant haters.