The recall seeks to unseat the most outspoken woman on the council
The recall seeks to unseat the most outspoken woman on the council City of Seattle

A text-bank volunteer for the Kshama Solidarity campaign sent messages to District 3 voters to ask them to vote “no” on the upcoming Dec. 7 recall.

One man replied, “Fuck off bitch. I’m voting YES!!!”

Another voter provided more detail. He said, “NO! Kshama must GO! All societies must have political and structural balance and though I call myself a socialist I call Kshama an anarchist. GET THE BITCH GONE! THE SOONER THE BETTER!!”

Councilmember Kshama Sawant has called the recall campaign many things: racist, right-wing, an act of voter suppression. Women who stand against the recall, whether they support Sawant’s leftward politics or not, add an additional descriptor to the attempt to unseat the loudest woman of color on the council: sexist.

“I know from my own experience that women of color in elected office face particular scrutiny,” Washington state Senator Rebecca Saldaña said in an endorsement statement. “I think if Kshama were a man she’d be treated differently.”

Women of color held to a higher standard

Anyone with an eye on city council can tell Sawant is not like other council members. She’s an outspoken socialist known to launch into long-winded monologues about the working class. Her policies and campaigns scare corporate landlords into emptying their wallets to get her to shut up.

The recall campaign, which has attracted a lot of the same financial support that has funded her opponents over the years, charges Sawant with using taxpayer money to promote the Tax Amazon initiative, letting protesters into City Hall while it was closed due to the Governor’s COVID-19 restrictions, and “leading” protesters to Mayor Jenny Durkan house, the address of which the state protects due to her work as a U.S. Attorney.

The first two charges are true. Sawant admitted to using office money to promote the initiative but said she didn’t know she was violating ethics rules when she was doing so. She ended up paying the City double the money she used. As for the second charge: Though the cops were watching, no one arrested Sawant for the hour of peaceful protest in City Hall. In the third charge, the evidence shows that the Seattle Democratic Socialists of America and the families of victims of police brutality — not Sawant — led the march that ended up in Durkan’s neighborhood.

Supporters say this recall effort crosses a line.

Adrienne Weller, a D3 resident and member of the socialist feminist group, Radical Women, said that targeting “a woman who is an outspoken leader” for “things that are actually trivial” is “very sexist.”

In February, the 43rd District Democrats, a local party organization that covers the district Sawant represents on council, opposed the recall and called it out as racist and misogynist.

The 43rd LD Dems communications chair, Kelsey Hamlin, said in an email, “Men have always been allowed ‘mistakes’ and even atrocities yet still remain respected members of the US and local political spheres.”

She pointed to mayor-elect Bruce Harrell, who was accused of hiding wage theft at a The Royal Esquire club, a private social club for Black men that he’s led.

“Apparently even that isn't enough to keep him from winning office,” Hamlin said. “But a brown woman gives access to a public City Hall, paid for with our tax dollars, for a peaceful sit-in one time, and that becomes one of the biggest tools in the Recall Sawant toolbox? Come on.”

(I asked Harrell’s campaign for comment on the accusations and I will update if they get back to me. When the accusations resurfaced weeks before the election, Harrell's campaign issued a statement accusing his opponent of trying to distract voters from issues like homelessness and public safety.)

Shasti Conrad, who is the first woman of color to chair the King County Democrats, agreed that men in Seattle have seen less backlash for far greater sins, citing Mayor Ed Murray and his sex abuse allegations as an example.

The King County Democrats have never endorsed Sawant, and Conrad thinks Sawant should “maybe re-evaluate” some of her tactics, but the former D3 resident supports the council member in the recall because she believes the campaign is an effort to “undo democratically elected processes.”

“Recalls are often used on people that the folks think have vulnerabilities, and a lot of times that is unduly put towards women people of color,” Conrad said. “Women and people of color and women of color pay a price that isn't leveraged at others, especially white men.”

Even in her own position, Conrad noticed that members of the public and people within her organization are more likely to push back on her than on her vice chair, who is a white man.

The other women on the council also face a high level of scrutiny. To pick one example, in 2016 hundreds of men sent hateful emails to the women on the council after the majority rejected a street vacation for an NBA arena.

Recall advocates have also laid out some charged insults in their support of the campaign. The Seattle Times Editorial Board called Sawant “egregiously abrasive,” and “cagey.” She’s rude, she’s a bully, she’s got “shoddy ethics,” and she disregards civic norms.

“If she were a man, they wouldn’t be able to attack her with so many irrelevant things. I think they would have to look for something that had more substance than the fact that she's angry,” Weller said of the Editorial Board’s criticisms of the council member.

Conrad called the Seattle Times editorial an act of “character assassination.” She described the editorial as a bunch of ''dog whistles'' that amount to “we don’t like this lady.”

“It’s all respectability politics, and that is not enough to turn over an election,” Conrad said. “You know how many men have yelled and been gross and horrible? And we've had to live with them.”

“This is my turn”

Though she hasn’t been charged with committing any crimes, Recall Sawant campaign manager Henry Bridger II continually argues that the recall is really just about holding Sawant accountable for breaking the law — but some supporters seem to be mostly concerned that she’s annoying.

Recently, Recall supporters echoed these usual criticisms under a Facebook post of the Nov. 10 City Inside/Out debate between Sawant and Bridger.

One commenter, who Facebook flagged as one of the most active followers of the page, said, “She sounds unhinged, rambling, and yelling the entire time and won't stop talking. She can't stop talking.”

One woman said, “The voice though! It makes me want to stab knitting needles into my ears. Please D3 do us a solid and RECALL SAWANT.”

As her adversaries might expect, Sawant spoke more than Bridger during the debate– about 15 minutes and 27 seconds compared to his 11 minutes and 42 seconds. Seattle Channel host Brian Callanan moderated her more for it.

The Seattle Channel hosts city council meetings, public hearings, and other programs that run as long as they run.

Megan Erb, the communications manager for Seattle Information Technology, said in an email that the participants knew the program would be a half hour long, and that the debate portion would account for about 21 minutes.

The debate ran longer than planned, but producers decided not to cut the debate down in post. “We recognize this is a pivotal and historic election in the city, and the debate is the first (and possibly only) one scheduled,” Erb said.

Erb said the producers “don’t use a timer or kill the microphone during the [participants] responses,” and the only explicitly timed responses were opening and closing statements.

When Sawant went over by about 30 seconds on her opening statement to argue that her policies motivated the recall far more than the charges, Callanan used conversational interjections like “mmhmm,” “okay,” “yup,” and “right,” six times to move her along.

The moderator tries to get Sawant to talk about the
The moderator tries to get Sawant to talk about the "substance" of the recall. She thinks there's more to it than the charges. Screengrab from Seattle Channel

Sawant, whose speaking style does not conform to the soundbite-style that television news prefers, pushed back on the subtle interjections as the debate went on.

“No, you have to let me respond,” she said at one point as Callanan made several small interjections.

“I just want to make sure we are talking about the substance of the recall in terms of what is written and what voters will see,” Callanan said after he allowed her to finish her point.

In the 32-minute-long debate, the moderator made these types of subtle interjections 120 times while Sawant spoke. He interjected 42 times while Bridger spoke. For Sawant, that’s nearly eight of these interjections per minute. Proportionally, Callanan made small interjections less than half as often while Bridger spoke.

The moderator outright spoke over Sawant seven times, and he spoke over Bridger once. Sawant interrupted Bridger twice, and he interrupted her once. The moderator intervened both times Sawant interrupted Bridger.

The first time, Callanan stopped Sawant and told her, “I need you to listen, please.”

The second time, Bridger asked Callanan to let him handle it.

“This is my turn,” Bridger said. “I don’t get to have a stage like you do nor do the people in the district, so you need to let your constituents speak.”

In an email, Callanan said his moderation of the debate “was not a criticism of Councilmember Sawant’s speaking style.” He just had “a lot of questions we were trying to get to in the time we had allotted for the show,” and he tried to “move the conversation along and keep it as fair and balanced as possible.”

He added that he does not believe it is fair or accurate to say sexism influenced his approach to this debate. Callanan explained that the Zoom debate presented a “unique challenge.” He had to give more verbal cues rather than the more subtle visual cues he would normally give in person.

Recall does not respond to inquiries about sexism

Sawant supporters have called the upcoming recall many things, and Bridger usually has a response for the accusatory descriptors they tack onto his campaign. He pushes back on claims that the recall is right-wing by saying he’s a strong, Trump-hating liberal. When Sawant supporters call out the campaign for voter suppression, he claims that in a state with mail-in voting (stamp included) the recall could not be considered voter suppression. I asked him to respond to the claims that the recall is sexist. I will update if he responds.

The recall is not an entirely male project. Kate Nolan, a self-described progressive, serves as the field director for the Recall Sawant campaign. I sent her a text to ask her about sexism in the recall. Nolan has read the message, but she has not responded.

In a segment before the debate on the Seattle Channel, Nolan said, “Anyone who doesn’t fully agree with [Sawant] and her perspectives is immediately an ‘other,’ is immediately tagged as something dangerous and terrible, and it doesn’t allow a lot of room for healthy dissent.”

In the debate, Sawant agreed that she does not represent everyone in her district.

“I don’t claim to represent the multimillionaires and the corporate landlords who either live in this district or make money off the renters in our district,” Sawant said.

As Nolan’s comment implies, the recall will inevitably be a judgement of Sawant’s polarizing leadership style as well as the charges. Because of this, Conrad fears that attacks on Sawant’s character may do the socialist council member in, especially after more conservative candidates dominated in the general election.

Hamlin expressed a similar concern. “If Sawant is recalled… it gets us into a really dark place in Seattle that says men with money in 2021 can still, and should, thwart democracy to advance their agenda and constantly monitor elected women of color under a microscope to do it,” she said.