Welp, the recall campaign already confessed it will likely lose, and the retain campaign already claimed "apparent" victory, so barring a miracle that no one expects: Kshama Sawant, the city's lone elected socialist, will keep her seat on the Seattle City Council. The tally as of this writing: 50.31% to 49.69%, with a margin of only 249 votes.
What does this very narrow victory tell us?
Lol, who fucking cares??? The rich fucks tried to win dirty, and they lost.
The Recall Sawant campaign enjoyed nearly every conceivable advantage. They racked up a million dollars from the same developers and real estate moguls who've tried to defeat her since her first council election in 2013. They found a friendly Court willing to bless three trumped-up recall charges. They secured the most advantageous election date possible — "the odds are in our favor," as they put it in a tweet. Their campaign manager — a former real estate broker with a strong network on Capitol Hill — happily soldiered on for more than year, content to exploit a law-and-order message to rile up wealthy homeowners who, of course, didn't really need that much riling up to begin with.
And still. After all that. They lost.
And they humiliated themselves in the process. Have another look at this sad, neon scene from election night. Recall that bowtie:
I can't stop laughing at this photo of the Recall Sawant party. pic.twitter.com/sSxnWTkFDc
— Brandon Locke (@brandontlocke) December 9, 2021
Okay, but seriously, what does Sawant's narrow victory tell us?
It tells us what we already know: Sawant is a polarizing, politically isolated figure in Seattle politics. As a movement-style politician, she steadfastly amplifies and privileges the demands of the poor and the working class over the etiquette and process beloved by most politicians and lobbyists. Her politics regularly pisses off labor leaders, big business, and her own colleagues, who, now — after she skewered them on election night for not supporting her in the recall — may ice her out even more, if that's even possible. And she obviously pisses off a large minority of District 3, a relatively diverse but relatively wealthy district in which mostly wealthy people vote.
Her narrow escape shows that those politics might be wearing thin among regular voters, and that a credible opponent in 2023 could unseat her.
But the win also tells us that Seattle centrists are easy to dupe, or else they're much more conservative than their yard signs let on.
The recall campaign took money from Trump donors, used a bullshit "government accountability" message (akin to "drain the swamp!") to conceal an obvious ploy to remove a thorn from the side of big business, orchestrated an election date to favor its position, divisively bashed Sawant for being divisive, refused to respond to press, barred press from its election night party, benefited from the city's paper of record running straight newsroom stories with an unflattering photo of Sawant that implicitly supported the recall's message, and also benefitted from a string of poorly reported op-eds that eventually turned baldly anti-democratic in the final days. And yet still over 20,000 people in District 3 — a majority of whom, I'm sure, voted to kick that bad dummy orange man out of office — voted to approve a campaign that embraced his tactics.
I'd issue a call for centrists to reflect, but I know they're too ideological to take the suggestion seriously. And anyway, such a call would assume the anti-Sawant voters cared that much in the first place. After all, they were only fighting a culture war, and the Sawant supporters were fighting a class war they couldn't afford to lose. In this way, the loss is basically meaningless for the recallers. It's an unsatisfying season finale. They'll have to put up with an annoying council member they see on TV news sometimes. That's it.
Sawant's victory also tells us that her huge get-out-the-vote campaign worked. Her volunteers stood outside in the sideways rain for weeks to overcome the structural barriers leveled against them. Winning even by this slim margin will embolden them to continue on, though it's unclear whether they'll continue engaging in electoral politics. It means progressive campaigns need to work that hard to break through to younger voters while still raising enough money to stuff mailboxes with mailers, though in a city with as much turf as Seattle, replicating that sort of block-by-block campaign in key neighborhoods may be nearly impossible without a massive group of dedicated volunteers.
Since the recall happened during the county's first-ever December election in-between two travel holidays, and since Sawant was basically running to do well in a civility poll, it's hard to compare her performance to other elections against past candidates.
If the recall campaign had put its question on the November ballot, then Sawant's GOTV effort may have helped to boost District 3 turnout, which may have helped some of the progressive candidates by a little, but probably not enough to carry any of them over the finish line. (D3 turnout in November was 55%, and D3 turnout in the recall approaches 53%. Maybe Sawant's team would have been more effective during a regular election time, but Nicole Thomas-Kennedy needed 10,000 more votes to get there — and, who knows, maybe Sawant's support would have been a drag on the progressives in the last election.)
Regardless, over the years, Sawant's "divisive" politics helped win a $15 minimum wage, lower move-in fees that renters can pay in installments, six months notice for any rent hike, relocation assistance for certain low-income tenants who move out after large rent hike, a prohibition against raising rents at places with housing code violations, a requirement that landlords provide voter information in apartment buildings that are harder for canvassers to door-knock, eviction lawyers, and bans on some kinds of evictions during the school year and during winter. Hopefully those politics will win a rent control trigger law (which would cap rent hikes if the state ever lifts the ban), rent relief for people stuck with a mountain of back debt, major Green New Deal investments, and a whole host of other stuff.
Those politics also led Sawant to march alongside workers on countless picket lines, support workers trying to unionize their shops, join commercial and residential tenants in struggles against landlords, and to use her seat on the council to raise awareness of local, national, and international social justice movements — whether they wanted her help or not.
So, we'll see what happens in 2023. But until then, the city will continue to benefit from Sawant's leftist critiques of the council's eight Democrats, social justice movements and worker-led movements will continue to benefit from her support, and renters will continue to have an unflinching advocate in city government.