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Grassroots Organizers Mobilize to Defend Kshama Sawant Against Recall Effort

Capitalist forces are targeting leftist City Councilor Kshama Sawant in Seattle. A solidarity campaign is fighting back.

Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant speaks to several hundred people gathered outside of City Hall on May 20, 2019.

On April 1, Washington State’s Supreme Court ruled that a recall campaign against Kshama Sawant, Seattle’s unabashedly socialist city councilor, could proceed. Having won a string of groundbreaking victories for working people, Sawant has earned the fierce ire of capital.

The forces arrayed against her are formidable: billionaires and corporate elites, deceptive astroturfing, and a political establishment all too eager to stymie a resurgent left and oust a democratically elected official. The Recall Kshama Sawant initiative — which is calling for Sawant’s ouster based on charges related to last summer’s protests — is symptomatic of a broader backlash against racial and economic justice movements and increasing working-class militancy. If it succeeds, the left will likely have to contend with the increased use of the same tactic against progressive elected officials.

Grassroots Opposition

Organizing to counter this threat from capital and the right is the Kshama Solidarity Campaign, a coalition of local advocates brought together by Sawant’s organization, Socialist Alternative. The latter group supplies the core organizers, but union and community leaders have also spoken out in support. The campaign has scored endorsements from 11 union locals, the Seattle Democratic Socialists of America, the national DSA, the 43rd Legislative District Democrats, Black leaders like police accountability activist Castill Hightower, and luminaries including Sara Nelson and Noam Chomsky, among others.

Kshama Solidarity Campaign spokesperson Bryan Koulouris described the group’s mobilization to Truthout: “At short notice, just two days after the court decision, we organized a socially distanced, fully masked rally with over 150 people attending in person and nearly 5,000 watching online.… We’ve raised over $450,000 already and gained countless endorsements, including over 400 rank-and-file union members in the Seattle area.”

The first stages of combating the recall will involve contacting constituents and urging them not to sign the petition to recall Sawant once it begins circulating. With door-knocking currently shelved by the ongoing pandemic, strategic challenges present themselves, but the Solidarity Campaign has set out a schedule of assiduous phone-banking and socially distanced tabling.

“Our grassroots, COVID-safe campaign is gaining momentum and will be countering the lies of the right-wing recall campaign energetically with working-class politics in the coming weeks and months,” Koulouris said. Yet thanks to its considerable financial backing and influence in local media, it’s not improbable that, within the allotted 180 days, Recall Kshama Sawant will be able to gather the roughly 10,700 signatures required to land the issue on the ballot.

Amazon’s Gadfly

In September, a King County judge approved four of six charges against Sawant and allowed the recall to proceed. Sawant appealed the following month. It was this appeal that the Washington Supreme Court denied April 1, allowing three of the charges. The first allegation of the recall petition is perhaps the flimsiest: it indicts Sawant for posting links to Tax Amazon ballot measure materials to her city council website. (Some might call it hypocritical that this is decried as a conflict of interest after Amazon made record-setting donations to candidates for the same council.) The petition’s other charges include that she led a protest at Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan’s house, revealing Durkan’s address in the process, and allowed demonstrators into City Hall during a Black Lives Matter protest in June.

Writing in Jacobin, Sawant responded: “It’s no accident that two of the four recall charges against me are directly linked to my support for the Justice for George Floyd protests.… It’s no accident that the recall campaign’s main charge in their public campaigning so far is the absurd claim that I promoted ‘lawlessness’ with my support for Black Lives Matter, a racist attack on the movement.”

The Kshama Solidarity Campaign website also lays out its response to the first round of charges: “Kshama did not break the law, and all four recall charges are inaccurate. She is being attacked for doing exactly what she was elected to do: stand up for working people, marginalized communities and social movements.” Due to Seattle’s recall procedures, Sawant was never given a chance to dispute the accuracy of the accusations in court. State law dictates that factual substantiation of the charges is beside the point. The only issue at hand is whether the charges as filed constitute removable offenses — and the state’s highest court has deemed them to be so.

This isn’t the first time recall petitions have targeted Sawant. And worth noting is that the same Washington Supreme Court that affirmed the Sawant recall had unanimously blocked a recall effort against Mayor Jenny Durkan for allowing police to use chemical crowd control agents against last summer’s protests. The same court had also declined to recall a right-wing sheriff who refused to enforce mask restrictions. And it had affirmed the dismissal of a recall against a Yakima City councilman who urged constituents to disobey COVID guidelines. The charges in each of those cases were far more serious than those in Sawant’s — an indicator of the political nature of its decisions.

It’s not surprising that there has been a backlash against Sawant, given the success she’s had in advocating for social and economic justice from her lone city council seat. She was instrumental in pushing the Council to pass a $15 minimum wage for Seattle in 2014, an invaluable measure that put the issue on the national agenda.

Sawant has also proven a persistent thorn in the side of Amazon. In 2018, the company opened its endless coffers and managed to sink one of her earlier corporate tax initiatives with a flood of cash. In the 2019 election, anti-Sawant PACs outspent her supporting PACs by a ratio of 600 to 1, according to Seattle alternative weekly The Stranger. Amazon itself unleashed $1.5 million to defeat Sawant and other progressive candidates in that election. Nevertheless, the company’s attempt to buy the city council was largely thwarted: Sawant was re-elected, and only two of Amazon’s seven favored candidates won office.

In July 2020, the passage of the Sawant-backed JumpStart payroll tax landed a tremendous blow against the corporate titan. Her Tax Amazon campaign was a key driver of the historic legislation; its proceeds will fund coronavirus relief, and later, green, union-built affordable housing. She also won a winter eviction moratorium and a ban on police use of chemical weapons and chokeholds. And, on March 29, 2021, a Sawant-sponsored right-to-counsel bill was approved by the city council — a major step toward confronting the city’s housing crisis.

Suspicious Patronage

It’s evident that the establishment’s loathing of Sawant has its direct roots in the gains she has won for the working people of Seattle, as the corresponding impediment to profit is anathema to corporate interests. As Kshama Solidarity Campaign spokesperson Bryan Koulouris put it:

Again, with Kshama at the forefront of the struggle, the Tax Amazon movement finally won taxes on the super wealthy and big business to fund quality social housing. This idea is extremely popular, and big business doesn’t want it to spread. They see a pattern of movements winning in Seattle with Kshama at the forefront and then gaining momentum across the country.

Their playbook here is a familiar one. The recall campaign, launched with a petition first filed by a Seattleite named Ernest Lou, purports to be a grassroots effort: a community intervention by the civic-minded, expressing good-faith concerns over Sawant’s grossly unethical conduct. It is nothing of the sort.

During an appearance on a conservative talk radio show, Lou characterized himself as “…just a normal citizen.… I am a big bleeding heart liberal … I am far from a right-wing business political establishment.” But Lou’s own LinkedIn page seems to belie his claims of distance from Seattle big business. His past employment includes Microsoft, Amazon, corporate relations for Seattle University’s College of Science and Engineering, and director of corporate partnerships at Go Forward to Work (a “community of business leaders”). He is also the CEO of a tech marketing firm. Regardless, as the campaign enters its next phase, Lou is now stepping aside to allow the recall to be run by a committee, chaired by self-described liberal Democrat Henry Bridger II.

And there are deeper connections still between corporate power and the Recall Kshama Sawant campaign. Initially, the campaign asked its donors to limit their contributions to $25. This was likely calculated to serve the dual purpose of establishing a façade of small-time grassroots action and allowing donors to remain anonymous under disclosure rules. More recently, the campaign dropped the pretense and opened the floodgates to larger donors — revealing numerous corporate elites among them, including Airbnb and Merrill Lynch executives, realtors and financiers.

Recall committee chairman Bridger has claimed that the campaign has “no billionaires.” This is a dodge: they may not be working on the committee, but Recall Kshama Sawant can still boast of the support of Jeannie Nordstrom, the wife of Nordstrom’s billionaire CEO, and the backing of billionaire real estate mogul and Trump donor Martin Selig. Joining in is former Sawant election opponent Egan Orion, who received Amazon money during his failed campaign and provided the recall effort with a mailing list of his supporters.

The campaign has also hired John McKay, former U.S. attorney under George W. Bush, to represent them in court. Glossy mailers and an enormous billboard are only the campaign’s opening volley. It’s a certainty that further corporate expenditures, both overt and covert, will be bestowed upon Recall Kshama Sawant.

The recall promises to be hotly contested, a clash between Sawant’s supporters and an array of capitalist interests scrambling to quash the threat of a good example. It portends future revanchism by capital and the same tactic has already been deployed against San Francisco’s District Attorney Chesa Boudin. Yet, as they say, the more things change, the more they stay the same. As Nathalie Graham noted in The Stranger, the last socialist elected in Seattle, Anna Louise Strong, was removed from office by a recall in 1918.

The Kshama Solidarity Campaign faces significant hurdles in defending a prominent advocate of economic and racial justice from corporate retaliation. But with independent working-class movements in Sawant’s corner, the fight may prove far more of a challenge than establishment powers would prefer.

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