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Kshama Sawant Emerges Victorious From Disingenuous Recall Attempt

The outcome of this fight illustrates the efficacy of committed organizing and solidarity.

Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant addresses supporters during her inauguration and "Tax Amazon 2020 Kickoff" event in Seattle, Washington, on January 13, 2020.

The corporate-backed campaign to recall Seattle’s socialist City Councilor Kshama Sawant, which stretched on for a contentious 16 months, has concluded with a victory for Sawant, who will remain in her seat as the lone leftist of the council. It was a fight so sharply contested and mobilizing that District 3 turnout, in this unusual December special election, was 53 percent — on par with November’s general election, at 55 percent.

A victory for Sawant means a loss for capital. The forces arrayed against Sawant included considerable segments of the corporate real estate, tech and other business establishments in alliance with all manner of capitalist ideologues: billionaires, landlords, reactionaries and centrist liberals alike. Their interest in removing her was utterly transparent — the victories she has won for working people (a groundbreaking $15 minimum wage, a payroll tax on major corporations and renter protections, among many others) have had a direct impact on corporate profit margins. In response, the reigning powers assembled a disingenuous pretense to recall her, leveling dubious charges related to her attendance at two racial justice protests and her alleged use of government resources to promote her “Tax Amazon” campaign.

Sawant and the supporting organizers on the Kshama Sawant Solidarity Campaign endured more than a year of corporate misinformation, unfavorable (and hypocritical) court rulings, and attacks from establishment media. Corporate advertising expenditures discharged a stream of television and digital ads; innumerable flyers and mailers; billboards and, at one point, an aircraft. During the final days of the campaign, donations were allowed to flow to the multiple anti-Sawant political action committees without campaign finance limits, allowing them to amass nearly a million dollars.

Yet the Solidarity Campaign raised comparable funds themselves, with over $949,000 flowing in from thousands of donors in the district, along with contributions from numerous supporters around the country. Chiefly staffed by members of the revolutionary socialist organization Socialist Alternative, in coalition with labor unions, the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and local organizers of all stripes, the Solidarity Campaign’s tenacious voter outreach work was able to muster turnout sufficient to defeat the recall effort.

That’s not to say it wasn’t a close race. On the first night of the count, the “Yes” vote took an early lead. At a moment when the outcome was still unclear, Sawant gave a speech at a final rally to a crowd of assembled supporters. “What we do know for certain,” she proclaimed, basing her remarks on collected voter data, “is that working people and young people have roundly rejected this racist, right-wing, big business-backed attack.”

In attendance was Emily McArthur, the campaign manager of the Kshama Solidarity Campaign. Like Sawant, she is a member of both Socialist Alternative and the Seattle DSA. McArthur and other Solidarity Campaign members were perhaps less worried than some as the pro-recall vote initially pulled ahead: “We’ve seen time and again that Kshama rises in the polls [as more ballots come in.] This is also true of other progressive candidates,” she said in an interview with Truthout. Sawant’s declaration was borne out: The “No” votes, many from young people and working people, began to accumulate. The reversal of fortunes came soon afterward, with Sawant’s total rising, then rising again. The pro-recall lead collapsed and never recovered, leaving Sawant, in the final calculus, with a margin of a few hundred votes.

The late boost that Sawant and other progressive candidates often receive derives in part from the fact that left-leaning voters are more likely to be young people; they tend to vote closer to Election Day, rather than mailing in ballots early. Election Day, in this instance, fell on the unusual date of December 7 due to some chicanery on the part of the recall campaign — they delayed turning in petition signatures, knowing that the higher turnout of a November race would likely help Sawant. (Amusingly, at one point, the Kshama Solidarity Campaign ended up collecting signatures for the recall — including Sawant’s own — to ensure the vote went through in November. However, it was to no avail; the date was set for December 7.) Results from earlier races with other left-leaning candidates substantiate the Sawant team’s contention that a higher-turnout election would deliver more Sawant votes, indicative of her broad support among District 3 residents. Had the recall vote happened in November, her margin of victory would likely have been even greater. Regardless, it proved sufficient.

When victory was all but assured, Sawant spoke at a press conference, declaring, with a deservedly triumphant tone that “The wealthy and their representatives in politics and the media took their best shot at us, and we beat them, again.” As contested ballot signatures were settled, lingering doubt subsided, and a Sawant victory became incontrovertible.

By the December 16 tally, 20,646 District 3 voters voted to maintain Sawant, while 20,349 voted to recall, a slim margin of 50.37 to 49.63 percent. (As of this writing, 149 contested ballot signatures remain — not enough to change the outcome, even if they all went for the recall.) The demographic breakdown tracked past elections, with a corridor of wealthier conservative voters near Lake Washington voting to recall, while the urban center of Capitol Hill went overwhelmingly for Sawant. “That kind of engagement was really exciting to see,” McArthur told Truthout. “By the end of the election, we had over 5,100 donors in district. That’s about 6 percent of all registered voters in the district. You could feel that in the streets — people felt like this was their campaign.”

The win, all the more remarkable considering the resources and influence of the anti-Sawant contingent, can be attributed in large part to the assiduous organizing of the Solidarity Campaign coalition volunteers. “Our campaign also had a really dynamic approach, making it clear to people that in a low-turnout special election like this, voting was never going to be enough, and trying to get people involved. We had 1,500 volunteers on this campaign,” McArthur says. “We had a lot of political conversations … [like], ‘We need you to talk to three of your friends, neighbors, coworkers about this election and make sure they get their ballot in.’”

Of little surprise was that Democratic elected officials didn’t deign to help — none of the Democrats on the City Council spoke out against the recall, despite its wide Republican support.

The defense of Sawant’s council seat was instead spearheaded by local organizers. McArthur described their get-out-the-vote operation’s strategies. “Throughout the course of a long campaign, we had different starting points, but in the last month, we were really focusing on, ‘Have you voted yet to defeat the right-wing recall?’… By leading with politically pressing issues like pushing back against an emboldened right wing or rent control, which was the major offensive demand of our campaign, we really draw people into discussion with us.”

McArthur also highlighted the campaign’s outreach efforts that were conducted in six non-English languages, helping grant a voice to marginalized Seattleites. A number of Seattle’s public housing units and apartment blocks have large immigrant populations, many of them members of Seattle’s Somali, Vietnamese and Chinese communities. “In some of those buildings we saw a 700 percent voter increase over the general election. We built a real coalition of people who are ordinarily overlooked in electoral politics.”

The Solidarity Campaign made a particular effort to ensure the wide distribution of ballots and increase democratic participation. Washington State votes via mail-in ballot, and a surprising number of the paper ballots sent out are mislaid, accidentally thrown out with junk mail, or otherwise lost by voters. The campaign set up sites to distribute new ballots, finding that hundreds of voters had lost theirs and would not have otherwise participated. 1,400 ballots, 3 percent of the race’s total, were printed at these temporary voting stations — an entirely legal strategy that nonetheless drew indignant criticism. (The reliable Sawant antagonists on the editorial board of The Seattle Times, which recently decried Republican voter suppression in the South, were aghast at the excess of democracy.)

The win is particularly striking given the gains made by the establishment in the November election. Former attorney and City Council President Bruce Harrell ran to the right of M. Lorena González and won the mayor’s office, and DSA-endorsed candidates Nikkita Oliver and Nicole Thomas-Kennedy were defeated in their races for a City Council seat and city attorney, respectively. The winner of the latter race will be Seattle’s first elected Republican in 30 years. “[The opponents of the left] have advanced their line,” McArthur told Truthout. “I’m sure they’re going to use that big business mayor and conservative City Council seat as a battering ram against our movement. It will be a real question of how much we’re able to organize.”

That organizing will now begin in earnest. The Solidarity Campaign, as a legal entity, will now disband, having served its purpose. But Sawant, in characteristic fashion, will not be resting on her laurels — or resting at all, it seems. McArthur and her fellow organizers plan to immediately resume their efforts as well. “As far as the political relationships and confidence that we’ve built, we’re definitely going to be bringing that forward,” she said.

McArthur went on to describe upcoming efforts that reflect the centrality of housing to working people’s needs; renter protections and housing provisions are a linchpin of the left’s goals in Seattle, where the crisis of unhoused people is particularly pronounced.

“There’s already a number of battles that we’re in the midst of waging. Kshama has been building on this renter’s bill of rights, which is incredibly important to all the different layers of our supporters. The crowning achievement of that is going to be fighting for rent control…. In Seattle, rents have gone up 26 percent this year alone. That has a material impact on people’s lives. Wages are not going up 26 percent.”

McArthur and her fellow organizers are also turning their attention to a unique piece of legislation that will assist members of the building trades: helping cover parking and transportation expenses for union contractors, many of whom have had to move farther away from their work due to rising rents.

The outcome of this fight illustrates the efficacy of committed organizing and solidarity. Sawant’s uninterrupted presence on the council will now help facilitate socialist organizers’ continuation of campaigns to ameliorate the housing crisis, address racial justice, make progress toward a Green New Deal and meet other critical challenges upon which lives depend. McArthur spoke to the full context of a struggle that expands far beyond a single City Council seat in the Pacific Northwest. “[Sawant] would be the first to tell you that what we’re able to win is based on the broader movement we’re able to organize to put pressure on the rest of the establishment.”

In her victory speech, Sawant did indeed express that same sentiment, distilling the overarching lessons of this fight. “If a small revolutionary socialist organization can beat the wealthiest corporations in the world here in Seattle again and again,” the councilor said, “you can be sure that the organized power of the wider working class can change society.”

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