Recall Campaign Against Socialist Kshama Sawant Is Backed by Billionaires

An unusual special election in Seattle’s District 3 on December 7 will decide whether avowedly socialist City Councilor Kshama Sawant will be recalled from her position. The fact that Sawant’s seat is under dire threat is indicative of the contempt that Seattle’s business interests hold for her and her policies: The considerable victories Sawant has won for working people have made her the target of some of Seattle’s most powerful forces.

Despite protestations to the contrary, it’s eminently clear that the well-financed political action committees (PACs) waging this campaign against Sawant are backed by landlords, real estate developers, corporate executives and other wealthy constituents that represent bastions of corporate power. After leveling disingenuous charges against her and engaging in months of misleading campaigning, they’ve now put the question up for a vote — on an atypical date, chosen to suppress turnout. The Kshama Solidarity Campaign and its coalition of unions, activists and working people have mobilized significant volunteer efforts in her defense, but the referendum on Sawant promises to be as bitterly contested as it is consequential.

Trumped-Up Charges

Amid her broader support for leftist policy, Sawant and her supporters have won concrete victories over capital: chief among them a groundbreaking $15 minimum wage and the JumpStart payroll tax on massive corporations, including Amazon. Notable wins have included free legal representation for renters, bans on school year and winter evictions and a requirement of six months’ notice for rent increases, plus relocation assistance — to list only a few recent examples. Sawant is effective, and, if allowed a continued presence on the council, she has every intention of aggressively pursuing rent control and further taxes on the rich.

It’s quite transparent that the recall is politically motivated, perpetrated by establishment forces that fear Sawant’s impact on their profits. However, the recall is instead proceeding under the pretense of three charges of alleged malfeasance. The Recall campaign manager Henry Bridger II has insisted that the vote is “only about the charges.” But given capital’s structural incentives to depose Sawant, that would be difficult to believe — even if those accusations weren’t incredibly flimsy.

The recall is based entirely on thin allegations of unethical conduct. The first is that Sawant abused government resources to promote her Tax Amazon campaign — by adding links to it on a city website. This is fairly laughable in light of the influence Amazon exerted in opposing the campaign. In any case, Sawant already paid the fine for this farcically minor transgression. She’s also charged with “leading” a Black Lives Matter protest to Mayor Jenny Durkan’s house (whether she actually led it is disputed), and, on another occasion, allowing protesters into City Hall against COVID guidelines.

In Washington State, recall campaigns must be approved by the judiciary. A King County court, and later the Washington Supreme Court, both ultimately approved these final three out of an original six charges, denying a Sawant appeal. Sawant was not allowed to present a defense. Furthermore, it’s critical to understand that the court’s judgment was undertaken under the assumption that the charges were true, as the law stipulates; courts then ruled not on their veracity, but whether they technically constituted offenses that would be cause for removal from office. (As previously noted in Truthout, the same Supreme Court dismissed analogous recall efforts against Mayor Durkan, a right-wing sheriff and a Yakima councilman for more serious accusations: Durkan allowed police to use tear gas against protests, and the latter two conservatives flouted COVID restrictions far more carelessly than Sawant.) Nevertheless, voters have been led to believe she broke laws, as the recall campaign, of course, has hastily elided the nuances around this judgment in their deceptive messaging.

Corporate War Chests

Plenty of the backers of the recall are familiar to the organizers of the Kshama Solidarity Campaign: a contingent of real estate interests, landlords, corporations and wealthy citizens, right-wing and liberal alike, who, via other cloyingly titled PACs, have opposed progressive candidates and policy in the past. By July, 20 percent of the recall campaign’s contributions had come from Republican donors. The donor lists of its PACs contain, among others, “over 130 Trump donors, over 500 rich Republican donors and over 850 millionaires,” pointed out Kshama Solidarity Campaign spokesperson Bryan Koulouris in a conversation with Truthout.

Here is a sampling of some of the more notable recall donors who have maxed out their individual donations: George Petrie is Donald Trump’s biggest donor in Washington State and the head of the predatory Goodman Real Estate, which has evicted residents in droves while targeting union members. Billionaire Trump supporter Martin Selig is a major landlord who rents Immigration and Customs Enforcement its detention center. Richard Hedreen is a real estate developer and hotelier; low pay and exploitative conditions at his properties spurred a unionization drive that management met with intimidation. Other generous givers include the former CEO of Boeing, members of the billionaire Nordstrom family and AirBnb CFO David Stephenson, formerly of Amazon. Responding to charges of corporate influence, recall chairman Henry Bridger II said, bafflingly, “I’m literally unemployed. I’m unemployed. There is no way, I’ve been unemployed all year. No, it’s not billionaire-backed.” It is difficult to square that assertion with the backing of billionaires.

This isn’t the first threat of a recall that has been lobbed at Sawant. She has faced towering corporate opposition throughout her tenure and has bested Seattle’s largest companies before: She won a second four-year term in 2019 over their objections. Amazon’s $1.5 million in contributions to a political action committee for Egan Orion, Sawant’s opponent in that earlier race, failed to ensure her defeat, doubtless to the dismay of the exploitative monopolist. (That PAC was sponsored by the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce — indicative of the local capital’s full-bore opposition.) In fact, Amazon’s massive expenditures in 2019 may have backfired; they highlighted the machinations of power in the race and turned it into a referendum on corporate influence in politics.

This time around, Amazon, conscious of the optics, is appearing conspicuously neutral — at least on the surface. Though it hasn’t formed a PAC, Amazon executives can be found among the recall’s donors, including their director of global real estate, “head of charter schools” and other top executives, according to Koulouris. It’s not hard to guess which outcome the company would prefer.

As corporate interests prepare to open the floodgates in the weeks before the election, the number of anti-Sawant PACs have multiplied. A second committee, “A Better Seattle,” was formed to skirt campaign finance rules that cap individual giving to the original PAC, “Recall Sawant,” at $1,000. The new entity was immediately showered with contributions from real estate, corporate and commercial interests. Its average donation is $750; two-thirds of its donors have given the maximum $1,000. And, only a week before the vote, a third PAC, “Citizens for Safe Neighborhoods,” was instituted.

Yet the corporate advantages over Sawant have grown more egregious still. At the end of November, contribution limits to A Better Seattle were lifted — a judge ruled that unlimited giving to the PAC is legally allowable. In pushing for this, its legal representative Kevin Hamilton cited the infamous Citizens United decision, construing any limits on corporate expenditure as a First Amendment violation. Beyond this placing of wealthy thumbs on the scale, it’s also unusual to change this type of rule so late in the race, after ballots have already been mailed.

“It’s already ridiculous that a corporate PAC can be set up at all in order to circumvent campaign finance laws. As if that wasn’t enough, they had to lift the limit so that anyone can donate as much as they want,” Koulouris told Truthout.

“We’re up against a lot,” he continued, “and we’re really proud that Kshama’s leadership, her council office and the socialist movement in Seattle have made these powerful enemies.”

Grassroots vs. Astroturf

Meanwhile, the Kshama Solidarity Campaign is seeing support come in from leftists and working-class people around the country — earning, on average, much smaller donations. It has won the blessings of dozens of unions and high-profile endorsements from figures like public intellectual Noam Chomsky and union leader Sara Nelson. The national attention paid to a local skirmish is indicative of this vote’s consequential ramifications.

Both campaigns are approaching a million dollars in funding. The recall campaign has issued (ironic) complaints about undue influence in the Solidarity Campaign, since support for Sawant has come from leftists nationwide. News articles in corporate media have leapt to highlight that around half her funding comes from outside city limits, focusing the narrative on Sawant’s alleged abuses while downplaying the role of business interests.

“The recall campaign loves to use this language about outside agitators, people not from the district, but 4,500 of the Solidarity Campaign’s donors are in-district, to say nothing of the numerous local canvassers and signature gatherers who have also volunteered their time to defend Sawant,” says Koulouris. “You don’t see volunteer door-knockers for the recall campaign. It’s extremely astroturfed — whereas the Kshama Solidarity Campaign has had over a thousand volunteers from the community.”

With the help of the local Democratic Socialists of America chapter, the Kshama Solidarity Campaign has deployed legions of canvassers, tablers and doorknockers to reach the public, building a sizeable get-out-the-vote operation in her defense. A documentary by filmmaker Derek Knowles, which premiered in November on leftist streaming service Means TV, captured the urgency of the effort, and the Solidarity Campaign’s earnest grassroots dedication.

The recall campaign, for its part, has unleashed a torrent of anti-Sawant propaganda. With robust finances, says Koulouris, it “can bombard people with nonstop ads on your phone, on your computer, on you TV, in your mail, anywhere you go, attacking Kshama and putting out the recall’s dishonest message.”

Recall tactics have also included billboards and hiring a plane to drag a banner across the skies over the city. (“Recall Sawant,” it read.) Henry Bridger II, recall campaign chairman, provided a bizarre defense of the flight expenditure: It had “less of a carbon foot print than thousands of Sawant posters slapped all over the district on light poles where city workers and others have to drive around removing them and eventually ending up in a landfill for hundreds of years.”

Scheduled for Suppression

Also unusual is the choice of Tuesday, December 7, for the vote — for one thing, Seattle’s November elections have just occurred. This is by design: The recall campaign has been eager to delay the vote, with nakedly apparent motives. If the recall question had appeared on the November ballot, high turnout would have made Sawant more likely to retain her seat, thanks to her broad support among the populace.

Meanwhile, special elections in King County usually result in depressed turnouts. The 2020 election turned out 87 percent of voters, while a special election that year brought out only 33 percent. And, said Koulouris, “In special elections — and the cynical right-wing recall campaign knows this — it’s not just that turnout goes down. It’s that turnout goes down among younger people, among poorer people, among people of color, among working-class people in general. That’s what they want.”

A Tuesday in the first week of December is a deeply inconvenient time for the younger and less wealthy constituents who are more inclined to support Sawant — they’ve just voted in another election, many were preoccupied or traveling when ballots arrived around Thanksgiving, and they will likely be burdened with work and school when the election takes place. “It’s virtually the most undemocratic time imaginable, one of the worst Tuesdays in the whole year for having an election,” said Koulouris.

Accordingly, the recall campaign delayed turning in signatures by the original August 3 deadline to make the November ballot, aiming to stall the election. Paradoxically, this led to a situation in which it was advantageous for the Kshama Solidarity Campaign to collect signatures for the recall to ensure they were delivered by the deadline. Sawant herself put her name down. Even though those additional signatures put them well over the minimum, the recall campaign refused to turn in its own petition, and the deadline was missed. (Seattle alternative weekly The Stranger assembled a more detailed chronology of this minor farce.)

Henry Bridger II went on to claim that, “The recall campaign has always been focused on [having the] recall on the ballot for District 3 voters in November.” (In April, Bridger II had stated outright, to media, that the recall campaign wished to avoid the issue appearing on the November ballot.)

An Anti-Democratic Vote

This kind of charade in play in Seattle is a familiar one: “astroturfing,” i.e., artificial grassroots action, attempts to veil the machinations of the ruling class. Henry Bridger II, for example, insists that he is actually a former Sawant voter, concerned in good faith about her flagrant abuses of power. Ernest Lou, the Seattle resident under whose name the recall petition was filed, similarly paints himself as merely a public-spirited Democrat with no connection to corporations — despite his former roles at Microsoft and Amazon. Time and again, the recall campaign hurries to refer to itself as an organic, grassroots effort. If it is, then at least the democratic interests of hundreds of millionaires are well-represented.

Though the hand of business is quite visible in this race, it’s possible that the recall may be able to keep turnout low, while convincing enough voters that Sawant’s grievous abuses are the real issue at hand. The recall campaign’s strenuous efforts to keep the vote from appearing on the November ballot indicate that Sawant’s opponents have little confidence in popular support for their cause. Results from past elections reveal a considerable bloc of left-leaning voters in District 3 that reliably vote for progressive candidates, including for Sawant in 2019. Still, there is a starkly delineated line across the district — wealthy residents in the northeast corner loathe Sawant.

If the recall succeeds, it will bode poorly for leftist and progressive elected officials nationwide. This effort is part of a flurry of recalls in recent years — at least 500 in 2021 — many of them targeted at the left, like the one against reformist San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin. Recalls are now part of a growing arsenal of procedural weapons that are aimed at staving off radical change in the wake of a leftist resurgence that has won comparatively small but meaningful victories. (The proof-of-concept of Byron Brown’s do-over write-in campaign against India Walton is another instance.) Capital and its acolytes think nothing of wielding a mechanism of ostensible democracy against the interests of working people. Sawant and her constituents may thwart the disingenuous recall effort and its flimsy charges, but confronting the concerted efforts of Seattle’s capitalists will demand everything they can muster.