Big Business Goes Up Against Democracy in Seattle

Jonathan Rosenblum

sawant recall

Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant addresses supporters during her inauguration and "Tax Amazon 2020 Kickoff" event in Seattle, Wash., on January 13, 2020. (Photo by Jason Redmond / AFP)

Feb. 9, 20210

Last year’s dreadful miasma of Covid, recession, police violence, and coup attempt obscured some remarkable advances by local and national left-wing movements. Florida voters, while rejecting the Biden/Harris ticket, overwhelmingly approved a $15 minimum wage. Arizona and Oregon approved tax increases on the wealthy to fund public education. Colorado passed paid family leave. Portland, Me., voters approved rent control. All six representatives in historically swing districts who supported Medicare for All won reelection. Ninety-two of the 93 House Democrats—including all four in swing districts—who ran in November as Green New Deal sponsors won reelection. At least 20 candidates endorsed by Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) won office. In a year of historic uprisings against police brutality and economic inequality, support for socialism rose, especially among younger people.

These developments were not welcomed by establishment Democrats, who sought to blame their own poor showings in congressional races on the progressive movement. “‘Defund the police’ is killing our party, and we’ve got to stop it,” declared House majority whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) a week after the election. “Don’t say socialism ever again,” Representative Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.) said, as votes were still being tallied in early November. While fending off Trump’s attempted coup from the right, Joe Biden and leading Democrats spent a considerable amount of energy before and after the election attacking socialized medicine, the Green New Deal, and the movement to defund bloated police budgets.

That blowback represents a broad effort by leading Democrats, nationally and locally, to steer political discourse away from more radical demands and foist on the citizenry their vision of “a return to normal”—a kinder, gentler neoliberal Gilded Age without the daily White House tweet tantrums.

As 2021 gets underway, ground zero for this sharpening struggle will be in Seattle, where an alliance of establishment Democrats, real estate interests, and Trump backers is coming together to try to recall socialist City Council member Kshama Sawant, who initially won office in 2013, and was reelected in 2015 and 2019. The recall advocates intend to fire a warning shot to socialists and radicals everywhere. The recall campaign has already raised a quarter of a million dollars, and is ramping up efforts to qualify for the ballot sometime in the spring or summer.

In the last year, Sawant and her Socialist Alternative organization won a three-year battle to tax Amazon—headquartered in Seattle—and other big businesses to fund emergency Covid relief, affordable housing construction, and local Green New Deal projects. And in the midst of nationwide street protests following the Minneapolis police murder of George Floyd, Sawant led organizing to win a first-in-the-nation ban on police use of tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets, and other so-called “crowd control” weapons. (Full disclosure: I’ve known and worked with Sawant since 2013 on issue and electoral campaigns, and currently work in her City Council office as a community organizer.)

These victories met a swift response from the political establishment. Democratic Mayor Jenny Durkan—elected in 2017 with help from a record $350,000 donation from Amazon—aligned with the Trump Justice Department in challenging Sawant’s weapons ban legislation in court.


The mayor also demanded that the City Council investigate and consider expelling Sawant from office for her leadership in the Tax Amazon campaign and her participation in Black Lives Matter protests. The council demurred, but Durkan’s bill of charges got picked up by pro-business forces and converted into a recall petition against Sawant.

The petition is now before the Washington state Supreme Court, which is expected to green-light it in the coming weeks. That will trigger a six-month period for recall advocates to collect 10,700 signatures from Sawant’s central Seattle district—one-quarter of the number of voters in the 2019 election—in order to qualify the recall for the ballot.

The petition levels four charges at Sawant, only one of which needs to be approved by the court for the recall to proceed. Two of the charges are aimed at the Black Lives Matter movement in addition to the council member: They charge that Sawant misused her City Council position to invite hundreds of protesters (with masks on) into City Hall for a people’s assembly at the height of the Justice for George Floyd protests, and that she revealed the mayor’s confidential home address by speaking at a protest outside the mayor’s mansion that had been organized by DSA and the families of police violence victims. A third charge claims Sawant illegally used City resources to campaign for the Amazon tax. The fourth charge alleges that Sawant broke City hiring rules when she involved Socialist Alternative in making hiring decisions.

Washington state’s recall law is powerful protection for a political ruling class seeking to weed out radical threats. Over the years state courts have exercised wide discretion in gatekeeping recall petitions. Lawyers on both sides of the Sawant recall fight say they expect the Supreme Court to approve at least one of the charges, and yet last fall the same court tossed out a petition against Mayor Durkan for overseeing the repeated, brutal police violence of last summer against hundreds of Black Lives Matter protesters.

To approve a recall effort, state courts merely have to conclude that recall petition charges, if true, would constitute malfeasance or a violation of an official’s oath of office. But the court is expressly barred from considering “the truth of the charges.” So, for instance, even though Sawant has stated she had no idea where the mayor lived, her mere participation in the protest outside the mansion is being used as the basis for one of the charges. Additionally, in today’s Citizens United world, independent committees can pour unlimited funds into supporting the recall effort.