Big Business Goes Up Against Democracy in Seattle
February 11, 2021
This article appeared originally in The Nation.
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.
Sawant is one of dozens of socialists who have been elected to office in recent years, but removing her would represent an especially valuable trophy for the business elite. She has never melded into the culture of closed-door political dealmaking, instead focusing on building movements outside City Hall to define, shape, and advance legislative demands. After upsetting a four-term City Council incumbent in 2013, Sawant and allied forces pushed through $15-an-hour minimum wage legislation in the spring of 2014, making Seattle the first major city to achieve the iconic base wage.
Hoping that 2013 was a fluke, big business spent hundreds of thousands in 2015 to defeat Sawant, an immigrant and a rank-and-file teachers union member. But they fell short as renters, students, and union members turned out in huge numbers, mobilized by hundreds of volunteer door-knockers. Following the 2015 election, Sawant led successful campaigns to cap rental move-in fees, bar rent increases at substandard apartments, and win tens of millions of dollars for affordable housing and social services. Sawant and the movement also won signature organizing battles outside City Hall, organizing tenants to beat back rent increases in public and private housing, and supporting workers organizing into unions and fighting for contracts.
The legislative fights, especially, put the Democratic political establishment on its back heels. Sawant and Socialist Alternative routinely mobilized hundreds of activists—students, low-wage workers, people experiencing homelessness, union members, young people of color, among others—to pack City Hall chambers. Organizing out of her City Council office, Sawant hosted town hall meetings, led marches demanding city action, and sponsored petitions and mass letter-writing campaigns to elected officials. Sawant legislative initiatives that began with scant support among other council members—like blocking construction of a new militarized police station in 2016—ended up getting adopted by City Council after these sustained public demonstrations.
In 2017, the local Chamber of Commerce was determined to push back against the influence of socialist politics, and it recruited Jenny Durkan to run for mayor. A former US prosecutor and close confidante to pro-business Democratic powerhouses like former governor Chris Gregoire, Durkan was trusted by the board of trade to bring political order to City Hall. At its most basic level, Durkan’s candidacy was a bid by business and the political establishment to convince liberal Seattle voters to abandon Sawant’s left-wing activism and return to a more centrist political discourse that they could control.
Boosted by nearly $900,000 in mostly corporate-dependent expenditures, including Amazon’s record donation, Durkan handily beat a crowded candidate field to win the mayor’s office. The following year, in 2018, Sawant and housing activists pushed through a modest tax on Amazon and other top corporations, but, with Durkan’s encouragement, the local Chamber of Commerce launched a scorched-earth political counterattack that reversed the tax within weeks.
Later the same year, Mayor Durkan negotiated and pushed for City Council approval of a new police contract that rolled back key police accountability measures. Two dozen civil and immigrant rights groups protested, but got steamrolled by the combined forces of the new mayor, local labor council leaders, the police, and businesses. On the council, only Sawant voted no, with the eight other members—all Democrats—approving the contract.
For Durkan and her political base, the police contract experience stimulated hope that they could defeat Sawant and the popular movement. The local chamber president, Marilyn Strickland, declared that 2019 would be “a change election” in Seattle. She vowed to replace local officeholders with pro-business candidates, starting with unseating Sawant. The anti-Sawant coalition drew in conservative building trades union leaders and others who could claim to be past supporters of the socialist put off by her recent tactics. To fund the anti-Sawant campaign, Strickland’s group led the effort to amass $4.1 million in corporate cash for the City Council elections—including a staggering $1.45 million from Amazon—swamping council races that previously saw candidates win with one-20th that amount of money.
The gambit backfired, however, as Sawant’s campaign—with support from other candidates and progressive union forces—successfully turned the 2019 election into a referendum on Amazon and corporate power. Five of the seven business-aligned office seekers went down in defeat.
In early 2020, Sawant, her Socialist Alternative organization, and renter groups seized the election momentum to win a first-in-the-nation ban on winter evictions, and to launch a renewed Tax Amazon demand.
The arrival of the pandemic shifted the terrain for the reemergent tax movement by making grassroots political tactics like door-knocking and tabling initially off-limits. Yet the economic crisis for working people underscored the dire need to fund services, and rampant profiteering by Amazon and other big businesses made it hard for most pro-business politicians to defend continued corporate tax immunity.
Notably, also, the Black Lives Matter uprising bolstered the tax fight. Street protesters and local clergy drew the connection between police violence and the brutal gentrification and economic displacement that have shrunk Seattle’s core Black community by three-quarters in recent decades. “If Black Lives Matter, then affordable housing for Black families in the Central District should matter,” the Rev. Carey Anderson, senior pastor at Seattle’s First African Methodist Episcopal Church, told media at a pro-Amazon-Tax press conference organized with Sawant and other faith leaders.
Sawant and Tax Amazon volunteers collected more than 30,000 signatures—many from the street protests—threatening to put the tax measure on the ballot if the City Council failed to act. The Tax Amazon call became a prominent demand at Black Lives Matter protests.
Mayor Durkan openly fought the Amazon Tax, at one point derisively telling a TV reporter, “Yeah, that never is going to happen, and I think it’s irresponsible for anyone to say that that’s even possible.”
But in July—two weeks after winning the police weapons ban legislation—Sawant and the movement proved the mayor wrong, as the City Council adopted a tax on big business that was more than four times the size of the repealed 2018 measure. A late amendment introduced by Sawant dedicates a portion of the tax every year to building affordable housing in the historically Black Central District, a significant tangible victory for the Black Lives Matter movement.
“Victories like these are why the ruling class wants a do-over, not only of my  reelection, but also of all these victories for the working class and oppressed communities,” Sawant said.
As for Durkan, the mayor’s fortunes tumbled in the wake of the Tax Amazon win and the summer’s Black Lives Matter street protests. Joining with millions around the country, tens of thousands of Seattle community members turned out to protest racist police violence, including eight killings by Seattle police on Mayor Durkan’s watch. Durkan initially issued public declarations of solidarity with the movement, but then staunchly defended multiple brutal police crackdowns on protesters.
Faith and community members assailed the mayor’s defense of police violence. Key organizations, including the local United Food and Commercial Workers Union, called for her resignation. The Seattle Human Rights Commission, along with the LGBTQ Commission, called on her to quit. Activists launched a recall petition against Durkan (which was quickly dismissed by the state Supreme Court). Politically tattered, Durkan announced in December that she would not stand for reelection in 2021, clearing the path for making the recall against Sawant the marquee political contest this year.
The big corporate cash has yet to make an appearance against Sawant—independent expenditure mega-donations typically show up just before ballots drop. For now, the recall’s early donors reveal the contours of the emerging battle. They include billionaire property developer Martin Selig, a major Trump donor, along with senior executives from Goodman Real Estate, a huge apartment and commercial landlord with $2.5 billion in properties in the US and Canada; Broadmark Realty Capital; National Health Investors, a Tennessee-based real estate investment trust with control in 242 nursing homes and senior living centers around the US; Meridian Capital, a global investment banking firm based in Seattle; Merrill Lynch, and Noble House Hotels, a North American hotel and restaurant chain that in 2018 picked a huge fight with Seattle Unitehere members, whom Sawant actively supported. Notably, many of these executives, aside from Selig, have routinely donated to Democratic candidates like Joe Biden, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Collecting the required signatures might be a challenge for a grassroots campaign, but it’s hardly impossible for a recall effort with limitless cash to spend on mailings and advertising, backed by the local Sinclair-owned TV station, right-wing talk radio, and a Seattle Times editorial board that rarely misses an opportunity to attack the socialist. Once the recall campaign turns in signatures and they are verified, election officials would schedule the recall 45 to 90 days out.
Recall forces doubtless will continue to hammer away on their allegations that Sawant broke the law. They also are likely to try to split progressives in Sawant’s left-leaning district, by enlisting community leaders with liberal bona fides who will argue that Sawant is too confrontational and polarizing, and that the city needs elected officials who play “Seattle nice.”
Sawant and her supporters readily admit they don’t plan to bend to that culture.
“She doesn’t say, ‘Oh, well, you know, we have to all get along,’” said Kathy Yasi, a child care provider and vice president of SEIU 925. “Well, I don’t really want her to get along. I want her to say, ‘What the hell is happening? Why is this this way?’ And I can count on her to do that.”
This past summer, as Black Lives Matter protests took off across the country, seven of Seattle’s nine City Council members publicly pledged to halve Seattle’s bloated $409 million police budget. But when the budget votes came this fall, only Sawant supported the 50 percent police cut. The other members agreed to trim about 8 percent from the police and pledge to do more at some point in the future, arguing that more community discussion and political deliberation were needed. Their disavowal matched other municipal retreats—most notably, in Minneapolis—from pledges to defund the police. At the same time, the Seattle council approved the mayor’s proposal to cut $200 million from affordable housing, bus hours, parks, and libraries.
Sawant was unsparing in her public response, issuing a statement that “the budget that Democratic Party Councilmembers have approved today is a budget that deeply fails working people and marginalized communities, including working-class and poor communities of color.”
Sawant and her allies will seek to galvanize the movement against the recall with their own set of broad demands on the city: increase the Amazon Tax to fund more Covid relief, a jobs program, and ramped-up local Green New Deal projects; cancel rents and mortgages for tenants and small businesses who’ve lost income during the pandemic; and establish a democratically elected community oversight board over the police, with subpoena, investigatory, and policy-setting powers.
They also will enlist a range of political leaders and activists—socialists, independents, and progressive Democrats—who recognize the broader impact of the recall effort.
“I don’t have to agree with everything that Kshama does to know that I am opposed to the recall,” said Democratic state Senator Rebecca Saldaña. “Kshama is a democratically elected woman who is doing work on behalf of her constituents…. Instead of spending money on the recall, businesses should focus on supporting economic recovery, our public health, addressing racial inequities, and creating a clean-fueled economy that recognizes the dire climate emergency.” Saldaña’s constituency overlaps with Sawant’s district.
Seattle civil rights leader Larry Gossett, who recently retired after serving 25 years on the council, noted that the attack on Sawant is an attack on the broader progressive movement. “I know, as an activist organizing Black Student Unions, Third World coalitions, and unemployed Black workers beginning in the 1960s, that our opponents always try to undermine our movement and movement leaders, especially when they are effective,” he said. “That’s exactly what’s going on here.”
Indeed, the Seattle power struggle between an embattled but formidable political establishment and a scrappy, socialist-led movement mirrors the growing tension nationally—the current honeymoon notwithstanding—between Biden’s political base and the insurgent left. In 2021, what happens in Seattle will be an important political bellwether, with significance far beyond the city limits.
About the Author
Jonathan Rosenblum works as a community organizer for Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant. He is the author of Beyond $15: Immigrant Workers, Faith Activists, and the Revival of the Labor Movement (Beacon Press, 2017), and a member of the National Writers Union/UAW 1981. Find him online at https://jonathanrosenblum.org/ or Twitter: @jonathan4212.