This article appeared originally in The Nation.
Once again, Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant and her Socialist Alternative organization have beaten the political odds. Last month, she defeated a million-dollar recall campaign by real estate developers and landlords, Democratic Party leaders, big Trump donors, and newspaper editorialists, who all teamed up to evict the eight-year councilor from City Hall.
Sawant’s win is both an inspiration for embattled progressives everywhere and a road map of how to fight back aggressively and win. And it’s all the more remarkable because this was a special election, engineered to suppress working-class turnout, with anti-Sawant forces scheduling the election between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
“The wealthy . . . took their best shot at us, and we beat them. Again,” Sawant declared to about 100 supporters gathered on December 10 outside Seattle’s New Hope Missionary Baptist Church. “We won because we did not back down. We did not back down in our socialist city council office. Instead, we went on the offensive, and won some of the most crucial victories for renters’ rights this year. We did not back down in fighting for workers. . . . We did not back down one inch in our socialist election campaign to defeat the racist, right-wing, big-business-backed recall.”
The victory margin was narrow—50.4 to 49.6, a 317-vote difference out of nearly 41,000 cast, with a handful of ballots still being tallied in advance of the election certification on Friday. As Sawant’s fourth race in eight years, this recall effort wasn’t even supposed to be close.
Corporate executives and their political allies, with help from the courts, state government, and the media, had orchestrated the special December election. They fully intended to finish off the firebrand socialist, who has led movements producing the first big-city $15 minimum wage, breakthrough renters rights legislation, and a new tax on Amazon and other big businesses to fund affordable housing and Green New Deal projects.
Sawant, a member of both Socialist Alternative (SA) and Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), is but one voice of nine on the city council, but she’s had an outsize impact on the city’s political discourse. I’ve witnessed this first hand, having worked with Sawant since 2013 on issue and electoral campaigns and currently in her city council office as a community organizer.
As Seattle Times reporters Daniel Beekman and David Gutman observed the week before the election, “few figures have influenced the city’s politics as much in the past decade. Sawant’s scorching rhetoric and uncompromising approach have pushed the council to the left on issues ranging from business taxes to renter protections and have altered the way City Hall operates.”
It would be a mistake for observers outside Seattle to discount the significance of the socialist’s win by writing off the Northwestern coast city as some sort of lefty political outlier among US cities. While Seattle has a relatively active labor movement and a proud history of community struggle, it is no progressive nirvana.
Economic inequality has reached obscene levels, with no end in sight. Some of the most brutal repression against Black Lives Matter protesters in the summer of 2020 happened on the streets of Seattle. The city’s police department, under ten-year federal oversight for abusing Black and brown residents, notoriously had the highest number of police officers attend the January 6 Capitol insurrection—at least six—of any US police department. And elected Seattle Democrats have united around the policy of systematically sweeping people experiencing homelessness from their encampments, junking their personal items, and pushing them to another park, underpass, or flea-ridden shelter, all contributing to the record 221 street deaths in the region in the last twelve months.
As in many other cities, Seattle in 2021 experienced a backlash led by big business and political leaders to the demand from the local Black Lives Matter movement and area residents to slash bloated police budgets and invest more in community needs. Real estate developers, big landlords, and tech CEOs recruited their star candidates for mayor and the one competitive council seat. These two contenders, along with a Republican who ran for city attorney, all campaigned on platforms of increasing police funding and prosecutions, along with cozier relations between big business and City Hall.
In April, when the state supreme court green-lighted the Recall Sawant campaign, the recall spokesperson explained that they would intentionally delay turning in the required voter signatures to miss the deadline for a November ballot, aiming to suppress voter turnout in the majority-renter district. That is exactly the timeline they got from the county elections board, filing in September to ensure a December 7 ballot.
The other boost the recall advocates achieved was a sweeping victory in November. The business-backed mayoral candidate, Bruce Harrell, crushed City Council President Lorena Gonzalez by seventeen points. Gonzalez spent much of the campaign backpedaling on her previous commitment to shift police funding into community programs, and she failed to speak up forcefully for popular working-class issues, like affordable housing. Business owner Sara Nelson beat community organizer Nikkita Oliver for the open council seat. In the city attorney race, Ann Davison—an attorney with almost no courtroom experience who joined the Republican Party during the Trump administration—prevailed, buoyed by high-profile Democratic establishment endorsements.
Just as the dust began to settle from the November election and as households turned attention to the Thanksgiving holiday, ballots arrived in the mailboxes of the 77,000 voters in Seattle’s District 3, the central urban area that reelected Sawant just two years earlier. (Washington state elections are all by-mail.)
Financing the recall campaign was a who’s who of big developers and anti-union executives: George Petrie, CEO of the $2.5 billion Goodman Real Estate and Trump’s number one donor in Washington State; Frank Shrontz, who as Boeing CEO waged war on the Machinists union at Boeing and oversaw some of the biggest layoffs in company history; hotel owner and union foe Richard Hedreen; Martin Selig, a billionaire developer and major Trump donor; and a host of venture capital, Amazon, and high-tech executives. All told, some 130 Trump donors and more than 850 millionaires donated to the recall, building a war chest of some $800,000.
State law limits individual campaign donations to $1,000, so executives who had maxxed out to the recall campaign formed a political action committee and petitioned the Washington State Public Disclosure Commission to lift all PAC contribution caps. They argued that the PAC technically was an “independent” political committee deserving unlimited fundraising rights under Citizens United. Just before Thanksgiving, with ballots already out, the public disclosure commission members—appointed by Democratic Governor Jay Inslee—unanimously ruled in favor of lifting the PAC contribution limits. With restraints off, the recall backers collected another $200,000 to fund huge television ad buys in the final week.
The Kshama Solidarity Campaign managed to raise just over $1 million, closely matching the recall backers, with an aggressive grassroots fundraising push—everything from collecting coins and single bills at apartment doors to staging online fundraisers. The fundraising supported a huge canvassing effort, which began in the spring while the recallers were collecting signatures to get on the ballot. The early canvassing—more than 1,500 volunteers logged time over the course of 2021—gave the campaign momentum heading into the fall.
By October, hundreds of volunteers, along with staff fluent in eight different languages, were knocking on tens of thousands of doors every week, getting people involved in renters rights struggles, soliciting contributions, and educating voters about the right-wing and corporate forces behind the recall campaign.
Many progressive electoral campaigns shy away from framing the fight in class terms. Sawant rejected that approach, contrasting working-class demands for rent control and tenant protections against the pro-recall developers and CEOs, whom she called out by name. The campaign also had no hesitation calling the recall campaign a racist one: Two of the three recall charges against Sawant involved her participation in Black Lives Matter demonstrations during the peak of Justice for George Floyd protests in the summer of 2020. The campaign successfully defined their adversary, effectively undermining the recall campaign’s narrative about ordinary District 3 voters outraged by the socialist.
In the city council, Sawant pressed her renters’ rights agenda. Between the spring and the December 7 vote, she successfully mobilized tenants’ rights groups, the Seattle teachers union, University of Washington workers’ unions, other progressive unions, and SA and DSA activists to win breakthrough renters’ rights legislation: the right to counsel for all tenants facing eviction; a ban on school-year evictions of children, their families, and educators; a ban on any rent increases without six months’ advance notice; and extensions of the Covid-related eviction moratorium into 2022. And she led the effort to collect more than 15,000 community signatures demanding that the Seattle City Council enact her bill to institute rent control as soon as activists succeed in lifting Washington state’s ban.
In stark contrast to mayoral candidate and City Council President Gonzalez, Sawant ran on a platform of rent control, increasing the Amazon Tax, community control over the police, and a Green New Deal for Seattle. Mainstream political consultants might urge candidates in Sawant’s position to burnish their appeal to undecided voters, but every piece of campaign literature loudly proclaimed the councilor’s socialist bona fides and the right-wing, racist nature of the recall.
In the final days before the ballot deadline, canvassers blanketed the working-class neighborhoods in District 3, while other volunteers staffed grassroots ballot stations with Wi-Fi-connected printers. Local law encourages voters to reprint spoiled or misplaced ballots—a good way to ensure higher voter turnout, but not so easy to do if one doesn’t have easy access to a printer. The pop-up ballot stations solved that access problem, and King County Elections data show that turnout in many low-income precincts climbed above November figures. In one apartment building, turnout among the largely East African residents increased by an order of magnitude over the November vote, Sawant’s campaign reported.
The recall and PAC piled on in the last weeks of the campaign with a torrent of mailers and Internet, TV, and radio ads, supplemented by editorials in The Seattle Times calling for Sawant to be recalled. The Times editorial board—which had previously written against voter suppression in other states—railed against Sawant’s grassroots ballot stations and demanded that the state legislature outlaw the practice of campaigns helping voters restore their ballots.
A final boost for the anti-Sawant recall came from Democratic Party leaders: Most local elected Democrats, including several on the City Council who call themselves progressive, stood aside and refused to support Sawant, abetting the recall campaign’s narrative that Sawant was ineffective because she doesn’t get along with her council colleagues.
In her election night speech, Sawant called out the silence of progressive Democrats: “Why is it when progressive people get elected, even well-meaning ones, they don’t do anything much? Or they utterly sell out. There is no big mystery—fundamentally it’s because this system puts enormous pressure on elected representatives to operate within the status quo. And it is only by basing yourself on movements that you can fight back.”
It was that grassroots movement that overcame the odds and beat the recall. For Sawant and Socialist Alternative, the biggest lesson of this election resonates beyond the city. As Sawant said in her Friday victory speech, “If a small revolutionary socialist organization can beat the wealthiest corporations in the world here in Seattle, again and again, you can be sure that the organized power of the wider working class can change society.”
About the Author
Jonathan Rosenblum 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. He works as a community organizer for Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant.