Recall attempts across the US in recent months have hit a fever pitch in response to Covid-19 and racial justice disputes, and a socialist city council member in Seattle has become the latest prominent seat to be targeted.
Opponents of Kshama Sawant have spent months collecting thousands of signatures in an attempt to unseat the council member, who became the first socialist on the Seattle council in nearly a century after she beat a Democrat in 2013. Last week, the recall effort officially qualified for an election in December.
The attempt to oust Sawant during her third term was based on claims that she opened city hall to demonstrators during a protest, disregarding Covid-19 restrictions, used city resources for a “Tax Amazon” effort and led a march to Seattle mayor Jenny Durkan’s home despite the address being protected under state confidentiality laws.
Across the US, there have been at least 500 recall attempts this year, with the majority in the west, according to Joshua Spivak, a senior fellow at the Hugh L Carey Institute at Wagner College, and the author of Recall Elections: From Alexander Hamilton to Gavin Newsom. Although many have not qualified for the ballot, he said the number of attempts is already one of the highest in more than a decade.
“It appears that the restrictions around the pandemic have fueled a boost in recall attempts,” he said. “To a significantly lower degree issues surrounding the Black Lives Matter protests and other social justice related matters, such as the teaching of critical race theory, have led to recalls that we normally don’t see – more of a national level issue as opposed to a strictly local level policy debate.”
Just last month, California governor Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, defeated a recall bid that was spurred in part by safety measures in response to Covid, to remain in office. In Washington state, Durkan also faced a recall effort, after she was accused of mishandling protests, but last fall the state supreme court nixed the effort.
Spivak said: “They see the Gavin Newsom recall, and they also maybe remember the Scott Walker recall, and feel this is a good weapon. Part of the problem, of course, is that the Scott Walker and Gavin Newsom recall … neither of them worked in the end. And arguably both of the governors were strengthened by the recall effort.”
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 19 states and Washington DC allow the recall of state officials, while at least 30 states allow the practice in local jurisdictions.
The push to oust Sawant was launched last summer by a Seattle resident, just two years after she beat out an opponent with unprecedented financial support from Amazon, which is headquartered in Seattle.
In April, Washington’s supreme court allowed the effort to move forward, stating that three of the recall petition’s charges against Sawant “are factually and legally sufficient to support recall”.
King county elections announced it had accepted more than 11,000 signatures collected through the recall process, and it would be on the ballot during an election on 7 December. The effort needed about 10,700 signatures to move forward.
Sawant’s supporters have framed this as her latest fight against big business, the right wing and the political establishment as a whole. They have also argued that the timing of the election is akin to voter suppression, saying her opponents coordinated their effort so it would be during an election that they anticipate will have a lower turnout rate.
In response to the charges, Bryan Koulouris, the Kshama Solidarity Campaign spokesperson, said that the crowd was masked in the after-hours visit to city hall, Sawant didn’t lead the protest to the mayor’s house and doesn’t know her address. He also said that the “Tax Amazon” claim is misleading and that Sawant “was doing exactly what she was elected to do, which was use her council office to build the type of movements that are necessary for working people”.
Sawant told the Guardian she is not surprised her seat on the city council is being threatened.
“I think the fact that it is happening now obviously has a lot to do with our Marxist approach and the way we have used our position so effectively, absolutely refusing to be marginalized and at the same time absolutely refusing to sell out … In that context we should expect attacks like this,” she said.
Henry Bridger II, campaign manager and chairman of Recall Sawant, said that he is not a billionaire and is in fact a Democrat. He also said the timing of the election came down to how long it took to collect the signatures and validate them.
Bridger said he was happy to see that the recall was moving forward, as it already shows just how many people in her district are not supportive of the council member.
“She thinks she’s above the law, and she is not,” he said. “This is something that we’re really excited that the citizens – she gets to face her constituents now. And they get to decide if she broke the law or not. And with all of these signatures, it shows that there’s a huge support to remove her from office and hold her accountable.”
The Seattle Times reported this may be the first time a push to recall a member of the city council has reached voters.
The recall proponents have raised over $637,000, while the Kshama Solidarity Campaign has raised over $687,000, according to the Seattle ethics and elections commission.
The yes or no recall question is expected to be the only one on the ballot in December, according to King county elections. If Sawant is ousted, voters will not choose a replacement candidate, the seat will instead be filled through an appointment process.
During Sawant’s time in office she has helped lead the push to boost Seattle’s minimum wage to $15 an hour – a first for a major US city – and helped to secure more rights for renters.