England, Wales and Scotland section of International Socialist Alternative

First-hand account: How socialists successfully defended Kshama Sawant’s Seattle City Council seat against the right-wing racist recall attempt

Since Socialist Alternative member Kshama Sawant was elected as a Seattle councilmember  in 2013, she has faced fierce resistance from the right wing and the capitalist establishment. But by winning re-election for a fourth time against an undemocratic special election organised to remove her from office, socialists in Seattle may have won their toughest battle so far.

This recall attempt represented not just an attack on Kshama Sawant’s council office but on all the victories it has achieved. This includes the successful movement for $15/hr, which she and Socialist Alternative played a key role in winning through the 15 Now campaign. After passing in Seattle the movement spread like wildfire, with many other cities in the US now having a $15/hr minimum wage.

A “racist, right-wing recall”

This recall campaign forms part of a nationwide reaction against the wave of working-class struggle which erupted last year. In Seattle, a hotspot for the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, Kshama’s office won a ban on police “crowd control” weapons against protestors and a tax on big business, dubbed the “Amazon Tax” to begin to address the housing crisis gripping Seattle. It is no coincidence that in this context, she was targeted for removal by big business and the right-wing.

From day 1, Socialist Alternative pointed out the racist, right-wing nature of the recall campaign, despite painting itself as apolitical – hiding behind the claim that “nobody is above the law”. This was for a number of reasons:

  • This was an effort backed and bankrolled by 130+ Trump donors, including Washington state’s biggest Trump donor – the notorious slum landlord George Petrie – and Martin Selig, infamous locally for renting out a facility to ICE border control agencies. Shocking images from such facilities, of immigrant children locked in cages made international news last year. The recall weaponised the dog whistle language of the far right, calling the BLM protests “riots”, and was even endorsed by alt-right website Breitbart.
  • The recall campaign’s use of voter suppression methods – engineering a special election in the holiday period, where turnout was predicted to be significantly lower – was in line with the worst traditions of the American right wing.
  • And most crucially, because two of the three false charges levelled against Kshama as the basis for recalling her were over her involvement in the George Floyd movement last year, and the other around the Amazon Tax.

Ultimately, this revealed the real aims of the recall: it was an attempt to attack the right to protest, to remove one of the most consistent and active supporters of the BLM movement in elected office in the US, and by extension an attack on such movements themselves.

The question posed was clear – “which side are you on?”. Kshama Sawant, standing in solidarity with the working class and the oppressed, and endorsed by figures including Bernie Sanders, Noam Chomsky? Or a recall campaign backed by big business and the right-wing? 

FACT CHECK: The charges against Kshama Sawant

The charges levelled against Kshama were that she:

(1) Used City resources to support a ballot initiative and failed to comply with the public disclosure requirements related to such support;

FALSE: The ‘Amazon Tax’ represents, over the next decade, a $2 billion transfer of wealth from Seattle’s richest business to ordinary working people. What really concerns big business is not this minor infraction, for which Kshama paid a fine already, and which many other councilmembers have paid. But it is only Kshama who faced a recall because of it. Really, it is because she won a tax on big business – as she was elected to do – that the right and big business want her gone!

(2) Disregarded state orders related to COVID-19 by admitting hundreds of people into City Hall on June 9, 2020 when it was closed to the public;

FALSE: The Black Lives Matter rally at City Hall was an important coming together of activists and protestors to discuss what way forward for the movement in Seattle which won tangible results including the ban on rubber bullets and chemical weapons by police against protestors. The event was as COVID-safe as possible, based on the science of the time. Like millions of others around the USA and around the world, Kshama was not prepared for covid to stand in the way of an urgent struggle for racial justice.

(3) Led a protest march to Mayor Jenny Durkan’s private residence, the location of which Councilmember Sawant knew was protected under state confidentiality laws.

FALSE: Kshama was invited to speak at a rally organised by families of victims of police violence, as someone who has consistently stood with the black community in Seattle. Thousands of peaceful protestors took part in a march, outraged at the rampant police violence and heavy-handed treatment of protestors. Kshama has stated repeatedly that she did not know the location of Mayor Durkan’s house and was not involved in the planning of the route of the march. Again, the real reason Kshama was singled out was for not being afraid to stand with victims of police violence.

As the Kshama Solidarity Campaign pointed out in an official response to the charges, “Kshama didn’t break the law, but like civil rights leaders and socialists before her, she’s always prepared to put herself on the line for working people.”

How the recall was defeated

In a low-turnout special election, it is women, young workers, renters, students and people of colour – the people Kshama represents and who elected her 3 times previously – who are less likely to vote. The recall campaign was banking on a low turnout from such groups in order to quietly push this recall through. But the Kshama Solidarity Campaign (KSC), organised primarily by Socialist Alternative, responded with a bold grassroots campaign, mobilising over 1,500 volunteers to get out the vote (even in the middle of the rainiest autumn in Seattle history!).

If the recall was hoping people would not know about this holiday-period election, hidden in the aftermath of the higher-profile general election only a few weeks previous, the KSC made it impossible to ignore that this election was happening. Seattle’s District 3 was practically painted red with yard signs, posters, and tables on every street corner, with supporters talking to people about the need to vote “NO” against the right-wing recall. Doorknocking was organised, not just in the “likely voter” neighbourhoods traditionally favoured by liberal campaigns, but in marginalised communities with canvassing organised in 8 different languages and over 1,700 new voters were registered by KSC activists.

No stone was left unturned; printing stations were even set up by the KSC on the street to print out people’s mail-in ballots to fight for every vote possible. This bold move generated a huge amount of enthusiasm from supporters, and outrage from the capitalist press. One person even drove down to a station in their pyjamas to vote, and residents delivered food to activists on the final day to show their support! The rabid opposition to this tactic by the recall and the media showed their true anti-democratic colours, even going as far as calling to criminalise such printer stations in future.  

But the campaign went beyond just asking for people’s votes – instead extending its grassroots movement by asking supporters to pledge to speak to their friends and join the biggest “Get Out The Vote” campaign in Seattle history.

The scale of this campaign is reflected in the number of volunteers, as well as the +$1 million raised in grassroots donations. This total, which came without accepting a dime of corporate cash, represented more in-district donors than any campaign in Seattle history. Overall, the campaign had more total donors than any campaign in Seattle history, both in and out of district – a sign of the national importance of this election and of this council position in the eyes of many workers and those in the nascent socialist movement in the USA.

And ultimately this approach succeeded. Even with all the cards stacked against them, working people eked out a victory with a narrow majority voting against the recall. Despite a record of special elections seeing incredibly low voter turnout, especially among the less well-off, this election had a turnout 53%, higher even than the 43% in the general election just a few weeks before. Part of this came from the richest neighbourhoods which were determined to see Kshama removed. However turnout was also up among young and working class people, who overwhelmingly came out in opposition to the recall.

The political clarity needed to cut through the lies of the capitalist media and the recall, whether in printed materials or in discussions on the street and at the door, would have been impossible without the leadership of Socialist Alternative. As a distinctly revolutionary organisation with an active, politically cohesive membership, they were able to build a highly organised, dedicated campaign to take on the rock-solid opposition of the ruling class and win.  

Building a fighting socialist movement in the USA

Kshama’s victory stands in stark contrast to the wipeout for the left which took place in the November general elections. In Seattle itself, progressive candidates like Nikitta Oliver were defeated, and a republican has entered city hall for the first time in decades.  

This is a reflection and a result of a similar picture nationally. The Biden administration has been a disappointment for millions and is headed for disaster in this year’s midterm elections. Meanwhile, progressive figures like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and ‘the Squad’, as well as Bernie Sanders have been unable to offer any way forward. Instead they have become more and more integrated with the political establishment, often constraining their radical message to “woke” soundbites rather than building movements to fight for concrete demands.

This lull in momentum for the left in the US has opened up a space for the right wing to go on the offensive, including using recall elections against other progressive figures. That Kshama Sawant and Socialist Alternative was able to weather the storm and resist the right-wing recall is a vindication of a fighting, Marxist approach.

Rather than compromise with the establishment or water-down the socialist ideas that are desperately needed right now, the solidarity campaign faced the polarised political situation head-on, exposing the recall’s right-wing, undemocratic and racist nature to the point where the “right-wing recall” became a matter of fact for many people. But importantly, this campaign was backed up by a track record of standing with workers, youth and the oppressed, and winning real victories. Even in the middle of the election campaign, Kshama’s office passed new protections for renters, and played a crucial role in the Seattle carpenters’ strike when the union leadership offered a lack of leadership.  

Where next?

There is now a clear mandate for Kshama and Socialist Alternative’s programme of rent control in Seattle. But as experience shows, this will only be won on through struggle and the movement-building approach that won $15/hr and the Amazon Tax.  Rather than cosying up to establishment parties, this growing list of victories points toward what is possible on the basis of an independent working-class campaign. With US society wracked by converging health, environmental and economic crises, a party that can provide a way out for workers and young people is needed more than ever.

Likewise in the UK, there is a desperate need for a real opposition to Boris Johnson’s corrupt, crisis-ridden government. We need a political alternative rooted in movements on the streets and in the workplace, with a clear programme to take those movements forward. This election in Seattle shows what the first steps on this road can look like and should serve as an inspiration to all activists looking to resist this Tory government over the next year.


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