A Superior Court judge ruled that a recall effort against Councilmember Kshama Sawant could move forward, making her the second elected official in Seattle to face recall in two months.
In his decision, presiding Judge Jim Rogers found that the four claims against Sawant had the “legal and factual sufficiency” to move forward. Ernest Lou, a Seattle voter who is spearheading the effort to recall the councilmember, dropped the two other charges against Sawant.
The recall documents do not list the other supporters. The effort has a website that calls for $25 donations, explaining that no donor names will be made public at that threshold.
The ruling hit at 4:30 p.m. Sept. 16. Earlier that day, Sawant supporters held an online rally and court-listening session as Sawant’s attorney Dmitri Iglitzin squared off against the recall effort’s attorney, John McKay.
In an online address to her supporters that evening, Sawant vowed to appeal the decision and continue to fight the recall effort, saying it was a sign that wealthy people and business interests were attempting to attack her for her politics and effectiveness.
“While working people should be angry at this outcome, we should not be surprised,” Sawant said. She and Mayor Jenny Durkan are now both fighting recall campaigns in court.
The four charges span at least two years’ worth of longstanding complaints against Sawant as well as fresher concerns stemming from her activities during the recent, popular uprising against police brutality.
They allege that Sawant delegated hiring and firing decisions to her political party, Socialist Alternative; misused city resources on an outside campaign; allowed Black Lives Matter protesters into City Hall after hours, in violation of a state prohibition on large gatherings; and led a march to Durkan’s house, an address that the mayor has kept secret due to death threats.
In her defense, Sawant’s attorney argued that some charges lacked enough specificity to move forward: The author didn’t identify the campaign on which city resources were used, for example, nor the law that Sawant allegedly broke by allowing hundreds of people into City Hall. He also pointed to previous work from the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission, which had already made a ruling on the hiring and firing practices of Sawant’s office.
But Rogers landed against Sawant in each of the four issues, noting that his role was not to determine the truth of the claims — just if they were legally and factually sufficient to move forward and allow the petitioners to gather signatures to put a recall of Sawant on the ballot.
The legally and factually sufficient standard is complex, but boils down to whether or not the electorate could decide from the allegations that Sawant’s actions interfered with her duties as an elected official and did so without legal justification.
Sawant may appeal as far as the Washington State Supreme Court to overturn the decision against her. That’s the stage of Durkan’s recall, brought by five individuals who allege that she allowed police to use certain chemical agents against protesters.
Durkan is paying for her own attorneys, while Sawant will receive support from the City Attorney’s Office. The day prior to the recall court hearing, the rest of the City Council voted 7 to 1 to allow the City Attorney’s office to defend Sawant through the recall process.
The one holdout was Councilmember Debora Juarez, who said she believed the law dictated that the council determine whether or not Sawant was acting within the course of her job.
“The question and discussion today was not deciding whether or not these acts were in good faith, but if these acts were in the official scope of Councilmember Sawant’s official duties,” Juarez said. “If so, we approve the cost of the defense, and if not, we don’t.”
However, the majority agreed that councilmembers should be able to rely on legal representation in recall efforts, particularly since the City Attorney’s Office had already signed off.
“Going forward, this is either something that applies to everybody, or it applies to nobody, so I’ll be voting yes,” Councilmember Andrew Lewis said.
Sawant’s opponents will have to gather 25 percent of the votes cast for all candidates for the given office. Between herself, opponent Egan Orion and write-in options, 42,956 votes were cast for this council seat in the 2019 election; that means petitioners will need at least 10,739 valid signatures from voters in Sawant’s district.
Recall efforts often try to exceed that percentage, as some signatures may be rejected. If they succeed, voters will once again decide if Sawant is the right candidate for them.
So far, they have stuck by her through two nail-biting victories, the most recent won less than a year ago, making Sawant the longest-serving member of the City Council.
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Ashley on Twitter @AshleyA_RC.
Read more in the Sept. 23-29, 2020 issue.