On Nov. 4 at Chop Suey nightclub, a volunteer with a clipboard yelled into a room filled with patrons sipping drinks and waiting for the drag show to begin.
“We’re all feeling the effects of last Tuesday’s election results,” they said, and they urged everyone to vote. Systematically, volunteers wearing red “Sawant” shirts dispersed into the crowd, asking people if their voter registration was up to date or if they wanted to donate to Sawant’s Solidarity campaign.
The Defend Kshama From the Right Wing Recall drag show on Capitol Hill was just one of many fundraising efforts organized by the Kshama Solidarity Campaign to drum out support for Councilmember Kshama Sawant and to get people living in District 3 to vote in the Dec. 7 recall election.
After Seattle voted in favor of conservative-leaning candidates in the November general election, all eyes are turned to District 3 and whether socialist Kshama Sawant can hold onto her city council seat.
The recall petition moved forward in September after King County Superior Court Judge Jim Rogers affirmed that charges were specific and serious enough to remove Sawant from office. Sawant appealed this decision to the state’s Supreme Court, which allowed the recall to move forward.
The recall effort, originally filed by Seattle resident Ernest Lou, stated that she improperly used city funds to promote a ballot initiative, allowed demonstrators into City Hall despite state COVID-19 orders at the time and participated in a protest outside of Mayor Jenny Durkan’s house. Durkan’s address is kept confidential because of her past as a U.S. Attorney.
Critically, the courts were not supposed to determine whether the allegations against Sawant were true, just if they rose to the level of recalling a sitting councilmember.
Issa Man, a performer at the Chop Suey drag show and an activist who led Black Lives Matter marches last summer in Seattle, argues that more elected officials should be using their positions for activism.
Speaking to a crowd of approximately 150 younger faces during the drag show’s intermission, Man said Sawant was consistently at protests they organized and that Seattle can’t afford to lose any more politicians who are willing to fight for rent control and fair wages.
“There’s a lot of irony in whenever I go down to nicer neighborhoods in Capitol Hill and I see a lot of ‘Black Lives Matter’ signs in front of people’s yards, and right next to those ‘Black Lives Matter’ signs are ‘Recall Kshama Sawant,’” Man said.
To Man and other queens living and performing on Capitol Hill, those picket signs placed side by side are disingenuous and a signal that the working-class and BIPOC communities aren’t welcome in the area.
“A big part of doing drag is being a part of your community and a big part of doing drag is realizing that drag has always been political and a protest,” Man said. “As a Black person I know, especially as a Black queer person, I know how exhausting it is to exist in Seattle.”
This is my full-time job
Sitting outside of Vivace Espresso Bar on Broadway, Jacob Almanza, who lives in District 3 and performs under the name Queen Andrew Scott, said the COVID-19 pandemic exposed the thin margins performers in the drag industry were operating on.
“Coming out of COVID really gave us a fresh look on what we want the drag scene to look like. Prior to that, we were being dictated by bar owners or venues,” Queen Andrew Scott said.
In July of 2021, Queen Andrew Scott and a group of other queens returned to their jobs at Julia’s on Broadway, asking for higher pay and out of their strict non-compete contract, but they were fired. This prompted them to create a union called the Seattle Drag Alliance that brought together 30 to 40 other entertainers locally to share their experiences.
Those meetings sparked conversations Queen Andrew Scott said have been a game-changer in unifying the drag community in Seattle, setting more concrete asking prices that bars and venues have to meet. Since those meetings, Queen Andrew Scott has seen an increase in pay rates, booking fees and venues diversifying their casts.
Most people perform in drag work on an as-needed basis, and it’s unusual to have a bar hire them full-time. Queen Andrew Scott wants people to understand that performing drag is a full-time job. It requires hours of practice to memorize dance numbers, self-promotion, and buying expensive wigs, makeup and elaborate costumes that can’t be whipped together on a whim.
“Every time I hear about [Sawant] efforts, and what she’s trying to push for, it does coincide with what drag wants — we want to be able to perform, get paid well for it and then have that money go back into our drags,” Queen Andrew Scott said.
At the moment, Queen Andrew Scott said union efforts have since simmered down. Still, she believes it was a critical moment for the industry, locally, and shed light on how underpaid drag performers are for the amount of work and money that is required to put on a good show.
“I think what we’re most afraid of in terms of the drag community — and the gay community in general — is getting pushed out of Capitol Hill or seeing our audiences dwindle because it feels Seattle wants to become this Tech City,” she said.
What’s needed to beat a recall election?
Bryan Koulouris, a spokesperson for Kshama Solidarity Campaign and 2019 campaign manager for Sawant, believes it’s a real possibility that Sawant could lose the recall election in December.
“We’re going to need people to do more than just vote this time around because of what we’re up against,” Koulouris said. “They can get rid of her if it’s wealthier, older and whiter people are the only ones that vote. That’s what they want, and we have to have the exact opposite to happen so that we can win.”
Koulouris said having an election in Seattle in which people get their ballots before Thanksgiving and have to get their ballots in between Thanksgiving and Christmas is not ideal.
Koulouris said the Recall Sawant campaign is weaponizing the holidays to suppress votes, especially since Sawant’s voter base is known to be renters, young people and BIPOC communities. Those voters tend to be working significantly harder to keep up with the holiday rush or are out of town visiting family.
Real Change requested an interview with the Recall Sawant campaign to get their side of the story and received this email response:
“Councilmember Sawant has spent her time in office breaking the law and ignoring the rules that hold our elected officials accountable. District 3 voters deserve better and we look forward to holding Sawant accountable on December 7,” wrote Henry Bridger II, Campaign Manager and Chair of Recall Sawant.
While it’s unclear what will happen come December, both campaigns have received hundreds of thousands of dollars to use toward canvassing and marketing efforts to sway voters to their cause. As of Nov. 2, 2021, the Recall Sawant Campaign has received $684,079.00 in donations from 4,838 contributors, and the Kshama Solidarity campaign has received $792,812.00 from 8,841 contributors.
Samira George covers real people living real lives in the Puget Sound. Follow her on Twitter @samirakgeorge.
Read more of the Nov. 10-16, 2021 issue.