You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Can Seattle’s Minimum Wage Crusader Survive Her Recall Election?

Kshama Sawant brought an uncommon passion to a successful stint on the City Council. It may now be her undoing.

Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant speaks at a rally held outside the U.S. District Courthouse in Seattle.
Karen Ducey/Getty Images
Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant speaks at a rally held outside the U.S. District Courthouse in Seattle.

The signature experience of Larry Gossett’s life came in 1966. Seeking draft deferment, he joined Volunteers in Service to America, a sort of domestic Peace Corps. He traveled to New York to mentor Harlem youth. “I began my work just three weeks after Stokely Carmichael articulated a new concept for Black people in this country. It was called Black Power.” Gossett devoured the obvious literature, but staff at the Michaux bookstore on 125th Street told him to expand his perspective. He’d understood The Communist Manifesto as “bad,” “evil.” But “the men and women that worked at the bookstore said, ‘What do you mean, Mr. Gossett? Bad or evil? It’s just something to read.’” So he read. “As a descendant of African slaves, oh my God, that made sense to me.”

As he stood in the airport on his return home to Seattle, his mother and younger brother walked past without recognizing him. “I had a Big Natural. I had a dashiki. I had African beads.” After his family finally spotted him, he told them that his name was not Larry. It was Oba Yoruba.

The name didn’t stick, but the new consciousness did. Gossett, as one local activist told me, became a “walking institution and walking library” of activism in the city of Seattle. In the coming years, he would co-found the Black Student Union at the University of Washington and become a local spokesman for the Black Panthers. “I was the leader of the radical politics in the greater Seattle area for decades before I met Kshama.”

Kshama Sawant made Gossett’s acquaintance around 10 years ago, at a meeting she called to discuss a $15 minimum wage. She was “assertive, aggressive, and unfearful,” he said. “I thought that was cool.” Seattle was becoming unaffordable for many inhabitants, and bearing the socialist mantle, Sawant was launching a run for the City Council on the promise of rent control and a $15 minimum wage.

Improbably, she won, “coming out of nowhere,” as The Seattle Times put it, “to commandeer the city’s political agenda.” In an early pulse of changing political tides nationwide, Seattle adopted what was, by one analysis, among the highest minimum wages on earth. “Trace an arc from Sawant’s election,” wrote Benjamin Wallace-Wells in The New Yorker in 2015, “and you have a picture of the Democratic Party, hurrying to the left.”

But times have changed. On December 7, Sawant faces the first recall vote of a city councilmember in local history.

Technically, the recall is occasioned by three specific alleged transgressions, which neatly dovetail with claims made by Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan in a letter she sent to the City Council president amid the Black Lives Matter protests, in the summer of 2020.

The mayor asked the council to censure Sawant “for disorderly or otherwise contemptuous behavior.” (It did not.) As The Seattle Times reported, “Durkan wrote that Sawant should be investigated for several actions, such as opening City Hall to protesters on the evening of June 9 and taking part in [a protest] march to Durkan’s home.” In the letter, Durkan claimed that Sawant “and organizers knew that my address was protected under the state confidentiality program because of threats against me due largely to my work as U.S. Attorney,” adding that “Sawant and her followers” acted in “reckless disregard of the safety of my family and children.” (A third allegation cited by recall proponents is that Sawant misused city funds during her “Tax Amazon” campaign, for which she has paid a fine.)

But the recall is less about any specific actions Sawant has taken than a deeper disagreement about what it means to be an activist, a radical, and to serve in elected office in a liberal city. Most politicians take the view that establishing collegial relations with one another and other powerful community stakeholders is essential to the political process. Then again, most politicians aren’t Kshama Sawant, who sees herself as an electoral vessel for an urgent working-class movement to overthrow capitalism.

This, of course, only describes Sawant the politician. Gossett and his wife have dined with her, and he testifies that, in contrast to her “doctrinaire” public persona, in those social settings Sawant is “affable” “fun-loving,” and “easy to get along with.” But he understands this is a rare perspective. “These are not political issues.”

It can seem, for those inclined to make the distinction (Gossett is not), that Sawant has far more faith in the power of organizing than legislating. “Which then, of course, raises the question,” said Jamie Pedersen, a liberal state senator who likens Sawant to Trump, “why is she on the City Council?”

Socialist Alternative, or SA, reports roughly 1,000 members, against the 92,000 or so boasted by the Democratic Socialists of America. But unlike its well-known counterpart, SA is not a “big-tent” organization. Prior to admission, prospective members are contacted for a “basic political discussion.” In meetings, the group debates specific political situations before deciding how to proceed. At this point, members are expected to act in unity.

Sawant, a community college economics professor from Mumbai, was selected to represent SA in a 2012 bid for a state House seat. In 2013, she ran for the Seattle City Council. Another Trotskyist group, the Socialist Workers Party, had run candidates for council before but never really campaigned with any serious intent, said Nick Licata, a former longtime councilmember. You could “sleepwalk an election and win.”

Sawant was different. She led with important issues that ordinary people understood, running a robust campaign that deftly tracked the national mood. In 2012, East Coast fast-food workers were demanding a $15 wage floor. An SEIU local was running a soon-to-be successful campaign on the $15 wage in SeaTac, a small city neighboring Seattle. Seattle’s own leadership sympathized with the movement but “were a little too academic,” said Licata, and figured the minimum wage issue was better handled at the statewide level. Sawant disagreed, and her incumbent opponent, Richard Conlin, was “tone deaf,” said Licata. He championed “nice middle-class issues” like recycling. “He refused to take her seriously.”

One might say the rest is history, but the history—at least as it concerns the role Sawant’s movement would ultimately play in the historic enactment of Seattle’s phased-in $15 minimum wage—is still being litigated. In a recent article occasioned by the recall effort, veteran columnist Joel Connelly noted Sawant’s penchant to “claim credit where credit is not due,” how she “spiked the football” for Seattle’s phased-in $15-an-hour minimum wage plan despite her outsiderish role in the final negotiations.

Testimonials do not favor Connelly’s account. While then-Mayor Ed Murray put together a working group to concretely enact the idea she’d helped make politically salient, Sawant gathered signatures for a ballot initiative with her favored version of the plan. Licata, who was on the committee, said that the “ballot initiative threat was seen as very real, and that did play a major role” in pressuring city officials to establish a plan on their own terms. David Rolf, a union leader who spearheaded the pathbreaking SeaTac effort, told The Seattle Times that Mayor Murray was “the consensus builder we needed to translate rough ideas into actual policy, and Kshama was the threat from the left who gave us urgency.” Even Pedersen, who Sawant describes as an “obviously corporate” politician, somewhat begrudgingly acknowledged to me that Seattle’s $15 wage policy likely would not have happened without her: Sawant and Murray, he said, were each “necessary but not sufficient.”

After Sawant was elected, she and her campaign manager met Licata at the Piroshki café, near City Hall. A former commune dweller, Licata was uncommonly proficient in the Marxist lexicon, and he asked, out of curiosity, “So how do you guys deal with Democratic Centralism?”—a reference to the Leninist governing principle around which Socialist Alternative is organized.

Other councilmembers looking to ham it up with Sawant struggled to find such common ground. Jean Godden recalls that her welcoming overtures for a get-to-know you lunch were “curtly rebuffed” and early on noted Sawant’s cliquish association with Socialist Alternative associates and the “red and white posters, some likely produced on city copying machines, stacked on desk tops” in the office the socialist had inherited from her recycling-oriented predecessor.

Licata said he and Sawant respected one another and worked well together. As for the other councilmembers, “I don’t think she respected them, and I don’t think they respected her.” From the outset of her tenure, Sawant had little time for the “Seattle Way,” the unwritten spirit of decorum and niceness with which local hum-hawers strive, said Licata, to abide. As The Seattle Times put it in an endorsement of the recall, Sawant has disregarded “any civic norm that comes between her and a microphone.” To colleagues and outside foes, Sawant’s attacks feel personal, impugning their integrity and good faith.

“It’s not about being chummy and going and playing golf with somebody. This is about basic decency in terms of human interactions,” said Pedersen, who said he has discussed Sawant’s comportment on the City Council with many of her colleagues. “It’s that that’s lacking. They have no confidence that she’s not going to pop off with some statement in the middle of a council meeting that they’re, like, tools to the business class, selling out their constituents.”

What does it mean to be “radical?” Gossett, the old Black Panther, came to appreciate the possibilities of electoral politics amid the relative success of Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition, in whose Washington state branch he participated during the 1980s. In 1993, Gossett was elected to serve on the King County Council, and he “learned early on that the art of electoral politics, at least, is the art of compromise: making agreements with people that you don’t ordinarily hang out with … in order to get some changes through that are beneficial.”

Sawant would surely disagree. But what constitutes a compromise reflects one’s fundamental position, and Sawant’s is that, in the context of capitalism, no reform is sufficient to ensure acceptable living standards for all.

“You’d be an idiot to think there is not compromise in elected office, or that there isn’t compromise in class struggle,” said Bryan Koulouris, Sawant’s campaign manager in the recall fight. Compromise is an acknowledgment of the “balance of forces.” It has its place in activism and elected office, but you don’t want compromise as your starting point, he said, “because you’re not going to win anything that way. Your starting point as a socialist needs to be the needs of ordinary people.”

Sawant has long championed a policy to “Tax Amazon” and other major companies in the city. She and SA organized around the issue, and in 2018, the City Council passed the controversial plan, only to quickly rescind it when outraged businesses mustered a credible threat for a ballot measure of their own.

Amazon poured more than $1 million into 2019 elections and backed Sawant’s challenger, to his eventual chagrin. “Sawant vs. Amazon,” the story went. As is her custom, Sawant lagged behind on election night but swept into the lead on late returns.

In 2020, the pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests brought new political conditions. At the infamous “Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone,” or CHAZ, encampment in the core of Sawant’s district, Socialist Alternative and its allies gathered 20,000 signatures on a new Tax Amazon initiative, Sawant said, over a 20-day span. (Some BLM protesters grumbled that she was using the energy of the moment to advance what seemed like a different cause; Sawant points out that protesters signed the petitions on their own volition.)

For Sawant, the ballot-measure threat was, again, the crucial context in which a major policy—this time a major payroll tax—was forged. “They gave it another name,” said Sawant. “JumpStart.” Nonetheless, Sawant declared victory. This is not about personal credit, she said. “We take the political analysis of how victories are won very seriously.”

Sawant and SA can persuasively claim some credit for the passage of “unparalleled” renter protections during her time as a councilmember. According to Licata, prior to his retirement, he and Sawant established an unspoken collaborative regime. She’d work the public; he’d work the council.

Once, in 2015, they were both advocating for tenants resisting a local landlord, Carl Haglund, who as The Seattle Times and others reported, was jacking the rent on an apartment building in disrepair. Licata recalls telling Sawant an idea for limiting rent hikes on big buildings that weren’t up to code. Her eyes lit up, he said, and soon, without his consultation, she was publicly labeling Haglund a “slumlord” (prompting an unsuccessful defamation lawsuit) and calling it the “Carl Haglund law.” Licata feared the personalized attack would alienate council colleagues. But he said, “I was wrong.” The law passed.

Larry Gossett’s cousin, Denise Bazemore, lives in a low-income apartment for the elderly in a fast-gentrifying area of South Seattle. Though the buildings are not old, she and her neighbors have grown frustrated with unaddressed maintenance issues, which only deepened her displeasure at the September notice notifying her city-subsidized rent would be increasing significantly.

One day, she learned of plans for a rally to push back. Initially skeptical, she attended and found that Sawant and staffers had brought signs for her and her neighbors. Disgruntled tenants from another building in a different part of the city came. The press did, too.

Over subsequent meetings and rallies, Bazemore noticed that her neighbors seemed emboldened in the presence of Sawant and the other organizers. They seemed to think, “Well, maybe I should come out there and talk with her about what’s going on with my apartment.”

Sure enough, the landlord, a nonprofit, agreed to delay rent increases until the beginning of 2022. Sawant declared provisional victory and pushed for more concessions. To Bazemore, Sawant seems “like she genuinely cares about us” and isn’t “snooty,” despite her high-profile job. Bazemore found her to be “very approachable, and she listens to what you say. It’s just nice to know somebody out there is fighting for us and trying to help us live more comfortably. That’s all. We’re not asking for a lot.”

Despite a conspicuous building boom, Seattle remains well behind schedule on housing, particularly affordable housing, which can be built through three main avenues, said Mark, a local landlord: government, ecumenical groups, and nonprofits. “Seattle has bloviated about affordable housing for 30 years,” he said. It has “studied backyard cottages since the ’90s.” He thinks it’s time for the city to buy up housing itself. “You’re talking to a guy who has never seen the government do housing well. But I am out of bullets. I don’t know what else to do.”

The position would imply an affinity with Sawant. Not so. Mark, who said he currently owns an apartment building in Seattle and several in Texas, takes pride in fixing up downtrodden old buildings. He finds places that “haven’t been worked on in 30 years, and I go in and spend over a million bucks refurbishing these things and turning it into a great place to live,” he said. “And I’m demonized.”

Mark raised rent after fixing up a roughly 40-unit Seattle building. He said protesters came and honked horns in front of his house and spread his name on social media. (He requested that only his first name be used for this article, out of concern that this would happen again.)

The problem, he said, is that Seattle—which in his three-plus decades in town currently has “the worst City Council I’ve ever seen”—makes it unduly burdensome to be a landlord. For example, he said he is legally obligated to “rent to the first person with a pulse,” which leads to perverse outcomes. He has many stories attesting to this and said he is owed tens of thousands of dollars in unpaid rent. One time, he had a tenant who filled a five-gallon bucket with feces and urine, he said. The tenant packed the noxious stew into plastic shopping bags and threw the bags down on Mark’s workers below.

“I wouldn’t want to be the owner of a fourplex,” he said. If you get bad tenants, “you’re fucked.” Yet rather than taking time to understand the exceedingly complicated dynamics of the housing market, city councilmembers, chief among them Kshama Sawant, lazily cast aspersions, he said. She “wants to blame Amazon and the landlord.”

Asked whether, bureaucratic challenges notwithstanding, being a landlord is not still a profitable enterprise, he said, “That right there’s a fiction of the left. They think that landlords are making all this money and they’re doing it on the backs of their tenants. And that is complete bullshit.” He backs the effort to recall Sawant, “the Trump of the left.” He wants someone who is “going to do their fucking job.”

In an editorial opposing the recall, The Stranger, an alternative newspaper whose irreverent but thoughtful political endorsements wield much influence in this city, listed the allegations, and in each case asked, do we care? On the charge of allowing Black Lives Matter protesters to occupy City Hall while it was closed to the public during the pandemic, the paper’s editors answered: “Kinda.” On the matters of the misuse of city funds and her participation in the protest march to Mayor Durkan’s home: “No.”

The details of the protest march allegation are in dispute. Katrina Johnson, who is the cousin of Charleene Lyles, a Black woman killed by police in her own apartment in June 2017, told me that the mayor’s claim that Sawant led this march is a “lie.” Johnson said that the Democratic Socialists of America organized the march, in part to honor Lyles’s memory, and put together all of the logistics, including planning the route to the mayor’s house, whose location organizers apparently already knew on their own.

Johnson accepted the organizers’ invitation to participate. At a planning meeting the day before the march, she said, there was no mention of Sawant at all, until someone mentioned her as a potential speaker to invite. Sawant had been an uncommonly reliable advocate at rallies and other events—a marked contrast from other politicians who paid her family “lip service.”

True to form, Sawant heeded the call. She and Johnson walked together toward the front of the group, before the march tapered off, and Sawant gave a speech in the vicinity of Durkan’s house (Sawant said she still doesn’t even know the mayor’s address). Johnson has heard about some BLM activists’ misgivings with Sawant but said she has never personally had any issue with her. She feels loyal to Sawant as the recall approaches. “I’m going to show up for her because she shows up for me.”

A few days ago, I awoke from a nap to an email from Sawant. It made me angry. I’d heard a specific critique of her that we had not previously discussed, and passed it along, in what felt like a spirit of fairness, to give her a chance to respond. She did, thoroughly and thoughtfully, but not before declaring that the questions had a “clear pro-establishment agenda and spin” and that she wasn’t sure whether “these are serious questions to be taken at face value.”

I took her response personally—a clear mistake. But the note stung because she probably had a point. Sawant’s political analysis—the way she frames the world as an elected official—surely has its flaws, but it does tend to expose the day-to-day myopia of the liberal mind. In a previous interview, she described the technocratic meetings in which she said her council colleagues pass their days, fiddling on the margins: “I’m sure they kid themselves to think that they’re doing good. But in reality, what they’re doing is maintaining peace in favor of the ruling class,” she said. I suggested this was ungenerous. Her voice rose in response: “If you want to talk about anything being ungenerous, that should be the deep inequality in our city and in our nation as a whole.”

In most workplaces, collegiality is a virtue—a basis for solidarity, said Sawant. “But you cannot apply that lens of worker solidarity to elected officials, in the halls of power, under capitalism.” She said she will work with any colleague to advance the interests of working people. But “if you are fighting for working people, then you better understand, you’re not there to make friends.”

Despite her affronts to the political culture of the local “establishment,” Sawant is, somewhat shockingly, the longest-tenured current member of the Seattle City Council. She declined to say why her SA comrades selected her, roughly a decade ago, to fulfill this role: “That is sort of awkward for me to answer, because there’s no way of answering that without sounding like I’m engaging in self-praise”—but “I can tell you one thing,” she said, laughing. “I was not happy.”

Sawant’s role in her movement must be an exhausting one. But it has been revealing, too. “It is incredible what I have observed,” she said. “If you put me in a social gathering, it would be really awkward for me. But when it comes to politics, it’s like another being takes over.”