Sawant on Trial: Deconstructing the Recall

Below is an overview of the case for and against recalling Kshama Sawant. Bear a couple things in mind as you read it.

You can see a full Sample Ballot here.

First the definitions. “Malfeasance” and “misfeasance” in this context mean, respectively, a public servant intentionally causing harm in the course of doing their duty or causing harm by failing to do their duty properly.

Second, understand that all three charges have been vetted by three successive courts, each of which found that, if true, they were sufficient to justify a recall. The courts also found that there was a sufficiency of evidence presented by the recall campaign to go forward with a “trial,” which in this case is a recall election. The juror-voters of District 3 will decide if the charges are true, in which case they’ll vote YES to recall, or not true, in which case they’ll vote NO, don’t recall.

When Sawant objects that she has never been convicted of anything in court, she is right, but that misses the point. The voters are the final court here, and only they will decide whether she’s guilty or innocent.

The Charges

Charge 1: Sawant violated the city ethics code by using city resources to support a ballot initiative and failed to report it to the Seattle Ethics Commission, so called.

Analysis: Sawant has already pled guilty to this charge and paid a fine to the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission (SEEC), to whom she is answerable as a city employee. While acknowledging that she misappropriated funds, Sawant says the amount was trivial (about $1700) and that she didn’t know what she was doing was wrong. She feels that since she has admitted wrongdoing and paid a fine, the matter should be put to rest.

Sawant’s claim that she didn’t know what she was doing was wrong is defensible, but only if one takes an extremely generous view of her motivations. By the time the SEEC fined her for spending city money on her political projects, several complaints had already been filed against her with the Commission for the same kind of violation. In fact, Sawant has had the most complaints filed against her of any single councilmember since the SEEC was created in 1967. Unfortunately, the SEEC dismissed all of the complaints against Sawant but this last one, so that might have sent her a message that she was allowed to fund her political causes with taxpayer money.

Charge 2: She “disregarded state orders” on Covid-19 by letting hundreds of her supporters into city hall for a rally when it was closed to the public.

Analysis: Sawant admits letting several hundred people into city hall one night during the George Floyd protests but says she didn’t do anything wrong and that her group was masked, “distanced,” and careful.

You can see from the picture that the crowd at city hall was not social distancing was not being practiced. Whether Sawant broke the law depends on whether you consider a health mandate to be a law. (A mandate isn’t a law, but it does have the force of law. It can be enforced by the government and people can be penalized for not following it.)Sawant clearly didn’t intend for anyone to be harmed by her actions that night, and whether they were unintentionally harmed would depend on it being determined that people at her rally had gotten sick because of being there. It’s worth saying, though, that people who support lockdowns (including many of Sawant’s own followers) do so because they feel harm will necessarily result from people gathering in large numbers indoors.

Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant joined a large group of protesters who marched to Mayor Durkan’s house on the afternoon of June 27, 2021. This footage was taken at nearby Magnuson Park. Source: KING5

Charge 3: Sawant led a protest march to Mayor Durkan’s house, the address of which is concealed by state law. She thus caused Durkan’s location to be exposed, putting her at risk.

Analysis: Sawant admits to being at the march; she does not admit to leading it, and indeed there’s no evidence that she did lead it (whatever that means). However, she misses the point. Sawant does have followers and they were there with her at the protest, so it’s fair to say that she led some people at the march, and those people ended up at Durkan’s house. Sawant’s claim that she didn’t know where the march was going is ludicrous. She certainly knew that it was a protest against Durkan, and she knew that it ended in an exclusive suburban neighborhood where a march would normally never end unless the subject of the protest was right there. The odds of Sawant not being told (or not realizing on her own) that the march was going to Durkan’s house are effectively zero. She knew.

It’s not known whether Sawant broke the law, but if she had, one would think we’d have heard by now. However, that too is beside the point. It can be reasonably inferred that she and the other marchers intended to harm Ms. Durkan by striking fear into her… fear for herself and her family’s safety. Sawant and others addressed the crowd through a bullhorn and some marchers left threatening, vulgar graffiti at the mayor’s home. Indeed they DID create fear, as Durkan stated immediately afterward.

Durkan’s address was concealed because or her former job as a federal prosecutor… a person with many violent enemies. Sawant well knew this at the time she participated in the march on Durkan’s home.

Summary

The basic facts of this case are not in question, since, with the exception of “leading the march on Durkan’s house” Sawant admits to everything. What’s unknown is whether any of those facts can be used to infer that, by her actions, Councilmember Sawant did significant harm to the public or that she violated her oath of office to uphold the law.

For Sawant’s part, she of course rejects that conclusion.

One might decide that while none of the charges by itself is enough to support a recall, together they show a pattern of disregard that IS enough to justify remove her. However, all that’s actually required is for any one of the charges to stick.

We know that most readers won’t be considering any of this and will instead vote based on whether they like or dislike Sawant personally. And that’s allowed, too, but just know that recall petitions are difficult to get through the courts, and that is precisely so they can’t be used simply as popularity contests or undemocratic “election redos” as Sawant has accused this one of being. In any case, we’ll soon see what the voters think.

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