Kshama Sawant, an outspoken socialist on the Seattle City Council who’s made headlines for nearly 10 years by pushing renter protections and big business taxes, announced Thursday she will not seek reelection to a fourth term.
Instead, after serving on the council for a decade, Sawant will focus on helping launch a new national labor movement called Workers Strike Back.
“My office and Socialist Alternative have been successful in fighting for renters and the working class because we have mobilized rank and file workers,” she told The Seattle Times in an interview Thursday. “The reason I am not running for office is because we believe that work needs to be continued in and outside of Seattle.”
For Sawant, her announcement comes as she’s getting ready to vacate the District 3 council seat when her final terms ends in December. Over the last decade, her unapologetic left-leaning agenda has made her a lightning rod on the dais while rubbing some of her colleagues the wrong way.
At a press conference held at the New Hope Missionary Baptist Church, Sawant said she’s won election after election “not on the basis of go-along-to-get-along politics, not on the basis of wine and cheese with the Chamber of Commerce and the rest of the establishment, but by fighting back and becoming a thorn in the side of the Seattle ruling class.”
Since she first took office in 2013, Sawant has aggressively pushed progressive policies with an emphasis on the working class. Early on in her political career, her championing of the $15-an-hour minimum wage effort helped make it a reality in Seattle, delivering on one of her first campaign promises. In recent years, she persuaded others on the council to ban evictions during the school year, as well as the winter, and to include relocation assistance for tenants displaced by large rent increases.
In 2020, she relaunched a “tax Amazon” push that the corporate giant had helped repel two years earlier. The council subsequently passed a payroll tax on high salaries at big businesses.
Before the end of her term, she says she will bring rent control legislation to a vote on the council.
Sawant was also the first, loudest and most consistent voice calling to defund the Seattle Police Department in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, which resulted in brief consensus on the council to divest 50% from the department. Later, her council colleagues abandoned the idea before it came time to vote.
Despite disagreements, some of Sawant’s more moderate counterparts — like Mayor Bruce Harrell, who frequently opposed Sawant during their shared time on the council — still praise Sawant for her vigor, despite differing policy views.
“In all our years working together, I have never doubted [Sawant’s] advocacy – and fire – for addressing inequalities and advancing climate action,” Harrell wrote in a tweet. “I respect her commitment to uplifting the voices of workers and renters in our city.”
In 2021, an effort to recall Sawant made it to the ballot with three charges of alleged “misfeasance, malfeasance and violation of oath of office.” Among the allegations brought on by her opponents was one accusing Sawant of using city resources to support a proposed “Tax Amazon” ballot initiative, and acting out of compliance with public disclosure requirements, for which she settled with the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission for $3,516. Sawant admitted to this charge, but said she was unaware it was a violation.
Henry Bridger III, a District 3 resident who led the effort to recall Sawant, is glad she’s leaving the council, he said Thursday.
Bridger voted for Sawant in 2013, when she won a citywide seat by upsetting an incumbent with a campaign that called for a $15 minimum wage to combat income inequality after the Great Recession. But he became disillusioned when the council moved to district representation, saying she “ignored what was going on in her own district,” including drugs and homelessness.
But Sawant prevailed, staving off the recall by roughly 300 votes.
She said such efforts, and subsequent harassment — like a rash of vandalism on her property in 2022 — did not contribute to her decision to leave office, and are par for the course given her influence.
“There is no universe where you can do what we have done, which is win historic victories and stand up for the working class, and not get in crosshairs of the ruling class,” Sawant said in an interview late Thursday.
“They wouldn’t be mad if I was not effective,” she added.
In fact, Sawant calls criticism from others in politics and business “a badge of honor,” and only worries that the policy conversations she has driven will fade when she leaves.
“On the one hand I fully expect big business, the chamber and establishment Democrats to feel emboldened to bring City Hall back to corporate business as usual, like they had before me,” said Sawant, who first made her decision known in an editorial in The Stranger. “On the other hand, nothing is automatic.”
Former Councilmember Nick Licata, who served with Sawant from 2014 to 2015, and who was the progressive outlier on the council before she joined, said the job can be exhausting, so he’s not surprised that Sawant, and several other council members, are calling it quits.
Licata didn’t always appreciate Sawant’s way of blasting colleagues, but thought her activist agenda “opened doors for other council members that they hadn’t considered” and led to concrete changes that helped people.
“She was the one willing to take the biggest risks on policies, and when you have someone who leads the charge, that has an impact,” Licata said. “In many ways, she set the tone.”
Sandeep Kaushik, a political consultant to mayors with whom Sawant clashed — Ed Murray and Jenny Durkan — said the socialist’s media savvy and ability to galvanize younger voters helped her push the council and Seattle politics to the left. Sawant still “has the power to shape” some conversations at City Hall and retains a hardcore base of support in her district, which includes Capitol Hill and the Central District, home to the city’s most left-leaning electorate, Kaushik said.
But Sawant’s uncompromising style (voting every year against what she described as “business as usual” budgets) and her criticism of colleagues have over the years eroded her popularity somewhat and isolated her on the council, he said.
After leaving her seat, Sawant says she will continue to further her work in stoking Seattle’s youth and working class, and will aim to bring her influence to a national scale.
Launching in March, her new campaign, Workers Strike Back, will seek pay raises, affordable housing, union jobs and other protections for the working class.
According to its website, Workers Strike Back is being formed by Sawant and Socialist Alternative in response to a wave of “workers fighting to unionize at Amazon, Starbucks, and workplaces everywhere; the movement to defend abortion rights in the U.S.; the Enough is Enough working-class campaign in the UK; and the ongoing struggles of workers and young people to stop climate catastrophe and fight for a different kind of society.”
Asked if she would consider running for a different office down the road, Sawant said she “can’t rule it out,” but will prioritize the will of Socialist Alternative.
“Always the guiding principle will be what’s the best way of using our time and resources to fight for working people,” she said.
Sawant is now the fourth of seven incumbent council members with expiring terms to indicate they will not seek reelection. Over the last month, Councilmembers Lisa Herbold and Alex Pedersen announced they would bow out of the November election, and council President Debora Juarez has made informal comments about ending her tenure during public meetings, opening up seats in Districts 1, 4 and 5, respectively.
District 7 Councilmember Andrew Lewis announced this week that he would seek a second term, and he is so far the only incumbent to do so. Councilmembers Dan Strauss and Tammy Morales have yet to indicate whether they will seek reelection.
Sawant said Thursday that Socialist Alternative does not plan to back any specific candidate to fill the seat she is vacating, because their efforts are better spent on the new project.
Business owner and community advocate Joy Hollingsworth announced Monday that she will run for Sawant’s seat.
At one of his regular news conferences with reporters in Olympia on Thursday, Gov. Jay Inslee was asked whether he had any thoughts on Sawant’s “legacy and impact.”
He answered, rather tersely: “I hope she enjoys private life.”
Seattle Times staff writer Jim Brunner contributed to this report.
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