Sawant, Predicting $1 Million in PAC Spending Against Her, Won’t Participate in Democracy Voucher Program

At her reelection kickoff rally/press conference at Saba Ethiopian Restaurant in the Central District Thursday morning, District 3 city council incumbent Kshama Sawant said she will not participate in the city’s “democracy voucher” program, because its spending limits would make it impossible for her to compete against “corporate [political action committees] and Republican and Democratic establishment people” who want her out of office. Sawant has been in office for six years, including one full four-year term as the council member for District 3, which includes a swath of east-central Seattle between Montlake and the Central District, along with part of Beacon Hill.

“We’re going to have, definitely, more than half a million, probably a million [dollars] thrown at this race to try and defeat us,” Sawant predicted. “As long as corporate PACs and big business lobbyists and big developers don’t have a spending cap, working people need dollars to fuel their campaign, and we do that unapologetically.” Last time she ran, Sawant outspent her challenger, Pam Banks, by nearly $100,000; independent expenditures for Banks totaled about $40,000, while IEs for Sawant or against Banks came to about $27,000.

Democracy vouchers, adopted by voters as part of a package of election reforms in 2015, are supposed to serve two purposes: To level the playing field so that people don’t have to be rich or well-connected to run for office; and to give ordinary people a financial stake in local elections, by providing every Seattle voter with $100 to spend on the candidate or candidates of their choice. In 2017, when two council seats were on the ballot, five council candidates participated in the program, spending a total of almost $1 million. Two of those candidates, Jon Grant and Teresa Mosqueda (who was elected to council Position 8) repeatedly (and successfully) petitioned the city to raise the cap on contributions from $250 to $500. The city also released both candidates from the $300,000 total spending cap, making the first election under the new system one of the most expensive—at $818,000 between the two candidates—in recent Seattle history.

Candidates running for district seats face lower spending limits—$150,000 for the primary and the general combined—and the same $250 contribution limit. By opting out of the program, Sawant will be able to accept contributions of up to $500 and will face no total cap on spending.

Sawant’s claim that business PACs and “CEOs” will amass a million dollars to defeat her is impossible to prove until it happens, and recent history doesn’t provide an exact comparison. The last district elections, in 2015, occurred before the current spending limits and the advent of democracy vouchers, and the only election with democracy vouchers so far included only citywide candidates. But it’s noteworthy that in 2015, Sawant, as an incumbent, outspent all other candidates in her own and every other district—including candidates who actually were targeted by PACs that spent hundreds of thousands of dollars, like District 1 council member Lisa Herbold. The big PAC money that year was for Herbold opponent Shannon Braddock ($229,000),Position 9 candidate (and pre-districts council incumbent) Tim Burgess ($219,000), and District 4 victor Rob Johnson ($80,000)—not for or against Sawant. Two years later, both business and labor PACs maxed out at roughly similar levels. So there’s no precedent for the kind of PAC spending Sawant is predicting in any local council race—including her own most recent reelection bid.

Support

Although Squirrel Chops owner and Socialist Alternative party member Shirley Henderson—who hosted a rare in-district meet-and-greet with Sawant at her salon/coffee shop in the new Central apartment building at 23rd and Union last year—praised Sawant’s “accessibility” on Thursday, the council member has been criticized for focusing on issues outside her district and being unresponsive to constituents outside her political circle. Sawant characterized claims that she is unresponsive to people in her district as farcical. “I think there are going to be countless people in the district who would not only disagree with that assessment but who would find that patently untrue and, quite honestly, absurd,” she said. “If you look at just the day-to-day work that we do— first of all, we get dozens of phone calls every day, emails, and other forms of communication. People come in personally. People talk to me in grocery stores, coffee shops, just walking along the street, and we hear about their day-to-day situations related to parks or crosswalks or potholes or any other situation. … We work tirelessly to help address those issues.” (Anecdotally, as a reporter and a resident of District 3, I have heard complaints from Sawant’s constituents that her office is unresponsive to emails and requests for meetings; I have also seen emails to Sawant’s office complaining about her focus on issues specific to other parts of the city, like the “Save the Showbox” campaign.)

But, she added, the “overarching” issues in the district are the same ones that impact the entire city—”the lack of affordable housing [and] the fact that the entire character of our district and of our city is transforming, where ordinary working people and their families … are getting pushed out of the city because the rents have skyrocketed and the city is becoming a playground for the wealthy and corporate developers.” Say what you will about Sawant, but she’s always on brand.

Genteel Fireworks in District 3’s Madison Valley

It's not your imagination. They do all look like they're at different debates.

It’s not your imagination. They do all look like they’re at different debates.

The sun was beating, not streaming, through the windows of the gym at the private Bush School in Madison Valley Monday evening, and the candidates were looking (and acting) wilted. The District 3 council candidates’ forum, put on jointly by the Madison Valley and Madison Park Community Councils, featured a sedate, well-behaved contingent of ladies and gentlemen of a certain age alongside a slightly-muted cadre of red-clad Sawant socialists.

Everyone on stage seemed like they could use some crackers and a nap. Former newscaster Lee Carter (who proudly isn’t raising any money) struck a grumpy note in his opening statement, saying that he was running “because of the dishonest way the incumbent has represented the people of this city by representing herself as a nonpartisan candidate.” (Sawant is an avowed, and very vocal, member of the Socialist Alternative party.) Morgan Beach was unusually muted (the women’s rights activist has been a force at previous debates), and Rod Hearne awkwardly read his answers from notes.

That left Sawant and Banks to bring the fireworks, and they didn’t disappoint. Banks started it off by pointing out that she’s one of only two candidates in the race (the other being Carter) “who can say I’ve lived in the district for 20 years” (Sawant emigrated from India in 2006). Minutes later, in a statement aimed directly at the incumbent, Banks said that council members don’t reach consensus by “berating or belittling your colleagues.” And still later, she said that rent control, Sawant’s signature post-$15 minimum wage issue, “is not the answer, because it doesn’t encourage [the development of] units and it generates false hope.” Banks said she supported using the city’s bonding capacity to build publicly funded housing.

Although Sawant didn’t respond to Banks directly, she did allude to Banks’ supposed membership in the ranks of “corporate politicians” “awash in corporate cash” in response to an unrelated question about communicating with people in the district. (Her response, when she got to it, was, “My office has provided an open door to City Hall to the many who are left out of the political process in Seattle.”)

Reading out loud from a thick sheaf of papers, Sawant returned again and again to another talking point, the need to adopt “the maximum linkage fee” (a square-footage tax on development) to ensure developers pay for affordable housing. Asked during a yes-or-no lightning around about the fee proposal, Banks said she did not. Note: A reader who was at the event corrected my original report—that Banks waffled on linkage fees—in the comments, and the video confirms that she did not.

That opened the door for Sawant to declare that candidates like Banks “who take campaign funds from real estate corporations like Vulcan show that they will not be able to build affordable housing nor represent our neighborhoods.” (As I noted in a previous post, Sawant is conflating corporations and the people who work there; while it’s certainly true that an overwhelming influx from people who work for developers could make a candidate more pro-development, Banks actually received just contributions from two high-ranking Vulcan employees, Phil Fujii and Pearl Leung).

The two women also disagreed on the idea of a local income tax (Banks: no, Sawant, enthusiastically: yes), and whether the city should limit the number of recreational pot shops in a single neighborhood, such as the Central District (Sawant said no, Banks said yes).

Banks Sawant also disagreed about the idea of a citywide income tax and, somewhat surprisingly, Mayor Ed Murray’s proposed $930 million transportation levy. Although both waffled when asked if they supported the levy, called Move Seattle, Sawant actually sounded somewhat enthusiastic about some of the levy’s marquee projects, saying she supported protected bike lanes and neighborhood greenways. She added, however, that “corporate politicians” like Murray had historically prioritized the deep-bore tunnel over basic improvements like those in Move Seattle. Banks, in contrast, said she worried that “we are taxing ourselves out of our city. We need to look at ways to raise money without increasing property taxes.” (Council member Nick Licata, along with Sawant, has proposed amendments that would replace some of Move Seattle’s property tax funding with taxes on parking and businesses.)

Another area of contrast, if not disagreement, came when the candidates were asked how the city could grow without destroying the “character” of Seattle’s neighborhoods. Sawant used the question as an opportunity to again stump for the highest-possible development tax, stronger just-cause eviction laws, and a “Bertha-size investment in affordable housing,” while Banks said she believed the city has ignored neighborhoods that weren’t designated as urban centers or urban villages during neighborhood planning in the 1990s, and said she was disappointed that “we spent hundreds of thousands on neighborhood plans that just went on a shelf and collected dust.”

Interestingly, none of the candidates in this very urban, car-optional district had ridden the bus more than three times in the past week; Beach was the outlier on the high end with three bus trips, and Banks and Sawant were on the low end, reporting zero and one bus trip in the past seven days, respectively.