SEATTLE — A controversial socialist city council member in Seattle appears to have survived a recall vote by a narrow margin after facing criticism for pushing cuts to the police budget and higher taxes on hometown tech giant Amazon.
The latest ballot count Thursday showed 50.3 percent opposing the recall of Kshama Sawant, a 48-year-old economics professor and the longest-tenured councilmember in the liberal city. The exact margin was 232 votes out of more than 40,000 cast.
But elections officials say there are 591 ballots that have been challenged due to questions about voter signatures. Those challenges could be resolved and some of those ballots added to the count before the election is certified Dec. 17.
There are no mandatory recount requirements for local ballot measures in Washington state, but either side could request one.
If Sawant survives the recall, it would be a boost to Seattle’s far left, which experienced setbacks in last month’s general election when business-friendly candidates won the mayor’s office and a council seat.
Sawant was benefiting from votes in the mail-in election trending her way in later counts. After the initial count Tuesday night 53 percent were in favor of ousting Sawant.
In recent Seattle elections more liberal candidates have tended to pick up votes in later ballot counts — which observers attribute to younger voters returning ballots later. In Washington state ballots just need to be postmarked by Election Day, not received.
Sawant was elected to the City Council in 2013, and her threat to run a voter initiative drive for an immediate $15 minimum wage has been credited with pressuring business leaders and then-Mayor Ed Murray to reach a deal raising the wage to $15.
She has pushed for cutting police funding and expanding taxes on high earners such as Amazon to pay for affordable housing, schools and community services.
But critics say she offers more rhetoric than substance and that her brash antics are incompatible with good governance. A federal appeals court recently ruled that two Seattle police officers could sue Sawant for defamation after she said a fatal shooting they were involved in was “a blatant murder.”
The recall question on the ballot cited a minor campaign finance violation that Sawant acknowledged and for which she paid a fine. It also noted her alleged leadership of a protest march to the home of Mayor Jenny Durkan, even though Durkan’s address was protected by a state confidentiality law due to her prior work as a federal prosecutor. The recall question also cites her decision to let a crowd of protesters into City Hall while it was closed due to the pandemic.
Sawant denies having led the march to Durkan’s house, though she did participate in it. She has defended her decision to let Black Lives Matter demonstrators go inside City Hall following George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police.
Sawant’s supporters say the charges were a pretext for an effort by big business, developers and commercial real-estate interests to try to oust a legislator who had opposed them.