Sawant Loses the Plot

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Leave aside whatever feelings you might have about the closed-door process that led to the selection of Seattle’s newest city council member, John Okamoto. Leave aside whatever you think of Okamoto himself, whether it’s that he’s a competent seat-warmer, a corrupt tool of big business, or the mayor’s embed on the council. Leave aside, if you can, even who your own ideal pick for council would have been, whether that’s a righteous activist with a big personality like Sharon Lee or an experienced known quantity like Jan Drago.

Whatever your thoughts on those things, today’s story was that Kshama Sawant lost the plot.

In trashing Okamoto, the foregone pick, in front of a crowd packed with cheering-then-booing supporters, Sawant made it clear that she has no intention of working with people who disagree with her orthodoxy. In calling her colleagues’ votes for Okamoto, most recently head of the city’s Human Services Department and chief administrative officer at the Port of Seattle before that, “scandalous,” she left no room for legitimate debate (debate that should have happened, in public) about Okamoto’s qualifications or demerits. In calling the Port of Seattle under Okamoto a “cesspool of corruption,” she drew her line in the sand and declared that she has no intention of working with this person whom the majority of her colleagues saw fit to support. And in accusing Okamoto of “lying” when he said he did not apply for the position with any personal agenda, she made the political far too personal.

Even if Sawant walks back her rhetoric now that Okamoto has been chosen, it’s hard to take back accusations that prompt your colleagues to go off-script by calling your claims “divisive,” “false,” and “odious.”

That kind of rhetoric keeps the hard core loyal, and makes the divisions between socialist Sawant and the rest of the essentially Democratic council clear. But it doesn’t produce results (in the form of legislation that passes and is signed by the mayor) so much as it fuels whatever Sawant’s next campaign will be. After giving her own ghostwritten memoir the grandiose title “The Most Dangerous Woman In America,” it’s hard to imagine that Sawant will be content for long to sit in her council office with the door closed. She’ll win reelection, handily—her fan base on Capitol Hill, which she now represents under district elections, will see to that—but can she serve effectively after showing such utter contempt for the majority of her colleagues, including Okamoto? Or will she move on to the next thing, propelled by her absolutist fanbase to the a higher high-profile position?

Some folks on Twitter accused me of being unfair, being mean, or exaggerating what Sawant said (or, if you’re the type who likes to prove you know the difference between “imply” and “infer,” of “implying what [I] inferred” from Sawant’s comments). Fair enough. Here’s the transcript. Decide for yourself.

Transcript from Seattle Channel video; typos from me.

(Sawant, prior to the first vote): 

Before I cast my vote today, I want to speak for a moment about what criteria council members should use before they vote. Contrary to what has been said many times, this is not an apolitical, neutral, technocratic process, and neither is this position an apolitical, neutral, or technocratic position. We’re not hiring an accountant or even hiring a key person on central staff to draft a policy as directed by council members. 

We are appointing a new council member with all the powers that come with being a council member. This person will have one of nine votes on the highest democratically elected body in this city. This body is the only recourse for working people to go to to uphold their democratic rights, their rights to a decent standard of living, their right to live in a society free of racial biases. We are appointing someone who will vote on a rent control resolution. We are appointing someone who will vote on linkage fees on big developers to make big developers pay. We are appointing someone who will vote on the budget. These are real issues that matter to the lives of the people who vote in Seattle, and they need to be the main criteria.

In my opinion, we need someone who will fight tooth and nail for affordable housing and for the working families of Seattle. What we certainly do not need is another politician who will represent the interests of big developers, big business, and the superwealthy—somebody who is all too willing to continue the status quo of politics. We do not need another council member to join the Chamber of Commerce retreats during budget season. We do not need another lawyer representative of Seattle’s political set.

It would be scandalous, for example, if any council member today voted for John Okamoto, who presided over the Port of Seattle, which was a cesspool of corruption when he was the chief administrative officer, when the port gave sweetheart deals to big developers, sometimes with 30 percent profit margins and during a time when the outgoing Port CEO was paid a $340,000 salary for a year after his retirement, and I thank the Stranger for detailed reporting.

When asked about the policies on affordable housing, Mr. Okamoto said, “I don’t know.” By that, he doesn’t mean that he is ignorant, but that he is willing to serve as a loyal bureaucrat for the politicians who in turn serve the interests of big realtors. Could we trust him to impose a linkage fee, much less the maximum linkage fee, on developers to pay for affordable housing? Could we trust him with human services when he has a record where he left $40,000 of  homeless funding unspent as interim director of the Human Services Department, at a time when homelessness in Seattle is exploding?

John Okamoto also reported recently that he was encouraged to apply by the mayor. This is going to be a continuation of the status quo. We do not need more of this. Council members have a chance today. We can vote for a strong housing advocate or we can vote for yet another representative of the status quo. Many candidates answered the ten questions I sent out last week and hopefully council members have had a chance to read over their answers. The purpose of these questions has been to make clear where the candidates stand on the issues.

I totally reject the claims of some of the candidates who said they have no agenda. Everybody has an agenda. Just, some people lie about it. My agenda as council member is to support the interests of regular people, of workers, people of color, women, LGBTQ people, and to fight oppression. When candidates say they have no agenda, what they really mean is that their agenda is to preserve the status quo, the inequality, the profiteering for big business and the corporations. I thank everyone who participated, including the candidates who attended the town hall on affordable housing, which was a resounding echo of our demands for real housing justice, for rent control, for maximum impact fees, for city-owned housing, thousands of them, and for a real tenants’ bill of rights. If you really want a sense of the Seattle community, that’s where to go, and those voices demand that we appoint somebody who will be accountable to affordable housing.

Let’s use this opportunity to strike a blow against big developers and for affordable housing. Sharon Lee is clearly the best champion of affordable housing that we have before us. Sheley Secrest also supports us on key issues like rent control and the  maximum linkage fees. She has also shown tremendous leadserhip on the youth jail, the Black Lives Matter movement. We have Sharon Maeda, who has a history in the labor union movement. Any of these three candidates would be a blow against the status quo politics. On the opposite side, we have John Okamoto, who will not even commit to the linkage fees that the council voted for in a resolution last year. I do know which side I will be voting on. 

(Tom Rasmussen):

I was very impressed by the finalists who are seeking this position. We’re very fortunate to have such a rich group of applicants with such great experience in our community. The person who will fill this position will be responsible for chairing the committee that will shepherd through legislation related to housing, human services, and economic development.

But as council members, we have to take positions and work for issues relating to many, many different subjects, and we have to multitask during the next few months, because in the next several months the council will be making major decisions related to affordable housing that will go before this person’s committee. We’ll also be developing and putting before the voters a major transportation package. We will be adopting a master plan for freight mobility. And we will be closely following the development of  the pre-K education program supported by the voters.

Some council members seem to have a litmus test, and they seem to be looking for a council member who agrees with them, or a candidate who agrees with them, on everything. I’m not looking for someone who agrees with me on everything. But I am looking for a person who has the experience to not only chair the committee but who also is experienced on all the issues that will come before us, and who can help us face and address those other issues.

I think it’s possible to speak to the strength of a candidate that you support without smearing the reputation of a candidate that you do not support, and the false statements by council member Sawant against John Okamoto are really odious and it’s unfortunate that she has to stoop so low.

But nevertheless, there is someone who has the reputation, the experience, and the integrity to carry out this position and who has strong support from the community, and that person is John Okamoto. I support John because he has just completed the last year as interim director of our human services department and he has successfully  begun to rebuild and strengthen that department that has been in disarray since mayor McGinn left. And he’s also responding to an audit report that had not been acted on by the McGinn administration until Mr. Okamoto arrived. He has strong transportation experience as director of the engineering department, and he understands the importance of freight mobility in our community. His many years of work on education also will help us to address those issues in the next year.

And he also has strong trust and support by people of stellar and impeccable reputations in our community. And a very diverse group it is—council member Godden  spoke to that—including Julia Sterkovsky, head of the Seattle Human Services Coalition. Do you think she’d support someone who is in the pocket of big business? I don’t think so. If you ever met Julia, you would know that that’s not true. Mark Okazaki, the head of Neighborhood House—is he in the pocket of big business and developers? I don’t think so. He works for refugees and immigrants and is a passionate advocate for seniors and people with disabilities. Jerry Dinndorf, Association of General Contractors—he also supports him. Tomio Moriguchi, chairman and publisher of the North American Post and chairman of the board of Uwajimaya, who is a strong advocate for people in the International District/Chinatown District, and particularly people in the Japanese American community? Eugene Wasserman, who represents manufacturing and industrial businesses of the community frequently? Estela Ortega, the heed of El Centro de la Raza—is she in the pocket of big business and developers? I don’t think so. She has taken on the establish many times. And then finally, another person among many who have supported Mr. Okamoto, Merril Cousin, director of the King County Coalition Against Domestic Violance. She is not one who will sit idly by while the police department fails to investigate domestic violence or does not support victims of domestic violence.

Those are the kind of people who support John Okamoto, that is the type of person that he is, and I strongly support him and I urge my colleagues to support Mr Okamoto. 

(Sawant, after the first of two votes):

If there is a majority vote on this council for Mr. Okamoto, then it’s difficult for me to decide whether this appointment process will have turned out to be a comedy or a tragedy. For the council to appoint so blatantly a pro-corporate and pro-development candidate while we not only have someone who has extensive experience in housing and has amply demonstrated her commitment to justice as Sharon Lee, but we also have Sheley Secrest and Sharon Maeda, who have already demonstrated amply their  commitment to the communities they serve, communities that are filled with disadvantaged and underprivileged people who have no voice in city hall.

One of the questions I have for Mr. Okamoto is, if he did not have anything to do with the cesspool of corruption in the Port of Seattle, has he spoken out publicly against it? Did he speak out publicly at that time? I know that council members and politicians in general talk about being team players and that they do not want divisiveness. My preference has been stated for Ms. Sharon Lee. But I’m happy to be a team player if my team votes for somebody who clearly has demonstrated their commitment to social justice. If the team wants to appoint Sharon Maeda or Sheley Secrest, I will be part of that team, and I will be proud to be part of that team. But I think it’s a question of who is being promoted and whose interests are being promoted. This is not about a single candidate. It’s about what interests are being promoted. And I think that at the end of the day, the outcome of this vote will likely be yet another demonstration of why we need independent working-class candies to rise from mass movements in order to tip the balance of politics away from pro-development and pro-corporation towards representing working families.

4 thoughts on “Sawant Loses the Plot”

  1. This place is sick that is why I rely on God so much. This is some of the worst leadership in history.

  2. Awesome new blog by the way!

    Sawant will soon discover that legislating and screaming into a bullhorn are not the same thing. I wouldn’t be so quick to assume she sails into her next election though. This is exactly why district elections are a bad thing.

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