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.
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.