Seattle council race tightens; socialist Sawant has 49.5% of vote
Kshama Sawant has steadily gained ground on Councilmember Richard Conlin, giving her a chance to pull off a shocking turnaround victory and become the first socialist on the Seattle City Council in modern history.
Seattle Times staff reporters
Although most wrote her off on election night, Seattle City Council candidate Kshama Sawant refused to concede, insisting late votes could put her over the top.
She might be right.
Sawant has steadily gained ground in six vote-count updates, giving her a chance to pull off a shocking turnaround victory over four-term Councilmember Richard Conlin and become the first socialist on the council in modern history.
On Friday, Sawant won 56.5 percent of 22,792 counted votes and pulled within 1,237 votes of Conlin — less than a third of her election-night deficit, when she was carrying only 46.1 percent of the votes.
Now, she is up to 49.5 percent.
A Seattle Times analysis indicates Sawant must take about 53 percent of the about 20,000 still-uncounted votes to win — a reachable rate, given her gains in recent days.
But it is unclear whether that run will continue. While votes mailed in an election’s last days often trend toward the more liberal candidate, officials say many of the remaining ballots are still uncounted because the machine could not handle them, not necessarily because they arrived later than the others.
Both campaigns said Friday they were contemplating recount contingencies and bracing for a long holiday weekend before votes are updated again Tuesday.
It is the kind of drama that sometimes happens in Washington state, where vote counting takes longer than anywhere else in the country.
Conlin said in an interview that “Obviously we don’t like this apparent trend. We’ll have to wait and see when more votes come in.”
Sawant was similarly cautious.
“Nobody has a crystal ball,” she said.
But she added — like she has every day since election night — that even if she loses, her campaign has fundamentally changed the political dynamics of Seattle.
The recent surge of votes in her favor is just more evidence of that, she said.
Sawant is the first socialist to make the general election for the Seattle City Council since 1991. And the socialist that year, Yolanda Alaniz, received 19 percent of the vote.
The city archivist has said he isn’t sure when the last socialist served on the council.
Sawant said her unusual success is a product of the same populist outrage that fueled the nationwide Occupy Wall Street movement.
“If you look at what’s happening all over, in the post-recession world, the big banks were bailed out and working people were sold out,” said Sawant, who participated locally in Occupy Seattle.
“Everybody’s sensing the rumblings of the future. We’re stepping into an era of social change, and this is the beginning.”
Conlin, who was considered a staunch liberal when he first joined the council in 1998 and had never won less than 60 percent of the general election vote since, has a less ambitious theory.
He argued that asking voters for a fifth term is always a stretch.
“I think I started off with that kind of handicap,” he said, adding that “relentless negative campaigning” by Sawant’s cheering squad at The Stranger also hurt him.
But he acknowledged voters are frustrated with the economy and income inequality. “She obviously tapped into that,” he said.
Local political consultants also pointed to a mix of different factors.
Andrew Thibault, principal at the polling firm EMC Research, said Sawant’s success was in part about public antipathy toward City Hall. He noted the council’s low approval ratings and the passage of a measure creating a new system of electing most of the council by geographic districts.
“It’s not unusual for Seattle voters to pick a race where they vent,” Thibault said. “I believe it was much more about general dissatisfaction with Conlin, or the council, than it was about Sawant.”
Christian Sinderman, who worked for Mayor-elect Ed Murray, focused on a more constant Seattle trait.
“”The closeness of it reflects that restive spirit of Seattle voters to roll the dice and try something new,” he said.
“Four years ago it was Mike McGinn. This year it might be Kshama Sawant.”
Sinderman also said Conlin gave ammunition to Sawant and other critics by being the sole vote against Seattle’s new paid sick-leave ordinance.
John Wyble, who consulted for McGinn this year, also mentioned the sick-leave ordinance. He added Sawant benefited from frustration with rising Seattle housing costs, and generally ran an energetic campaign.
The first-time council candidate, who last year challenged state House Speaker Frank Chopp, eschewed corporate cash and focused on grass-roots campaigning and social media.
She shunned standard Seattle issues and lasered in on three platform proposals: a millionaire’s tax, a $15 an hour citywide minimum wage and rent control.
She relentlessly accused Conlin of being in the pocket of big business, and gradually gained national attention.
“It was very effective,” Wyble said.
Now, Sawant is hoping to deploy her volunteers to fight for challenged ballots.
Spokesman Geov Parrish said the campaign will aggressively “chase ballots” — that is, get the list of voters whose ballot was not verified because it had an incorrect signature, find the voter and help them rectify the problem.
A mandatory recount will be triggered if the candidates are separated by fewer than 2,000 votes and less than 0.5 percent.
But as of midday Friday, officials at King County Elections weren’t sure the Conlin-Sawant race would get there.
“There’s nothing in Seattle that is on our recount watch,” said spokeswoman Kim van Ekstrom. “Yet.”
Brian M. Rosenthal: 206-464-3195 or firstname.lastname@example.org