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Rantz: Sawant’s office orchestrated uprising to torpedo Durkan nominee

Kshama Sawant. (Karen Ducey/Getty Images)

Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant’s office orchestrated opposition to a key nomination from Mayor Jenny Durkan, using tax dollars to recruit city employees to pursue her office’s political agenda. The effort was successful.

Emails, obtained by the Jason Rantz Show on KTTH, between Sawant staffers, Human Services Department employees, and outside union interests offer an inside look into how Sawant creates compelling political theater, passing off the managed opposition as organic, all to advance an agenda that disrupts the political establishment.

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From the start, Sawant opposed the nomination of interim director Jason Johnson to direct the Human Services Department (HSD), even before she could question him at a hearing. Sawant wanted considerably more say in who would lead the department, as she long opposed the work of the Navigation Team, a specialized group of social workers and police officers working under HSD. The team works with the homeless population, clears out dangerous encampments (aka sweeps), and helps people experiencing homelessness find short-term and, eventually, long-term housing. Johnson, a Durkan loyalist, was seen as advancing the same policies that Sawant opposed, including the sweeps.

Consequently, Sawant recruited voices critical of Johnson from HSD, presented their complaints as a natural uprising, and then used them to torpedo the nomination. Though there were certainly HSD employees who opposed the nomination, there was nothing organic about the opposition as presented in the council.

On December 21, 2018, Johnson announced his staff would reach out to set up times to meet one-on-one with city officials. That same day, Jane Klein, Johnson’s senior executive assistant, reached out to Sawant staffer Ted Virdone to set up a meeting. Klein sent four emails over a nearly one-month period trying to set up a meeting, but her requests were ignored. Klein pleaded, “Would the council member have even just 30 minutes to meet with Jason sometime soon?” Finally, a meeting was scheduled (and rescheduled).

Why would Sawant be so inflexible in dealing with Johnson? Her office was busy working with HSD employees critical of him. Sawant says HSD employees first contacted her office.

In January 2019, Sawant announced she’d hold a “special meeting … for the city council to hear from [HSD employees] on matters related to the leadership of HSD” and to discuss Johnson’s nomination.

In the email, Sawant claimed she’d base her decision on the nomination on what she’d learn at the meeting.

This meeting is to gather input from you and people in the broader community. The committee will not make a decision on the Mayor’s director nomination today. That will happen at a subsequent committee, based on what input we get from you all. (Emphasis mine.)

The day before this email, Sawant’s office privately recruited specific HSD employees to criticize Johnson, renegades as it were, willing to publicly (and privately) undermine Johnson.

The HSD Renegades

Mayor Durkan’s office was aware that some city workers opposed the nomination, and that they would meet to generally discuss on-going issues. Her office did not, however, realize the extent of the organizing at the time.

Gretchen Waschke, from HSD, emailed a number of colleagues, asking for their help to set up a panel at Sawant’s request. It would take place the following evening at the committee hearings. Sawant’s staff was CC’ed on the January 23, 2019 email, as were two individuals from an outside, public-sector union, PROTEC17. Read the email here.

The panel would consist exclusively of HSD employees critical of the “lack of process for hiring” Johnson. Waschke promised “some coordination around what you would like to speak about to assure we cover all the points.”

The email was met with some unexpected push back.

Leslea Bowling of HSD replied: “I will not serve on a panel, and I cannot recommend that a panel of HSD employees be created to fulfill Councilmember Sawant’s request. It would be outside the spirit and integrity of the work the change team has done.”

The change team is a small group of HSD employees that voluntarily meet to discuss changes they’d like to see in the department. They center their work around social justice causes, like institutional racism.

But Sawant’s office continued to push for an organized display of anti-Johnson sentiment.

Jonathan Rosenblum, a “Community Organizer” in Sawant’s office, emailed the chain to announce they nixed the panel idea, instead favoring “expanded time for public comment.” He coordinated with them, emailing:

The challenge for us is that you’ll want to be organized – come early, and sign up for public comment speaker slots. Sign up successively so you’re not interspersed with people who may be commenting on other matters.

A total of 35 people would speak at the committee hearing and Sawant, to a partly recruited anti-Johnson crowd, explained “the committee didn’t just invite people with one opinion, we invited everybody who has an opinion on this issue.”

Indeed, Sawant invited all HSD members to attend — with six and a half hours notice, via email. She did note that she offered an invite to a group supportive of the nomination, but they declined.

Sawant continued, telling the audience “the committee’s here to listen to you regardless of what your opinion is and then decide what do we do, what’s the best course of action.”

She was already certain, thanks to the coordination, that her position would be reinforced by HSD workers. This was a foregone conclusion.

The following day, Sawant would tout the “34 opposed [to] having the City Council approve the mayor’s nomination.” Sawant then declared in an email:

After hearing from all of you last night, I announced at the conclusion of the committee meeting that my office will be drafting a resolution for the City Council to return the nomination to the mayor’s office, and to call for an open, transparent, and inclusive director search and nomination process.

Her decision had already been made, and Sawant used the theatrics of her stacked committee as justification to railroad the Johnson nomination. This coordination caught the mayor’s office off-guard.

They “were not aware of it,” a city source confided to me, explaining that they “knew there were some employees who were working with each other, suspected likely communicating with Sawant … knew they had a meeting, but not aware of the back and worth and extent [of the Sawant coordination].”

Sawant wasn’t the only one to exploit the orchestrated hearing.

Mary Flowers, Sr. Grants & Contracts Specialist with HSD, wrote a lengthy email to the council and the mayor claiming to be “overwhelmed by the staff turnout and keenly aware that for them, just showing up was a risk to future advancement opportunities at HSD.”

She should not have been overwhelmed. Flowers helped organize the political theater. She was part of the email chain to create the panel of anti-Johnson voices, an eager and willing participant, at times even forwarding public Johnson emails to Sawant so the council member would be aware of what he was distributing.

The resolution

The resolution Sawant announced was to be introduced on February 4, 2019. In an email to the group of renegade HSD staffers, along with PROTEC17 organizers, Rosenblum said they “should plan to meet this coming week to strategize” about “generating greater turnout” in support of Sawant’s resolution.

After the meeting, Rosenblum wrote a form letter for the group to send to Sawant’s council colleagues. The form email read, in part:

Our voices matter! As a _____________________ [title, role, seniority], I urge you to support Councilmember Kshama Sawant’s resolution to delay consideration of the mayor’s nomination of Jason Johnson to be HSD director and instead to convene a fully inclusive committee, including HSD staff, to conduct an open and transparent search and hiring process.

Read the full email here.

Ahead of the resolution’s introduction, Sawant emailed supporters about the “dozens” of voices at her recent committee that opposed Johnson, again using her theatrics to imply the uprising was organic.

Not everyone in HSD would let this narrative go unchallenged.

Staffers showed their support for Johnson. One of them was Dusty Olson. She emailed the council a detailed rebuke of Sawant’s tactics.

It is an incorrect assumption that because the majority of people who showed up to the committee hearing opposed the nomination and appointment of Jason Johnson as the Director of the Human Services Department that is reflective of the entirety of HSD or the community. Many of us support and highly approve of Jason. I chose not to attend because it was clear that hearing my opinion in support of Jason was not the goal of the committee hearing.

While she noted not everyone at HSD supports Johnson, he continued: “The previous directors were not hired after community based or staff based processes to select them to their position. There was no outcry for a process in those cases.”

This wouldn’t be enough to derail Sawant’s strategy.

In early March, Sawant said she would not bring his nomination forward to a vote. But the behind-the-scenes organizing didn’t stop.

Rosenblum emailed the HSD renegades and union organizers a series of scenarios: “the mayor and other Councilmembers will try to pull the nomination out of the Human Services Committee and put it under the control of a Councilmember who will do the mayor’s bidding.”

But some discord developed in the group.

Jayme Helgeson, who works in Aging and Disability Services (ADS) within HSD, emailed the group that “it is recognized that among the widely varying groups and different stakeholder groups even within HSD that staff wide e-mails to HSD from Sawant’s office should cease.” He argued the “strategy has not helped things over here at HSD.” Then, he suggested an alternative way to coordinate: “If we do communicate, it will need to be with smaller lists like this and/or with personal e-mail and/or with word of mouth.”

Personal email would not necessarily be subject to public disclosure requests, which is what I used to acquire these emails. It’s unclear how many emails during business hours were conducted on personal accounts; Sawant and her staff notoriously communicate using gmail, and there is no way to ensure all those emails are maintained or distributed during disclosure requests.

Then, individuals on the chain that had not engaged much, per the public disclosure documents, started to speak up. Patty Dawson with ADS wrote in part:

I can only speak for myself. I am reluctant to e-mail back out, as because, as you say, folks in this email chain/ group seem to be at very different places/perspectives. I will take a chance and say that I am an individual who works at ADS HSD who is interested in supporting and speaking up for an open and inclusive hiring process for HSD Director. And also to speak about current equity concerns in my department. I believe there is still more work to do. I have connected with some of my work colleagues about this, including having discussions how best to engage with any support for this cause.

I hope that I have not unwittingly offended anyone by anything that I have said.

Days later, Rosenblum would reactivate the city activists and union organizers, alarmed that “Councilmembers are attempting to ram through the Mayor’s choice.”

He set his sites on Councilmember Sally Bagshaw moving the Johnson consideration to a different committee, calling the maneuver “highly unusual – although not surprising.” He wrote:

The legislative maneuver taken by the majority of the Council demonstrates their intent to ram through this appointment, but also their fear of public engagement. Friday’s meeting will be an opportunity for you and other community members to come and speak out, and ask Councilmembers why they are disregarding such overwhelming public testimony, why they are disregarding the employee survey, and why they are disregarding RSJ principles. (emphasis his.)

They didn’t have to organize their opposition much longer. Despite Sawant’s resolution failing 5-3 in front of a crowd of Sawant’s Socialist Alternative group, Durkan would concede. In April 2019, the mayor withdrew the Johnson nomination, calling the process “deeply unfair.”

“We were disappointed there was an effort [to reject Johnson] before any chance at a hearing,” a city source told me.

Sawant declined an interview request for this story.

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So where do we go from here? Durkan has empowered Johnson to finish up the work through the end of the year as interim director, while Sawant runs for re-election, taking on a like-minded, but less personal-brand focused challenger in Zachary DeWolf, a more business-friendly progressive in Egan Orion, and an unapologetic urbanist and businessman in Logan Bowers.

Durkan was politically outmaneuvered by Sawant, not realizing the extent the council member would go to achieve a political win. It should not have come as a surprise to Durkan’s office. Sawant had never been an ally, nor particularly eager to work with the mayor or even many of her council colleagues (nor they with her). Indeed, Councilmembers Teresa Mosqueda, Debora Juarez, and Lorena Gonzalez have all endorsed DeWolf.

Sawant, doing what she does best, campaigns as an underdog that can’t be bought, pushing her grassroots support that, while some of which certainly exists, is actually bankrolled by people who don’t live in her district (many not even in the state) and relying on volunteers who live outside her district (and some who came from out of state to help).

Listen to the Jason Rantz Show weekday afternoons from 3-6 p.m. on KTTH 770 AM (or HD Radio 97.3 FM HD-Channel 3). Subscribe to the podcast here.

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