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Election Night count tallies an Orion lead in the ‘OK’ zone, Sawant trailing but ‘within range’

(Image: Alex Garland for CHS)

With reporting by Margo Vansynghel, Jake Goldstein-Street, and Alex Garland


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The first count in the race for the District 3 was anything but definitive but challenger Egan Orion opened up Election Night 2019 with an eight-point lead over incumbent Kshama Sawant.

At Orion’s party held at Pike/Pine’s Sole Repair, the early crowd included his family, supporters, and Uncle Ike’s owner Ian Eisenberg.

“Thousands of voters have talked to me at the doors and they know who I am,” Orion told CHS Tuesday night.

“I know Kshama would like this to be a contest between her and Amazon, but at the end of the day, she’s got me. And I’ve got a really long record of engaging with the community and really getting things done,” he said as someone handed him a BETO for President hat.

“What went well in the campaign? Well, number one that I wasn’t Kshama Sawant,” Orion said earlier in the night before the first count. Orion said he felt only a “9 or 10 point” lead would be really comfortable, given later batches will favor Sawant. 7 or 8 percentage points? That could be OK. But “5 or 6 is like hah,” Orion said, making a distressed sound.

“[Voters] want to see someone that’s accomplished, that’s not too far afield from Kshama and her values and so I think the voters see me as someone that can take those values and get things done,” he said.

Meanwhile, hundreds gathered for the first ballot results with the Sawant campaign in the Central District at the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute — the scene of Sawant’s Primary Election Night triumph this summer. When the Election Night results hit, the music stopped and then restarted and subdued conversations began. “Within range, within range,” one Sawant fan reassured another supporter.

Before Sawant made her way to the stage after the numbers dropped, she received a bouquet of colorful flowers from a supporter. As she walked to the stage after, smiling, she received a standing ovation.

“I could ask how everybody’s feeling but I think you’ve already given me the answer,” she said to scattered applause.

“We have run not only the strongest grassroots campaign Seattle has ever seen, but we have taken the nation and indeed many parts of the world, by storm,” Sawant said.

“Anybody has seen the initial result,” Sawant continued after taking a few digs at Jeff Bezos and Mayor Jenny Durkan. “We have received 45.6% of the vote. Our opponent has received 53.99, which makes it an 8.3 percentage point difference. Those of you who were with us in 2013, will remember what happened.” In 2013, Sawant beat incumbent Richard Conlin, who eventually conceded after late votes swung to his opponent and results showed he was down by 1,640 votes — or approximately 1% of the vote. On election night 2013, Conlin was more than 7 points ahead of Sawant, with a 6,000 vote lead, but Sawant refused to concede the race.

In her speech Tuesday, Sawant clung to the late voter turnout, and the overflowing ballot box near Seattle Central, as a sign of hope.

“My friends, we as working class people, those we are marginalized, we have always had to fight hard. We are going to have to continue to fight hard, we are going to have to make sure of every ballot of otherwise disenfranchised” people is counted, Sawant said and continued to sign the praises of her campaign’s door-knocking effort (without “paid canvassers,” she said, a jab at Egan Orion’s campaign) and the money raised from small donations: “We have raised — and need to raise more in the coming days — over $500,000, without a dime in corporate cash,” Sawant said, signaling the campaign, somewhat cash-strapped in the weeks leading up to Election Night, might have gone into debt in the last days of GOTV.


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Later in the rally, a call went out to the crowd to give to the campaign to help fund the effort in the days ahead.

“We feel like we’ve already won this campaign: we’ve been up against an unprecedented amount of corporate cash, a deceptive opponent, lies in the mail, constant ethics violations, fines which deep pockets are willing to pay,” says Bryan Koulouris, Sawant’s re-election campaign manager. “We feel like with the tens of thousands of doors we’ve knocked on, the fact that we’ve built the movement for rent control, the fact that a Green New Deal coalition in Seattle is growing, that we’ve done what we’ve needed to do no matter what the results are tonight.”

“I think we waged a movement-building campaign like we said all along. Kshama doesn’t pander to anyone, says exactly what she stands for and is clear on that, whether people agree or disagree. We’ve put out a really strong message for rent control, green new deal and socialism, and we think our vote is going to climb a lot from where it is tonight, with huge voter turnout,” Koulouris said. “The ballot box at Seattle Central College was stuffed today, they had to come by and pull more out — that shows that the vote is going to grow tremendously. And a late vote is always good for Kshama.”

Tuesday night’s results didn’t come cheaply. With more than $1.3 million in contributions to the various D3 candidates who were part of the race, the uber-expensive clash has been a cash battle. Orion raised more than $400,000 in contributions while Sawant eclipsed his totals with a showing exceeding $520,000. But support from the downtown chamber and Amazon coalition pushed Orion financial support into a new stratosphere with more than $600,000 in PAC cash also flowing into the race to make the 48-year-old a million dollar-plus competitor. The cash flow resulted in an Orion advertising, mailer, and flyer blitz through October while the Sawant campaign mostly played the long game with a majority of its spending going to support a relatively huge campaign payroll.

Tuesday night, Orion campaign manager Olga Laskin said she felt good about her candidate’s campaign, saying there’s “nothing left to be done.”

She didn’t expect this intense of a campaign with a push from national Democrats in the final days. Laskin thinks that a lot of the campaign’s messages have been lost amid independent expenditures and other influences.

It made it harder to connect with voters, she said, which she argues is Orion’s greatest quality. She remembers one mailman Orion met canvassing that quickly became one of his biggest supporters. “He talks to everybody,” she said.

The Amazon money? Laskin said the backlash “reignited” Sawant’s campaign.

Orion said Tuesday the “Amazon bomb” in the past couple weeks was the biggest challenge of the campaign, but he thinks he still has a “better shot than not of prevailing.” “It played right into Kshama’s hands,” he said. “But what’s done is done. We get to see if that was just a bunch of noise at the end of the day or if it really had an impact.”

A week after Amazon poured over $1M into the city council election, Orion launched a new ad with a voiceover leveling a de facto response to Sawant’s early rallying cry: ”Who has a voice in City Hall? The Socialist Alternative party or your neighbors right here in Seattle?” Orion’s ad, in which he touted his local support, was titled “Who is funding our local elections?” Many responded “Amazon,” but the 30-second clip didn’t mention the cash the corporate behemoth and others pumped into local elections via CASE, the political arm of the Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce.

Still, more than 90% of Orion’s campaign contributors were from Seattle compared to Sawant’s 60%, and nearly 60% were in District 3, to Sawant’s around 40%.

“Tonight’s initial returns are not definitive enough to call these close races. We know from our polling that voters want more solutions and less ideology from their councilmembers,” Marilyn Strickland, president and CEO of the chamber, said in a statement on the night’s results sent to media. “We are looking forward to the next ballot count tomorrow afternoon.”

Backlash to the Amazon cash helped Sawant secure key new allies — her fellow council members. The council’s two citywide representatives — Teresa Mosqueda and Lorena González allowed bygones to be bygones and moved beyond past criticism and distancing from Sawant to embrace the Socialist Alternative leader and a slate of progressive candidates facing chamber and pro-business opposition — — Lisa Herbold in D1, Tammy Morales in D2, Shaun Scott in D4, Dan Strauss in D6, and Andrew Lewis in D7.

That slate saw mixed results Tuesday night as only Herbold, Morales, and Strauss opened with leads:

The next council’s makeup is already set for major changes with incumbents Bruce Harrell, Mike O’Brien, and Sally Bagshaw opting not to run for reelection. If Sawant also falls, the turnover will be even more significant.

Other results showed a potential anti-progressive bent. While the early tally was still “still close to call,” the statewide Initiative 976 to cut car tabs to $30 — and gut transit funding — was leading. Meanwhile, Referendum 88 re-instate a form of affirmative action was in a neck and neck tie.

Meanwhile, in the King County Council race for the county’s District 2, challenger Girmay Zahilay opened up a 57-43 lead over incumbent Larry Gossett. CHS wrote about the political battle — and the rare challenger for the civil rights icon Gossett — here.

The D3 Battle
Along the way, the D3 race also has caught the attention of the most progressive of the Democratic party’s national leaders with Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders condemning the influence of corporations like Vulcan, Expedia, Amazon, and Starbucks.

Orion’s war chest also didn’t produce easy victories. Sawant enjoyed a small bit of revenge when the Orion campaign opted to pay a $1,000 fine to settle a Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission complaint over its purchase of a controversial $6,300 “wrapper” ad on The Stranger’s October 9th endorsement edition. The ad sparked controversy by making it appear to some that Orion had won the alternative media outlet’s coveted endorsement. But inside, the paper again endorsed the incumbent. Sawant also enjoyed another counter punch with a prominent ad touting the endorsement on the front of the following issue of the paper.

Sawant also scored late points with controversy over campaign finance complaints related to Orion’s market-friendly $500 a month rent for office space at an old gas station property owned by Central District entrepreneur and Uncle Ike’s owner Ian Eisenberg.

With echoes of her long and successful “$15 Now” fight, Sawant made rent control the next big step in the Socialist Alternative movement and the new core in the battles she is waging in Seattle. CHS reported here on her proposed legislation tthat would tie increased rents to the rate of inflation.

Sawant also repeatedly attacked Orion on housing and homelessness, accusing him of using the same tactics as people who are “peddling Republican talking points.” Sawant focused her response on homelessness on larger issues of housing affordability and social housing, rent control, the expansion of tiny home villages, and the end of sweeps of encampments. Orion, meanwhile, said he would look at how other cities are finding solutions including an Atlanta housing program and following New York City’s lead to enshrine the right to shelter in the city charter.

Orion with his experience working with small businesses on Capitol Hill looked at public safety issues through the prism of every day challenges. He worked to bring city homeless outreach resources back to Capitol Hill to give businesses someone to call besides police about day to day homeless, addiction, and mental health issues around the neighborhood’s Broadway core. While he called sweeps inhumane, Orion also voiced support for cleaning up the city. Sawant, meanwhile, focused on larger issues of accountability and bias. Sawant also repeatedly spoke out against sweeps and has been a lone voice calling for the defunding of the Navigation Team charged with sweeping out illegal encampments.

Both candidates, meanwhile, said they support Green New Deal ideals. Both are proponents of increased spending on public transit — though Orion frequently included a line about fixing potholes in the street first.

Sometimes, the campaign issues and the money moved to the wayside, and the campaign became a battle over style — and attendance. At an October forum hosted by Africatown, each candidate took turns with swipes at the other’s attendance record — Orion repeating his campaign’s messages about Sawant’s city council committee cancelation record, Sawant taking Orion to task for skipping community candidate forums.

The candidates
Sawant grew up in a working/middle-class household in Mumbai, India, where she studied computer science. Upon moving to the US, she briefly worked as a software engineer. But the questions she’d been asking herself since she was young — “why is the world like this,” and “why should it be like this?”— kept nagging at her, and a Ph.D. in economics was another way to find more answers. She finished her dissertation in Seattle after moving here for her then-husband’s job at Microsoft. Around the same time, Sawant started attending political meetings and rallies. During an anti-war meeting where an Iraq war veteran spoke, her eye fell on some Socialist Alternative publications on a table outside. Their analysis of class-based capitalism was something she could get behind. “And then I attended a meeting and then I never looked back.” While she cobbled together “a poverty wage” teaching at various universities and volunteering for nonprofits, Sawant’s star rose at Socialist Alternative, an international Trotskyist political organization. As the SA candidate, she unsuccessfully ran for the Washington House of Representatives in 2012, later beating four-term incumbent Richard Conlin for a seat on the City Council, where she’s served since.

As other district leaders have made habits of community meetings and “coffee talk,” Sawant has mostly avoided that kind of interaction in favor of rallies and protests. A September 2018 agenda-less community gathering at a Central District coffee shop was a rarity for Sawant. At the local level, this has left Sawant open to criticism about her office’s interest and availability in neighborhood issues and day to day problems around homelessness, drug use, and street safety. Some Capitol Hill community leaders have praised her “alternative” style and leadership on issues like the minimum wage. And Sawant has been dedicated about bringing some of her city council committee meetings to district locations.

Born to two teachers in Auburn, Orion grew up a few blocks from Green River Community College, where he was one of the few kids who took part in its theater productions. As a closeted “theater gay” in “very white, very middle class” Auburn during the AIDS crisis, theater was a reprieve from bullying and a way to express himself outside of the confines of school. In high school, Orion ran Students Against Driving Drunk and led his school’s chapter of Students Opposed to Apartheid. For the MLK Day assembly, he invited then-mayor Norm Rice to his school and set up a U2 “Sunday Bloody Sunday” slideshow with music. “Sort of my first foray into doing events,” Orion says.

Orion, meanwhile, has built a career as an events entrepreneur built around flash mobs and PrideFest, the annual Pride celebration at Seattle Center, and the Broadway Pride Festival which he took over two years ago after the city decided to reject the street festival’s founding group’s permit. In 2007, Orion took over the financially troubled PrideFest, where he serves as executive director, a mere six weeks before it was slated to start. He reinvigorated and reinvented the yearly LGBTQ+ celebration.

Last year, he took the helm of the Broadway Business Improvement Area. Orion was also tabbed to lead the Capitol Hill Chamber of Commerce earlier this year but his tenure lasted only a few months as the nonprofit faced dwindling funding, fading enthusiasm, and legal issues before it folded earlier this summer.

What comes next?
If late voter trends will also be the story this November, Sawant isn’t out of the race — yet. With an experienced ground game already in full motion starting with this weekend’s “get out the vote” efforts, the Sawant Socialist Alternative campaigns have proven themselves as strong finishers that produce a powerful push of support with ballots cast in the final days — and hours — of the race. This summer, Sawant added four points to her lead in follow-up ballot counts following her top showing on Election Night. Tuesday, the Sawant campaign complained about the busy Broadway ballot box being stuffed full and asked King County Elections to consider extending the voting deadline to 10 PM. The county didn’t respond to the deadline request but did send workers to the site to empty out the receptacle to allow democracy to proceed unimpeded.

At Sole Repair Tuesday, Maurice Cooper, an engineer who lives in Madison Park after moving to Seattle from England about 45 years ago, said he supports Orion because he thinks City Hall needs to move in a new direction. “Just like a lot of people, I want to see a change on the council,” he said, arguing that his home country dabbled with socialism which turned it into a “second-world country.”

While the crowd at Langston Hughes swelled, and speeches from various supporters grew steadily louder, Harvey Sadis, a Madrona resident born and raised in the city dressed in a red Sawant shirt and DemocracyNow! hat, said he was here to support Sawant “onto Victory.”

“She certainly captured Seattle with her $15 wages starting point in Seattle, she’s certainly been for renter’s rights,” Sadis said.

“To say that she is doing nothing on the Seattle City council would be quite amazing given that they are so fruitful in spending money to defeat her,” Sadis said, reference Amazon and the Chamber of Commerce. “I’m particularly energized because Amazon.com is changing the face of Seattle. I was born and raised in Seattle and I certainly don’t approve of what’s happening.”

“Socialist Alternative has been the backbone of this campaign,” Calvin Priest, husband of Sawant and organizer with Socialist Alternative, said in a speech earlier in the night. “With our clear, principled and determined politics.”

Even before the first count, Sawant’s camp was looking at the battle ahead to recover ballots with issues like signatures that don’t match a person’s voter registration.

“Following tonight we may have an immediate task,” Priest continued, “to cure ballots. If the election is close, if we are under 50% tonight, we’re going to need to cure ballots and make sure every working person’s vote is counted.”


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35 thoughts on “Election Night count tallies an Orion lead in the ‘OK’ zone, Sawant trailing but ‘within range’

  1. I wouldn’t count any chickens yet. It looks maybe good, but the fat lady hasn’t sung— she hasn’t even cleared her throat yet. No harm in waiting to see a bit longer.

      • it takes several days before they’ve counted enough of the ballots to call it conclusively. Especially since last election Sawant pulled it out after first looking like she’d lost, they probably will be very cautious making any pronouncements about who won. Hey, you’ve listened to her spew for years, what’s another few days to be sure one way or the other?

  2. “What went well in the campaign? Well, number one that I wasn’t Kshama Sawant,” Orion said

    This line is hilarious. Way to have a sense of humor about your appeal! 🤣

    Seriously, I don’t even care who wins any more… I’m just be relieved that tomorrow I can walk down the street without canvassers yelling at me.

  3. “We have run not only the strongest grassroots campaign Seattle has ever seen, but we have taken the nation and indeed many parts of the world, by storm,” Sawant said.

    That quote is pure Sawant….she has arrogant delusions of grandeur. No one nationally or internationally, outside of a very small socialist group, has ever heard of her.

  4. My hot take from the initial round of votes:

    Seattle is what we have always known it to be – a city filled with a very liberal electorate, just not a socialist one.

    FWIW, there’s still 8-10k D3 ballots left to be counted but opening down by 8 points is a result that I’m sure the Sawant campaign internally can’t feel very confident about.

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