Sawant backs off on Council Gaza letter

Kshama Sawant during her inauguration ceremony in January. Credit: Allyce Andrew

Kshama Sawant has abandoned an attempt to get her fellow Seattle City Council members to sign a letter asking the U.S. Congress and President Barack Obama to condemn Israel's conduct in Gaza.

Instead she will send the letter herself. Sawant's decision came after the five councilmembers present at a Monday morning council briefing said that they would not sign the letter, which also calls for an end to U.S. military aid for Israel. 

Sawant's efforts to gin up support for the letter sparked debate in the Council about whether they should be weighing in on international conflicts, rather than focusing on local issues.

"This letter will be only from me," Sawant said in a full council meeting on Monday afternoon.

The tension the letter had created between Sawant and other councilmembers percolated earlier in the day at the Council's morning briefing.

"Council briefings, generally, are to talk about legislation and issues that are currently before the council," said Councilmember Tom Rasmussen, shortly after Sawant brought up the letter in the briefing. "The more we stray from that, the more we're going to sound like, kind of, a show-and-tell of a fifth grade class, where we start reading articles and news bulletins from around the world."

In a meeting last week, Rasmussen said pointedly that the letter, which Sawant had publicly released, did not represent his views.

During the Monday briefing, Councilmember Sally Clark told Sawant that there is a typical procedure for a council member wishing to ask colleagues to sign a letter like this: The member should send a staffer to walk the halls and find out who is planning to sign. That way, Clark suggested, the letter has the appropriate number of signature lines when presented in an open Council session.

"You can leave my name off; you don't need to frame it up including a signature line for myself," Clark added.

Jean Godden and Sally Bagshaw also said they would not sign the letter. Nick Licata is drafting his own letter on the issue, which he plans to send as an individual. Mike O'Brien, Bruce Harrell and Tim Burgess were all absent on Monday.

A draft of the letter from last week said that "the humanitarian crisis in Gaza is reaching a critical breaking point." It chronicled the death toll on both sides of the war, noted Israeli attacks on a school sheltering displaced people and a power plant. The letter also called on Hamas to stop shelling civilian areas in Israel. The closing paragraph asks the President and Congress to "issue a formal statement denouncing Israel’s siege and blockade of Gaza and the occupation of the West Bank."

"I think this is one of those issues where there has been silence from both the Democrats and the Republicans nationally," Sawant, a Socialist Alternative Party member, said during the briefing on Monday. "We're talking about federal money flowing for military, for global imperialism, we need that money for housing and education."

It's not the first time international affairs have surfaced in the Seattle City Council. In 2007 the council passed a resolution calling for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq.

But councilmembers said on Monday that Sawant's letter did not align with their views and that the war in Gaza was too far afield.

"I feel strongly that we're elected to govern the City of Seattle," Councilmember Sally Bagshaw said, "and really not to delve into the complexities of international relations."

Disclosure: Crosscut Board President Bradley Bagshaw is married to Councilmember Bagshaw.

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