Reporter's notebook: The mayoral candidates

Jenny Durkan And Cary Moon

Composite split image of Mayoral candidates Jenny Durkan and Cary Moon.

Two mayors ago, Jenny Durkan was a somewhat well-known former-U.S. Attorney with lots of insider connections and Cary Moon was an anti-tunnel activist with a byline in The Stranger.

Now Ed Murray, the once shoo-in incumbent, is a disgraced ex-mayor.  Bruce Harrell has stepped in and exited as the city's top official.  Tim Burgess — now actually signing Murray's own proposals into effect (as Murray watches) — currently holds the mayoral reins. In 19 days, the public will cast votes for either Durkan or Moon; whoever claims victory in the Nov. 7 election will be Seattle's first female mayor in 89 years.

With ballots dropping Wednesday (Oct. 18), the media has handed down its endorsements (Find those in Crosscut's election guide). And Durkan and Moon, in public forum after public forum (three last Monday; four just yesterday), have laid out the bulk of their policy proposals (Free community college, more vouchers for housing, more childcare facilities, says Durkan; Examine real estate speculation, pursue income tax, create a freelance worker's bill of rights, says Moon).

Both campaigns have finger pointed: Durkan's campaign likes to say how Moon is unqualifiedMoon's likes to hammer on Durkan's large corporate support and "insider label."

Is there anything left to say? Some thoughts, Reporter's Notebook-style.

1. Dissatisfaction reigns at City Hall. Welcome new mayor.

When Monica Simmons, Seattle's City Clerk, swears in either Durkan or Moon, she'll be ushering in the boss of more than 11,000 city employees. And with those employees comes a long-festering dissatisfaction. Crosscut has reported on the city’s struggling IT department and its staff dissatisfaction and has also spoken with employees from Seattle City Light and Human Resources who feel similarly frustrated. Compounding that issue is the haze of scandal left behind by Murray that has left some staffers demoralized and let down.

Both candidates pledge to right those relationships. Durkan points out she inherited the U.S. Attorney’s office from John McKay after he was fired under odd circumstances. “There were huge morale issues,” she says. “Whoever the new mayor’s coming in, every employee needs to know they’re valued.”

Moon says employees from Seattle Public Utilities and the Department of Transportation have jumped out of their trucks to tell her how hard it's been under the former executive office. “Right now what we have, in some ways, the head’s disconnected from the body,” says Moon. “There are a lot of insiders in the mayor’s office that are not working with the departments. They’re not taking advantage of the untapped potential of all the brilliant city employees.” 

So how will they handle it? 

“I think the mayor’s office has to be very skilled at what the departments do, very good people managers and very good at politics,” says Moon. “Listening and empowering people who worked in city departments is essential.”

“It’s hard work,” says Durkan. “City government can be more efficient, we can be smarter, we can retool things, but at the end of the day these people are working really hard.”

Mayoral candidate Jenny Durkan stands for a portrait in Seattle's Pioneer Square neighborhood.

2. So you want to be the boss. But how will you lead?

Speaking of employees, Ed Murray’s temper was legendary. When Crosscut and other media outlets reported on a series of highly charged text messages Murray sent to Councilmember Sally Bagshaw, it set off discussion about whether that was something voters should care about. (Sidenote: There are plenty of politicians with legendary tempers who have gone on to lead successful careers).

Durkan, for what it’s worth, comes with a reputation for driving her employees. “I drive people hard because I expect a lot of them, but I never ask people to do more than I do,” she says.

But, she adds, she’s no Ed Murray. “I think it’s a huge fault,” she says of how he ran his office. “And there are other elected officials that have that reputation and I don’t understand why they do it and why they think it works. It’s not that you’re not human and you get mad and lose your temper.” But, she says, “as a common practice, most people are good people trying to do good work.” 

When asked about Murray's office, Moon talks more about "untapped potential." She also blames the office for resting too much on its haunches. "I think they settled into an overly conservative, let’s-not-take-a-risk approach because it might not work to solving problems," she says. "And I think we have to push through that."

3. The experience factor

The question of experience has dominated the race, although what “experience” means is not well-defined. It breaks into two kinds, depending on who’s asking: elected and managerial. Moon has received more scrutiny for her perceived lack of experience than Durkan, although both do have managerial experience: Moon at her family's Michigan respirator factory; Durkan as U.S. Attorney. Neither candidate has ever held elected office. 

In interviews with Crosscut, Durkan leans heavily on her time as a U.S. Attorney, comparing the pace there to the mayor's office and often pointing out her work negotiating the settlement agreement to overhaul the Seattle Police Department. Her camp loves the How Experienced Are You? question because they believe there's no contest between the candidates. 

Moon admits her resume as a “gadfly and urban thinker” is “weird.” “Like a lot of women, my resume is not packed with full-time jobs because I had obligations as a single mom,” she says. “When you have such family obligations, you don’t always have specific full-time jobs. I took advantage of the fact that I inherited money and that I was married to someone who makes enough money for both of us to do a deep dive into public service.”

But is this question even a fair one? Some suggest no. 

Crosscut columnist Knute Berger points out how former-mayor Charley Royer had neither elected nor extensive managerial experience, at least not of an organization anywhere near the size of the City of Seattle — but he went on to serve three terms as mayor. Murray and former Seattle Mayor Wes Uhlman each had elected experience in the state Legislature, but staffs in Olympia are small and a lawmaker's job offers little in the way of managing a large organization. Former Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn had not been elected to office before and was well-known mostly in environmental activism.

What prepares one to be mayor? McGinn acknowledged he had to learn on the job. But even as an elected official, Murray’s transition had rough spots: His staff saw incredible turnover and reorganization throughout his first two years, the churn calming in his third.

4. Dispatch from a senior living facility

At a senior living facility in Wallingford last week, Cary Moon was slated to speak at 1:30 p.m., although there was some miscommunication around timing so she arrived at 1:38, which was oddly conspicuous in the schedule conscious apartment complex.

The room to hear her was full. Attendees were, of course, older and almost exclusively white, but Moon’s message of social justice and lifting up marginalized communities did not waver from what she has been championing all along on the campaign trail. And she was rewarded: She received nods of approval that the $160 million North Precinct police station was bloated and one woman asked her what she was going to do about the “NIMBY problem.”

She also encountered new and difficult questions, notably from a man with his arm draped across a padded chair. “This is not a gotcha question,” he said, before asking where her two teenage children attended school. It was a gotcha question; he seemed to know the answer in advance.

Moon’s kids attend Seattle Academy, a private school on Capitol Hill. “I can explain,” she said. “The option we were offered was in Wallingford. There was no way I was going to make that trip twice a day to get my kid to school (Moon lives downtown without a car). And so we weren’t offered an option that worked for our family and we had the ability to go to private school. We wanted to stay in the public school system but like a lot of families we weren’t offered a choice that worked for us. … When you have the choice it’s really easy to send your kid to private school. It’s a tragedy that we need to fix.”

For Jim and Donna Boyles, who’ve recently moved from Portland, Maine, Moon’s frank answers were enough to steer them away from Durkan. “We heard about what Jenny had done,” said Donna, and she was “impressed with her connections.” But Moon gave them specifics they liked, they explained. After her visit, the couple said they were “definitely leaning toward Cary.”

Mayoral candidate Cary Moon photographed at Greenwood Park in Seattle.

5. Money matters

Money is always an issue in local political races, but this year arguably more so because both campaigns have fodder for their cannons.

Durkan's people like to point out that Moon is largely self-funding her own campaign; the last filing report shows Moon making up to $141,000 in personal contributions. Another point Durkan's campaign likes to make: Durkan has 3,471 individual donors while Moon only has 716. For a candidate (Moon) who, after narrowly defeating community hero Nikkita Oliver in the primary, pledged to foster grassroots support, this is a sharp blow.

But where Durkan argues this is evidence of her broad support, Moon casts it as insider, establishment politics. "I'm not a professional politician with access to all the donor lists from Mayor Murray," Moon said at a Monday debate at Seattle University.

Moon argues that Durkan is getting bankrolled by corporations: She held a press conference Tuesday just to point that out. The Chamber of Commerce's PAC, funded by large corporations such as Amazon, Vulcan and Comcast, transferred a half-million dollars into an independent expenditure campaign for Durkan.

6. Who will win the activist vote?

Jenny Durkan is not embraced by Seattle's activist community. Her corporate money, her attorney's office's aggressive approach to May Day protestors and illegal medical pot shops, and her early clashes over police reform with former mayor Mike McGinn and the Community Police Commission are frequent points of contention.

But she's unwilling to hand the People's Candidate title over to Cary Moon so easily.

In July, when asked why she was so disliked by some on Seattle's left (for a time on social media there was #JennyonebutDurkan hashtag floating around), she wouldn't give an inch. "I think the more they learn about me, the more they’ll like me. I think of all the candidates, I have the most established track record of criminal justice reform of anyone, period and have done more to divert people from the criminal justice system for decades."

In an interview in August, she further argued the divide between her and the left was not racial, but generational. Her endorsements include high-powered, professionals of color who have broken barriers including Ron Sims, Norm Rice, Gary Locke, Preet Bharara and Bruce Harrell.

Wrote Locke, Sims and Rice in a joint letter of endorsement: "Jenny was with us when we faced the real outcome of the 'war on drugs'—as a criminal defense attorney she saw first-hand the devastating impacts on people of color and their families."

Who has done more on behalf of marginalized Seattlelites took the spotlight briefly last Monday at a debate at Seattle University after Moon pledged to include people "of all races" in city government. Durkan challenged her: "Part of me wants to say, 'When did you get woke?' Because I've been working on these issues for 20 to 30 years in this city."

Moon replied she had, in fact, been working in the community for decades, if not in the same circles as Durkan. And she's been endorsed by the who's-who of grassroots Seattle: The Transit Riders Union, Upgrade Seattle, Seattle Subway, Our Revolution WA and Democracy for America. (Notably lacking is Oliver's Peoples Party.)

On Wednesday, Durkan scored one more high-profile endorsement: former U.S. Attorney Eric Holder, who wrote: "She’s a proven progressive leader who has been addressing the undeniable inequities in policing, juvenile justice, and criminal justice for decades." 

Both mayoral candidates agree on the problems the city faces: Housing, homelessness, police, transportation, revenue streams. As a result, much of the election has turned into a referendum on experience vs. innovation vs. pragmatism vs. cooperation vs. equity.

Ballots are due Nov. 7. The winner will have three short weeks to prepare to take office on Nov. 28, at which point it will not only mark the the beginning of a new administration but the final, clean break from the chaos left behind by Murray.


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About the Authors & Contributors

David Kroman

David Kroman

David Kroman is formerly a reporter at Crosscut, where he covered city politics.