Outgoing Seattle Mayor Durkan looks back with pride — and some regrets

As Durkan prepares to leave office, she says her term will ultimately be defined by the city's pandemic response.

Mayor Jenny Durkan

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan speaks during an OL Reign press conference at Lumen Field in Seattle, Dec. 15, 2021. (Lindsey Wasson for Crosscut)

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, who next week will wrap up four years in office filled with historic crises, points to Seattle’s pandemic response as the high point and defining accomplishment of her term.

Durkan is less keen on identifying specific regrets, although in a recent interview with Crosscut, she did acknowledge the region’s rise in visible homelessness as a major setback. She also said police response to  summer 2020 protests — a tumultuous period that saw a drop in her approval ratings and multiple calls for the mayor’s resignation — fell short.  

The mayor pointed to the construction of new affordable housing, the Seattle Promise College Tuition Program, the Waterfront Park and the Climate Pledge Area as other achievements during her one term in office.

Durkan is proud of the city’s actions over the past four years. Systemic change takes time, she said, but the groundwork is there.

“I think that once people have some distance, they’ll see that this was the most unprecedented time in our city’s history,” Durkan said. “And that we not just met the moment, we were able to deliver the kind of results where we’re set as a city ready for the next stage.”

Durkan ran for mayor in 2017 after the previous mayor, Ed Murray, dropped out amid allegations of sexual abuse. A former U.S Attorney, Durkan ran as a consensus candidate, promising to restore trust and heal the city’s political divide. She easily defeated her more left-leaning opponent, Cary Moon, that November and entered office as Seattle’s first woman mayor in more than 90 years.

Durkan is a moderate by Seattle political standards, and her actions sometimes frustrated activists and members of the more progressive Seattle City Council.

At the start of her term, the mayor drew criticism for ramping up the number of homeless encampment sweeps and boosting the city’s Navigation Team, a now-defunct group of police and social workers tasked with evicting encampments and finding new places for homeless people to live. 

The mayor also clashed with council members over a head tax on large corporations that was later repealed under pressure from Amazon. She would later oppose the similar JumpStart payroll tax that passed in 2020.

During her early years as mayor, Seattle was still riding a decadelong wave of economic growth. In an optimistic State of the City address in February 2020, she touted the city’s progress on accessible public transit, job growth and investments in small businesses.

“As we look at the year ahead, I believe we can seize opportunities before us,” Durkan said. “After all we’ve done together in the last two years, how could I not believe?”

Within weeks, everything changed. 

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan and Mayor-elect Bruce Harrell appear on a panel during an OL Reign press conference at Lumen Field in Seattle, Dec. 15, 2021. (Lindsey Wasson for Crosscut)

‘Unprecedented, dynamic times’

COVID-19 hit Seattle early and hard. Businesses shuttered, city sales tax revenue dried up and the mayor’s office scrambled to put together a plan as the nation plunged into uncertainty. By early March 2020, Seattle was a national hotspot for COVID-19 deaths.

“We were the first in and facing the most dire circumstances,” Durkan said.

Despite the early challenges, Seattle managed to pull through the chaos, and was later recognized as a national leader in pandemic response. The city was one of the first to implement widespread testing and encourage stay-at-home restrictions. When COVID-19  vaccines became widely available in spring 2021, Seattle was the first major American city to achieve its goal of vaccinating 70% of eligible residents.

The virus is still a top priority for the mayor. On Monday, she spent the last news conference of her term discussing the omicron variant alongside public health officials.

Durkan attributed the city’s successful pandemic response to close cooperation with businesses, health care systems and county and state governments. While other American cities struggled with contradictory guidelines from various levels of government, Seattle was praised for its consistent public health messaging.

“When history is written, they’ll say Seattle is the city that got it right,” Durkan said. 

But the political goodwill Durkan enjoyed at the start of the pandemic was clouded by the city’s response to protests in the summer of 2020 over police violence.

As protesters took to the streets to call on the city to reimagine its relationship with policing and public safety, the Seattle Police Department deployed tear gas, blast balls, pepper spray and other crowd control measures that were widely condemned as heavy-handed. As tensions escalated, Durkan was criticized for standing by and failing to calm the police response. Within weeks of George Floyd’s murder, the mayor faced calls for her to resign — including from three members of the Seattle City Council.

Durkan acknowledged that the Seattle Police Department’s response to the protests fell short and involved “instances of disproportionate use of force.” She said those cases were immediately referred to Seattle’s Office of Police Accountability and the Office of Inspector General, which later released extensive reports on the police response.

“I think they’ve confirmed that there were many things that could go better, but have also shown where police did as they were trained and was appropriate,” Durkan said.

The mayor pushed back on the idea that she should have done more to rein in the department’s response. The situation was volatile and dynamic, she said, leaving her no choice but to turn to the training and expertise of then-Police Chief Carmen Best and her command staff. 

“She’d been with the department almost 30 years, she knew how the department works, she was on the ground determining what response was appropriate,” Durkan said. “And I think you have to rely on that.”

Durkan did sign a 30-day ban on the use of tear gas, but it had exceptions and tear gas blanketed Capitol Hill two days after the ban was signed.

In hindsight, Durkan argued that “no city in America got the crowd control response right,” which might be correct. Dozens of American cities faced lawsuits related to their use of crowd control measures that summer; and Durkan isn’t the only mayor whose opponents were inspired to use a nickname starting with the word “teargas.

Durkan continues to face scrutiny over text messages that were deleted from her phone during that time period. She maintained that she didn’t know her phone was automatically set to delete the texts, which state law classifies as public records. She said her office has implemented new systems to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

“I think having government trust means having government transparency,” Durkan said. “We’ve got to do all we can to restore trust in that area.”  

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan greets Mayor-elect Bruce Harrell at the OL Reign press conference at Lumen Field, Dec. 15, 2021. (Lindsey Wasson for Crosscut)

Conflict with the city council

The abandonment of the Seattle Police Department’s East Precinct and the birth of the CHOP in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood further complicated the summer for the mayor, who found herself facing increased criticism from both sides of the political spectrum. Incendiary tweets from then-President Donald Trump, with whom Durkan clashed throughout her term, added fuel to the fire.

Durkan said other crises that year, like the West Seattle Bridge closure, wildfire smoke and the ongoing pandemic, exacerbated an already tenacious situation. In December, she announced she wouldn’t seek a second term.

Durkan frequently draws on words like “dynamic” and “unprecedented” when explaining the city’s decision-making process in the summer of 2020. She said it’s part of what made communicating information to the public difficult — especially when it came to how the order to abandon the East Precinct came about.

“There was so much happening at once,” Durkan said. 

The mayor was at odds with the Seattle City Council throughout her term, but Durkan said their early disagreements were rooted in matters of policy. That changed over the summer as tensions flared in the debate over policing and public safety. Seven of nine council members initially endorsed defunding the Seattle Police Department by 50%, a move Durkan painted as irresponsible and hastily put together. The debate morphed into a bitter back and forth that dragged out into the next year and set the stage for future conflict.

“That disagreement set the table for a loct of other disagreements,” Durkan said.

The events that summer are still reverberating in the form of a recall campaign against Councilmember Kshama Sawant that was narrowly defeated earlier this month. The recall was spurred in part by allegations Durkan made claiming Sawant had disclosed Durkan’s address to a group of protesters — violating state confidentiality laws and putting Durkan’s family in danger. Sawant has admitted to participating in the march, but denies any role in disclosing the mayor’s address; Durkan stands by the claim.

The recall was defeated by just a few hundred votes. Durkan said she hopes Sawant will see the narrow results as a sign that voters want her to adjust her confrontational approach to politics. 

Political polarization is a big concern for the mayor. She said it’s grown worse both nationally and locally, making it harder to get things done and ultimately hurting democracy.

“For a period of time, it wasn’t just enough to disagree with someone; if you disagreed with them, they became your enemy, or they’re villainized,” Durkan said.

Durkan said she hopes Mayor-elect Bruce Harrell will enter office with a city council that is “more reflective” and able to cooperate.

Growing homelessness crisis

Homelessness was already an emergency when Durkan entered office in 2017. Four years later, visible homelessness is arguably worse, although Durkan attributed some of the increase to structural factors outside the city’s control.

Before the pandemic hit, there were signs of progress, Durkan said.

“We were able to change the trajectory and even had a one-night count that showed that we had lowered the number of [homeless] people,” she said.

The mayor is referring to a 2019 point-in-time count that showed a decrease in the number of homeless people in King County for the first time since 2012. The mayor’s office touted the results as a sign of progress at the time, although some groups questioned the methodology and accuracy of the report. The point-in-time count is a famously imprecise snapshot, and a recent report from King County’s Department of Community and Human Services cast further doubt on the results from previous years.

Durkan pointed to investments the city has made by enhancing the 24/7 shelter system and expanding mental health resources, but at the end of the day, she said, the homelessness crisis has eclipsed the city’s resources.

“The problem has grown,” Durkan said. “And we as a city can’t scale up to meet that.”

Durkan said she hopes the newly created King County Regional Homeless Authority will help address the problem of scale.

“It’s the first year, it’s got incredible challenges, but it can succeed,” Durkan said. “But it’ll depend on how much effort everyone puts into it.”

Getting other regional cities onboard the new authority has proved tricky. Durkan said Harrell will have to work closely with suburban leaders to make sure they step up.

New administration

Durkan said her office has been working closely with Harrell’s team to help ensure a smooth transition. Every city department has worked to create a briefing book to get the incoming staff up to speed on key issues — namely homelessness and public safety.

With the omicron variant on the horizon and booster shots still being distributed, Durkan said COVID-19 will have to be a major priority for the new mayor.

“He’s going to have to be really focused on how the city helps him get that done. And it’s going to affect everything else in the city,” Durkan said.

Harrell, who is politically similar to Durkan, has indicated that he will be taking a different approach to the city’s handling of homelessness and public safety. Durkan said he’ll have to come into office ready to “assess where the city is and what he thinks can get done.”

Durkan hopes that Harrell will continue to build on the momentum created by civic projects like Climate Pledge Area and Waterfront Park. As employees of many companies continue working remotely in 2022, Durkan said Harrell is going to have to “retool” what the process for downtown recovery looks like.

When Durkan announced last winter that she would not run for reelection, she said it was so she could focus on bringing the city out of the pandemic without being distracted by politics. She has also indicated that exhaustion and personal threats to her family played a role. Durkan is one of many American mayors who chose not to seek reelection after being battered by a year of pandemic and protests.

“I think that people will look back and say it was probably the most challenging time ever,” Durkan said. “But because of the steps we took, we came out of it as best we could.”

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