Experience as U.S. attorney and support from political heavyweights has made Jenny Durkan one of the leading candidates in the race for Seattle mayor, while also stirring opposition to her bid.
Jenny Durkan was introducing herself to voters in a Wedgwood church basement.
“I’m a mayor who listens,” she said, then quickly corrected herself. “Or, I will be.”
The remark was a slip of the tongue. But the former U.S. attorney is a front-runner of sorts in the race for Seattle mayor, backed by sitting Mayor Ed Murray, a pair of former governors, major business groups and one of the state’s largest union locals.
2017 Seattle mayoral race
Appointed by President Obama, she was the first openly gay person to become a U.S. attorney. Durkan has raised, by far, the most campaign cash in the race.
“What sets me apart? I’m a person who has managed before,” she told the crowd. “It’s a big city with a big budget. I can bring people together and get solutions.”
Detractors say the 58-year-old is an establishment candidate unlikely to push for dramatic change, while supporters say hers is the steady hand the city needs at a time made turbulent by explosive growth, housing woes and President Trump.
Among them is Charlene Strong, whose partner was killed in their home a decade ago by a sudden flood. She put her trust in Durkan and argues voters can do the same.
Before the Aug. 1 primary, The Seattle Times is profiling leading candidates for Seattle mayor, selected based on civic involvement, endorsements, campaign activity and money raised. Learn more about all 21 candidates in our interactive online voter's guide.
When the women met, Durkan “had a quiet confidence,” recalled Strong, who won a $2.8 million settlement from the city with Durkan representing her. “It gave me the belief that she had everything taken care of, that she was going to handle this for me.”
Old Seattle bona fides
Reared in Issaquah, Durkan is a daughter of longtime state lawmaker Martin J. Durkan Sr., a Democrat who twice ran unsuccessfully for governor.
After Forest Ridge School of the Sacred Heart on the Eastside and the University of Notre Dame, she taught English and coached basketball in a remote Alaskan town.
Then came a law degree from the University of Washington and a career as an attorney taking high-profile criminal defense, personal injury and political cases.
“I think I’m the only candidate who’s actually represented people charged with crimes and been in most of the jails and prisons in this state,” she said.
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Durkan represented Kari Tupper after the former congressional aide accused U.S. Sen. Brock Adams of sexual assault. Claims against Adams by other women followed.
“She helped me survive the early days, the media frenzy,” Tupper said. “She dedicated hundreds of hours of work and she didn’t ever charge me.”
Other clients included the families of Seattle firefighters who died in a warehouse fire, and Chris Gregoire when Dino Rossi contested the 2004 gubernatorial election.
Durkan later worked as an adviser for Gov. Gregoire, as she had for Gov. Mike Lowry. Gregoire stood behind her at her campaign kickoff.
The candidate has played up her Old Seattle bona fides, proclaiming her love for the Supersonics and touting her role as a Rainier Beer bottle in a beloved TV ad.
“I watched the Space Needle being built,” she said in a speech announcing her bid.
Durkan is more guarded about her present life. The mother of two has sought to keep her home address private as she runs for mayor, citing security concerns, and is enrolled in a state program allowing criminal-justice employees who have received serious threats to shield their addresses from disclosure in public documents.
Property records show Durkan and her partner sold their home in the Windermere neighborhood on May 31. They’re renting at an undisclosed address downtown.
Durkan’s tenure as U.S. attorney for the Western District of Washington is the cornerstone of her campaign. She spent about $80,000 last week on 152,000 mailers, including one featuring Obama with his arm around her.
Most frequently, Durkan cites her creation of a civil-rights unit in her office and her work on reforming the Seattle Police Department. After the American Civil Liberties Union and community groups requested an investigation, Durkan helped lead a probe.
U.S. Department of Justice found cause to believe the department was consistently using excessive force and cause for concerns about discriminatory policing. Then Durkan helped negotiate a reform agreement with the city.
In an interview, U.S. District Judge James Robart credited Durkan — along with the police, community and the court — with making the department “better and more effective,” calling her “a strong advocate for both police reform and the police.”
The department’s progress and Durkan’s involvement should not be exaggerated, the Rev. Harriett Walden said. It was the community groups that initially pressed for change, the Seattle Community Police Commission member said.
“We’re not out of the woods yet,” Walden said, pointing to the fatal shooting of Charleena Lyles last month by police officers, including one not carrying his Taser.
“(Durkan) was engaging and really knew what the issues were. No complaints,” she added. “But in my experience, no one comes to the table without being pushed.”
For some voters, Durkan’s prosecutorial experience is a clear asset. She managed a large office through lean years.
Other voters are wary of a candidate who served in a criminal-justice system so marred by racial disparities that some refer to it as “the new Jim Crow.”
Jeff Robinson understands that perspective. An ACLU deputy legal director, he disagreed with Durkan’s handling of some cases when she was U.S. attorney.
Robinson also is a friend, former law partner and strong Durkan backer, however. Though she enforced drug policies he views as “completely wrong,” so did “virtually every other U.S. attorney,” Robinson said, pointing to her police reform and other work.
Durkan helped start one of the country’s first federal drug courts, he noted.
“When I first came out of law school, I thought all prosecutors were evil,” Robinson said, speaking only in his personal capacity. “But look what she did.”
LaKecia Farmer is less convinced — and not only because Durkan has put people behind bars. “It’s not just that she was a prosecutor, it’s her record and her positions,” said Farmer, president of the Young Democrats of Washington.
Durkan’s willingness to continue evictions of unsheltered people from unauthorized encampments bothers Farmer. On police reform, she doubts the candidate’s vision.
“I want someone pushing the limits on what the system can look like,” Farmer said.
A challenge has been connecting with younger Seattle voters, partly because Durkan has been out of local politics for years, she says. No other candidate has drawn as much overt opposition, including the Twitter hashtag #JennyOneButDurkan.
Durkan is proud of her case against a Russian hacker, which “demonstrated our ability to bring to account people who feel like they can hide behind a keyboard.”
When a serial sex offender was paid $90,000 as an informant in a troubled terrorism investigation, Durkan said, “It’s not the saints who brings us the sinners.”
She didn’t charge Washington Mutual bosses after the 2008 crash partly “because of the legal standard that’s required to hold executives accountable,” she said.
Soon after stepping down as U.S. attorney in 2014, Durkan joined international law firm Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan as a cyber-security specialist.
Backed by Ed Murray
Durkan is mostly a continuity candidate, backed by many Murray loyalists, though her allegiance to zero-based budgeting signals she could be more conservative.
She supports the mayor’s plan to upzone urban villages across the city while imposing new affordable-housing requirements on developers. And she agrees with his decision to stop short of allowing more density in single-family zones.
New information about sexual-abuse allegations against Murray, whose endorsement Durkan accepted last month, could hurt her. Unlike four other leading candidates, she stopped short this week of asking the mayor to step down.
Durkan lacks a trademark policy idea and has resisted taking absolute positions.
“She was a late and lukewarm proponent” of Seattle’s new income tax, said the Transit Riders Union’s Katie Wilson. “She certainly wasn’t supportive at first.”
Supporters consider Durkan deliberative. Rather than choose “yes” or “no” when asked in a questionnaire whether the city should assess growth-impact fees on developers, she didn’t submit an answer.
“There are a number of things where people look for yes-nos when there aren’t yes-nos,” Durkan said. “Anybody who gives a yes-no, that’s a little bit disqualifying.”
Information in this article, originally published July 18, 2017, was corrected July 19, 2017. A previous version incorrectly stated Vulcan’s contribution to a political-action committee. The contribution was $75,000.