Being mayor of Seattle is like baseball. It may look easy, but play the game and you find it turns out to be very hard to do well.
Mayor Jenny Durkan’s decision to decline a second term is a good decision, for the very reasons she stated. She will devote her last year focused on the difficult challenges befalling our community, the COVID-19 pandemic, homelessness and law enforcement reform, to mention only three.
Full disclosure: My wife and I, with friends, sponsored a small fundraiser at our home in support of then candidate Durkan. Our community desperately needed a mature, sensible professional to begin repairing the damage caused by her predecessors Mike McGinn and Ed Murray.
Among the challenges she faced once in office was rebuilding a decimated bureaucracy. A legion of talented public servants had left city employment out of disgust for their highhanded administrations, or were pushed out for not abiding their particular ideologies. No less trouble was figuring out how to work with a Seattle City Council polluted by the bullying tactics of member Kshama Sawant and the sycophancy of then Councilmember Mike O’Brien, who played Sancho Panza to McGinn’s Don Quixote.
Mayor Durkan deserves credit for her efforts, not entirely successful, at bringing structure and clarity to the hard work of managing the homelessness crisis. She tried to corral city spending only to be overwhelmed by a council determined to throw money around with too little oversight, especially in the matter of people living on the street.
She reached out to less influential communities and brought to City Hall a long involvement in racial justice and reform of law enforcement practices. But when the Black Lives Matter protests were taken over by people bent not on social justice but on violence and destruction, her retreat from the East Police Precinct signaled a law enforcement laxity reminiscent of the WTO protests gone awry during the administration of the late Mayor Paul Schell.
Durkan came into office in a city much different than that of the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s: The growth and impacts of technology companies, the shift in focus of local business leaders away from local affairs to global economic challenges, and a widening income gap not only among disadvantaged communities but also young people burdened with education debts and the high cost of housing.
Durkan could not have anticipated the advent of a pandemic. Still, she jumped right in with policies adhering to the best science and public-health practices. None of her predecessors worked under a federal administration as sinister and corrupt as that of President Donald Trump.
Perhaps this and other developments indicate that this superb lawyer, a conscientious humanist, a proud leader of the LGBTQ community, a woman of the people simply was not cut out for a high-powered executive role. The people she chose for her top staff did not win high marks.
Unlike several of her former predecessors — mayors Wes Uhlman, Charles Royer and Norm Rice — Durkan did not surround herself with a top-flight staff. Those mayors faced difficult challenges for their time: Uhlman the Boeing Bust; Royer the second oil embargo and President Reagan’s cuts in spending; Rice the near collapse of the downtown business core and the need to bolster Seattle’s public schools. A hallmark of those administrations, however, was a coterie of first-rate professionals to advise and help each of them manage the city.
Still, I’d bet dollars to doughnuts, that these mayors would acknowledge the problems they faced, while daunting, would not measure up to the menu that has confronted Durkan.
So, I offer her this salute: One of the most difficult times in life can be knowing when to head out, when to change course. It takes guts to run for mayor, guts to do the job well. And it takes guts to know when to move on, and the courage to do it.