The rising cost of housing is a dominant issue in Seattle’s mayoral election, but political messaging – on trust, results and leadership – could also move voters in the race between Jenny Durkan and Cary Moon.
It’s a race away from a scandal and a race to become Seattle’s first woman mayor in about 90 years, a race about beating traffic and beating back President Donald Trump.
All of the issues matter, from Mayor Ed Murray resigning in disgrace to tech workers changing the city. But one question has come to dominate: How long will we be able to afford to live here, in the city we love?
“People are going to vote for whoever they think will get them access to housing,” said Xiochitl Maykovich, an activist and member of the Seattle Women’s Commission.
2017 Seattle mayoral race
- Jenny Durkan defeats Cary Moon to become Seattle’s first woman mayor since the 1920s
- Seattle's next mayor, Jenny Durkan, names full transition team, deputy mayors
- Seattle’s millionaire mayoral candidates say they know what it’s like to struggle
- Beyond tent-camp ‘sweeps,’ big questions await next Seattle mayor
- Seattle mayoral candidates both say the future holds fewer cars. Here’s how they would ease the crunch
- Cary Moon: Urbanist, waterfront activist touts vision for city, faces questions about résumé, accomplishments
- Jenny Durkan: Former U.S. attorney brings experience, high-powered allies, but also draws scrutiny
- Seattle’s first — and only — female mayor was elected in 1926
So Durkan and Moon are talking about housing — how to preserve it, where to build it, how to make it affordable … and whom voters should trust to get the work done.
Because they agree on certain points, their political messaging will matter. In new television commercials, Durkan, who as U.S. attorney investigated the Seattle Police Department, promises “No more talk,” while Moon, an urbanist who pressed for a waterfront park, touts a “new kind of leadership.”
Durkan says Seattle needs someone with bona fide leadership experience and a track record in government. Moon calls her rival an establishment candidate who can’t be counted on to stand up for ordinary people.
Durkan is backed by more business and labor groups and has five times more donors, while Moon is helping to bankroll her own bid.
“Both are well-connected, in different ways,” said Maykovich, the housing activist. “A lot of it just comes down to vibe.”
The meaning of growth
Two years have passed since Murray declared a homelessness state of emergency in Seattle, but people are still struggling in tents and sleeping bags on the shoulders of Interstate 5.
The average rent for a two-bedroom apartment recently hit $2,000 a month and the local growth in home prices is nearly double any other U.S. city.
“Everybody seems to be very focused on affordable housing,” said Wayne Lau, executive director of the Rainier Valley Community Development Fund.
Many voters in Southeast Seattle chose community organizer Nikkita Oliver in the August primary, Lau said, and are now trying to decide between Durkan and Moon.
The candidates say they share Oliver’s concerns about high-end development pushing regular people out. Still, they say Seattle needs more homes to accommodate newcomers and to stabilize costs for longtime residents.
Durkan and Moon say the city should continue upzoning some areas for taller buildings and should allow more kinds of housing on blocks now reserved for single-family houses.
And they agree more affordable housing must be built, said Ethan Phelps-Goodman, founder of Seattle Tech 4 Housing.
“Those things aren’t even in contention, which is a remarkable place to be,” said Phelps-Goodman, whose tech-worker organization advocates increased density.
“Just look at the Bay Area, where politicians are working against new housing,” he said.
There are differences on homelessness, density and affordability.
Moon says evictions of unauthorized homeless camps are wrong and should be stopped because only a small percentage of such camps are unsafe, while Durkan says the camps should be shut down because allowing people to live there is immoral.
The former urban designer talks more about opening up single-family areas that she says can exclude whole swaths of society, whereas the longtime lawyer talks more about getting developers to build low-income apartments by granting them upzones.
Moon has called for the city to invest more in public housing rather than free-market solutions, while Durkan has proposed the city build a massive rent-voucher program.
Still, there’s a consensus, notes Phelps-Goodman. “There’s an establishment bloc that wants more housing and an urbanist bloc that wants more housing,” he said.
Most voters just want to know how their own block will be affected by the election result, said Jeff Shulman, a University of Washington business professor who hosts a podcast about the city’s growth.
The candidate who can better explain what people will get in return for accepting development in their neighborhood will stand a good chance on Election Day, he said.
“People are trying to figure out what growth means to them,” Shulman said. “What they’re losing and what they could be getting,” like a new library or community center.
That calculation can vary from neighborhood to neighborhood. Some voters, like Richard Dyksterhuis of Bitter Lake, says he wants to hear someone promise to replace the used-car lots on Aurora Avenue North with new apartment buildings.
“We want the density. Put it here,” the octogenarian community advocate said.
West Seattle historian Clay Eals is more wary. His candidate will be the one who vows to preserve the character of Seattle’s residential areas as the city booms.
“They’re tearing down beautiful buildings and replacing them with tissue boxes,” Eals said. “We shouldn’t sacrifice character on the altar of affordability.”
Tensions on display
The primary was a mostly cheerful contest, with 21 candidates politely seeking elbow room. The tension ratcheted up after Durkan and Moon advanced.
There was a dust-up in August, when Durkan suggested Moon could be stoking discrimination against homebuyers from China by pushing for the city to tax real-estate investors. Accusing Durkan of defending “profiteers,” Moon said her target would be nonresident homeowners — anyone or any company from anywhere else buying a home as an investment rather than to live in.
The strain built from there, reaching a new level at one point of a debate Wednesday in Columbia City, as the candidates traded blows over money and privilege.
Moon has promised to “share power” at City Hall with people from underrepresented communities. Painting Durkan as corporate, she highlighted Wednesday the $525,000 a business group recently gave to an independently run, pro-Durkan political committee.
Durkan noted Moon’s more than $141,000 in donations to her own campaign, saying Moon had used personal wealth to narrowly defeat Oliver, the former primary candidate.
Moon then slammed Durkan for “using” Oliver, who later on Twitter denounced two white women using her, a woman of color, “as a debate tactic.”
Lance Randall, who attended the debate sponsored by KVRU radio, called the negative turn expected.
“That’s something typical that happens,” said Randall, who works on economic development in the South End. “When you get close to Election Day, you want to say whatever you can to get the votes, even if that means I take a shot at you.”
Expected — and possibly revealing. With scarce independent polling, the attacks could suggest Moon and Durkan believe the race is close, Randall said, while the debate overall underscored an interesting dynamic.
They sounded like two privileged candidates “trying to solve common people’s problems” and help communities of color in a very white city, Randall said.
“The question for voters is, who do you think can actually do it?”
Durkan’s backers point to her résumé, including five years as a federal prosecutor and time advising two governors, in portraying her as a competent doer with a take-charge attitude.
“Seattle needs action,” she says in her TV spot, telling viewers she’ll move quickly to distribute rent vouchers, open 700 shelter beds and break ground on 1,000 tiny houses for the homeless. “Because Seattle just can’t wait any longer.”
Supporters describe Moon, who also has worked as an operations engineer, as a wonky, deep thinker on urban issues. Since inheriting money from her parents a few years ago, she has studied and worked on civic challenges.
Moon doesn’t speak in her ad, which shows her working at a drafting table and calls her a “civic leader” after slamming Durkan as a “corporate lawyer.” Durkan is shown in black and white, with Murray looming behind her.
Sharon Maeda, a Moon supporter who moderated the KRVU debate, explains the options this way: “If I was up for murder, I’d look to Jenny to be my lawyer, no question. She’s really smart and a great attorney,” Maeda said.
“But her work has been pretty much transactional. Cary’s work has been relational … you need somebody who can deal with delicate relationships across the city.”
Former Gov. Chris Gregoire, a Durkan supporter, sees it differently.
“You can’t be the mayor of a major international city and not have had experience,” she said, noting that Trump had never worked in government.
When Moon lays out her plans, “Does she have any idea what it takes to do that?” Gregoire said.
Some voters are underwhelmed by the choice, such as Dae Shik Kim Hawkins Jr., a member of the Seattle Peoples Party that Oliver also belongs to.
“I’m a Cary Moon voter,” he said, speaking for himself rather than the party.
“But I would love to see more inspiration being built around why Cary Moon is needed during this time … I don’t want to just be excited for Cary Moon because she’s not Jenny Durkan. I want to be excited about Cary Moon because of Cary Moon.”
Other voters are thrilled to pick between “two really qualified” candidates, as community advocate Dyksterhuis described them, saying, “We’re really lucky.”