Former U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan is running for Seattle mayor with lots of credentials — a track record of accomplishments and political connections. Still, aspects of her professional life and ties to power brokers could work against her in a city leaning ever more left.
Jenny Durkan has all the traditional credentials for political office: an accomplished career, connections and a familiar name. For years, friends and colleagues urged her to run.
This year, she took the plunge with a campaign for Seattle mayor, relying on those assets to win support from key leaders in business, labor and beyond.
But the former United States attorney’s gold-plated résumé, affluence and high-powered allies also have drawn scrutiny in a city where social-justice activists are raising their voices against insider politics, mass incarceration and corporate might.
Noted for her success as a trial lawyer and commanding courtroom manner, Durkan, 59, has gone to bat for and against political giants, for accusers and people accused.
Her profile grew when she became the nation’s first openly gay U.S. attorney, appointed by President Barack Obama, and she signed an agreement requiring Seattle police reform.
“I want calm waters,” said former King County Executive Ron Sims. “I want a person I know is going to be a great captain of the ship, who knows how to get things done.”
Last job: Partner at Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan
Family: Partner, two children
Primary result: 27.9 percent in 21-candidate primary
Sims has endorsed Durkan, saying she managed big egos and made consequential decisions as U.S. attorney. Voters in the Nov. 7 election will weigh that background against Durkan’s relative lack of experience working with neighborhoods on transportation and housing.
After leaving the post, Durkan joined the world’s largest white-shoe firm. Now renting a home downtown, she and her partner, Dana Garvey, until recently owned a 6,570-square-foot Windermere house.
“I haven’t seen her down at City Hall on issues other than police reform,” said City Councilmember Mike O’Brien, who’s supporting Durkan’s opponent, Cary Moon.
“There’s a swath of our community who think these are really important decisions, and really important people should make them, and really important people are people who have rubbed elbows with folks at the top,” O’Brien said. “I look for someone who has been deeply involved with communities on local issues.”
Durkan, has had to learn about those issues as a candidate, with some advocates calling her a quick study.
After representing grieving families and serving as a right hand to Gov. Chris Gregoire, Durkan is now trying to make the case for herself.
She’s defending her prosecution of some medical-marijuana sellers not long before Washington voters made recreational pot legal. She’s trying to explain why no WaMU bigshots went to prison. And she’s arguing that someone who put people behind bars can move the city away from the prison-industrial complex.
Raised in Issaquah, Durkan is one of eight children of lobbyist and Democratic lawmaker Martin Durkan and Lorraine Durkan, who grew up on Queen Anne.
She earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Notre Dame in 1980 and a law degree from the University of Washington in 1985. In between, she taught English and coached basketball in rural Alaska.
Durkan began her legal career in Washington, D.C., where she represented Kari Tupper, the first woman to accuse then-U.S. Sen. Brock Adams of sexual assault.
In 1991, she joined the Seattle firm Schroeter, Goldmark and Bender for six years, with short stints as executive counsel to Democratic Gov. Mike Lowry and helping Garvey start a telecommunications project-management company.
She publicly defended Lowry when his deputy press secretary, Susanne Albright, accused him of groping, lewd remarks and angry outbursts. At the time, Durkan denied there had been a pattern of harassment, describing the claims as “very difficult for the governor.”
About a week later, Durkan resigned. Lowry agreed to pay Albright $97,500, without admitting wrongdoing.
Heading her own practice from 1997 to 2009, Durkan won millions for her clients, including relatives of a man fatally stabbed after a Mariners game. The killer was a mentally-ill man just released from jail, and the case against King County and the state Department of Corrections pushed the county to establish a mental-health court.
Durkan’s political and legal worlds met in 2005, when she represented then newly elected Gov. Gregoire as her opponent in the election, Republican Dino Rossi, challenged the vote count.
During the trial, Durkan received news that her father had died in Hawaii. But she saw the case through and delivered the closing arguments that helped win the day for Gregoire and the Democrats.
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“The stakes were huge,” said lawyer Harry Korrell, who worked for the GOP then.
“She had a good rapport with the judge and a good rapport with us,” Korrell added. “She was a strong adversary.”
Time as U.S. attorney
Durkan points to her tenure as U.S. attorney, from 2009 to 2014, as proof she can manage a city government with a $5 billion-plus annual budget and about 12,000 employees.
She ran a 150-person office amid budget cuts, managing civil litigation and criminal prosecutions while coordinating with other federal law-enforcement agencies.
Durkan created a civil-rights unit within her office, directing some assistant U.S. attorneys to spend more time on housing- and job-discrimination cases.
The idea to protect such work from Republicans in D.C. by making it more local grew from conversations with then-Assistant Attorney General Tom Perez, she said.
Others cases included the indictment of a Russian hacker and a controversial sting operation in which a janitor plotted to blow up a Seattle military enlistment station.
On the campaign trail, Durkan cites her work closing down crime-infested motels in Tukwila after arranging for poor residents of the motels to reach safety.
Bob Westinghouse, who worked under multiple U.S. attorneys before serving as Durkan’s criminal-division chief, praised his former boss as a forceful leader.
“Jenny did put her own mark on the office,” he said. “When there was a drug problem in an area, Jenny was very much in favor of trying to marshal federal resources to work with local law-enforcement to make an impact in that community.”
Durkan saw the opioid crisis metastasizing early, with Mexican cartels using weed and cocaine routes to run heroin and some doctors handing out pills like candy. Her office used data to identify problem doctors, then went undercover to snare them, she said.
Not everyone loved Durkan’s leadership style. Now-retired Assistant U.S. Attorney Kathryn Warma, who worked on the case against Russian hacker Roman Seleznev, said she won’t be voting for Durkan “based on my work experience with her.”
Said Westingthouse, “She was probably not as prone to walk the halls and intermingle with assistants on a daily basis as perhaps some might be.”
In her last full year as U.S. attorney, Durkan’s office filed 1,455 civil cases, compared with 783 the year before her appointment.
“I work 80 hours a week, and I’ve done it for 10 years,” Durkan said.
The candidate sleeps four to five hours a night, sometimes more on weekends. “I try to catch up,” she said. “Because sleep is a weapon.”
Said Kate Pflaumer, who was U.S. attorney in the 1990s, “Running the office is a question of how much you want to micromanage it. It’s comparable to the mayor’s office because you need to juggle all kinds of issues and emergencies.”
The police-reform process began in 2010 when 34 community groups and the ACLU of Washington asked Durkan and Perez, the assistant attorney general, to investigate Seattle’s department. Durkan knew of problems after sitting on a civilian-review committee and a firearms-review board in the 1990s.
She and Perez agreed to investigate and a year later said they had turned up a pattern or practice of excessive force and serious concerns about bias.
Difficult negotiations with then-Mayor Mike McGinn followed, but the ultimate result was a court agreement on reform.
“She was personally involved in the meetings, the drafting, the editing, all phases of the work that ended up in the consent decree,” said Roy Austin, who was a deputy assistant attorney general working on police reform in D.C.
A bump in the road came in 2014 when new Mayor Ed Murray replaced Police Chief Jim Pugel, who had been working with Durkan to translate the decree into action.
Durkan didn’t speak out against the move. Still, Pugel has donated to her campaign.
Recalling a one-to-one meeting with the U.S. attorney to hash out a disagreement, without the usual witnesses and note-takers, he said, “I believe she trusted me, and I trusted her. We wanted to get the thing worked out and implemented properly so everyone would benefit from it.”
While running for mayor, Durkan has touted reductions in the Police Department’s use of force overall and against people in crisis.
Progress was harder to see in July, when officers fatally shot African-American mother Charleena Lyles in her Seattle home, saying she had attacked them.
On Friday, the Justice Department found the city in compliance with the decree.
Pot and big banks
In 2011, Durkan and her Eastern Washington counterpart threatened a crackdown if the state legalized medical-marijuana dispensaries. They said they could go after not only dispensaries but landlords and even state inspectors.
Gregoire vetoed the legalization proposal, and the next year Durkan busted the owners of two dispensary companies. By the time one of them, Brionne Corbray, was sentenced to probation for conspiracy to distribute marijuana, voters had jumped ahead to approve recreational pot.
Corbray said he was bullied, in part because he is African American. “They knew I had four kids and a wife. They said, ‘Either you sign this or we’re going to … send you to prison for five years,’ ” he said.
Durkan said her goal was to set boundaries by going after dispensaries serving customers other than patients and engaging in other crime.
Corbray was not charged with any other crime.
Durkan said she left medical-marijuana patients and doctors alone. Douglas Hiatt, a lawyer and pot-reform activist, said the approach was reasonable. She didn’t prosecute in a “Draconian way,” he said. “She used her discretion pretty well.”
Did Durkan abuse her discretion on Washington Mutual in the nation’s biggest bank failure? Like other federal prosecutors who stopped short of putting people responsible for the 2008 financial collapse behind bars, she says no.
“I inherited the case when I came in,” Durkan said, mentioning that some people “within the Department of Justice family” wanted to shut the investigation down.
“There came a juncture when some argued we had reached the end of the line,” she added, suggesting the groundwork hadn’t been laid to prove criminal intent.
That meant nabbing low-level employees and then moving up the corporate ladder, Durkan said, pointing out that her office did prosecute a small Pierce County bank.
“Bankers at that time had basically a pass because of the way the law was constructed,’’ she said. “They had a complete defense if there was good faith.”
UW law professor Mary Fan, who followed the case, was sympathetic. “It’s been incredibly challenging to ladder up to reach executives and high-level officials in financial institutions,” she said.
Western Washington has a tradition of moderate U.S. attorneys, said Tom Hillier, who went toe to toe with Durkan as Seattle’s head federal public defender.
And Durkan was part of that, Hillier said, noting she set up a pioneering drug court.
“I watched one of my clients graduate from the program last month, which was an incredibly moving experience. The program survives and is thriving,” he said.
Austin said Durkan was “first through the door” when Attorney General Eric Holder told prosecutors to sidestep mandatory minimum sentences for low-level drug offenses. “We needed people like Jenny leading that charge,” he said.
But on the ground, Hillier said, Durkan’s assistants could have done more to address racial injustice by exercising more restraint in charging and sentencing for drug offenses. Holder had given prosecutors a green light, he said.
“I don’t think Jenny seized the moment,” Hillier said. “In my view, we didn’t make any progress at all.”
Durkan says she sought the right balance. “We focused the toughest sanctions on the dealers and organizations responsible for the flood of meth, heroin and other opioids that were destroying communities,” while using the drug court for nonviolent offenders and those needing treatment, she said.
Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan brought Durkan on as a partner to lead its cyber law and privacy group in 2015, partly to advise businesses on how to handle hacking. She stayed less than a year, according to her LinkedIn profile.
Records show her involved in a trade-secrets lawsuit brought by a U.S. manufacturer against a Chinese company and a patent lawsuit by a retired engineer against Boeing. The practice also includes consumer-protection cases, Durkan said.
Moon has criticized Durkan for joining a corporate law firm rather than devoting more time to civic issues. The suggestion that Durkan is a sellout angers longtime friend and former law partnerJeffery Robinson, a deputy legal director of the ACLU.
When President Donald Trump sought to block travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries, Durkan rushed to the airport to try to help people affected, Robinson said. And she helped environmental groups to quash subpoenas from ExxonMobil as the company fought investigations into possible climate-change fraud, he added.
Patricia Sully, a staff attorney with the activist Public Defender Association pushing the city and county to open safe drug-consumption sites, said she was disappointed earlier this year to hear Durkan offer less than wholehearted support. Then Durkan met with Sully and other advocates, and the next time she addressed the issue in public, the candidate backed the sites passionately.
“I was impressed with her willingness to engage,” said Sully, who described herself as neutral in the race. “She was able to move rapidly from ‘this is a hot-button issue’ to ‘this makes sense.’ ”
Others also see Durkan evolving. “A person with a brain tends to use it when confronted with facts, and I think that’s happened with her,” said Hiatt, the pot activist.
Not that Hiatt puts much stock in campaign promises. Only one politician ever made him such a vow and kept it, he said. “We’ll see if she becomes number two.”