Well, Seattle, with Donald Trump out of the way, it appears we can go back to our regularly scheduled political programming.
Which is grinding up and tossing out our own.
With the news Monday that Mayor Jenny Durkan will be yet another one-term leader for the city, and that schools Superintendent Denise Juneau is out after just one term of her own, the city’s core public institutions are facing upheaval and vacuums of leadership at maybe the worst possible time.
Add the resignation a few months back of police Chief Carmen Best, and it’s been a rough go for some of Seattle’s “firsts.” The city’s first lesbian mayor, first openly gay and Native American schools superintendent and first Black woman police chief — all drubbed out after just a few years in the Seattle protest and process machine.
The reasons vary for each one, and all faced huge challenges they sometimes failed to meet. But there is one overarching theme. Despite being trailblazers, each was seen, instead, as not blazing enough.
“Sure, kick Juneau out,” wrote Matt Halvorson, an equity-in-schools advocate in Seattle, on his blog Rise Up for Students. “But only if we are finally committed to transforming everything — right now … we have been unable or unwilling to lean into the real root causes, which are systemic in nature: racism, classism, patriarchy, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, extractive capitalism and militarized colonialism.”
That’s quite a to-do list for a schools superintendent.
In similar fashion, the Seattle chapter of the Democratic Socialists for America said Durkan’s mayoral downfall was about something much bigger than Durkan.
“Whatever happens next, understand that Durkan wasn’t a bad mayor because of some innate character trait,” the group wrote, citing how Amazon backed her 2017 campaign. “It was because her purpose was to serve as a proxy for the interests of Capital.”
For the record, Durkan was also backed by the Machinists, the Carpenters, SEIU and pretty much every other labor union in town. Politically that identifies her as a coalition Democrat, not some right-winger.
But the views here reflect the stratospherically lofty expectations in this city for radical change, especially among Seattle’s far left.
The calls to do better are 100% understandable. You can’t look at the schools, for instance, and conclude they’re working well academically right now — and it’s especially tragic for underprivileged kids.
The crucial context, though, is that the coronavirus is making a chump of every government leader.
Durkan, for example, gets castigated for the suffering state of Seattle’s ghosted business district (even as she’s simultaneously called a corporate tool). But every downtown in every big city is ailing. It’s a condition brought on by work-from-home and a summer of sometimes violent police protests — not just here but in New York; D.C.; L.A.; Orlando, Florida; and on and on. Could a different mayor have done better? I’d say the evidence suggests: No. Because none of them elsewhere did.
Same with the racial achievement gap in the schools. It was already the most serious challenge in education, and the pandemic has only made it magnitudes tougher. That Juneau made it the centerpiece of her efforts here wasn’t enough to save her from becoming just another spin in Seattle’s superintendent roulette (she’s the seventh to try to run the district in 18 years).
I’ve been a critic of Juneau’s management of the district, and Durkan made some colossal mistakes (like allowing the deadly Capitol Hill occupation to go on far too long). But I was struck by an argument made recently by a group of top local education leaders of color, who wanted to keep Juneau running the schools (others had called on Juneau to be replaced, citing racism). Their question wasn’t whether she’s doing an A-grade job; it was can you find anyone better at this perilous moment?
“We believe a leadership transition in the context of a global pandemic, racial reckoning, political unrest and financial instability will quickly become an untenable situation,” the group wrote to the School Board. These are folks such as Sheila Edwards Lange, president of Seattle Central College, and Trish Dziko, head of the Technology Access Foundation, who are actually running large institutions and schools. I bet they have a keener than average understanding of the risks Seattle now faces.
Regardless, now Seattle all at once needs a new mayor, a new schools boss and, I almost forgot, a police chief still (we have an interim one, Adrian Diaz). Because the outgoing ones failed in part due to perceptions they were too mainstream or incremental, we’re likely in for a wild, upheaval-filled, political ride.
My only ask is that people recognize these are local, municipal-level officials. No matter who gets picked, they aren’t going to fix extractive capitalism, racism, or militarized colonialism. Definitely not in one term, just as the trailblazers on the way out the door didn’t.
The hope is they can tilt in the right direction, to bend toward justice.
And also do some dull stuff nobody talks much about anymore, like eventually getting the kids back to class, and filling the potholes.