Despite a smattering of other successes and shortcomings in four years, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan’s term as the city’s top executive will be marked by two major historical events: The COVID-19 pandemic and the city’s struggle with criminal justice reform.
Durkan, a former federal prosecutor and single-term mayor, will leave office Friday.
In that time, Durkan made some strides in the community, like helping pass a $600 million education levy — including the inception of the Seattle Promise free community college program — and making historic investments in affordable housing. She also drew significant criticism for things like the mishandling of text messages during 2020’s racial reckoning requested under public records laws, which led to multiple lawsuits, and her approach to criminal justice protests, which led to an unsuccessful recall effort.
But Durkan’s time in office was primarily ruled by COVID-19, which hit just after the midway point in her term.
“My term as mayor is going to be defined by the crises that we faced. And chief among those is the pandemic,” Durkan told The Seattle Times last week.
When describing her term earlier this month, Durkan held up a bright-yellow book titled “The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook.”
“Somebody gave me this thing when I became mayor, and pandemic’s not even in it,” she joked. “The only thing is a superflu, and it’s only two pages.
“If only that’s all it took.”
The coronavirus was first detected in Washington in January 2020, marking its arrival in the Seattle area as well as the United States. While Wuhan, China, where it was first identified, was still the only place with known communitywide infections and experts weren’t sure Seattle had anything to worry about, Durkan began preparing for the pandemic that month.
“At the beginning of the year, I do a kind of emergency cabinet meeting where we tabletop an exercise on some kind of challenge that may appear for the city,” Durkan said. “Because of what happened in Wuhan, I decided that we would do a pandemic.”
By March, Durkan and many in city government were working to solve operational issues, like how city employees could work remotely while still offering essential services; direct public health issues, like setting up accessible testing; and social issues, like an eviction moratorium and small business support.
“The pandemic was obviously the overarching concern that was driving so much of what we had to do as a government,” Durkan said, speaking through her own face covering.
Addressing the COVID pandemic evolved from understanding spread and providing testing to developing vaccination centers and reacting to new, highly contagious variants.
In each phase, Durkan acted aggressively, being among the first mayors in the country to implement a mask mandate early in the pandemic, and mandating vaccines for all city employees this fall.
“Each step of the way, we’ve made really hard decisions. But each step of the way, the people of Seattle have stepped up. And as a result, we have the lowest rate of disease, hospitalization and mortality rate of any city in America,” Durkan said.
While the pandemic is still affecting Seattle, with the new omicron variant spiking just as Durkan is set to leave office, her approach undoubtedly contributed to the city’s shift from being Ground Zero of the pandemic in the U.S., to having the lowest mortality rate of any large city just a year later.
And, the city has continued to be aggressive in the second year of the pandemic, with vaccine efforts securing Seattle as the first major U.S. city to hit a 70% vaccination rate this summer. Now, 90% of the city’s eligible residents have gotten at least one dose of the vaccine and 50% are fully vaccinated and have had a booster shot, according to city data published earlier this month.
While some of the city’s success is a result of Durkan’s decision-making, she notes that a largely concerted effort among the city, King County and the state has made Seattle’s relative success with handling the virus possible.
“We worked across government with the county, state, public health, city — and we made sure that we involved our health care providers and our scientists, our businesses big and small, and ultimately our residents,” Durkan said.
But, even when the city was able to get a reasonable grasp on the pandemic and immediate problems at hand, navigating other legacy issues proved difficult for Durkan.
Police reform is not a new issue in Seattle, as the city has been under a federal consent decree since 2012.
So in 2020, when video of a Black man being suffocated by police in Minneapolis sparked historic protests against police brutality across the country, Seattle was engulfed in new discussions and tens of thousands of protesters.
“After the murder of George Floyd, everyone started reevaluating: What level of policing do we need and how do we stand up those alternatives more quickly?” Durkan said.
But while peaceful calls to defund or divest from police made up the majority of the movement, some vandals within the crowds burned cars, stole police weapons and looted businesses. In response, SPD repeatedly used less-lethal weapons for crowd control, including tear gas.
Durkan was repeatedly criticized for the tear gas after hosting a news conference to announce SPD would no longer use it for crowd control during the demonstrations, but defending its use just two days later. In a letter to oversight officials, Durkan said it was allowed to “prevent the loss of life or to end standoff situations like a hostage situation.”
The debates about policing didn’t end when protesters left the streets and have dominated both of Durkan’s final budgets.
In the immediate aftermath of the protests, seven of the nine members of the Seattle City Council signaled support for calls to reduce SPD funding by 50%, as called for by activist groups. Durkan and then-SPD Chief Carmen Best denounced the effort.
“Chief Best and I resisted the call to defund the Seattle Police Department by 50%, because it would not provide more public safety for the people of Seattle,” Durkan said, noting that the debate seeded a strained relationship between the mayor and much of the City Council.
A year later, in the crafting of the 2022 budget, Durkan proposed adding officers to the embattled department. The council ultimately amended the document to remove $9.9 million in proposed funding for unfilled police positions.
“While I am proud of the investments that our budget makes in the future, I will say — and everyone knows — I still disagree strongly with council’s continued failure to adequately support the retention, recruitment and training of Seattle Police officers at a time when our public safety needs are increasing,” Durkan said when signing the budget last month.
Beyond political conflict, the wake of the 2020 police protests affected Durkan’s personal life, with half a dozen protests at the mayor’s home, though her address is supposed to be protected under state law because of threats made against her when she was a U.S. attorney; numerous acts of vandalism, including a call to “Guillotine Jenny”; threatening and harassing messages via email, phone and social media; and about a dozen threats against Durkan and her family that were investigated by Seattle Police, including three with people in custody or awaiting trial, according to the mayor’s office.
“It has ebbed and flowed, but the problem is that unfortunately, it only takes one person to carry out that kind of action, so that’s one reason it was so important to me to protect my family in that way,” Durkan said, later adding that the threats contributed to her decision not to seek reelection.
“I don’t think it can be divorced from my decision. It was hugely impactful on me and my family.”
Housing and homelessness
Durkan also inherited Seattle’s housing crisis, another legacy issue stressed by historic events during her term.
“When I came in, we saw affordability as one of our biggest challenges. Our city was growing so rapidly — we were the fastest-growing city in America — and there was a surge of tech jobs that pay really high, and a shortage of housing, so the cost of housing just went through the roof,” Durkan said.
“So regular workers and people who had been here a long time couldn’t afford to be in Seattle anymore.”
According to the mayor’s office, the city’s Office of Housing has invested more than $547 million of local funds in either creating or preserving 7,600 rental housing units and permanently affordable homeownership opportunities since Durkan took office in 2017. Combined with outside funding, the city estimates a total of $2.5 billion in housing investments during her tenure.
In a campaign ad in 2017, Durkan promised to “have rental vouchers in the hands of families in need, open 700 shelter beds to get people off the streets and break ground on 1,000 micro-houses in my first year.”
The rental vouchers goal was met with a pilot program and have since expanded rapid rehousing programs.
But a Durkan spokesperson says that when she came into office and saw housing data, the mayor focused on other methods of getting individuals into permanent housing.
“At the time, enhanced shelter was also more effective than tiny homes (although we’ve made significant improvements there as well by adding case workers and housing navigators), so we focused on shifting our entire shelter system from mats on the floor, basic shelter,” Durkan’s Chief of Staff Stephanie Formas said in an email.
“So instead of opting for a basic shelter bed that was cheaper, overnight, and less effective [than moving] someone into a permanent solution, we wanted to expand 24/7 shelters with behavioral health services to effectively move people off the streets into permanent housing.”
In all, the city increased total shelter spots by about 1,197 over Durkan’s four years.
Under Durkan the city also, somewhat controversially, cleared 50 homeless encampments this year alone, including more than 30 inhabitants of a camp in Green Lake Park earlier this month.
Durkan’s office says the encampment closures have resulted in roughly 1,100 people moving off the streets and into shelter.
“Removals primarily stopped from March 2020 until Spring 2021 when vaccines were widely available unless there were significant public safety issues,” Formas wrote.
While Durkan was unable to solve the housing crisis, she did help form the King County Regional Homeless Authority to encourage collaboration with surrounding area governments to address the housing crisis.
“The city of Seattle will never solve homelessness by itself. It will not happen because the root causes are too big,” she said.
The next chapter
Durkan said she was going to take time to “decompress” with her family after she leaves office this week, but doesn’t know what will come next.
“Like for everyone else, the pandemic has been very depleting,” said the city’s 56th mayor and the first woman to serve in that position since the 1920s. “So I’m looking forward to being able to step to the side and let people like [Mayor-elect] Bruce Harrell and others make the decisions. And then I’ll see what the future may bring.”