After months of upheaval in the streets during Black Lives Matter protests, clashes with the City Council and a deadly pandemic, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan announced Monday she will not run for reelection next year.
That decision will make Durkan the fourth mayor out of the past five to last only one term in a city where economic and social change — and occasional scandal — has time and again created political turbulence.
Leading Seattle is now more than ever, “a tough job and often a no-win situation — it chews people up,” King County Executive Dow Constantine said Monday in response to Durkan’s announcement.
In a video statement, Durkan said she intends to spend the final year-plus of her term focused on addressing the city’s challenges, rather than campaigning.
“We know stopping the spread of the virus, protecting jobs and focusing on the economic recovery — especially for downtown — is going to take everything we’ve got,” said the former U.S. attorney, who was elected mayor in 2017 with support from big business and unions.
Durkan’s exit will spur an intense mayoral race in 2021, one that is likely to pit progressives against still-liberal but more business-friendly candidates, and resurface ongoing debates about police reform, housing inequities and taxes.
The news sent speculation spinning through political circles over possible contenders for the job. Possible candidates include Seattle’s at-large council members, M. Lorena González and Teresa Mosqueda. Past candidates could draw interest for a run, such as community organizer and attorney Nikkita Oliver and former state lawmaker Jessyn Farrell. Other local political, business and nonprofit leaders also are in the mix.
Constantine recently announced he’s running for a fourth term as county executive and downplayed any chance he might run for mayor.
“It’s a wide open race now,” said Lance Randall, who registered to run for mayor months ago and who leads a South Seattle economic-development nonprofit.
Durkan’s term in office
During her 2017 campaign, Durkan promised to bring stability and unity to a city that had been rocked by Mayor Ed Murray’s sexual-abuse scandal and resignation. She became Seattle’s first lesbian mayor and the first woman to hold the office in almost a century.
In her video Monday, Durkan emphasized accomplishments, including free community college for public high school graduates, funding for 4,500 affordable apartments and protections for rideshare drivers and domestic workers.
She also touted Seattle’s free COVID-19 testing, a moratorium on evictions and aid to small businesses and workers during the pandemic. Durkan has guided the city through multiple emergencies, including the “Seattle Squeeze” traffic jumble and historic snowstorms in 2019.
“We’ve appreciated her attention to circumstances impacting downtown and believe she has been guided by the belief that Seattle is a truly great city with even greater potential,” the Downtown Seattle Association said in a statement.
Her early months were consumed by skirmishes over a “head tax” on large corporations that Durkan and the council adopted, then repealed under pressure from Amazon and a segment of Seattle’s electorate. Her handling of homeless encampment removals sparked controversy.
But this year saw multiple issues slam the city and City Hall at about the same time — the surge of the Black Lives Matter movement, the shutdown of the West Seattle Bridge and a long-standing homelessness problem complicated by COVID-19.
“I think it’s a great move on her part, to step aside. She’s been handed a huge mess that no one knew was coming,” said Colleen Echohawk, executive director of the Chief Seattle Club.
Durkan should be commended for steering funds toward housing for homeless Native people, among other work, Echohawk said. At the same time, 2020 has “required a response that maybe she wasn’t prepared for.”
Durkan faced scrutiny for the Seattle police response to protests over the summer, including tear gas and pepper spray used against crowds. She also took heat for allowing activists and others to take over several blocks on Capitol Hill after police abandoned the nearby East Precinct.
And she battled with the council for months during budget deliberations, resisting demands to slash the police force as activists demonstrated outside her home and Chief Carmen Best stepped down.
COVID-19 sapped Seattle’s revenues, but the mayor opposed a big-business tax passed by the council to help the city cope, drawing the ire from progressives and longtime adversaries like Councilmember Kshama Sawant. Petitions and multiple city commissions called on Durkan to resign.
While the mayor defeated a recall attempt in court, “You don’t see a move like this without the uprising we’ve seen,” social justice advocate Shaun Scott said, calling Durkan’s decision a victory for her critics.
The summer turmoil dampened Durkan’s ratings with voters, sparse polling appeared to show. Yet council members also attracted ire, and the mayor Monday told KUOW she “would win” were she to run again.
Political consultant Heather Weiner, who worked for Durkan’s 2017 opponent, Cary Moon, said Durkan never seemed to project joy about being mayor, except when she was publicly battling President Donald Trump. With Joe Biden’s election, “her foil is gone,” Weiner said.
Durkan’s final year
Durkan, who served as a U.S. attorney in the Obama administration, shot down speculation she might take a job in Biden’s administration, telling Q13 Fox she was having no conversations with Biden representatives. Durkan declined an interview with The Seattle Times.
The mayor said in her announcement she would focus the remainder of her time in office on reopening the city, distributing a COVID-19 vaccine and addressing challenges such as the West Seattle Bridge, homelessness and climate change.
“Together, we can get through this, and come back stronger, better and more equitable,” said Durkan, who last week proposed banning gas heat from new commercial and apartment buildings as a way to curb carbon emissions.
Also on her to-do list: Seattle needs to negotiate a new union contract with its police officers soon. The current deal, which the mayor touted in 2018 over objections by reformers, has drawn criticism this year from those who contend the city has failed to hold officers accountable for much abuse. Nearly a decade after Durkan investigated Seattle’s police and signed a consent decree for reforms, the city remains under court oversight.
“Mayor Durkan’s decision to focus on the significant challenges we face instead of a re-election campaign is honorable and certainly consistent with her style, her integrity and her commitment to public service,” former Councilmember Tim Burgess said in a statement.
Durkan will be the latest in a succession of Seattle mayors to spend one term or less in office, following Murray and Mike McGinn.
The city’s day-to-day operations — trash pickup, community outreach, human resources — suffer when mayors and their department directors cycle quickly through, said Erin Goodman, longtime executive director of the Sodo Business Improvement Area.
“I have long thought our city needs a nonpartisan city manager position, because we more and more are electing mayors based on politics,” she said. “It’s been a while since we had a mayor who knew about running a city.”
Durkan has tried to keep on top of Seattle’s problems but has been sometimes isolated politically, said Goodman, who advocates for business owners in a neighborhood with illegal dumping and homeless encampments. Free from reelection concerns, perhaps the mayor will “have the backbone to follow through and enforce laws,” Goodman added.
Marco Lowe, a politics professor and commentator who served under two previous mayors, said Durkan can still achieve plenty. She can see through tens of millions of dollars of investments recently pledged to communities of color, and she can try to replicate the city’s COVID-19 testing success in helping residents get vaccinated. The mayor’s free-college program is exceeding expectations.
“She’s got an entire year left,” Lowe said. “That’s a long time.”
Durkan’s early announcement also should allow voters to engage in robust conversations about what comes next.
2021 mayoral race
González and Mosqueda have both butted heads with Durkan at times and have stimulated buzz as potential mayoral candidates. They each released statements Monday commending her.
“While Mayor Durkan and I have had several disagreements on governing and policy over the last three years, we have also been able to find common ground to work on critical issues, and the community, workers and small businesses in this City are better for it,” Mosqueda said.
Some supporters wondered whether former Seattle police Chief Carmen Best might run for mayor, but Best downplayed the idea in an interview.
“Honestly, I am super flattered that people have bandied my name about. It’s not something that I have really considered at this point,” Best said.
“People of color are suffering and we need a new way,” Echohawk added, not ruling out a bid for mayor herself. “I’m hoping we see as many people of color run [for mayor] as possible.”
In a prelude of debates to come, Burgess blasted the council’s recent push to defund the police as driven by “ideological preferences and the loudest voices.” Scott expects zoning to reemerge as a hot-button issue in growing Seattle, with candidates disputing where apartments should be allowed.
Sera Day, a political consultant who once worked at City Hall before Durkan became mayor, said voters may seek a leader whose broad credibility can break the “stalemate” between movement activists and Seattle’s liberal establishment. Durkan has “done a lot to bring people to the table, but there’s so much more to be done,” Day said.