Up until two months ago, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan was leading a charmed political life. Prior to the pandemic, the booming Seattle economy gave the mayor lots of money for pet projects. Once the pandemic hit, Durkan’s popularity soared as she effectively marshalled quarantine measures. Polling approval numbers were in the 60s, I’m told, and she has always polled well above city councilmembers.
And then the bottom dropped out. Today, Durkan, 62, is besieged, and the storm flags are rippling in gale winds. She is losing allies, drowning in 26,000 emails, getting sued by Black Lives Matter and the ACLU, and facing threats of impeachment and growing demands she resign. Seattle politics has been emotionally galvanized by the street protests over the killing of George Floyd as well as Durkan’s shaky generalship over Seattle Police. The issues have moved well ahead of the Mayor’s pragmatic centrism. Can she “get it,” or will she have to get out?
Earlier this week, the Mayor began belatedly to move with the times. She gave the order to abandon the East Precinct police station on Capitol Hill, despite the public opposition of her police chief, Carmen Best. Durkan pledged no more tear gas against protesters, though awkwardly it was used days after that order because of a loophole. The Mayor reacted with a let’s-negotiate stance when the Black Lives Matter lawsuit was filed, meant to ban militarized responses to protests. She wants cops to turn on their body cameras in protest actions, overturning regulations designed to protect privacy.
Some of these shifts indicate the Mayor’s effort to repair her never-good reputation with surging progressive politics in Seattle. It may be too little and too late. The city council is newly stocked with a majority who owe their elections to the Movement Left and labor unions. It’s rare for a mayor not to have at least one loyalist on the council, but that’s Durkan’s dangerous plight. Local elected officials, including state legislators, are distancing themselves, as are some of the groups who elected her in 2017. She’s getting dangerously isolated.
It’s reached the point, I’m told, where not only are Durkan’s chances to get elected to a second term in 2021 in jeopardy; but also her hopes of getting an attractive offer from a President Biden are fading.
Let me list five options for the Mayor to regain her political standing, each of which points to her vulnerabilities.
- Shake up her staff. Those close to the Mayor concede that her senior staff lacks political savvy and needs people with more experience in public safety. Durkan’s circle of advisers is narrow, and she is not the kind of mayor (as Ed Murray was) to make decisions after a rash of phone calls to political movers and shakers in the city. She is criticized for being a micro-manager, delegating people to handle a job and then hovering and correcting. Many earlier mayors have been saved by the arrival of a strong deputy mayor with good political “feel” for the council and departments.
- Regain the initiative in police reform. Durkan as U.S. Attorney took the lead in getting the federal Department of Justice to put Seattle Police under a consent decree. That worked well as regards use-of-force issues. But the consent decree largely overlooked police accountability and oversight issues. (And of course Trump’s DOJ no longer likes these federal interventions.) Mayor Mike McGinn was a tepid supporter of the 2012 DOJ intervention, but McGinn did insist on a Community Police Commission, which has pressured mayors on accountability. Both Durkan and Murray, yielding to police resistance, have dragged their feet on this issue, infuriating the CPC. So, embrace the issue now that the police guild is badly on the defensive and push through serious independent-oversight reforms, as well as some sensible defunding of the police budget.
- Join the Progressive Parade. Durkan is a reluctant liberal, usually modifying or grudgingly adopting the farther-left proposals of the council. Part of this is due to her background as an Irish Catholic raised by a father who was a powerful centrist Democrat. So, pick an issue like a flat-rate income tax or a massive affordable-housing effort in SoDo that outflanks the progressives.
- Simmer down and heal. Mayor Norm Rice, who finessed the volatile politics of school desegregation by an Education Summit that produced the Families and Education Levy, often speaks of the value of a “time-out” when emotions run high, allowing time to get to “a place to heal and to move.” Certainly emotions are sky-high as people cope with the conflicting eruptions caused by the pandemic (take cover) and the street protests (take charge). We need to get beyond the situation where activists and the council keep stoking the fires. Durkan’s remark that the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone might turn into a “summer of love” is a good way to defuse the Occupy Capitol Hill insurgency. The best way to allow for healing is for the mayor to say two things: Tell me what the pain is, and How can I help? And then lay out an inclusive process for getting consensus.
- Set clear public goals. Too many ideas and impractical proposals are swirling around. A leader articulates a few central goals and sets in motion the effort to achieve them. For the Education Summit, it was “safe, healthy, and ready to learn.” Here, we need to get back to Black progress, rather than other radical proposals to overthrow capitalism or advance some white political ambitions. (It doesn’t help that the city council doesn’t have a genuine black voice.) It’s interesting that the pragmatists in the city hall negotiations with activists are said to be Black Lives Matter. Durkan typically reacts to proposals made by others, but here is a chance for her to show leadership by laying out some ambitious but achievable goals. (Incrementalism is her style, but now fitted to the mood.) Examples: heavy investment in jobs and amenities for Southeast Seattle; tax policy that builds up Black wealth; City Hall takeover of Seattle Schools.
It is an urgent moment in the nation’s and Seattle’s politics. Can we afford another failed mayoralty? Some will surf the high tide, and some will go under. Which will it be, Mayor Durkan?