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Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan will not seek re-election, prompting reaction and speculation

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan told KING 5 she will not seek re-election for a second term.

SEATTLE — Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan will not seek re-election, prompting what will likely be significant political posturing for the position and a 2021 city campaign season like no other.

“I've decided that I will not seek a second term,” Durkan told KING 5. “2020 has just been a brutal year, but we have some really tough months ahead of us. We still have to fight COVID, we've got to deliver a vaccine, and we're gonna have a really hard job of rebuilding our economy, our downtown and continuing all the work on equity. I could have spent the whole year campaigning to keep the job, or I can focus all my energies on doing the job. And I think there's only one right choice for Seattle and that's for me to do the job."

She told supporters and staff of her decision late Monday morning.

Durkan was seen as a stabilizing force when she was elected in 2017, fresh off the Seattle City Hall scandal that led to the abrupt resignation of Ed Murray, and sudden appointments of then-Council President Bruce Harrell, and later Tim Burgess.

Durkan was the first woman to be elected Seattle mayor since Bertha Knight Landes in 1926, bringing credibility and a resume that included being the first openly gay U.S. Attorney in history.

She led a charmed life initially on the seventh floor, finalizing a Memorandum of Understanding for a new sports arena a week into the job. A day later, the National Hockey League told the city to apply for a new franchise. Durkan was an active participant in the negotiations to bring a new franchise to Seattle.

As of November of 2019, Durkan was dropping hints about running for a second term. In February of 2020, she filed paperwork with the city and state for a re-election campaign.

But the novel coronavirus pandemic altered the course of the civic discourse and financial stability. Durkan faced significant criticism, even from her staunchest allies, for the Seattle Police Department’s (SPD) handling of protests on Capitol Hill and negotiations over funding. There has been a recall effort and vocal civic groups, some of which were her former supporters, calling for her resignation.

“Everything in Seattle and across America has changed since February,” Durkan told KING 5. “As we've seen, we have just been through the most unprecedented times in our city's history, a global pandemic that has wreaked havoc across our city and economic crisis that resulted in so many small businesses and workers have lost their jobs, our downtown and so many businesses have closed up. Then we have also had a civil rights reckoning, all of these challenges continue. It will be better, there's hope on the horizon with a [COVID-19] vaccine, but we have so much work ahead of us. My job as mayor is to really do what's in the best interest of the city, I believe focusing my energies on tackling those tough problems is what I need to do for the city.”

Durkan said she has been most proud of sponsoring legislation to provide free college tuition, protections for domestic workers and rideshare drivers, and for creating millions of dollars in new affordable housing. While the past year has been challenging, Durkan said she’s pleased with helping to create free citywide COVID-19 testing, an eviction moratorium, and securing personal protective equipment for city businesses and immigrants.

It was not lost on many City Hall observers that Durkan has sparred recently with two people whose political ambitions may include the mayor’s office: Teresa Mosqueda and Lorena Gonzalez. Both council members were actively involved in the budget negotiations this summer, with Mosqueda serving as budget chair and Gonzalez as city council president. Mosqueda was also the writer of the “JumpStart Tax,” or payroll tax, levied on big businesses at the start of the economic meltdown.

Gonzalez declined to admonish Councilmember Kshama Sawant, who led a march and protest to Durkan’s house, and who opened up City Hall for a sit-in. Durkan made a formal request for Gonzalez to issue some sort of formal rebuke. Sawant is now facing a recall effort, based in large part on those events.

Durkan denied that the march and graffiti at her house factored into her decision. She received numerous death threats as well. Her home has previously been protected under the Address Confidentiality Program because of her time as U.S. Attorney.

“Those factors did not lead to this decision," she said. "I do think they should lead to a conversation in our city about how we get past some of the toxic politics. And it was not just me. You know, you saw various council members where people came to their homes, and marches and protests [are] part of who we are. But spray painting hate speech or doing other kinds of vandalism, we've got to get beyond that I had both the president making threats and that kind of activity."

Both Gonzalez and Mosqueda are also up for their at-large or citywide council seats in 2021 and both have had eyes on a bigger stage. Gonzalez ran a brief campaign for Washington state attorney general last year. Mosqueda got a high profile spot when she introduced Jay Inslee at his presidential campaign kickoff. After that campaign sputtered, she did the same for Bernie Sanders at a large Tacoma Dome event last year.

Mosqueda is seen as a reliable friend of organized labor and her city council priorities have echoed that. Gonzalez has long been a champion for social justice issues, dating back to her time as a civil rights attorney. Both Gonzalez and Mosqueda also endorsed Zachary DeWolf in a 2019 primary challenge of Sawant, in a bit of a raw political power play, but after he finished fourth in the primary, they both endorsed Sawant for re-election.

Durkan’s move will force both Gonzalez and Mosqueda to consider whether to run a citywide campaign for their current seat or give it up to run for mayor. If they choose the latter, there will be more dominoes to fall.

But both were given pause during the summer when multiple sources said a labor-backed poll of voters showed both council members losing a hypothetical head-to-head match up with Durkan and the council was given, as a whole, high unfavorability ratings. Durkan’s support, in the same poll, had softened considerably year-over-year and by double digits, but she still ranked higher than both of her potential challengers.

Candidates can file to raise money now, but don’t have to commit to a formal campaign until May 2021.

Whoever runs will face the difficulty of launching a campaign in a potentially socially distanced way, and try to cast themselves as a leader of economic and public health recovery, with a plan for homelessness in the state’s largest city. The pandemic has only exacerbated the proliferation of encampments across Seattle, with multiple public parks now overrun by tents and debris.

Durkan was elected, in large part, because she built a bridge between the business and labor communities.

There have been political consultants who have suggested that King County Executive Dow Constantine, a West Seattleite and ambitious politician as well, could scrap his re-election campaign for a fourth term and pivot to a City Hall run. That would lead to more jockeying for position inside the King County Courthouse and Chinook Building.

“I think you will see a number of people who emerge. There will be a lot of names bandied about,” Durkan told KING 5. "I'm really hopeful by the end of next year, we'll have laid the foundation for a very strong recovery, but that recovery will take years."

Durkan’s announcement also has all sorts of ramifications for the police department. She has been reluctant to start a nationwide search for a chief after the departure of Carmen Best. Interim Chief Adrian Diaz is operating without council confirmation or any formal search. It is hard to see how any search would be conducted, at this point, with an outgoing mayor, and the department in such financial flux. There are likely more budget cuts to come in 2021, not only for the police department but others as well. SPD is also now further away from getting out from under its years-long Federal Consent Decree.

Best spoke to KING 5 following Durkan's announcement on Tuesday, "Well, I was surprised that the mayor decided not to run for re-election. But I really appreciate the reasons that she gave. I mean, there are a number of very complex issues facing the city, that will take a lot of time and effort to keep the city going. And the distraction of campaigning might be a bit much at this time when we're facing a number of very pervasive issues." 

Best acknowledged she's heard her own tossed around as a potential candidate, "I think my name has been bandied around a little bit. Again, it's not something I have considered at this point. So I find it very flattering. But, you know, we do know that whatever happens in the future is going to take strong leadership, to make sure that all these really important issues are addressed. The homelessness, the work issues, the business situation, the West Seattle Bridge, the you know, the dock and the pier, all of those things, and then COVID-19. So all of those things are pretty large and looming issues. And it's gonna take a lot of leadership to work the city through it, and come out fine on the other end."

Durkan had not raised a ton of money for a re-election campaign, and in fact, was out-raised raised by Lance Randall, who launched his campaign officially back in September. Randall of South Seattle serves as Seattle’s economic development director and interim executive director. He has raised almost $8,000, according to state and city records.

Gov. Jay Inslee released a statement following Durkan's announcement:

“I thank Mayor Durkan for all she has done for Seattle. Jenny has led through tumultuous times and had to make difficult decisions with grace and dignity. She has always worked to represent the needs of all Seattleites and helped to make the city a world-class place during a time of strong economic transition.

“The Durkan administration has led the way on investments in affordable housing, expanded high quality pre-school and pioneered the Seattle Promise program to provide free college to thousands of public high school students. She has been a great partner with the state through the COVID-19 pandemic through expanded testing and economic help for restaurants and small businesses.

“Mayor Durkan cares deeply for Seattle and her service and dedication will have a lasting legacy. I wish her the very best in whatever challenges she takes on next and l look forward to our continued partnership over the coming year." 

King County Equity Now (KCEN) released the following statement Monday: 

"Anti-Black racism and Seattle’s current, horrific state of racial inequity is a result of individual decisions and policy choices. Mayor Durkan’s tenure objectively left the Black community worse-off. She used all of her political capital to defend the bloated police department against small, necessary budget shifts, and championed large corporate interests at all costs. Durkan vetoed, blocked and outright slashed many pro-Black, equity and public safety improvement initiatives—all during a historic uprising against anti-Black racism and a global pandemic.

We acknowledge her decision not to run as a clear, overwhelming referendum by Seattlites—and particularly Black Seattlites—that the old normal is no longer acceptable. Leadership must be pro-Black, visionary, representative and accountable to the people - not the Chamber. 

We wish we could state that Durkan is an anomaly. She is not. As the current Mayor transitions, we implore her to interrogate her history of anti-Blackness and use the remainder of her tenure to advance real Black-led equity solutions including:  

  • Working with state and institutional partners to establish a $1B Anti-Gentrification, Land Acquisition fund to support Black economic development; 
  • Expediting the transfer of Red Barn Ranch to Nurturing Roots farm to activate 37-acres of farmland to the Black community toward food justice and sustainability; 
  • Funding the historic Keiro Project in the Central Area, a nation-leading anti-gentrification project that will provide wraparound, direct services;
  • Decriminalizing poverty and investing in community-led social services, specifically 
  • Expanding the Duress language in the Seattle City Code so people who are trying to meet their basic needs, experiencing mental health struggles or drug use are not convicted of a crime; 
  • and Expanding the De Minimis Ordinance in the Seattle City Code so that judges may dismiss cases where an individual is trying to meet their basic needs or experiencing mental health struggles.

We invite Mayor Durkan and all other elected officials to take accountability and solution-oriented steps to address anti-Black inequity during their final months in office."