This morning, as police swept the Capitol Hill Organized Protest (CHOP) of tents, barricades, protesters, and journalists, it become clear Mayor Jenny Durkan was on the offensive. The previous day Mayor Durkan called on the Seattle City Council to investigate Councilmember Kshama Sawant citing a litany of complaints and suggesting punishment or expulsion may be in order.
Among them, Mayor Durkan blamed Councilmember Sawant for organizing the march to her house and disclosing her address–a multi-million-dollar home in a Windermere community with a private gated park–which she had tried to keep secret citing death threats she received from her prosecutorial career as United States Attorney for Western Washington. However, it was the Seattle Chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (Seattle DSA) that organized the march, not Sawant or her Socialist Alternative party. Moreover, the Mayor presented no evidence that Sawant leaked her home address–as opposed to Seattle DSA organizers figuring it out independently, as they claim.
More broadly, Durkan accused Sawant of using her office “in violation of the law” in a fashion that “recklessly undermines the safety of others, all for political theater.”
The complaint is unlikely to go anywhere, particularly since Council President M. Lorena González issued a response Wednesday brushing away the call to investigate and punish her colleague and encouraging the Mayor to focus on real issues facing Seattle. However, the Mayor’s gambit may shift the media narrative–especially in conservative and moderate outlets–and it offers a channel for political retribution against the councilmember who has harangued the Mayor and called for her to resign or face council impeachment and removal.
“In reality, this is an attack on working people’s movements, and everything we are fighting for, by a corporate politician desperately looking to distract from her failures of leadership and politically bankrupt administration,” Sawant said in a statement. “Our movement will respond accordingly: we will fight with even greater unity and determination.”
While the Mayor may be using these bellicose actions to project strength, they’re also the actions of somebody cornered and growing desperate. A petition urging Mayor Durkan to resign has surpassed 16,000 signatures and another Change.org petition on recalling Durkan has over 31,000 signatures.
The Mayor has proposed deep cuts to the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) and other vital departments while proposing only a tiny 5% cut to SPD’s bloated $407 million budget–which encompasses nearly 30% of Seattle’s general fund. Advocates under the banner of Decriminalize Seattle insist on a police budget cut ten times as large and have repeatedly reemphasized this central demand throughout five weeks of protests. Instead of engaging, the Mayor has sought to quibble over mourning badge traditions and the appropriate use of tear gas.
Meanwhile, four councilmembers–Sawant, Tammy Morales, Teresa Mosqueda, and Council President González–have come out in favor of defunding the Seattle Police Department’s (SPD) budget by 50% and reallocating the funds toward community-led health and safety programs. Councilmembers Lisa Herbold and Andrew Lewis also appear supportive of a large SPD cut, though they haven’t tied themselves to a specific number.
The Mayor has also resisted new progressive revenue sources such as a payroll expense tax even as Budget Chair Mosqueda’s JumpStart Seattle Proposal has racked up five sponsors in all, with Councilmembers Sawant and Morales yet to sign on as they push their larger “Tax Amazon” proposal. Either of them joining (as they’re likely to do if their own proposal stalls) would ensure a veto-proof majority. These proposals would alleviate suffering from Covid-19 and the ensuing economic nosedive, and they would right the City’s fiscal trajectory as sales tax revenue dries up. Instead of taxing the wealthiest companies, the Mayor focused on austerity cuts and dragging Councilmember Sawant through the mud.
Or as Sawant put it in a statement: “This Mayor has no standing whatsoever to now disingenuously call for ‘the urgent need for government to work together.'”
Joining the offensive against advancing progressive causes, the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce and Downtown Seattle Association issued a letter condemning all business tax proposals. The business groups had long opposed Sawant and Morales’ $500 million-per-year Tax Amazon, but had been more reticent about the smaller JumpStart Seattle, with its wider coalition behind it. Now they’re throwing down the gauntlet, and joining the Durkan-led reactionary backlash.
It is surreal watching the Mayor’s police department clearing the CHOP at the same time as the Seattle City Council’s Budget Committee listens to public testimony focused on defunding the police and passing a payroll expense tax to fund social services and affordable housing. Budget Chair Mosqueda has said a vote on JumpStart Seattle is possible today if consensus is reached–they do have a great deal of amendments to consider.
Perhaps the Durkan administration thought the crackdown on protesters would go unnoticed on such a busy news day. Or maybe they wanted to present a different narrative of action as council takes action on progressive revenue, affordable housing, and Covid relief. Granted sweeping a protest is akin to sweeping homeless encampments; it relocates the problem without addressing root causes, dispensing humiliation and violence in the process. However, it at least appears to be doing something. Plus, it rallies her base, which it’s becoming increasingly clear isn’t progressive as her actions become more baldly pro-business, pro-cop, and conservative.
“Over the past several months, I have heard from many of my constituents and it is clear to me that the people of Seattle want us to focus on addressing the concurrent crises facing thousands of families and small businesses in Seattle,” Council President
González said in her statement. “There is an ongoing pandemic, a worsening economic and job loss crisis, and a civil rights movement demanding we divest from racist, anti-Black systems and redirect those investments towards housing, education, and wealth-building opportunities for Black and Brown community members. These are the issues that demand our attention.”
“These critical and concurrent challenges are unprecedented and require us to set aside our personal and political grievances and work together. The public airing of issues amongst and between independently elected officials will not advance solutions on the deepening needs of our constituents,” González continued. “I remain focused on finding solutions and would welcome a letter from Mayor Durkan detailing her vision on how we can work together on enacting concrete solutions that meaningfully address these crises.”
Mayor Durkan tweeted on Sunday that she was “doing the work.” Today it’s clear that work is obfuscation, delay, and deflection. That’s too bad when there’s so much real work to do.
This article has been updated with Councilmember Sawant’s statement and later with the Council President’s comments.
Doug Trumm is the executive director of The Urbanist. An Urbanist writer since 2015, he dreams of pedestrianizing streets, blanketing the city in bus lanes, and unleashing a mass timber building spree to end the affordable housing shortage and avert our coming climate catastrophe. He graduated from the Evans School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Washington. He lives in East Fremont and loves to explore the city on his bike.