Durkan Announces She’s Not Running for Reelection, Opening Floodgates in Mayoral Race

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Mayor Durkan in an orange vest and SDOT hard hat at a West Seattle Bridge presser.
Mayor Durkan stands next to SDOT Director Sam Zimbabwe to take questions on West Seattle Bridge. (City of Seattle)

Mayor Jenny Durkan revealed today that she will not be seeking reelection. Polling suggests Durkan’s popularity nosedived after a summer of protests that saw her oversee the tear gassing of her constituents and the abandonment of East Precinct, inciting critics from both the Left and Right.

After winning her election with 56.5% of the vote in 2017, Mayor Durkan mostly coasted along without upsetting her electoral coalition too significantly–in part by avoiding tough decisions and focusing her attention on criticizing the Trump administration. That changed in 2020 as crackdowns on protesters and wishy-washy vision for police reform upset progressives. To make matters worse, she opposed a popular JumpStart Seattle payroll tax on corporations and the 2018 head tax before it, strengthening the perception she was out of touch and beholden to corporate power.

Uprising and recall effort

In fact, Mayor Durkan faced a major recall effort following her botched, heavy-handed response to protests. One online recall petition gathered more than 43,000 signatures, while another petition asking her to resign or face impeachment (spearheaded by local Democratic party leaders) surpassed 16,000. Three official City commissions joined the call for her to step down. Mayor Durkan went to court to impede the recall effort and was successful, and has now handed the $240,000 bill for legal fees to taxpayers after initially claiming she–unlike Councilmember Kshama Sawant–would fund her recall defense herself out of pocket.

Former city council candidate Shaun Scott crediting Black Lives Matter and Defund The Police protests as pushing Durkan into retirement. “You don’t see a move like this without uprising we’ve seen,” he said. “Durkan not seeking re-election is a victory that belongs to the organizers, activists, and demonstrators who forged a new civil rights movement in Seattle this summer. The fact that the Human Rights Commission—created by the Mayor’s office in 1963 in response to protests against housing discrimination—asked Durkan to step down says all we need to know about her tenure as mayor.”

The mood became increasingly tense between Mayor and Council this summer as they sparred over policing, budgeting, Covid relief, emergency reserves, and so on. The Mayor used her veto or threat of it on several occasions.

After fighting the JumpStart tax, Durkan reluctantly let it become law without her signature (knowing the Council had the votes to override her veto anyway). That didn’t stop the Mayor from raiding JumpStart revenues to patch holes in her 2021 budget and seek to fulfill a $100 million pledge to communities of color in lieu of promising to hold the Seattle Police Department accountable or to ratchet up reform efforts. In fact, Durkan vetoed the Council’s 2020 rebalancing package over her opposition to the requested thirty-some layoffs targeting problem officers. The Council overrode that veto, but the delay blocked some of the cuts.

From a transportation standpoint, the disappointments started much earlier. Durkan delay became a common refrain as a growing list of multimodal projects were paused, shelved, sabotaged, loudly abandoned, or quietly put out to pasture. Some of the issues–like a seven-line RapidRide plan that overextended available funds–were inherited, but many were of her own making, like caving to car activists and canceling a safety-focused redesign of 35th Avenue NE and stalling out progress on the bike master plan and pedestrian master plan.

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The Mayor also queued up her later stumbles with policing via the very sweet deal she handed the Seattle Police Officers Guild (SPOG) during 2018 negotiations, which simultaneously managed to fork over big raises and back pay, and cave on cost controls and accountability by weakening freshly passed laws. Of Seattle’s Councilmembers, only Kshama Sawant voted against the SPOG contract, but with the MLK County Labor Council ejecting SPOG from its membership that may not be true the next time around. That theory might get put to the test as the SPOG contract is due for renewal, and Durkan may be aiming to ink the deal as part of her final year’s to-do list.

Who will vie for Mayor now?

Durkan’s departure opens up the field. Lots of names are floating around, but only one candidate has entered like they’re serious about it: Lance Randall of the Southeast Effective Development (SEED) Seattle. Randall could be a rallying candidate for the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce and centrist community, but not everyone is impressed.

“Lance Randall was always going to be the Chamber of Commerce pick for Mayor. Watch closely as his identity as a Black male is cynically wielded to advance a pro-police austerity agenda. I hope Seattle voters see through it,” Shaun Scott said in a tweet.

Mayor Durkan had started fundraising for reelection, but very half-heartedly–allowing Randall to outraise her this last quarter.

Nikkita Oliver, who finished a close third in 2017 mayoral primary, could be an entrant and she was among the most captivating voices during Defund The Police rallies this year. The rally Oliver headlined outside of City Hall in early June may have all but the nail in the coffin of the Durkan administration.

Councilmembers Teresa Mosqueda and M. Lorena González are also drawing considerable interest. Budget Chair Mosqueda issued a diplomatic statement today thanking the Mayor for her service, as did Council President González. Mosqueda engineered the JumpStart Seattle tax that saved the city from deep budget cuts this year, which could distinguish her from opponents.

Another prospective candidate, King County Councilmember Rod Dembowski deferred to Mosqueda when asked by The Stranger‘s Nathalie Graham. “I would love to vote for my friend Teresa Mosqueda for Mayor in 2021,” he said. “I truly hope she will run.”

Colleen Echohawk, executive director of the Chief Seattle Club, is another name being tossed around and she didn’t dispel that rumor in an interview with The Seattle Times.

“I think it’s a great move by her to step aside. She’s been handed a huge mess that no one knew was coming,” Echohawk said, though she added 2020 has “required a response that maybe she wasn’t prepared for… People of color are suffering and we need a new way,” Echohawk added, not ruling out a bid for mayor herself and encouraging as many people of color as possible to run for Mayor.

Some have also kicked around Dow Constantine, although Mayor of Seattle could be seen as a demotion from County Executive.

Previously, some councilmembers have wryly noted that former councilmember and interim Mayor Tim Burgess has acted like he never retired, with his political action committee launching attack ads against some of his former colleagues and council candidates like Tammy Morales. Perhaps Burgess’ appetite for being Mayor wasn’t sated by his 71 days filling in after the Mayor Ed Murray’s resignation, but on the other hand pulling the strings from the outside may be more attractive for the grizzled political veteran. A frequent critic of Defund SPD efforts, Burgess was Johnny-on-the-spot to frame the Mayor’s announcement as an indictment of the protest movement.

“The politics of personal destruction tends to lead the way; the name calling the verbal assaults, the threats of violence,” Burgess said. “So in that sense, I was not surprised, but disappointed because I believe in her and I think she is a good leader for our city.”

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Doug Trumm is The Urbanist's Executive Director. 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.