Mayor Durkan delivers her speech
Mayor Durkan delivers her speech at the Filipino Community Center. (Seattle Channel)

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan’s final state of the city speech was just six minutes long. Typically, the annual speech is about four times longer, but, as Durkan’s agenda has gotten shorter, so too has her speech. Durkan is not running for reelection so she has just ten months of work to outline. The most ambitious and perhaps only tangible goal she set for her remaining term is leading the nation in the Covid vaccination rate.

“I want us to be the first city in the country to vaccinate 70% of our adults as we prioritize the most disproportionately impacted,” Durkan said.

So far, Seattle and Washington state have not been standouts on Covid vaccine delivery, with states like Alaska and West Virginia surprisingly leading the way. Washington’s vaccination rate of 15.32% is slightly below the national average of 16.11%. Seattle may be outperforming the state average, but needless to say, Seattle has some ground to make up to meet the Mayor’s goal.

“Our most crucial shared goal over the upcoming months is getting through this pandemic and defeating this virus, and vaccinations are the path to healing, recovery and reopening. That’s how we beat this virus, and how we can fully reopen our schools and businesses and bring workers back downtown,” Durkan added in her prepared statement. “It’s why our Seattle Fire Department (SFD) mobile teams are working around the clock in critical locations across our city to vaccinate our most vulnerable and impacted neighbors, even when we got a foot of snow. SFD has provided more than 4,400 vaccinations for residents and workers at adult family homes, home health care workers, grocery workers, and elders in our hard hit BIPOC communities.”

Durkan taped her speech at the Filipino Community Center, which she said has tripled the meals it served and also stepped up as a vaccination site during the pandemic. True to form, Durkan also highlighted the new Climate Pledge Arena where the city will “watch our championship Storm and release the Kraken” (Seattle’s new National Hockey League franchise).

While vaccination is a crucial tool to recover from a public health crisis and reopen the economy, Mayor Durkan’s speech was short on policy details to address the wider-spread havoc the virus has wrought or exposed as underlying in our society. Viral immunity will only help so much for a worker who has lost a year’s worth of income, is far behind on rent payments, and at risk of displacement when the eviction moratorium is finally lifted.

Durkan alluded to racism and disparate impact–Black and Latino folks are much more likely to suffer severe health impacts from the virus and women of color in particular are more likely to lose their jobs and livelihoods. However, a roadmap, even a brief one, to correct an inequitable economy composed of layers of racist institutions wasn’t really in the cards for a six-minute speech. 

“The pandemic has been the challenge of our lifetimes, and has further amplified the challenges of homelessness, public safety, the climate crisis, and racial disparities in every system: health care, education, housing, and policing,” Mayor Durkan said. “In the coming weeks, I’ll discuss and implement specific plans to continue addressing these critical issues. This includes the concrete steps we’ll take together to reopen and recover, especially in our downtown, opening hundreds of new shelter spaces and affordable homes to bring more unhoused neighbors inside from our streets and parks so they can get stability and services, addressing public safety, expanding alternatives to police responses, and investing nearly 100 million dollars in the health and resiliency of Black, Indigenous, and other communities of color to address generational disparities.”

A state of the city speech seems like the ideal time to roll out consequential policies grappling with the city’s biggest problems. Instead, we’ll watch in coming weeks for the drip drop of details.

Mayor Durkan had sought to direct her pledged $100 million in investment in communities of color through her handpicked Equitable Communities Task Force, but the Seattle City Council revised the plan: $30 million will still go through the Mayor’s task force, but $30 million will instead go through a participatory budgeting process engaging a broader cross-section of the community. The City Council largely returned the other nearly $40 million that the Mayor had cobbled together (through some creative budget swaps) back to the buckets from whence they came. Many of the investments were already equity-focused, such as an equitable investment fund from the Mercer Megablock sale proceeds, so skimming them to go through a lengthy process to rededicate the money seemed a bit clunky and redundant.

The Mayor opposed the JumpStart Seattle tax that ultimately made her budget feasible and spared her the need for deep cuts, increasing the City’s capacity to invest in social housing and homelessness services, which she touted in her speech. The tax ultimately became law without the Mayor’s signature as the City Council had a veto-proof majority. However, the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce is suing in a last-ditch attempt to block the tax.

“Together, we will get through the most challenging year in our City’s history,” Durkan concluded her speech. However, the year after will be another mayor’s responsibility.

The mayoral candidates so far include Council President M. Lorena González, Chief Seattle Club executive director Colleen Echohawk, former SEED Seattle interim executive director Lance Randall, and Andrew Grant Houston–interim policy manager for Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda. The Chamber also seems to be putting feelers out for a business-friendly candidate to be their standard-bearer, picking up where Mayor Durkan (whom they invested heavily in) left off. Former Council President Bruce Harrell–who was Mayor for five days–is a name being thrown around, but he’s yet to declare.

The real work of a full recovery will be up to future administrations, as will be boosting faith in city institutions or rebuilding them from the ground up, such as an out-of-control Seattle Police Department intent on defying the Seattle City Council and violently punishing protesters–its ranks infiltrated with insurrectionists.

Likewise, Mayor Durkan has heralded the City’s affordable housing production in her time, but the next mayor will have the task of further increasing the city’s housing trajectory and overcoming years of underproduction in both social housing and market-rate homes. King County’s Regional Affordable Housing Task Force estimated a shortfall of 244,000 affordable homes by 2040, and Seattle and the rest of the county aren’t nearly on pace to produce anything close to that.

City bridges are ailing, Ballard and West Seattle light rail is over budget and at risk of serious delay, traffic deaths stubbornly refuse to decline despite Seattle’s 2030 Vision Zero pledge, climate emissions stubbornly refuse to decrease despite the City pledging to be carbon neutral by 2050, and the bike, pedestrian, and transit master plans remain very underfunded. It’s all the next mayor’s problem it seems.

Mayor Durkan picked a heckuva time to retire.

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Doug Trumm is publisher 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 in 2019. He lives in East Fremont and loves to explore the city on his bike.