Will Electorate Blame Mayor Durkan for Four Years of Mismanagement?

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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)

Don’t say we didn’t warn you. The Urbanist has been highlighting the blunders of the Durkan administration from the campaign to year one to her recent fall from grace over violating public records law while botching the City’s response to police brutality protests. Recent polling suggests Seattle voters are quite convinced the city is on the wrong track — by a historic margin, in fact. What they’re less decisive about — surprisingly — is who to blame.

Polling done by a Washington Research Group, a firm connected to mayoral candidate Colleen Echohawk, suggests that 84% of respondents believe the city is on the wrong track. Sixty-seven percent of them also place the most blame on the city council rather than Mayor Durkan, who got just 9%. Some of this may relate to the fact Mayor Durkan is not running for reelection, so she makes a less salient target for scorn. The city council containing nine very different members, running the gambit from fire-breathing socialist Kshama Sawant to milquetoast conservative concernmongerer Alex Pedersen, could also make it easier to find something to dislike.

For the general public who gets their information from the nightly news rather than more critical publications like The Urbanist, the many knocks against Durkan don’t seem to have clicked, at least not as much as criticisms of the council have. Mayor Durkan’s penchant for torturing decisions, delaying projects time and again, creating a hostile workplace, and shilling for corporations has clearly undermined her administration, but like Mr. Magoo she keeps somehow hovering above the mayhem just enough for the anvil to drop on someone else. And that someone apparently is the Seattle City Council.

If voters were to identify Mayor Durkan as the source of the dysfunction over the past four years, then Council President M. Lorena González would be able to make a strong case that she can clean up the mess and mend relations between the executive and legislative branches that have been frayed by Durkan’s abrasive dictatorial style. If voters see the council as just as much (if not more so) to blame than the Mayor, then councilmembers are in a less enviable position in the race. Historically, this has largely been the case. A city councilmember has not won a race for mayor since Norm Rice over three decades ago.

On a recent appearance on Crystal Fincher’s excellent Hacks and Wonks podcast, former Mayor Mike McGinn (who endorsed Echohawk) testified to the fact voters tend to tar both Council and Mayor with the same brush when there’s dysfunction. McGinn had the more progressive vision, but since the more conservative council of the early aughts stonewalled him, he ended up taking the blame and losing a close race for reelection to Ed Murray.

Unfortunately, the polling suggests voters aren’t focusing blame on Jenny Durkan. To be fair, the Mayor didn’t get high marks either, with just 2% of respondents rating her 5 out of 5 for job performance compared to 30% who rated her 1 — the lowest rating –, 22% who rated her 2, and 30% who gave a her a 3 or the meh rating. The González campaign could persuade voters of the council’s strengths and the Mayor’s ineptitude, but the poll indicates they’re starting in a deficit.

The top issue by far for voters appears to be homelessness, with 64% ranking it their top issue. Troublingly, a greater share of respondents favored taking a harder line against homeless folks over a “humanitarian” push to house the unhoused. Progressives could have trouble on their hands, if they can’t get a handle on the homelessness crisis, as Seattleites become increasingly impatient and disaffected.

It’s the same trend we’ve seen play out in Los Angeles, where voters passed Prop HHH to fund supportive housing but found that the response remains largely ineffective due to LA’s sky-high housing prices and labyrinthine approval process eating into that investment — not to mention the added pressure of the pandemic. It could be a make-or-break moment for progressive policymaking, subsuming other issues and make it harder to form progressive political coalitions for other important causes. Echohawk’s detailed emergency housing action plan that promises 22 actions in 14 months plan to bring everyone inside looks like a fitting antidote and is a big reason The Urbanist Elections Committee endorsed her.

Harrell is out to a significant lead, but 32% remained undecided. (Graphic by Northwest Progressive Institute)

Voters seem to be seeking a new approach — even if what they assume to be the council’s approach to homelessness has been undermined by Mayor Durkan’s intervention. The many examples of this include turning down FEMA money intended for homelessness services and dragging her feet rather than renting out hotels to house folks during the pandemic. And of course Mayor Durkan was instrumental in shrinking and then repealing the 2018 head tax and then fighting the 2020 Jumpstart payroll tax initially before ultimately raiding its revenue to balance her budget last year. Both funding streams were intended to help fund housing and homelessness services.

And throughout this all, Durkan has kept up the encampment sweeps that have continued to circulate the problem throughout the city rather that help outreach workers make inroads that could break this cycle of displacement. She’s also tried everything she can to foist the problem on others. After a camp formed partially on school property near Broadview Thomson Elementary, Durkan tried to force Seattle Public Schools to pay for homelessness services from its education budget and has refused to relent. Bruce Harrell used the encampment as a backdrop for a press conference where he promised decisiveness, without much in the way of specifics.

Even if his record on homelessness is pretty weak, Harrell’s year-and-a-half retirement from his three-term council career might be enough to wash a bit of the stink off him — perhaps decisively in a race with González. The Washington Research Group poll did head-to-head matchups between leading candidates and found Harrell up 65 to 35 in a matchup with González, but had him trailing Echohawk 51-49.

Outside the head-to-head matchups, polls have tended to agree that Harrell is in first and González in second. A Northwest Progressive Institute poll also released on July 16th found Harrell with 20%, González with 12%, and Echohawk with 10% of surveyed registered Seattle voters. However, with 32% still undecided in that poll, any of the top-tier candidates could conceivably make a run to move into the top two and go on to the general election.

Mayor Durkan gives Bruce Harrell a squeeze on the shoulders.
Bruce Harrell at Mayor Durkan’s 2017 swearing in. Harrell has been an ally of Durkan’s. (Photo courtesy of NW Progressive)

For Echohawk’s opponents in the race, the polling suggesting she is the strongest candidate to take on presumed frontrunner Bruce Harrell is all too convenient, as is the notion that being a councilmember could be a liability with voters in the general. Supporters of González have even suggested the Echohawk-backed poll was a push poll and used manipulative framing by noting that González worked as legal counsel to former Mayor Ed Murray before running for city council. I’d agree that campaign-backed polls should be taken with a grain of salt. Maybe wording and framing shifted a few points, but it’s unlikely to have moved mountains.

What’s telling is that the González camp has not released its internal polling. One would think if they had good news, they’d share it.

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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.