by Erica C. Barnett
Mayor Jenny Durkan announced Monday that she will not run for reelection, making her Seattle’s third one-term mayor in a row, after Ed Murray and Mike McGinn.
In an 265-word announcement, Durkan said she couldn’t have done her job well and run for reelection at the same time, so she decided not to run. “I could spend the next year campaigning to keep this job or focus all my energy on doing the job,” she said. “I have decided not to run for reelection because Seattle, we still have some tough months ahead.”
Durkan’s announcement opens up the 2021 mayoral race. Potential candidates include the two at-large Seattle City Councilmembers, Teresa Mosqueda and Lorena González, both up for reelection next year. Neither Mosqueda nor González immediately responded to messages seeking comment about the mayor’s decision or how it impacts their election plans. Last week, PubliCola reported on some of the fundraising issues that might be raised if either or both Councilmembers decide to run for mayor.
Speculation about whether the mayor would run again has been rampant in recent months — and the mayor’s consulting team has done little to tamp it down. The COVID pandemic transformed the economy overnight, a pivot that required Durkan to adapt quickly to being a recession-era mayor. The position often seemed like an uncomfortable one for Durkan, whose impulse was always to put a positive spin on every announcement, even if the news was bad.
Thanks in part to circumstances no elected leader could have anticipated, Durkan’s term has largely been reactive. In addition to the pandemic, Durkan had to respond to the emergency closure of the West Seattle Bridge, protests against police brutality, a homeless crisis that became increasingly visible as the City halted its policy (established under Durkan) of aggressively removing encampments, and the abrupt resignation of police chief Carmen Best.
The need to respond to so many crises at once often challenged Durkan’s ability to put a positive spin on the news, especially when the news was unequivocally bad. Faced with unprecedented challenges, she often lashed out, accusing the Council of irresponsible budgeting and issuing multiple budget-related vetoes that she almost certainly knew would be overturned. When police turned on mostly peaceful protesters with tear gas, pepper spray, and rubber bullets, Durkan defended their actions, standing by Best day after day as she claimed, without presenting evidence, that people “bent on destruction and chaos” with “nothing but ill intent” in their hearts had taken over whole swaths of the city.
As the City Council responded to protesters’ demands by reducing the size of the Seattle Police Department, Durkan resisted, initially insisting that the Council’s proposals would force the City to “abolish the police department.” Later, Durkan responded to calls to defund the police by promising Black communities a big round number — $100 million — to be spent on unspecified programs that would be determined in the future. Then, when it became clear her plan relied on funding that was already allocated to marginalized communities, she said that the 2021 budget the Council adopted — which reduced her $100 million proposal by $70 million and funded a participatory budgeting process led by King County Equity Now — fulfilled her promise “through slightly different community-led processes.”
Durkan telegraphed her disinterest in keeping the job in other, more subtle ways. For the first time in recent memory, the budget adopted for 2021 was a one-year budget, which Durkan said was necessary because it is impossible to predict the two-year impact of the COVID recession. During the last recession, then-mayor McGinn produced grim all-cuts budgets that helped seal his status as a one-term mayor. Durkan has also raised almost no money this election cycle, an early indicator that she was, at best, on the fence about seeking to keep her position. And she has appointed an unusually high number of interim and acting department directors, including two more just last week. Finding permanent directors for these positions, including the head of the Human Services Department (already led by an interim director since 2018) will likely be the next mayor’s problem.
Since before the 2020 presidential election, there has been speculation locally that Durkan might seek appointment in the incoming Biden Administration. Prior to her election in 2017, Durkan was the US Attorney for Western Washington under President Obama between 2009 and 2014. Asked whether there would be an announcement soon about a federal appointment, Durkan campaign spokeswoman Stephanie Formas responded: “Nope!”
Erica C. Barnett has covered Seattle politics since 2001 for print and online media. Read her latest at PubliCola.
Featured image by Alex Garland.