Outgoing Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan on Her City, Why She Chose Not To Seek Reelection
Melissa Harris-Perry: Back with you on The Takeaway, I'm Melissa Harris-Perry. It's good to have you with us. Let's head on out now to the Pacific Northwest, to Seattle Washington. Officially the city's municipal elections are nonpartisan, but by any measure, Seattle is a Democratic stronghold and by many measures, it's a bright blue progressive version of the Democratic party. In 2017, Mayor Jenny Durkan was elected as Seattle's first woman mayor in nearly a century and its second openly LGBTQ mayor.
She came to office with an aggressively progressive agenda centered on equitable access to education, but just as Durkan began to prepare for re-election, she faced a series of unforeseen crises. She was one of the first big-city mayors to manage a significant outbreak of COVID-19. Even though she's a former prosecutor of a strong law enforcement bona fides, Durkan was roundly criticized for the way she managed to protest for racial equality after Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd.
Late last year, Durkan decided not to seek re-election and in November of this year, former city council president Bruce Harrell defeated Lorena González in a race that seems to signal that Seattle residents hope to temper the city’s progressivism. As she enters her final weeks in office, I sat down with Mayor Durkan to understand the ways she thinks about Seattle and what she hopes is next for the Queen City.
Mayor Jenny Durkan: Seattle like cities across America and across the globe are tired and depleted in many ways. These have been such extraordinarily difficult two years with the global pandemic, with the impacts on our health and our economy, with the civil rights reckoning, and all of us having to dig deep on what does the future and equitable future really look like.
I think that people have been tapped out in many ways, but I couldn't be more proud of what Seattle's been able to do. We were the first in for the global pandemic with very little help from the federal government, sometimes working against the then President Trump. At the same time, every time we asked folks to step up and do the hard thing, to follow the science, they did it to deep sacrifice for themselves and their families.
It doesn't erase the enormous guilt and loss that people had, but we were able to follow the science and come through. While we did it, we really had to examine what we were doing in terms of equity and move forward on those programs too. You have to operate at multiple levels. I think the city of Seattle is a city that really is committed to a just and equitable future and we'll do the hard things to get there.
Melissa: Seeing the first cases in the country right there in Seattle and then, of course, that initial explosion of COVID particularly among the elderly and then to now be able to say what a low rate and, of course, even one person is too many, but to have such a dramatic set of accomplishments in a meaningful, impactful public health realm. I got to say mayor, there was a time in American politics where simply being able to say that alone would have basically ensured you a second term as mayor if that's what you wanted, but this is not that time in politics. You did make a decision not to run for re-election. Can you talk about that decision?
Mayor Durkan: I think that you're right about this not being that time in American politics. Last December, I was looking at where we were as a city. We had stood up a testing program that was first in the nation, but to this day, we've done 1.2 million in free tests, 60% of residents, but we didn't have the vaccine yet. We still had so much to do in the area of policing and standing of alternatives to policing, to recover from the pandemic, and to do all the other things that a city needs to do.
It was really clear to me that I could not both run for the office and do the work that we needed to do to get our city positioned to really recover and build that just and equitable future. Everything would've been viewed through that political prism. As you know today in American politics, things can become hyper-politicized and hyperpolarized really quickly. I thought the number one thing I could do for my city was to really focus on getting us to the best place possible.
Melissa: I think that's a rather stunning statement about our politics to say, "I couldn't both run for the office and do the work of the office at the same time." Does that indicate there's something broken about how we run for office in this country?
Mayor Durkan: I think there's something broken about how we conduct elected office in this country. If you look at the national level, I would say it is the most broken because you've now become so hyper-politicized that you literally lock up by party rather than look at principle and have people to be able to roll up their sleeves and work across party lines to work on a common goal or common agenda for the country.
You're starting to see that at the local level too, and everything is so much more proximate. When you're the mayor of a city, people give you their views when you're shopping at the grocery store or you name it, picking up your kids at school, whatever happens. People have an opinion and it happens right there and you see it. You walk through your town, you talk to people and you see everything.
We've seen now this politicization at school boards and health officers where it's not enough that you disagree with people and then look to find a way to resolve those disagreements. People have to become the enemy or vilified in a way that dehumanizes them. I think that's one of the most dangerous things that we're facing as a country. How do we get out of that hyper, hyperpolarization and really focus on our common humanity and common future?
Melissa: One of the clearest flashpoints for disagreement has clearly been the question of race and of policing and it is happening in American cities and perhaps no more centrally than in Seattle in the summer of 2020. As you look back now, just I guess a year and a half later, start by talking a little bit about the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone. In your understanding what was sort of the value, the purpose of that space?
Mayor Durkan: I think as history is written looking back at that time, it will be encapsulated view of what was happening in America. Like you said, the issue of policing and race, being this point of conflict, you can't separate the two if you look at the history of America. The origins of the protest for the murder of George Floyd, but so much more was being expressed there. It was generational deprivation of common humanity, access to opportunity, the American dream.
People saying what really makes community safety is not the presence of police alone. What makes this community safe is access to good healthcare, good prenatal care, preschools, educational opportunity, affordable housing. The things that make a healthy community also reduce the need to call the police. We see that where there are healthy communities and that disparity between what has happened to our communities of color and particularly Black Americans. You look across all of those markers of what indicates opportunity in health and the fall-off is undeniable.
I think the first thing we have to recognize is the protests were a confluence of events and that people were not just protesting the murder of George Floyd, which they were, but that itself exemplified so many other generational traumas and injuries, and that you really had to address those protests in that way. I think it was the most dynamic and sometimes volatile situation that our city has seen and having to address both the protests themselves and how do you build policing that is better and more just because I personally think it's a false choice to say we need alternatives to police or police.
I think we have to have both, but you've got to listen to community and address those needs. You had to address the protests themselves, you had to address the first amendment work, the public safety, but at the same time, if you didn't have a plan to make those long-term community investments, you weren't addressing really the reasons people were in the street.
Melissa: I'm wondering if it's at all surprising to you. Just given the demographics of Seattle, it is certainly a diverse city, but the African-American population there being about 7%, which is well below national 12% and well below in so many other places where we think of the racial divide as a core question where you might have 15% or 20% African-Americans.
Sometimes, particularly in cities, majority African-American cities but this is a place Seattle, again, with its diversity, but it is diversity that's primarily Asian-American. I'm wondering if it was at all surprising that it was Seattle that became at least I think for many members of the right, including President Trump who called the city an anarchist city, that it was Seattle that somehow stood in this fraught moment.
Mayor Durkan: I many ways, it's not surprising. I think one reason president Trump singled out Seattle is because we are a threat to his worldview because we can have diversity. Even though African-Americans make up only 7%. If you're committed to equity and justice, that is almost irrelevant. We are a city that has led the nation and many times on issues, whether it's the $15 minimum wage, whether it's protections for rideshare drivers because we are able as a city to find our way through these difficult issues and come out with some solutions, never perfect solutions because it's humans.
I think that for president Trump, one, having a woman mayor, he singled out a number of women mayor across the country, whether it was Keisha Bottoms in Atlanta or Lori lightfoot in Chicago, but also because if Seattle gets it right, it shows his worldview is wrong. Also, we've just always been a city that has been-- we got protests in our blood and it's been that way my whole life here, whether it was against the war or for civil rights, our first women's March here had over 250,000 people when Trump was inaugurated. People are very engaged, very publicly conscious. When they think something's unjust, they're going to tell you about it.
Melissa: We've talked about the racial divide, but there are, of course, other critical political intersections of identity. Some of which you embody as a woman mayor, as a queer mayor, and some of the disagreement as you talked about. On the way on hand, democracy is working when you can walk up to your mayor in the grocery store and tell your mayor how you feel, that feels like democracy at work, but if you tell your mayor how you feel with slurs that include homophobic slurs or gendered violence slurs, that's something quite different. I'm wondering how you experienced, obviously, as a human, but also as a leader, and how you in a moment like that address it.
Mayor Durkan: I think that that's a really good question. I think it goes back to what I was saying before. For me, I think one of the big dangers is not just this hyperpolarization, but the normalization of it. I as a mayor, I had a significant number of death threats against myself and my family to the point where we had to have 24-hour police protection at our home. At the same time, we had people coming to our home repeatedly and doing spray-painted hate speech that took significant time to remove, time after time. There was a period of time where we had our son move out of our house because we determined it wasn't safe for him to be there. No elected official should have to shoulder that as well, and we shouldn't normalize that.
We shouldn't say anyone asked for it because they ran for office. I would say that really one thing journalism needs to do is itself also report that and draw the bright line because at first, it's the mayor, and people who are for or against me could justify, "Oh, that's because of X or that's what you get for when you run for office." Then we saw it go to the school board members who decided that kids needed to get vaccinated or public health of issues who believed in masks. That has such a corrosive impact on our democracy. You really want good people to stand up and be engaged in their community, but if the price is the safety of their family, they won't make that choice.
Melissa: Now here's the best part of not running for reelection mayor. You can now give some advice. I'm going to ask you just in a few areas as you're looking across the country at other big-city mayors or just in general as for all of us as citizens and residents how we might approach some big questions. Let's start with housing and housing equity and fairness, and how to create cities that are both thriving economically, but where somebody can also afford to live on a reasonable person's salary.
Mayor Durkan: Yes. In big cities, it's been one of the greatest challenges I had coming in to see Seattle. We had explosive growth, but the growth came from people who were earning significant salaries. As mayor, we've done $2.5 billion in affordable housing, 7,600 new units. It's still not enough. We need to change our approach. For example, zoning laws, to allow more middle-income-type housing in every part of the city.
We need to make sure that as I did when we decide to commit to the affordable housing, I put an executive order that was an anti-gentrification displacement order so the people from that community who were pushed out of the community could have first shot at that affordable housing. We have seen enormous change, when I grew up in Seattle, the area that's called the central district was about 70% Black, today it's less than 14%. That is all the economic pressures of gentrification. If you want to have a city that really is diverse and has everything that makes a great city, you've got to make a commitment that there can be a place, a home for people.
I think every mayor has to realize they have to focus on that, but we have to put more pressure on the federal government. There has not been a nationwide commitment to affordable housing at the scale we needed for generation. I've talked to Secretary Fudge, she's going to be a great ally on that front. President Biden has so many challenges, but America has grown quickly and that housing is so critical to every other thing in a person's life. I think housing, mayors do what you can, but force your governors and pressure the federal administration to do what they can too.
Always remember, I think the most important thing that mayors know is we see the human impacts. When they talk about the budget and in Washington D.C., it's like, "Well, will you take $1 trillion? Or you take a half a trillion?" We don't think in terms of trillions, we think in terms of the humans that we see. The kids who can't get to school or the families lined up at the food bank. We see that. That's one thing I think that every elected official should never lose sight of. These aren't just dollars on a page. They really are what impacts people's lives.
Melissa: Let's talk about transportation next. Another key aspect of life in American cities. Advice on how to think about equitable access to transportation.
Mayor Durkan: I think there's a couple things. Number one, we need more public transportation and we are a transit-friendly, light rail-friendly city, but we saw during the pandemic like everyone else, people quit using it because they were fearful of the pandemic. We've got to build more of it. The other thing that I did coming in is we saw that our high school students didn't have access to transportation at the same way they should. That have impacted their ability to get jobs, to take advantage of other opportunities. I came in and did two things. One, we put in a program for two years free college for every Seattle public high school student.
We gave every Seattle public high school student a free transit pass that can be used on our transit, on our light rail. It opened up so many opportunities even I have never thought of as a mayor for those students. I think you have to make as much of the transportation free for as many people, we also were able to give these passes to a lot of people living in low-income housing, not everyone, but making sure that as you build out this expensive infrastructure in a city, if it's not accessible to people, it becomes another way that hardens inequity instead of opening opportunity.
Melissa: Then I think the last one I'll ask you about here is education and trying to think about the ways that education is part of economic development equity.
Mayor Durkan: Absolutely. I think it's one of the critical linchpins and it starts with good pre-K. I was also able to expand our free pre-K to double the size it was. I have to tell you, I go to these pre-school classes, I could tell when I had a hard day or hard schedule because my staff would have this on my calendar would be, "Visit to a preschool." There's only one thing that was better than the joy in the kids' faces and that was the joy on the parents' faces because suddenly they had a place for their children that was safe, that was going to give them opportunity and that then they could do other things in their life work, whatever they were doing.
Then the two years free college, preparing a gateway for these students to grab them when they're younger in high school, start talking to them about what they wanted to do, give them the right support and counseling, have that same support when they landed in the colleges. Then, pairing that with the internships at the great companies we have here. We just were able to change state law to get a four-year degree in our community colleges for computer sciences, which starting salaries are like $140,000. Now being able to provide really good solid education, but also pair that with opportunity.
We've worked with our Port of Seattle because not every kid wants to be a computer science person. We're working with our labor unions for apprenticeship programs and our fire department to see how we get people into firefighting, but to really be thinking about what are those pathways so that-- we have one of the highest minimum wages country. It's not enough for a family to live on. We have to be providing these pathways to actual employment and opportunities that can support a family and support their children.
Melissa: You've given some advice to other mayors, maybe even to your own Mayor-Elect Bruce Harrell, who's coming in, but I'm interested to know what's next for you.
Mayor Durkan: I am not sure yet. I'm going to take some time off. I'm a person who runs through the tape. We've got some time left and we are trying to get it done. Then, it's been extraordinarily challenging for my family as well. I think we just want to take some time reassess, decompress, and then look for the next way that we can contribute.
Melissa: Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan. Thank you for joining The Takeaway.
Mayor Durkan: Thanks for having me. You take care.
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