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Jenny Durkan won’t run for reelection. What’s it take to become Seattle mayor — and how might that be changing?

UPDATED: Wed., Dec. 9, 2020

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan addresses a news conference in Seattle on Sept. 2 about changes being made in the city’s police department.  (Associated Press)
Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan addresses a news conference in Seattle on Sept. 2 about changes being made in the city’s police department. (Associated Press)
By Daniel Beekman and David Gutman Seattle Times

When Mayor Jenny Durkan announced Monday she wouldn’t seek reelection in 2021, many Seattleites wondered: Who might replace her?

There were whispers about at-large City Council members Teresa Mosqueda and M. Lorena González. About nonprofit executives. About community organizers.

The next day, wannabe candidates were pondering another question: What does it take to become mayor?

Though history provides clues, Seattle politics are evolving as the city confronts new challenges and continues to experiment with publicly funded “democracy vouchers.” The vouchers will be available to mayoral candidates for the first time next year.

“If you run the right campaign, if you run an authentic campaign, I guarantee whatever candidate, they can raise a million dollars,” Seattle campaign consultant Riall Johnson said.

While Durkan works on the city’s coronavirus recovery and negotiates a new union contract with police officers, her possible potential replacements will debate the economic and racial-justice demands that have put City Hall under intense pressure in recent months.

Voters may be craving “someone who feels accountable to communities of color and folks who’ve been on the streets protesting and who also can turn that into tangible policy,” said Sera Day, another consultant.

Some popular politicians already are ruling themselves out. State Sen. Rebecca Saldaña won’t seek the mayor’s office, nor will King County Councilmember Girmay Zahilay, they said Tuesday.

“It’s always been a hard job” in the spotlight, and it’s getting harder, whereas state lawmakers “can be a little more under the radar,” Saldaña said, noting Durkan and other female leaders must deal with sexism in addition to other burdens.

Former state Rep. Jessyn Farrell, who ran in 2017, isn’t ruling out another bid, she signaled. Mosqueda and González aren’t saying anything yet. Their council seats also are up for grabs next year.

“This past year has been brutal,” said Gordon McHenry, president of the United Way of King County. “We need a strong leader who can help us heal and provide hope. … People want a sense of social cohesion. That’s what’s missing.”

The 2021 primary is still nine months away. But the rumor mill is churning, as McHenry discovered Monday. A friend told him a Wikipedia page about the race was listing him as a potential contender.

“I found that interesting,” McHenry said. “I’m not interested in running for mayor.”

Major constituencies

For years, certain constituencies have dominated the city’s electoral politics. Big business and big labor contribute endorsements, volunteers and money. Social-justice activists inspire progressive voters, while Democratic and neighborhood group leaders can sway others.

Candidates backed by two of those constituencies have competed, and candidates backed by three have usually won.

The labor movement has championed Mosqueda before and likely would again. González was once endorsed by the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce but has veered away from that lane since then.

They each have won citywide races and boast name recognition. At the same time, both could be blamed for some of Seattle’s problems.

Not every election plays out the same way. Mike McGinn engineered an upset win in 2009 as a populist of sorts, without assistance from big business or big labor. Most voters belong to no particular camp.

But the approach that helped propel Durkan to victory 2017 is well tested. Like Greg Nickels and Ed Murray previously, she won support from large corporations, large unions and moderate voters. The former U.S. attorney defeated urbanist Cary Moon with 56% of the general-election vote.

“The model has been to unite labor and business and mainstream Democratic Party organizations,” said Christian Sinderman, another political consultant. “You create, by Seattle standards, a center-left coalition.”

Sandeep Kaushik, a consultant who worked with Durkan in 2017 and Murray in 2013, said they both ran as the city’s “consensus choice,” defeating opponents he described as “lefty activists.” Older homeowners tend to side with the former and younger renters with the latter, he noted.

Vouchers introduced

In 2021, “That model could still work,” Sinderman said. “But the 2019 council elections threw that into doubt a bit.”

Last year’s seven district races added a twist, as democracy vouchers allowed more candidates to compete at a high level, injecting cash into upstart campaigns.

Funded by property taxes and distributed to every voter, the vouchers were paired with spending limits. To beat the limits, interest groups spent huge sums through independent committees.

Rather than rally around consensus candidates, big business and big labor went to war through independent spending. Amazon dropped $1 million into the equation, prompting a backlash that helped progressive candidates. Voters mostly chose those candidates and their policies, nudging City Hall further left.

The interest groups didn’t “lock arms and endorse somebody” but instead opted to “marshal unlimited money” to spend independently, Sinderman said, linking the approach to fragmentation.

The vouchers will matter next year, Johnson agreed, sharing a more positive view.

In 2017’s crowded mayoral contest, only Durkan and Moon raised more than $150,000. With vouchers, community organizer and attorney Nikkita Oliver might have raised more, Johnson suggested.

“A candidate like that who can activate and compel and inspire people?” Johnson said. “People are going to sign vouchers.”

Last year, Johnson worked with Tammy Morales, who won her council race handily, and Shaun Scott, who lost narrowly. “That’s how it worked with Tammy,” Johnson said. “We just got vouchers in the mail, we hardly even had to ask people.”

Swirling politics

The coalition that supported Durkan in 2017 sagged this year, as COVID-19 shut down the city, tear gas deployed by police against Black Lives Matter crowds clouded Capitol Hill and homicides spiked.

The mayor could possibly win were she to run again, but the race would be bruising, said Sinderman, who helped Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler secure reelection last month in a similar situation.

“He took a hands-on approach” to the protests, Sinderman said, mentioning an incident in which Wheeler was gassed with a crowd. “I think he was rewarded for that.”

Seattle candidates, Johnson said, should heed the success of the activist movement that erupted over the summer. Durkan and the council have slashed police spending, and the council passed a new tax on large corporations.

“Defunding the police and taxing Amazon still polls well overall,” Johnson said. “Anyone who wants to run on that kind of platform shouldn’t shy away from that.”

“There’s a tremendous energy on the left in the city. … I don’t think there’s any question that it’s been growing over time,” Kaushik added, with a caveat.

With little public polling in Seattle, progressive-tinged social media can present a distorted view of the electorate, he said. “If Seattle elections played out on Twitter, Cary Moon would have been mayor in a landslide,” Kaushik said.

Dire challenges

The city’s crises will make 2021’s election different, said Zahilay, whose county council district ranges from the University District through Rainier Valley.

“For any new mayoral candidate to come in and think that they’re going to run on the same policy platforms and in the same style that has worked in the past, they would be wrong,” Zahilay said.

Zahilay’s job this year has been consumed by helping people meet their basic needs, he said. “I get thousands of emails from people saying, ‘I need rental assistance now, I need food assistance now,’” Zahilay said.

MLK Labor, the powerful umbrella group for most local unions, wants to see candidates who can deliver hard dollars to address Seattle’s persistent housing and homelessness problems.

“We chose to spend $50 billion on light rail,” said Nicole Grant, executive secretary-treasurer of MLK Labor, referring to Sound Transit tax measures. “We could choose to spend $50 billion on homelessness and it would go away.”

It’s unlikely that a candidate will win both business and labor support in 2021, Farrell said. Those camps have diverged, she said, pointing to a Chamber lawsuit Tuesday against the council’s new tax.

Between the “progressive” and “moderate” lanes is “a third space” for a candidate who can “deliver broad benefits to the vast majority of people who live in this city,” Farrell added.

“This is an all-hands-on-deck crisis,” she said when asked about her plans. “I am basically rolling up my sleeves to do that in whatever way it looks like.”

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