Food & Culture

The Many Ways Jenny Durkan Could Surprise Seattle

Is Seattle's new mayor really the "Murray 2.0" her detractors branded her?

By Erica C. Barnett December 5, 2017


When Jenny Durkan and Cary Moon emerged as the top two vote-getters in the August primary election, there was no longer any question that Seattle would elect a female mayor. But after Durkan won, with a commanding 56 percent of the vote, many wondered if the first woman mayor in nearly a century would merely be more of the same.

The “Murray 2.0” tag dogged Durkan throughout the campaign, and the new mayor has been pilloried by Seattle’s left, with some justification, for being the “establishment” candidate—the one with money, backing from big businesses like Amazon and Comcast, and insider connections (her sister, Ryan, is a land-use attorney with many major local clients, brother Jamie was a prominent Seattle lobbyist, and a second brother, Tim, works for the city.)

Durkan has flinched at the “establishment” label, pointing to her work as an early advocate for marriage equality (Durkan is gay) as well as her support for undocumented immigrants as U.S. attorney under President Obama. But will it stick? She has four years to answer that question; in the meantime, here are some ways we think Durkan could surprise Seattle.

By sticking to her promise to be the mayor “of the people, not of City Hall.”
On her first day as mayor, Durkan was officially sworn in at Rainier Beach’s Ethiopian Community Center, instead of city hall, and held other swearing-in ceremonies in neighborhoods from Delridge to Phinney Ridge. If she keeps her commitment to listening to neighborhood concerns personally instead of sending emissaries to meetings that are likely to get hot (as Murray often did), she will build valuable trust, especially in communities that feel they lack a voice at city hall, like South Seattle’s East African immigrants or renters getting priced out of neighborhoods across the city.

By cleaning Murray’s house.
Durkan may have appointed Murray’s former chief of staff, Mike Fong, as her senior deputy mayor, but don’t be fooled: Fong’s experience as a policy wonk and city hall dealmaker long predates his time in the Murray office, spanning all the way back to 2001, when he worked as a policy staffer for the city council. Her other deputy mayor, Shefali Ranganathan, led the pro-transit Transportation Choices Coalition.

The mayor has the ability to hire and fire the heads of more than two dozen city departments. This week saw the voluntary resignation of police chief Kathleen O’Toole and the not so voluntary resignation of City Light director Larry Weis. Scott Kubly, the head of the Department of Transportation, is already looking for jobs elsewhere. (Jesus Aguirre, the parks director, left shortly before Durkan took office.)

By implementing an activist agenda that includes compromise versions of policies Seattle’s left holds dear.
Some of her detractors scoffed when Durkan made free community college tuition a centerpiece of her campaign. Just days into her term, Durkan signed an executive order directing the city to come up with a plan to pay for the two-year college proposal and to begin implementing it in 2018. The directive would expand the number of credits that students in an existing 13th Year Promise program can take for free.

Other areas where Durkan could move fast: Implementing a new business tax or taxes on large employer, expanding the families and education levy (up for another vote next year) to increase access to preschool and moving forward with a safe drug consumption site in Seattle, a Durkan campaign priority.

By being the new Greg Nickels instead of the new Murray.
Below the marquee positions, Durkan’s day-one staff looks like the who’s who of the Nickels years. There’s Kylie Rolf and Andres Mantilla, both formerly of Nickels’ outreach team; legislative affairs director Anthony Auriemma, who worked for Nickels late in his term; and office administrator Lyle Canceko, an ex-Nickels communications staffer.

Will surrounding herself with staffers for the former mayor, a competent centrist who was ousted after his muddled handling of a major snowstorm, make Durkan more likely to govern like Nickels, too? Hard to say—but during her kickoff in Rainier Beach, she did work in one snowstorm joke.

By being an effective advocate on the Sound Transit board.
No, Durkan isn’t likely to revisit the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda—a Murray initiative that irks Moon-backing urbanists who deem it too narrow. But during the campaign, when her opponent was promising to speed up light rail with a loan that Sound Transit said wouldn’t actually help, Durkan offered her own plan to get the trains running to Ballard and West Seattle faster by expediting the permit and construction process and paying for better bus service in the meantime.

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