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Image: Oliver Ludlow

At 59, former U.S. attorney Jenny Durkan is Seattle’s second openly gay mayor and only the second woman to take the city’s highest office (Bertha Landes held the role 89 years ago). As she begins the first full year of her term, Durkan faces serious homelessness and housing-affordability crises—and then there’s the matter of her disgraced predecessor, Ed Murray, whose resignation following child sex-abuse allegations rocked a constituency already reeling from a federal government diametrically opposed to its progressive values. Tough job, and one the steely eyed, moose-skinning lawyer from the rural suburbs approaches with a decidedly pragmatic determination. —JV

We lived out in Issaquah before there was any development. My poor mom, we had eight kids in our family and my father was gone frequently for work. She just had us go play in the woods.

We would talk at the dinner table about all the political issues of the day, and both of my parents were Democrats who framed [their politics] around how to help people. 

My sister, at the end of her first year of law school, finished first in her class. My parents were there for the ceremony and my dad said to me: “Yup, I expect to see your name on a plaque, Jenny—at a bar two blocks up, but on a plaque nonetheless.”

I was going to go to law school too, but then I decided to go to Alaska to teach high school.

You are living in a place where people are not meant to survive. There’s maybe an hour and a half of sunlight [in winter], and you’d see the sun rise and set in the exact same place on the horizon.  

There was an older nun from Germany. I’m walking down the hall, and she taps me on the shoulder and says, “You must help me.” Raised Irish Catholic, I said: “Of course, sister.” And I followed her. She opened the kitchen door, and on the floor was a dead moose in quarters. And she turned to me and said, “Vee must skin it.” 

And I did it, I skinned the moose.

My parents sent my brother to check on me. I think they were worried it was a cult or something, that they’d lost me to Alaska. It was a place where you decide, “I either stay forever or I continue to do the thing I really want to do to make a difference.” And that for me was law.

I think of representing the widow of one of the firefighters killed in the [1995] Pang Warehouse fire—not only did that case resolve favorably for her, it led to a whole system of change of how fires are fought and safety for firefighters. The firefighter memorial in Pioneer Square came out of that case.

I was lucky to have cases that had broader impact, but usually you’re tilting at windmills. As a U.S. attorney, I also saw firsthand how much positive impact you can have within the system itself.  

When Donald Trump was elected, the world started spinning differently for me. I’ve got two kids and think about what we are leaving them, and how we could shape the world to be better for them.

We as a country did not pay attention to those families who were displaced first. The automobile workers. The people in the Rust Belt. And the refrain “Those jobs are gone, they’re never coming back” is really an epitaph for them.

As mayor, I want to start changing the dialogue. If you look at the issue of homelessness, I think we address it as a broad, one-size-fits-all problem when really it’s a collection of societal challenges. 

How do we help moms with kids who’ve been displaced? How do we deal with people who have addiction or substance abuse problems? How do we deal with mental health issues? Each of those is a subset for people who are experiencing homelessness, but the stories on the street are different.

You can’t make changes overnight. I think people understand that some of these problems are societal problems that Seattle can’t fix alone. But they want someone who will go in and at least try different things.

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