Mayor's Race 2017

Candidate Profile: Jenny Durkan

This is the first of a series of mayoral candidate profiles.

By Hayat Norimine July 10, 2017

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Jenny Durkan announces her run for mayor on May 12, 2017, at the Pacific Tower. 

For years, Jenny Durkan's name had been circulated as part of the political rumorscape, and politicos wondered what might be next for the former Barack Obama-appointed, first openly gay U.S. attorney after she left her seat in 2014: Mayor? Congress? Attorney general?

It wasn't until mayor Ed Murray dropped his reelection bid that Durkan, now 59, pulled the trigger: She would run for mayor. Backed by current and former elected officials—including Christine Gregoire, a long-time ally—Durkan announced her candidacy on May 12 at the Pacific Tower conference room, where her father, Democratic powerhouse Martin Durkan Sr., was once a patient after his service in World War II.

Within four days after her announcement, her campaign reported raising $60,000—she's now raised $321,000—making her the instant financial frontrunner. She has the backing of former Murray supporters, including four city council members and Murray himself. She has the support of the Seattle Chamber of Commerce, some labor groups, and The Seattle Times. Murray 2.0, some would say—“the establishment candidate.”

I think first that’s a silly framework,” Durkan told PubliCola last week. She listed a number of progressive issues she had been involved in over the course of decades—civil rights for the LGBTQ, forming the first drug court in King County, and criminal justice reform nationwide alongside former attorney general Eric Holder. She supports supervised injection sites with a “holistic approach” that offers addiction treatment and services. She sided with labor on the soda tax and said she opposed it, listing concerns about its effect on small businesses—and she has the strong backing of labor powerhouse, SEIU 775 president David Rolf. 

As an attorney she also developed a reputation for being tough on crime, having gone after the Colacurcios and their strip clubs' connection with racketeering and conspiracy, and at times has appealed to a more centrist base in some of Seattle's controversial issues—she supports the city income tax (she sounded more skeptical at the beginning of her campaign) but pointed out it wouldn't be an immediate solution; she's painted herself as a fiscally responsible candidate who wants to “scrub the budget as hard as we can” to eliminate waste; and she said she supported pulling back on some types of increased density in single-family zoning in Murray's grand bargain negotiations.

I believe that had they pushed forward, that would have unraveled the whole deal and we would not have the ability to move forward on affordable housing, period,” Durkan said. She wants more public housing, she said, both low-income and work force housing and in every part of the city.

Before Durkan began running for mayor, she was a partner at the law firm Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan as a cybersecurity specialist and chaired the U.S. Department of Justice advisory group on cybercrime. As an attorney for the Western District of Washington, Durkan was a key player in police reform when the federal government stepped in to find the city's excessive use of force and biased policing practices. At times she went head to head against then-mayor Mike McGinn—who's also now a major challenger in the mayor's race—as well as the Community Police Commission. There's also strong opposition against her, especially from those who are critical of the city's slow movement on police accountability and her role in the process, and see Durkan as out of touch with people of color. A hashtag against Durkan, #JennyonebutDurkan, began trending in Seattle the day after she, at Candidate Survivor, used the term "colored person" during a skit. (She apologized shortly afterward.)

Durkan said Seattle is at “a critical crossroads” on police reform—though the city's made major improvements, she said, and spoke highly of police chief Kathleen O'Toole, the shooting of 30-year-old black mother Charleena Lyles raises concerns about adequate mental health care and domestic violence services.

We have come an enormous way, and the manner in which we police in this city is markedly different than it was five years ago...At the same time, the death of Charleena Lyles shows that reform is a continual process,” Durkan said. “Number one, you cannot divorce policing from the other realities in the street. Charleena Lyles, we failed her as a society before the police ever got to her door.”

But, Durkan added, it would be too soon to judge how the city is doing on police reform; Seattle must prove that it's compliant, and remain complaint for two years.

Until that process is finished, I don’t think anybody can say, one, that we’ve had adequate reforms, or that there’s different things that need to be done,” she said.

Durkan's calculated responses reflect her campaign and political career. She said she knew she wanted to be a lawyer at a young age; she was close to her father, who served in the state legislature for nearly 20 years, even if her Irish Catholic family had a hard time accepting it when she came out in her twenties—a decision she said she ultimately made to “move the dial” in LGBTQ civil rights efforts.

I can say that both being a woman and being a gay person made every step of my career harder,” Durkan said. “My life has always been about trying to meet the next challenge and doing things that were not easy.”

She fostered relationships with the Democratic party and grew close to Gregoire during her term as governor. Durkan was on Gregoire's legal team in 2005 that defended a narrow election victory against Republican Dino Rossi. But the night before final arguments in Wenatchee, Durkan's father died.

Gregoire told PubliCola Durkan wasn't expected to work that day. She showed up anyway. Durkan said she got a call from her father from the hospital with a message: Using his childhood nickname for her, "He said, 'Red, get it done.'"

In the most difficult of times, she's there. She is tenacious; she'll never give up,” Gregoire told PubliCola on May 12. “At the end of the day, I absolutely believe we're going to have a woman mayor. We need it, we deserve it, and it's Jenny Durkan.”

Updated July 14, 2017, at 1:47pm: This post contains updates on the campaign since it's been published, including Candidate Survivor and the trending hashtag against her candidacy.

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