Group Chat

Is Seattle Mayor a Bad Job?

Durkan’s bow out of the 2021 race is just the latest. Three political experts weigh in on the challenges of leading our city.

By Benjamin Cassidy February 25, 2021

Image: Jane Sherman

One and done. That’s been the story of late when it comes to the number of terms Seattle mayors serve. After triumphing in 2009, Mike McGinn lost his re-election bid four years later. His successor, Ed Murray, didn’t even finish his sole term due to sexual abuse allegations made against him. And most recently, incumbent Jenny Durkan dropped out of the 2021 mayoral race well before many other contenders had emerged.

Why is there so much turnover in our city’s top post? We asked three experts on local politics, including one former mayor, to offer their takes. The conversation took place in January over Zoom; the transcript below has been lightly edited for clarity.

► Margaret O’Mara, history professor, University of Washington

► Mike McGinn, former Seattle mayor

► Seferiana Day, political consultant and partner, Upper Left Strategies




So we are all talking because Jenny Durkan has decided not to seek a second term as mayor, which makes her the third straight [elected] mayor that hasn't had a second term here. And, obviously, different reasons each time. But this is clearly a difficult job to hang on to. So I'm wondering, why is that? Is there something specific to Seattle, that makes this such a difficult position?

► SD: I see one of the big difficulties, one of the biggest issues of our time is the economic inequality that I think is really showing its face just given the Covid public health crisis. I think there are almost two Seattles, two versions. I've lived here for about 15 years. So I moved here kind of before everything took off. And I've just seen it, just seen kind of the division and the kind of rift between the haves and the have-nots. And I think, speaking about technology, and just the impact of the tech sector kind of growing our economic—I think the median income I read was like over $100,000 now in our city, but then you have so many people that are experiencing housing insecurity. These issues that are just not being—it's like no one's able to tackle them.

In my time at City Hall, I was there from 2014 to 2018, I think back about this idea that we're going to end homelessness in 10 years; that hasn't happened. It's gotten worse. There's just issues that are not being tackled. And I think maybe it's the approach that's off. I think there's a lack of really looking at our policy issues from the lens of people that are really experiencing it. And you've got a lot of people saying, "We see the problems. We see people in the streets in tents. Let's get them out." And there's this idea of tackling policy issues from a different perspective, of people that see it as a dirty problem, rather than looking at people and seeing what's going to work for them: What is actually going to help people get off the street, find housing, find a job. And that's just one issue, I think, that is really glaring. 

► MM: I'll jump in. I mean, it is, in fact, an extremely hard job because no one is closer to the public, no elected official's closer to the public than a mayor in terms of expectations of doing things. Legislators can always point to the other party or somebody else who didn't do their job. And governors and presidents are far more distant. And when you look at what city government oversees, it's your garbage collection; it's your water. It's your parks and libraries. It's your potholes. It's police and fire, human services; these are all things that are really direct. So there's a level of accountability that mayors have that other elected officials don't have. And you were talking about the last three mayors, and I'm one of them. But, you know, if you look back, Greg Nickels, after two terms, didn't make it out of a primary. Paul Schell didn't make it out of a primary. You know, I had a close race. And these issues that mayors have to deal with are bigger than a city, and I want to really endorse what was just said about inequality. We face the brunt of the inequality here. But we don't necessarily have the tools to deal with [the issues]. The taxes we can use are prescribed by the state, and the economic forces are bigger than a city alone.

Kind of digging a little deeper into that thought that was just put out there about the approach for mayor, I was not from the political establishment. I had the chamber of commerce, the labor council, and most elected Democrats, kind of angry at me, because I was challenging how they were doing things. Things like highways, or how to spend our money, vetoing an anti-panhandling statute were things where I was finding myself on the wrong side of the conventional wisdom or the powers that be. But what's interesting, if you line up with the powers that be, their goal is not to be taxed. So they are denying the tools that could potentially be used to solve the problems. And so what you find with, Mayor Durkan, to some degree, she was bailed out by the city council passing a tax this year. Because without that tax, she would have been making cuts across city government. I had a council that didn't want any new taxes [editor’s note: more context here], and I did have to make cuts and hard ones.  

So you have a defense of the status quo, whether it's on zoning, whether it's on taxation, and kind of preferences for those that already have stuff. And when they get their people in office, they fight hard to defend the status quo. And if you get somebody in who wants to challenge it, well, they're going to face a pretty uphill battle, because those folks have a lot of political tools at their disposal. So that's the challenge here in Seattle.

It doesn't help that we hold our elections in odd years, where the turnout is lower. Like if we held an election for city council and mayor in a presidential year, that desire for an elected official to try to take on the interests would be much more likely. Whereas if you have an election in odd years, what you tend to see is that folks that already have resources—live in single-family homes, have waterfront views—are a larger percentage of the electorate, and they don't want to see change. And that's who they vote for. And that's the big fight in Seattle. And when we hold elections in odd years, we are really pushing toward the preferences of those that have already made it and disregarding the needs of those that are trying to figure out how they can make a go of it in the city. 

► MO: Yeah, I think that, as Mike alluded to, this is not just a right-now problem. There are structural conditions, and there are political conditions and dynamics that go way, way back. The taxation problem that we have in the city of Seattle it's, cumulatively, the most regressive tax system in the country. It's kind of remarkable considering how progressive Seattle's reputation is. And this goes way back. I mean, we have 100 years of fighting against a state income tax, of having this chronic shortage of revenue and a lot of different interests trying to get what they need from public coffers.  

We also have this long dynamic...funnily enough, only in Seattle would someone like Jenny Durkan be seen as a, I don't know, conservative, or moderate. I think in many other parts of the country [she] would be seen as quite liberal. But we have a kind of, let's call it a Democratic business centrism that was not always Democratic but kind of a business centrism that goes all the way back to the early twentieth century where you have boosters, Seattle boosters, and pro-business interests, who are wanting to put the city on the map and really support its economic growth. And we also have a very long-standing radical tradition of radical politics, of left politics, but also very left politics, anti-capitalist politics, Socialist politics. We go back to 1919 to the general strike. We have all of these landmarks in labor activism and working-class activism, and these clashes between the sort of two Seattles, and people also working together to try to rectify inequality, which is, of course, much sharper now than it has been in decades. So these are kind of systemic problems. It doesn't mean that you can't overcome them, but recognizing that it's a very long history here.

There's also a very long history of—Washington state is not big on very strong executives. Maybe Mike can speak to this more. Both of you can speak to this kind of, having been in the belly of the beast. In Seattle, you have a mayor, and you have a city council. And you can't be an autocrat in Seattle. And we also have a political culture that's the famous "Seattle process." But it's very collaborative, very deliberative. That can be inclusive. It can bring lots of voices into the room. But it also makes it difficult to really push in a sort of firmly different direction, particularly when you have, as Mike observed, these off-cycle elections, where some voices are more consistently engaged than others. Again, inclusion advances, I think there's things that Seattle does extremely well, much better than many other cities. On so many metrics, Seattle functions so much better than so many other places. But you can see this tension with, particularly with the role of the mayor who does have so much put to his or her feet in terms of you're responsible for this, and yet does not have as much control over things as some people might assume.


So, looking back at Mayor's Durkan's time in office here, what are some accomplishments that the next mayor can build on? And what are some missteps that the next mayor is going to need to rectify here as we move forward?

► SD: I would say one of the biggest opportunities, maybe coming from a misstep around the police accountability, police defunding movement that happened this past summer, I think there's a lot of opportunity to really bring kind of those both sides, like Margaret was saying, the radical and sort of the establishment, together. And as much as we kind of bemoan the process, I think there is a lot of potential to really actually bring people to the table that maybe haven't been, and they've been very loud about it. So I think there's opportunity to build off of what I think was a pretty poorly handled situation with the protesters over the summer, having friends that live on Capitol Hill, you know, experiencing the flash bangs and the pepper spray...just people that live there and people that were in the streets protesting, I think that we can only move up from how that was handled, I will say. That's one area, I think that there's opportunity.

► MO: I would add to that, I think there was, again, in some ways, echoes of history. In 1999, we had the WTO protests and a similar, very visible, national and international news-making moments of police confrontation with protesters, with some very similar dynamics going on in terms of property damage and kind of the nature of protest and the way that it was understood. And that had consequences. That was something that had political ramifications both for the mayor and for the police department. So the eerie similarities to me were like, Wow, we're doing this again.

Seattle is not alone in this, in the state of policing, in the militarization of police departments themselves; when you have all the tools—when you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. But also from the perspective of those who are living on Capitol Hill, of those who are business owners on Capitol Hill, this disruption of the occupation. We can all be armchair quarterbacks and say, well, the mayor could have done this, this, this, this. But this is showing these existing fault lines, these deep fault lines that Seattle often tries to look the other way and think of itself as a very progressive city, when it comes to racial injustice, when it comes to structural racism, the lack of very large, visible, neighborhoods of concentrated poverty as other large cities in the United States have had and also...having a multiracial population, rather than a kind of black-white binary that you see more often in the upper Midwest and the East Coast traditionally, has allowed Seattle to kind of think, well, we're not like the rest of these cities. We don't have these problems. And yet, when you actually look into the history, it's just as ugly. It's just as bad; same stuff. 

So, if anything, we can take from 2020, this reckoning, of looking just more honestly about what the city has been doing and what it is and the real sort of sharply imbalanced trajectory of opportunity in this place that is delineated by space, and by race, and by education. If these were easy problems to solve, they would have been solved. I think there's a real value in having a very honest sense of this is why all this is happening, and recognizing the sort of the intersections of these multiple challenges. The next mayor is not going to have an easy time of it. But I think we have this opening now for more honest conversation that I'd love to see leaders and citizens take advantage of.

► MM:  So I want to just make an observation, again, about politics in the city and where the dividing lines are. We're so used to thinking about politics through a national framework, which has Trump on one end, and I guess Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or Bernie Sanders on the other. And that's not the dividing line in a city like Seattle. I don't know what we voted, 85 or 90 percent-plus against Trump. The dividing line in Seattle, if you look at all the election maps, and how citywide elections break down, one constituency is: Do they live in an apartment building on a bus line, and rent? That's one end of the spectrum. And the other end is: Do they live in a single-family home with a view of the water? And the middle ground is someone who's economically or culturally in the middle there, and it's probably progressive. So even people that run with chamber of commerce backing, they have to be a Democrat, and they have to present themselves as a progressive. But if they have chamber of commerce backing, they are going to oppose the head tax. They're going to oppose higher taxes on corporations. They're going to be reluctant to make other changes. They may be reluctant to change a car lane to a bus lane as an example, or put in a bike lane. We've seen that. That's actually the dividing line. It's not urban-rural. It's actually kind of urban-suburban, in a city.

We have parts of the city that have a very suburban feel to [them], in which they have higher priorities. And the suburban approach to issues is: Let's not have homeless in our neighborhood. Let's send them to the urban place, right. And policing is great, because they keep the bad people out of our neighborhoods. And apartment buildings are bad, because who knows who that might bring into our neighborhood. And that's a very different viewpoint from a younger person who's like, No an apartment building is good, where's my place to live? And, you know, more transit is good. So we have to really look at that spectrum and see it and understand that the middle of the spectrum is a kind of progressiveness that doesn't want to confront the full inequities of the city. And I think that's one of the real challenges that we have in the city and why I mentioned the odd-year even-year thing, because just moving that line a little in Seattle would make a difference in who gets elected.

I think you asked the question of what does a new mayor face? And again, when you look at where mayors came from, Jenny Durkan's base was in the chamber and the view homes, that was in single-family neighborhoods. That was her base. And if you're going to satisfy them, you're not going to have the resources to take care of things. But I think there's something deeper going on here for any new mayor, and I don't mean to be too pessimistic. But when I took office, I had things from Greg Nickels, and we had policy differences. That's why I ran. But I had things from Greg Nickels I could work on and expand upon: the Race and Social Justice Initiative, the Seattle Youth Violence Prevention Initiative. And I think when Ed Murray came in, he had some things. We had a transit master plan that could support the rapid ride lines. We had done a lot of the work on preschool stuff. So we had done stuff. I think that with Ed Murray's scandal in his last year or two, I don't think he left Mayor Durkan very much. And I don't think Mayor Durkan has really—she ran as a status quo politician, and she really wasn't running to be a massive change agent. So I think that we've seen a number of years of drift here in which the new mayor isn't going to kind of have the benefit of whatever was working its way through the system and is now ready to be taken to the next level. I guess the biggest claim might be regional governance on homelessness but The Seattle Times today was pointing out it's just not really going anywhere. In part because there's actually no new resources, it's just process around homelessness, not additional resources. 

So I think a new mayor's biggest deal is, they're gonna have to get city government really functional again. We often look at ideology of who's running...over their management ability, because I'd rather you know that we're heading in the right direction, even if we have some things to work on. But this is a time where we actually need somebody who knows how to make government work and knows how to run things, and ideally, is truly progressive as well. Because I think that this city government has really taken a beating over the last number of years, in terms of its ability to generate new initiatives that might meet the scale of the challenges we're facing.


So on that note, and also thinking about the fact that folks who have been mayor in Seattle haven't gone on to higher office, in, I think I read something like 80 years. I'm wondering, Is this a bad job?

► MM: I'm jumping in man, since I was one: It's the best job in the world. And I knew when I took it, it's a terminal job. You're not going anywhere. But it's the best job in the world, as far as I was concerned, for the same reasons that I just said earlier. You're the closest to the people. You're the closest to the ability to develop impact. Now, you have to like it. You have to actually be willing to accept what comes with it. And it's hard. I don't want to minimize that. It is hard. And, you know, mayors have a tradition of leaving letters to the next mayor in the upper drawer of the historic desk in the mayor's office. And I don't remember exactly what Greg Nickels' letter to me was. But it was essentially: Don't take it personally. You're going to get a lot of criticism and learn to deal with it. And he was right.

I love the Parks and Rec person: "When I hear people yelling, they're just caring loudly" [editor's note: close]. I totally endorse that viewpoint. And, and over time, I was able to really, I felt, on an emotional level, understand that they were yelling at me often not because it was me. Sometimes it was. I had to figure that out. But sometimes it was just because it's the city. The city's not delivering, and the mayor is the city. So that's the hard part. And I think mayors that can't understand that distinction and can't enjoy in some way that type of heat, even if it's hard, are going to have a hard time. But it is the best job in the world. And I would, I wouldn't encourage anyone to run for it who wasn't really ready to go for it. But I didn't want any other job in politics but mayor. I didn't want any other job. That's the only one I really wanted. And I wasn't even planning to run and I got it, and I wanted it again, just wasn't wasn't fortunate enough to get quite enough votes to get over the tap on the reelection. 


I am curious what others think too, even those who have not held the office.

► MM: No, please, jump in [laughs].

► MO: Well, I'm not planning to run for mayor. But I do find it really interesting. It is a really interesting job. But there is, you know, in a way similar to any executive job, there's sort of a presumption that you have more power to change things than you do. And I think particularly in Seattle, where there are resource constraints, and this politics of state and local taxes, that it's just this really, really kind of hard boulder to roll aside.

But there is always an opportunity. What I do learn from looking backwards in politics is you see how change can either be extraordinarily slow, or then, occasionally, things change rather rapidly. Remarkably, so. And it can go in a number of directions, and you have these inflection points. I'm really—2020 is one of those historical inflection points at every level for the United States. I'm a co-author on a history textbook, and I already know that our new edition and future editions—when you have the sections like "1945 to"—2020 is going to be the end of one section and the beginning of another. This is a kind of world historical moment, for so many reasons. And these inflection points, these crises—economic, public health, so many dimensions of crisis all interrelated—they do create opportunity. We see this in 1932 and 1933: We go from a very laissez-faire 1920s to a very activist 1930s in which progressive ideas have been kicking around progressive circles. [Ideas] being implemented in some cases at the state and local level become implemented at the national level. Not without controversy, but the cumulative effect of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, and then World War II were to fundamentally realign the relationship between the federal government and business and the citizens.

At the local level, obviously, the scale is smaller, and the change is not as dramatic. But I think the other thing that the next mayor of Seattle's going to be working with is in this larger national context of what is going to be happening in national politics, what's going to be happening in state politics. I'd say state and regional politics—this sort of West Coast coalition that's emerged out of Covid-19 is also something to think about, and how they're going to—what opportunities and challenges those are going to create.

In Seattle—I think particularly because so many people in the city are now not from here. I'm not from here, originally—in some ways, our politics becomes nationalized, because it is full of people who are paying a lot of attention to national politics. But this is also true, I think, in other places, too, that all politics is—we've gone from Tip O'Neill's "all politics is local" to all politics is national. And it's very hard to even run for city council in Seattle without in some way aligning yourself with, or being seen to be aligned with, national figures. And that's both a challenge, and I think also an opportunity.

► SD: I would just add that I think as much as we've talked about Seattle being a progressive, Democratic, almost safe haven, I would say, as someone coming from the South, I think that it's really an opportunity to align our city around common values. I think the best candidates run on values. And obviously, the best mayor is going to be someone that I think has a mix of strong values, a vision for the city, and the ability to, like Mike said, really manage and just know that this is a job that—you have to really want the job. But I think it's an opportunity to really bring us together because I would say all of us, whether you live in an apartment on the bus line, or you're by the water, I think we all have values of justice, values of equity, and really want to see our city thrive and want everyone to thrive. So I think it really is an opportunity to bring all those voices to the table and to build a city that we all kind of can believe in.

► MM: That's a really great point, the way in which there are some shared values, being a progressive city or a Democratic city. It's the translation of values into action that the public feels is actually making progress on the values—I think, is one of our biggest challenges here. And the comment that 2020's a turning point: When I was mayor, there was Occupy. There was excessive use of force incidents that led to me negotiating a consent decree with the Department of Justice. Then I could feel the shift that was occurring. And Seferiana got on it with the, even more recently, with the defund movement. That has only gotten stronger today. And the ability of the leadership to really make that shift is one of the biggest challenges.

We have a very different city council than when I was mayor. When I was mayor, seven of the nine council members were backed by the [Seattle Metropolitan] Chamber of Commerce in citywide elections [editor’s note: the chamber supported the elections of six of the nine council members during McGinn’s time as mayor]. They lost that in the last election, they lost that over a series of elections, and then they went in deep to try to win it back with [over] a million dollars from Amazon, which was rejected by the public. They backed the last two mayors; where are they going to go on the next mayor candidate? They need to find someone progressive enough to win but who still wants to play ball with them on some of these big structural issues around taxes and policies. So where will the public go with that? It's fascinating.

I mean, if we have a mayor who's aligned with the city council on some of these big structural issues, we're probably going to start responding. Probably not perfectly, definitely imperfectly, and in a context that's national and problems that are bigger than a city. Or are we going to continue this divided government that we have right now, in which it's somebody else's job to solve our city's problems and what we need to do is protect the biggest employers. I know that sounds like I'm painting a divisive picture. But that has been where the [Seattle Metropolitan] Chamber of Commerce lands is, for the biggest employers, are they going to get taxed more? And that determines who they support. That's the issue they have. And even though we share all these progressive values, unless you start getting at some of these hard choices, we're not going to reach that place of moving forward on some of them. 

► MO: I want to add something that I think doesn't get fully recognized when we talk about the growth of the tech sector, for example. That's been the defining economic story of the last decade, particularly the growth of Amazon, but also the growth of a lot of other large technology companies and small to medium-sized technology companies. And oftentimes, they're seen as kind of aligned with—they're big employers, they're sort of the chamber of commerce. The growth of tech is seen, certainly by a lot of Seattleites, and many members of the city council and other leaders, as problematic, as something that has come with a whole host of problems. The growth of that workforce certainly has brought a lot more people into town who can afford very expensive apartments.

But also these people, when you actually look into it, who are these people, who are the people who are being recruited and working at Amazon? And within the ranks of the tech community, you find a lot of people [who are] opting to come to Seattle for the shared values of Seattle. They are also very concerned about some of these issues that some very progressive citizens and political leaders are also concerned about. Tech is not monolithic. And none of these groups are monolithic. And I think that's right. Again, how can we collectively start thinking, enlarging our frame, and...let's think the tech sector, for example, contains multitudes and includes people who would be very excited to think creatively about increasing density, to increase the supply of affordable housing, for example.

Change is very challenging, particularly if you have a city that you love, either a city that you've lived in your whole life, or a city that you migrated to by choice, if you're lucky enough to do that, or a city that in many ways that's sort of given to you. This has been a time of uncertainty, and will continue to be so. We've got a very challenging decade ahead of us, whether you're a mayor or just an ordinary citizen, in different ways. So I think there's a challenge here to really reframe our thinking, and there's an opportunity for leadership, political leadership, to help citizens and voters think bigger, think differently. And think about change we can believe in, or change that is reflective of those shared values.

It's right to observe that part of the frustration with the city of Seattle or its leadership, its mayor, its city council, comes from people who feel like, I have these values, and my city is not reflecting them. And I see different solutions. Maybe I'm frustrated by, I wish that unhoused people were treated more compassionately and put in housing, but also, I see that the proliferation of unhoused people shows that the city is not reflecting my values, and those values might be progressive ones. It's sort of playing out in very interesting ways. But I'm choosing to look at this moment as an opportunity to think differently. But leadership is very critical to that. Moral leadership, policy leadership makes a huge difference.

► MM: I want to 100 percent endorse a lot of everything, but the comments about the tech workforce is not the tech corporate leadership is really, really true. I mean, that is our strength as a city, is that we are, and that's why Amazon is here. I mean, Microsoft built in Redmond. And a lot of the bigger companies, [including] the telecommunications companies, they built in the suburbs, but they found that they had a hard time attracting employees and where they would open offices in Seattle, [or] where their employees would live here and commute out there. And that's because of the tremendous appeal that cities have. So we have a strength—the idea that Amazon's gonna walk away because of our tax policy. Well, maybe it'll have some effect on the margins. But the reality is, we're this huge—we're so attractive to the people that they want. And that's another major source of the tension we see in the city, is that we're attracting people who want those values and they're not seeing it delivered. And I think the comments that were just made about the public looks at this and says, well, why aren't we getting that?

I think they often go to, well, our leaders simply aren't working together or aren't getting along...I'll lay it on the table. I was attacked as being divisive, right, for not getting along. But the fact is...every mayor and every city council are going to have differences of opinion over what the best policies are. And it's not a character defect that they're arguing over it. They're actually arguing over what's the best policy response to that? So, if I had a message to Seattle voters, yeah, it's frustrating when politicians don't get along to solve the problem. But understand that there are in fact real choices, and how they engage with those choices and express their preferences for them affect the politicians, and will get the politicians to change their behavior.

If all you want is all the politicians to get along, if that's the message you send to them—we wish you would present a veneer of everybody working together collaborativelyyou're kind of papering over the problems until they resurface again. Elected officials are perfectly happy to say to the public, "Hey, don't worry, we all got this. We're all working together. We got the solutions in hand. Don't criticize us. We got a stakeholder group, we got a new regional process going, we got a new 10-year plan to end homelessness. We've got this. Don't worry." That's their incentive to do that as they roll up to their next reelection. But if you don't actually solve the problems, year after year, those underlying problems accumulate until they burst out as they're bursting out now; thousands of people homeless on the street, deep inequity, unaffordable housing, a police department that has fallen out of compliance with the consent decree. We have a court order that they were in contempt for their use of tear gas, and all of this in a progressive city. So you can't just continually trot out important people to say everything's going great if it isn't. 

This is my message to the public: If everybody's agreeing and saying everything's gone great, it isn't. They're not telling you the truth. And you need to dig a little deeper, and try to figure out who's on your side, who isn't on your side, what's the right policy solution. And be willing to embrace the fact that there's going to be some conflict in getting to a resolution of that.


All right. Well, I think that's probably a good point to leave it at. So we got Margaret is not running for mayor. Either of you throwing your hat in the ring?

► SD: [No.]

► MM: Not a chance, man. I've got a great thing at America Walks.

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