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Note: This post has been edited to reflect that Bertha Knight Landes was elected, not appointed, to a two-year term; she was defeated in her reelection bid by a politically unknown man. No other woman has ever been elected mayor of Seattle.
Former US Attorney Jenny Durkan, if elected, will be the first woman elected mayor to a full four-year term in Seattle’s history as well as the first lesbian mayor (Bertha Knight Landes was elected and served for two years nearly a century ago). But ask anyone who pays attention to local politics to describe her in a couple of words and they’ll likely say, “Establishment candidate,” or perhaps, “Ed Murray 2.0.”
Durkan, an early Obama appointee whose work on police accountability helped lead to a Justice Department investigation into allegations of biased policing and excessive use of force at the Seattle Police Department, has a long history of fighting for civil rights and police reform at the federal level. She also has a reputation for being tough on crime, as the attorney who shut down the Colucurcio crime family in Seattle and prosecuted Ahmed Ressam, the wannabe terrorist who trained in Afghanistan and crossed the Canada-US border with materials for a suitcase bomb in 1999. But it’s her status as a member of a wealthy and influential family of Democratic Party players that has earned her the “establishment” label, along with an endorsement from the political arm of the Metropolitan Seattle Chamber of Commerce and a platform that tracks the current mayor’s positions on issues like homelessness, density, and the legality of a city income tax.
I sat down with Durkan last week at Voxx Coffee in downtown Seattle.
The C Is for Crank [ECB]: You mentioned at a recent forum that you agreed with Murray’s decision, early in the process of proposing the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda, to pull back on allowing duplexes and triplexes in single-family zones. You also suggested there should have been more neighborhood input into the final HALA package. What do you think the mayor got right and wrong about HALA?
Jenny Durkan [JD]: I think he landed in mostly the right spot. I think he was dealing with some pretty strong competing interests—from people who wanted affordable housing to people who wanted to keep the neighborhoods the same to developers who said, ‘I have an economic reality myself,’ and I think they struck a pretty good balance. I think the mayor’s decision to pull back that portion of the plan that would have allowed the duplexes and triplexes in single-family zones was the right decision, from a purely political, pragmatic standpoint.
“If people believe in something here in Seattle, we’ll put our money where our mouth is. But the obligation you have as an elected leader is to make sure that you honor that trust, because you want to be able to go back to them and say, ‘You gave us this money for this purpose. Here’s what we’ve done with it.'”
ECB: If the goal was to get more neighborhood buy-in on HALA, it didn’t work—the same people who opposed the plan then seem to all still oppose it now.
JD: That’s true. But I think you could have seen the whole thing unwound. I don’t think you’d have the agreement and the upzones that are going to provide and bring online tens of thousands of new units of affordable housing and create a public fund of additional money that we can use for that purpose. I think it very well could have come unwound and the whole thing would have been gutted, and once you pull that thread and unwind it, you’re back to a process that’s going to last years. We can’t wait years for housing. We just can’t.
ECB: Former mayor Mike McGinn has repeatedly implied that Murray has been profligate with spending on new initiatives during his term, and that the level of spending the city has been doing during the boom may not be sustainable in a downturn. What do you think of that critique—has Murray been a spendthrift?
JD: Here’s what I think is going to be critically important for the new mayor coming in. There has got to be a scrub of where we are in each one of these large levies, some of which are expiring, some of which aren’t, to make sure that we can account for how the money is being spent. I’ve lived in this town for a very long time—I was born and raised here—and I’ve seen many economic downturns. One will happen. And what happens in boom times in Seattle is, people tax themselves. Government starts trying to figure out, how can we push parts of the budget to other areas, and offload what you would normally consider operational costs that a city would do with its core resources into one-time funding.
“What I hear everywhere I go is people want to know, what’s the plan [for homelessness]? I think the city gets in its bunker sometimes and doesn’t communicate loudly or clearly enough to the public at large what the plan is and how it’s going to be measured.”
ECB: Can you give a couple of examples?
JD: Road maintenance. Are we paying for what we’re supposed to be paying for out of the [Move Seattle] levy that we passed [in 2015]? Are we paying for regular maintenance projects that should be coming out of of the general fund? I’m not saying that is what’s happening. but I know what government does is, you start thinking, ‘I need more money today for homeless encampments—where am I going to get it from?’ You’ve got to know what’s there. You’ve got to understand what budgeting mechanisms have been used to carry various parts of the city forward and which of those are sustainable and which of those will expire, and if they expire, how much is it going to cut into your central mission? We have a bunch of big and important levies that are going to start expiring, and the needs haven’t gotten less. They’ve gotten more. But there’s only so much capacity you can have to tax people and to spend it efficiently.
ECB: And yet, as long as I’ve been in Seattle, through downturns and boom times, we’ve always been willing to tax ourselves to pay for our priorities.
JD: I think we’re one of the most generous cities, because if people believe in something here in Seattle, we’ll put our money where our mouth is. But the obligation you have as an elected leader is to make sure that you honor that trust, because you want to be able to go back to them and say, ‘You gave us this money for this purpose. Here’s what we’ve done with it.’ In this region, we’re so lucky, because if people feel like you’re using the money for what you said you were going to use it for, and they can see results, they’ll keep giving you the green light.
ECB: I think one frustration you’re seeing right now is that people feel like they can’t see the results on homelessness, because it’s getting worse. What approach would you take to produce results that would be visible and measurable?
JD: The first thing you have to do is, you have to have an honest and open plan that includes making sure that the service providers are brought to [meet] the current needs of the homeless community and not the needs of 10 or 15 years ago. We have to continue to demand that they meet the standards that we’re setting and that they’re in alignment with not just providing short-term emergency shelter, but that we actually have a path to providing homes.
What I hear everywhere I go is people want to know, what’s the plan? I think the city gets in its bunker sometimes and doesn’t communicate loudly or clearly enough to the public at large what the plan is and how it’s going to be measured. And so I think you have to do that. I think you have to sit down with people, and the next mayor has to come in and say, Where’s our pathway? Now, what are our conclusions? And lay out very clearly, Here’s our framework. Here’s what we’re going to do for these various populations. And make it a strong collaborative effort not just in Seattle, but regionally, because you can’t solve this problem just at the borders of the city.
“It makes no sense that we can have a site where we can have someone come in for a needle exchange, and you hand them the clean needle and you say, ‘Okay, go to the alley. Go to the park. Go to the street where you might OD and die in the middle of the night.’ And you have no access to health care treatment services or even someone to talk to.”
ECB: Since you consider homelessness a regional problem, do you support the regional sales tax that’s supposed to be on the ballot in 2018?
JD: It hasn’t been proposed yet. I support the concept and the need for regional solutions, and I want to look clearly at what is going to be proposed.
ECB: You’ve said that in the Trump era, cities are going to have to figure out how to have local policies that reflect our values, and a local tax to address homelessness would seem to fit right into that.
JD: I think it’s a likely solution. But if you read the Poppe Report, in one reading, it says we have the resources we need—we just don’t have them arrayed in the right direction. But if you listen to people, not just here in Seattle but in the surrounding areas, it’s clear that if we have them, they’re not being utilized on a regional basis. So I think it’s possible that we need more resources, but I think we always jump to, ‘We need to support a tax.’
ECB: Barb Poppe has said herself that she thinks we need to spend more on our response to homelessness. And her report was talking mostly about shelter—the contention was that Seattle could get everybody under some kind of roof for the night, not that we could provide permanent housing for everyone without additional funds.
JD: Correct. And then you have the big component that’s not accounted for, which is mental health treatment dollars and addiction treatment, because you never will come close to addressing this need if you don’t have resources there. As you know, most of the money for treatment flows through the county and the shelter money flows through the city, and there’s never been a coordinated response to say, ‘Okay, what are we getting from that stream of money, and what more do we need to do to provide meaningful treatment and what are the other places where you can intercede?’ I think there could be much greater coordination between the city and the county. Because there are pretty clear and established pathways to homelessness and we have to have a holistic view in terms of not just getting people off the streets but preventing them from ending up there in the first instance.
“A friend that I’ve known for 20, 30 years—he’s a guy who’s on his feet 10 hours a day, working, working, working—finally was able to buy a duplex down in Georgetown four years ago, and for him, these laws had a huge impact.”
ECB: What would that holistic view include? Access to treatment on demand, including rehab? Because that gets very expensive very quickly.
JD: It’s very expensive. That’s why I say we as a society do not spend enough money on mental health services and addiction treatment. If you’re a poor person who has a problem with addiction, your ability to get meaningful treatment or access to treatment is marginal at best. One of the reasons our opiate addition problem has increased so much is that there just aren’t the [treatment] alternatives, and there are a lot of other barriers. Opioid addiction is one of the hardest addictions to really treat. Someone can start treatment, and they’ll drop out. And they’ll start again, and they’ll drop out. It take several efforts, usually, to keep anyone in any kind of sustained sobriety. And so we really suffer as a society, because we treat addiction as a moral failing or a personal failing. It’s not. It’s a health care problem, and it is one of the most misunderstood health care problems that we have in our society. There are so many other problems we have that we end, as taxpayers, paying for, so it’s not just the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do.
ECB: Do you support the idea of a supervised drug-consumption site?
JD: Here’s what I think. We have a huge injectable heroin problem in this city. You go to any city park, alley, street, or neighborhood in any part of the city and you can see that it’s there. The battle and the discussions we’re having now almost mirror exactly the debates around safe needle sites. I mean it is the same arguments: ‘Its legitimizes heroin.’ ‘It’s saying it’s okay to shoot up.’ It’s not. It was harm reduction and this is a harm reduction measure now. It makes no sense that we can have a site where we can have someone come in for a needle exchange, and you hand them the clean needle and you say, ‘Okay, go to the alley. Go to the park. Go to the street where you might OD and die in the middle of the night.’ And you have no access to health care treatment services or even someone to talk to. It is not a solution standing by itself, but I think it is part of a humane health care solution for dealing with a very real problem.
ECB: To take that example one step further, Vancouver is experimenting with providing heroin to some people with opiate addiction, which also reduces the risk of overdose from synthetic adulterants like fentanyl. Should we try that here?
JD: I don’t think a city can do that. I think you would just end up shutting down your possibility of having a health care solution. But what we do need to have is more access to methadone, to bupe [buprenorphine, a drug that reduces cravings and prevents withdrawal symptoms] , and to Narcan [an overdose-reversal drug] in every facility. One of the things that was said [at a community forum] last night that I think is true is that Narcan is kind of like the CPR of today. We’ve done a good job of distributing it to our first responders but we need to think about what are other places where we need to have that available and making sure people know how to use it. One of the [positive] things about having a monitored consumption site is that there is a health care professional on site who can make sure that someone doesn’t die, and who can give them information about treatment alternatives.
ECB: You said recently that you’re skeptical that a citywide income tax would be legal. Can you elaborate on why you think it might not be, and would you pursue it further if elected?
JD: If I could wave my wand, we would have a statewide income tax tomorrow.
ECB: OK, you don’t have a wand.
JD: Nobody does, but that’s what they’re trying to do, is wave a wand.
Look: I think if there’s a time to make s test case, now’s the time to do it. I am not persuaded that the legal landscape has changed. You have two barriers. The first is the RCW, the state law that prohibits cities from establishing an income tax. Then you have the state constitution, and in multiple cases, the [Washington State] Supreme Court has held that an income tax is unconstitutional. People think the makeup of our state Supreme Court might change that second outcome, but you still have to get around the first one. I’m skeptical that it will meet the legal test. I’m not skeptical that we need different kinds of funding. We cannot continue as a city, region, or state to fund the things we need to fund on the tax system we have in place.
ECB: Some landlords have claimed that new renter protections, which bar landlords from refusing to rent to people because of their source of income and provide more time for tenants to pay all the up-front expenses of moving in to a new apartment, will put them out of business. Do you support those tenant protections?
JD: On [Section 8 housing voucher discrimination, you absoluately shouldn’t be able to do it. If a person otherwise is a suitable tenant, the fact that you wouldn’t take them because they’re poor is wrong.
On some of the other tenant protections, I think that these issues are real. There are incredible barriers for renters. But I also think we have to look at the landlords. A friend that I’ve known for 20, 30 years—he’s a guy who’s on his feet 10 hours a day, working, working, working—finally was able to buy a duplex down in Georgetown four years ago, and for him, these laws had a huge impact. He does okay, but it’s also his retirement [income]. What if you rent to someone and they don’t have to [immediately] come up with a security deposit, and they trash it in that first 30 days and leave? You then have nothing to fix it with. If you’re just a person who’s renting out the other side of your duplex, you feel lot more than the large property owner.
So seeing what the impacts are on these landlords and listening to them is going to be important to make sure that there aren’t these unintended consequences. There’s now becoming a gray market, where people just won’t post [rental listings], and they’ll only [rent] to people they know, and that’s going to shrink available stock too. So I think you have to look at what it’s doing to the market, what it’s doing to the small owners. But the concept of making rental housing affordable for people—absolutely.