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Former US attorney Jenny Durkan has been pigeonholed—unfairly, she says—as the “conservative” candidate in the race for mayor, where “conservative” is a term broad enough to include a longtime activist for LGBT causes, former Obama appointee, and advocate for supervised drug consumption sites. She’s caught flak for her style (too stiff and inauthentic, some say), her views on homelessness (more conservative than ex-mayor Ed Murray’s, by some measures) and her tendency to respond to questions in elliptical, lawyerly soundbites (many of which have been edited out of this interview, because nobody wants to read those.) As the candidate with the support of Seattle’s business establishment (as well as most of the local labor groups), she’s also widely considered the frontrunner in the race, and has enjoyed a large spending advantage over her opponent Cary Moon—in addition to outraising Moon in absolute dollars ($727,689 to Moon’s $231,331, of which $111,521 is Moon’s own money), a business backed political action committee, People for Jenny Durkan, has raised $124,600 so far for an independent-expenditure campaign on Durkan’s behalf.
I sat down with Durkan in September.
The C Is for Crank [ECB]: There has been a lot of talk by candidates this year about revisiting the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda, particularly the amount of affordable housing developers should have to provide and whether single-family areas should be opened up to other types of development, like duplexes and row houses. Would you revisit any part of the HALA agreement?
JD: I never use the word ‘revisit.’ I think it is absolutely clear that we cannot bring on board the number of affordable housing units we need without the private sector participating strongly, and the only way you’re to do that is through a series of incentives. So I think we have to keep the part of HALA that is going to give us the ability to bring on more affordable housing, and as we roll it out, we have to make sure that there aren’t unintended consequences—that we aren’t impacting neighborhoods, communities, or families in ways that we didn’t think about.
I think we just have to make sure that we are looking at it how we implement it and make sure it makes sense. We’re getting two, three, four, five years away from when the deal was made and the marketplace is growing. So have we gotten that ratio of required housing and public benefit for housing right, or is there more room there? Should we have transportation impact fees? Should we have park impact fees? We don’t want to kill the development, because there’s no question that we’re going to get more dense, but as we do that, can we squeeze out of that growth the benefits we need [such as] affordable housing [and] transit-oriented development?
ECB: Do you think Murray made the wrong decision by taking a proposal to allow duplexes and other modest density in single-family areas off the table, and would you revisit that decision?
JD: I think it was the smart thing politically to pull that off the table, because I think the whole thing would have collapsed if the mandatory [affordable housing] fees collapsed. We would not have the resources to bring on anywhere near the affordable housing we need. To pull the rug out from under the deal and be left with nothing—it would have crushed us as city.
ECB: Murray also cut ties with the neighborhood district councils, which prompted quite a backlash from single-family homeowners who say their views are no longer being heard at City Hall. Would you restore city funding and support for those groups?
JD: I would have neighborhood councils. They’d be configured differently, but I think we suffer way too much from top-down right now, and part of the reason there is so much anxiety in neighborhoods and communities is the city has quit listening to the neighborhoods’ needs. I’ll give you an example. I was down in Rainier Beach the other day and I spent several hours with the community and youth down there, because when I was US Attorney, I’d helped them get a grant for youth violence prevention, and I wanted to get updated on what’s working and what’s not working. And they’ve done amazing things. Even with the huge amount of displacement, the increased violence, the deaths they’d seen, the community is fighting to maintain its place.
“What I hear from West Seattle, Ballard, Greenwood, Capitol Hill—everyone feels like they’re not being listened to, and I think you have to do that. Government exists to serve the people.”
But they’re not getting the help they need from the city, because the city has quit listening to them. From the activists to the kids, you will hear, ‘We think we’ve figured out a path out for youth violence prevention, for activating our corners, for having corner greeters, for empowering businesses, for helping bring business back here. I think that the support the city had historically given them has eroded. You can’t do neighborhood work from city hall. While you have to have a vision and policy that works for the whole city and move people beyond some of their own vested interests, you also have to listen to what they think the solutions are for their own communities and neighborhoods.
ECB: So did Murray’s decision to take some power away from the neighborhood councils make that harder?
JD: No, again, I really want to make clear that I don’t want to talk in terms of, ‘Do you agree with what Ed did?’ I’m telling you what I would do. I think you have to have a very vibrant Department of Neighborhoods that works with people in communities and listens to people and talks to people. As I understand it, in some neighborhoods, it became the same people showing up all the time, so it was a very limited spectrum of voices. My view is, the answer is not to shut down those voices—the answer is to bring more people in. Maybe not at the same room at the same time, but you can have more meetings at different times. You can have virtual meetings. You reach out in all the ways you can to get more voices in. What I hear from West Seattle, Ballard, Greenwood, Capitol Hill—everyone feels like they’re not being listened to, and I think you have to do that. Government exists to serve the people.
ECB: Opponents of supervised drug consumption sites have filed an initiative to ban the sites throughout King County. What’s your take on that lawsuit, and do you think Seattle will ever actually get a supervised-consumption site?
JD: I think the city of Seattle should consider joining that suit and challenge it in their own right. [Ed: Since our conversation, the city has expressed its intent to join the lawsuit.]
[Beyond that,] I don’t think they have the ability to stop the city from doing what it wants. If I’m mayor, we’re going to go ahead [with a supervised consumption site] and we’ll take the legal challenge, because the city of Seattle does not depend on King County for its rights. It has its own statutory rights, and one of those is to decide what it needs to do for the public health and safety of its people.
There’s no question in my mind that consumption sites are something we need to have as part of the health care response to a health crisis on our streets. Right now, we’re in a place where we give clean needles to people and tell them, ‘Go use it in the car, in the doorways, in the parks.’ It makes no sense. And for me, what’s most important is, if you read the task force recommendations, it’s not just a place where people can go and use drugs. It is a place where there will be health care workers, where they may get hooked up with addiction services and counseling and treatment. It may not ‘take’ the first time, the third time, the fifth time, the tenth time, but for somebody, it might eventually work, and that’s what we have to provide them, is that option. And they will never get it if they’re in the doorway or on the street corner.
“I think it was the smart thing politically to pull [allowing duplexes and row houses in single-family areas] off the table, because I think [HALA] would have collapsed.”
Right now, it’s being portrayed in such an unfair way. People might be surprised that a former federal prosecutor would say we should do this, but what is the alternative? I live downtown right now. My partner and I went out to dinner the night before last. In a three-block walk, we saw three different homeless people shooting up heroin, three who probably just had, and a couple of people looking to score. That’s in three blocks! What we’re doing right now is not working, and what we did in the ’90s didn’t work. I was in the front row. I was a criminal defense lawyer and saw that the war on drugs was really a war on addicts, and that’s who we locked up. And if we don’t have public health response to this crisis, we will end up in the same bad place. So we have to try things that are different. Will it work perfectly? Absolutely not. Is one site enough? Of course it’s not. But we have to show that there can be a different response that might work for some people some of the time.
ECB: Do you think the city has been moving in the right direction on homelessness, in terms of both encampment sweeps and the way the city spends its service dollars?
JD: I think what we’ve been doing on homelessness isn’t working. I think we have not done some of the really hard things we have to do to really move the dial. Number one is, we have to get real and we have to get forward-leaning on addiction services and mental health services.
I think the Navigation Teams are a mechanism for trying something different, and I think that from all the reports I’ve heard, from people who’ve been working with them, they’ve had some good successes. In my view, we have to get people out of tents and into treatment. When I talk to the various providers and the people working with the homeless, their estimates are that a significant majority of the hard-core chronic homeless are suffering either from mental illness, drug problems, or a combination of the two.
ECB: You’ve opposed opening up the police union contracts to observation and participation by the public. Given that the police department is still under a federal consent decree and the police union has been reluctant to institute reforms, why do you oppose opening up the contracts, and what would you do to increase transparency at SPD?
JD: There is no question, with Trump as president and the Janus decision coming down, that the right-to-work forces are going to be emboldened and they’re going to be coming after workers’ rights. In that context, I think it is irresponsible for anyone to say, ‘Let’s do their work for them and open up collective bargaining.’
Second, I’ve tried to talk to [reform advocates] and say, ‘Okay, what parts of police reform are they not doing because it’s against their contract?’ And the answer I’ve gotten back is, ‘Nothing.’ So the question of whether we can see what they’re bargaining is separate from the question of whether they’re doing it and if it’s effective. Going into police reform, we had a list of things we had to do, and so it wasn’t a question about, were they going to do them? A judge was ordering them to do it. So then the only part we aren’t seeing is what are we going to pay them to do it. And that all comes out when the city council has to vote on it, so there is more transparency than people think there is. My question would be, what things do people feel they don’t know?
“I’ve tried to talk to [reform advocates] and say, ‘Okay, what parts of police reform are they not doing because it’s against their contract?’ And the answer I’ve gotten back is, ‘Nothing.’ So the question of whether we can see what they’re bargaining is separate from the question of whether they’re doing it and if it’s effective.”
ECB: One thing we don’t know might be whether the city is going to pay cops a huge bonus just for wearing body cameras, for example.
JD: But we will know that when the contract gets presented and has to be voted on. We’re not in the room, but we set out the guiding principles—which I think the public has a right to do—and we see things that are going to be in the contract. Once we have the inspector general stood up, once we have the [Community Police Commission] more fully staffed, part of their function is going to be setting what those goals and policies are going to be. There will be transparency into that, because their job is to bring in the voices of the community and to report back. So we have built in already, I think, the ability to have more transparency, and I think some people just aren’t aware of it.
ECB: If the issue isn’t the police contract, then why do you think we’re stalled on police reform?
JD: I actually don’t think we’re stalled on police reform. I think we’re stalled on implementing some of the ordinances that I think will give greater civilian accountability. [Ed: The city can’t implement police-reform legislation until Judge James Robart signs off on the proposed reforms.] In terms of what’s actually happening on the ground—de-escalation policies, crisis intervention training, body cams—it’s all moving forward.
ECB: If that’s true, then how do you explain incidents where de-escalation training clearly didn’t work, like the shooting of Charleena Lyles?
JD: The Charleena Lyles thing shows us that reform is never done. Since the changes [requiring SPD officers to go through crisis intervention training], significant uses of force are down 60 percent in three years. That’s amazing. Charleena Lyles was a horrible, horrible crisis. I think we failed her as a society in so many ways even before the police got to the door. She had been living on the street, and she got into housing, but clearly still had issues with domestic violence, mental health issues, a single mom, and from what I can tell from the public record, about the only time she got provided services was when she was arrested and in jail. That’s the only time we as a society did anything for her. And so we have to change that equation where, if we are going to get people off the street and into housing, we also have to provide them the social services, the network, the support that they need day to day.
ECB: Your opponent has said she’ll expedite Sound Transit delivery to Ballard and West Seattle by loaning Sound Transit funds to build those segments more quickly. What would you do to help Seattle get its final two segments of light rail faster?
JD: The way we can best speed up ST3 is through accelerating the siting process. That’s the longest lead time that you have in these megaprojects, and we unfortunately tend to do those things very sequentially—environmental impact statement, community input, three different site alternatives, then SDOT weighs in… We can’t afford to do that. If I’m mayor, we’re going to try to do things, instead of sequentially, in collaboration. We know where the lines are going and there’s only so many locations that the transit stations can go. Let’s start doing the process now. Let’s not wait for all the alternatives. Let’s start engaging the noisy neighborhoods and the community voices now, and start having that robust dialogue. If you wait for two years, three years to engage, then you getting those intractable fights that seem to delay things forever. With these big projects, if you let them get away from you, they will get away from you. If you deal them at the beginning, you can impact how long they take.