Unchained by a damaging sex abuse scandal that removed incumbent Ed Murray from a powerful pole position, 21 candidates are vying this summer to be the next mayor of modern-day Pacific Northwest boomtown Seattle, Washington. Of those 21, only two will survive the first round cut from the August 1st primary. CHS may be on a summer news break but we couldn’t resist opportunities to talk with the candidates most likely to be on the mind of Capitol Hill voters in the coming weeks: Jenny Durkan, Nikkita Oliver, Cary Moon, Bob Hasegawa, Mike McGinn, and Jessyn Farrell. The interviews were conducted in recent weeks at locations across the city including coworking spaces, campaign offices, and a diner. The talks varied but revolved around a core set of Seattle issues: Black Lives Matter, affordability, addiction, and homelessness. We have edited the conversations for clarity and length.
“If you look at the real data, there’s no question that it has improved, dramatically…”
The first Q&A in our series is with former U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan, perceived by many to be the likely frontrunner after the August tally. The polished prosecutor was guarded but repeated her strong support for the police reform process at SPD in the wake of the Charleena Lyles killing, said neighborhoods should have more control over affordability-focused rezoning, and weighed in on homeless sweeps saying unsanctioned encampments “are not a moral choice.” The full conversation is below. You can learn more at jennyforseattle.com. View all CHS Jenny Durkan coverage here.
Durkan: When I was in high school, I played in the state basketball playoffs, and I went to a very small high school, I was the center. That gives you some idea. And our coach got sick, so I was player-coach, and we played Chimacum. Oh man, they grew those girls big there.
CHS: I bet, I bet. People used to say that about my hometown. I’m from a small town and all the city kids used to make fun of our town, ’cause they were like, we were supposedly the big, dumb country kids.
Durkan: Big but not dumb.
CHS: Let’s move on to larger things. You are a champion of the Seattle police reform process, you’ve said many positive things about it.
But with the Charleena Lyles shooting, and maybe even especially the community’s reaction to it. Has that changed your view at all on the progress that’s been made? Has that put it into a new light?
Durkan: I think that we have to remember that reform is a process, and I have been clear to say from the minute we announced our investigation to when we announced the consent decree, that a police department has to always improve and get better. And the key to police reform was looking at those data on use of force. We found 70% of the time the police were using force in an 18-month period. They used it against someone who was in mental health or under the influence of drugs and alcohol. 70% of the time. So that’s why so much of the focus was on crisis intervention, and created a crisis intervention committee to say, “Okay, what is the training that we need top to bottom for police, so that they can have a better working relationship on the streets with people in crisis.” Revamped how they were trained, how dispatch was trained so they’re listening for clues and can dispatch the right people to it.
And if you look at the real data, there’s no question that it has improved, dramatically. The number of times the police officer have used force, since the consent decree was in place and the new training, has dropped dramatically. The number of times that they used it against people who were in crisis significantly less, and in most of those times, it’s what’s called Type 1 Force, the most minimal, just touching, which is a far different picture than when we started. So the improvements are un-disputable. What I think people had not focused on, and we have to be very cognizant that people understand, is reform is a process that urgently must be ongoing. You don’t stop with reform, you have to learn with every incident and unfortunately, with every tragedy, and make sure that you have done things, not just in how you… Training says, but was your training right? Have the circumstances changed? You have to have that kind of courage to look and to improve.
CHS: So why don’t you think that the community is seeing that?
Durkan: Yeah, I think it’s a couple of things. One is, and first, before we… Another positive about reform that also has led to the negatives, is we are learning so much about what happened because of the transparencies required by reform. Before reform, and if there was a police officer involved shooting, it went to what was called the Firearms Review Board, which was a completely closed process, with no oversight by the federal monitor. And the investigators who reported to them was just the homicide team that would be called out to the squad, or the incident. That changed completely. We now have a new Force Investigation Team that is a cross dimensional team. They’re trained specifically in these major incidents. They rule. The public gets access to data on a much quicker basis and the monitor is checking the investigation, and therefore, the federal judge, to make sure it’s going. So, we’re learning more, specifically because of the reforms, and we will have changes because of the reforms.
I think the reason that the public is more skeptical, is for a range of reasons. Number one, it’s incredible tragedy. You know, that a mother in front of her children could die in those ways is awful. Two, we have long-standing systemic problems in this country between police and communities of color. Those are not gonna change overnight. They need to see real change in their real neighborhoods and in their incidents and their interactions with police. Third, I don’t think the city has done as good a job as it could in reaching back in to the communities to talk to them about what improvements have been made and how they’re working. Is it changing how they feel it’s working on the street? One of the unfortunate things was the report of the monitor that showed these very positive trend lines came out the same day that the mayor’s lawsuit. And so it got lost in the shuffle, and no one ever went back to pick it up and bring it back.
I think that’s one reason why the CPC (Community Police Commission) is so important. Their role is not just to give a voice to the communities in police oversight, but their job is also to bring that information back to communities, give them the facts, and learn what can be improved. So I’m not surprised that people found it very, very troubling, I did, but I don’t think we should take it as a sign that we failed. I think we should take it as a sign that, at least, on police reform, I think it’s a sign that we still can do better.
“We as a society failed Charleena Lyles before those cops ever hit her door”
Durkan: But I will say, we as a society failed Charleena Lyles before those cops ever hit her door. This is a woman who was homeless, who was moved into one of the better programs we have in the city but she was still struggling with the fact that she had mental health problems, she was a victim of domestic violence, she was struggling to raise three kids by herself, four kids, one of them developmentally disabled. Last time she was arrested, she spent 11 days in jail, which is an astronomically long time to spend in jail for what those charges were. So we have to do better so that cops never have to come to the doors of Charleena Lyles. Because when people move in, and when we get them to housing, they have adequate support for mental health or addiction problems.
CHS: Let’s talk about the mood of the city as a whole. We’re being compared to San Francisco, the most successful West Coast city in lots of ways, and yet people are afraid of getting there. So what’s going on in Seattle? Why are we afraid of our success? Why are people bummed out and so disappointed about what has happened in what’s really good times?
Durkan: I think our country is in the midst of transformative change. I think the technology revolution surpasses what the industrial revolution did in the way it will change society. I think you’re seeing the impacts of that playing out right here in Seattle in a significant way. Most of the angst that we’re feeling right now, as a city, can almost be directly correlated to growth and the change in economy. We have unprecedented growth, and with that growth comes influx of people. Many of those people are compensated more because they’re with the tech companies and are gobbling up housing alternatives, whether it’s buying or renting. And so, many people who don’t have those access are getting locked out of the city. They can’t afford to buy here, they can’t afford to rent. At the same time, this growth is changing the very fabric and texture of the city. Neighborhoods are first identified as affordable, then they get gentrified, and then the people who are living in it get displaced, and you see that happening particularly through the Central District in Rainier Valley. And so, people start getting very anxious when a city is changing before their eyes, when they feel that they are being left behind, they feel that they are either locked out or can never get a toehold in the city.
Then you have the very palpable and real crisis playing out on the streets, of homelessness. And so, you look at the top issues kind of facing the next mayor coming in, and it’s homelessness, affordability, a housing crisis, and how we are gonna manage our growth over the next generation in conjunction with transit, and what will the city look like in 20 years. And all of those are that we are just in this very transformative time. And it makes people anxious because they wanna know that they can still be a part of the city and that their kids can be a part of the city.
CHS: I agree with a lot of that, and it’s a lot of the things that we’re seeing on Capitol Hill. I know where you live has become an issue this campaign, I don’t know how big an issue it is, but what are you seeing in your part of Seattle, in your neighborhood, as far as…
Durkan: It’s very funny. Every part of Seattle… I view the city very differently now than before I announced for mayor.
Everywhere I walk and drive and hang out, I now see it through the eyes as if you’re just… You know when you go visit a city, and you see it for the first time, the smells, the feels? That’s how I see Seattle now, is where are we for that first impression, where are we if you’re the mayor and you’re responsible for how this neighborhood looks, is the trash getting picked up or are there homeless in the street, do they need more services, is it clean. All the range of the issues, that’s kind of the lens I see it now.
And, again, I think we’re in a real point of transition. You still have really vibrant neighborhoods. But I’ve been taking walking tours of the various neighborhoods. I did Capitol Hill, Ballard, Pioneer Square, I try to do at least one or two a week. And I hear the same thing every time I go. People are anxious. Small business owners don’t know whether they’re gonna be able to stay, they’re getting displaced quickly.
And that’s what gives neighborhoods their character. I mean, not only do they provide a huge amount of jobs in our city, but everyone’s got their favorite that they go to, whether it’s the bar or the barbershop or the restaurant, or the… You know? And we gotta keep that…
CHS: So, any more personal exposure, then, to the HALA process and some of the rezone concerns? What’s happening close to you? What are you hearing from your neighbors?
Durkan: Here’s what I hear from both my neighbors and from every neighborhood I go in, is three things. First, “Nobody talked to us. Why doesn’t somebody come and talk to us about this?” And I think there’s some fair criticism to that. Two, “We love our neighborhood. We’re not a total NIMBY. We’re willing to take steps, but we just want to make sure that we’re able to maintain some character of community,” and what does that look like? And three, “Nobody gets up and walks the neighborhood with the proposed upzone with the neighbors to say, “Oh, I get now why you think you can’t have that 14-story apartment building here, but if we moved it over there, it’d be okay.” So, I think we gotta… I think that as we implement it, I think there has to be a safety valve to have more engagement with the neighborhoods on the whole zoning process.
“I think it’s a false dichotomy to pit homeowners against renters”
CHS: That does not sound, though, like my friends and the folks that I write about who are renting. That sounds… their questions about the development are completely different. Their concerns about not being heard are more about, “We were heard. We’ve participated in these processes where we’ve said things about needing more housing, and it’s still being overpowered by homeowners.” And I’m curious to know, what would you say to the apartment dweller?
Durkan: See, I think it’s a false dichotomy to pit homeowners against renters.
CHS: Why do you think that’s a false dichotomy?
Durkan: Because I just don’t think it reflects the political reality of where we are and where we’re headed.
CHS: I don’t know what that means.
Durkan: I think it means that if you look right now, the number of units that are coming on line, not enough, but we have thousands being built right now. Most of them pay market rent, and market rent means probably not affordable for most middle-income people, let alone low-income. So what we have to really focus on is, how do we make sure that we are building enough affordable housing, and when I say affordable, I mean from everyone who’s got good wage jobs down to middle-class to low-income jobs. How are we building that in every part of the city and in conjunction with where we’re gonna put transit?
We’re going to spend billions of dollars adding to our transit capacity here. We want people to be able to not take their cars to work. We want them to be able to live near the transit system, and we want those areas to be vibrant enough that you have small businesses, low-income, middle-income, and market rate housing. That has traditionally been kind of the models we’ve tried to build in the city, sometimes with greater success than others. But I think we have to maintain that model and insist upon it moving forward. And so the question is not necessarily, “Will there be big swaths of land that escape growth?” You can’t, the numbers are too big. It’s how we do it.
CHS: So, should the city take a…
Durkan: And we need more green space.
CHS: More green space, more parks.
Durkan: More parks.
CHS: I was thinking about building houses in the parks, Cal Anderson’s part of it’s already been settled this summer for you guys.
So should the city play a bigger role in building housing in this city? It feels like something’s missing. It feels like, to me, it seems like we’ve all kind of… We gel on the general message, “Okay, we need more housing and we need it quickly.” But I think, then, the part of the recipe that’s not clear, among the candidates especially is, “Okay then, how are we going about that?” Some have said, “Well, we should be more active in building it.” Do you think that the city should be developing its own housing?
Durkan: We do, but we only have… You know, the city’s resources are limited to solve this problem, and I think that’s…
CHS: But so is the state’s, we’re hosed…
Durkan: Right, but I think… That’s right, but I think that’s why… [chuckle]
CHS: Sorry, but who’s gonna build this?
Durkan: That’s why HALA was key. HALA’s not perfect, but there’s no way we can bring on enough housing units without the participation of developers. We just can’t do it. And so, you had to find a way, what could you do to get them to help solve this crisis? And what you had to do was provide them something, and they provided a benefit back. And so the whole kind of premise of HALA was, they have a right to go so high, depending on what the zoning is, and that’s vested. State law is clear. So if you want them to do more, you gotta give them more, and that was the premise of HALA.
CHS: The grand bargain.
Durkan: The grand bargain.
CHS: Would you keep that branding?
Durkan: No, I think what we have to do is make sure that, as this is implemented, we’re getting the benefits that were promised, because things always… You know, you can devise a system in a room, that when it’s implemented on the streets has a very different feel or look.
CHS: Should we do that bonus round now? Are you ready for some bonus round quick stuff?
Durkan: Oh yeah.
CHS: Let’s just bounce off a bunch of good ol’ lefty liberal issues here and see what it gets us. Where are you on safe injection sites?
Durkan: I’m in favor of it as long as it’s as described in the Opiate Task Force, which is a holistic approach. So that in the safe injection site, there’s actually a healthcare provider, should something go wrong. There’s links to real treatment, because the goal for all of this should be to try to move people from heroin addictions or whatever injectable, to treatment, to sobriety.
CHS: In general, the idea has been very popular on Capitol Hill. I think when it comes to siting…
Durkan: Well, that’s gonna be the real challenge, right?
CHS: And that’s why I would never want to be mayor, but you could do it.
Durkan: The debate we’re having around safe injection sites, you know, is very similar to the debate about needle exchange programs when they were first implemented. People said we’re sanctioning heroin, it’s not that you are, it’s that you don’t want people to die. And it makes no sense to me that you would have a needle exchange program say, “Here’s your needle. Now go use it in the park, in the doorway, in the tent, in the streets.” There’s other public safety risks that go with that.
CHS: How about municipal broadband?
Durkan: Well, here’s what I care about. I care that in this change in economy that we described, that everybody has access to the highway. And right now, that’s not the case. There’s still large swaths of our community that either can’t afford or the type of service that is provided isn’t as good as it should be. But that’s changing rapidly in the private market. I think we’ve gotta look at, we’ve got a lot of things we gotta spend our money on, and the estimates of what it would cost to build out a public broadband are very high. And the other cities that have done it, including Tacoma, are going into the red on it. So I think that we have to… You know, what we may have to do is hold those who are providing broadband more accountable. But I think we’d look at it, but it’s not of highest priority right now for public dollars.
“I think I’m the only candidate running for mayor who’s actually represented kids who’ve had to appear in that facility”
CHS: Alright, alright. Again, shifting topics completely, the new youth jail. It’s a big deal for our area just from a neighborhood issue. How do you see what Seattle is doing around the youth jail? How do we fix this?
Durkan: I think I’m the only candidate running for mayor who’s actually represented kids who’ve had to appear in that facility. That was decades ago, and it was horrible then. There is no question that that facility, as it exists, is unfit for its purpose, and almost as importantly, it screams “detention, incarceration, punishment.” So, another unfortunate fact is we actually have people who are under the age of majority, juveniles, who commit very serious crimes and have to be incarcerated, somewhere. So we have to keep them somewhere. So the new facility is, I think, not fit for purpose and needs to be removed.
We need a new facility. I think the question is what that new facility should be. I think it should reflect more of our criminal justice reform ethos. It should be a place where there are holistic family supports, where kids who maybe are pushing up against where they could then be the next kid that commits a very violent crime have access to meaningful counseling and support services, including mental health or addiction services. Or moms who are struggling to give their kids the direction they want and need support can get it, where dads can too. So I think we need a facility that really is a family justice center, and not just a jail.
CHS: So, it sounds like you’d say it’s basically, not to be too reductionist here, but basically the county’s new path around it probably is as close to being back, or on a better track, because the county would say that they have reshaped the vision around it to be more like you’ve described.
Durkan: I think that they’re on that path, and I think that the job of the city is to help insist that that happens. You know a lot of the… Large percentage of the juveniles who are taken to any juvenile detention facility in the county are from Seattle. And so we have the ability to both affect how it operates and make sure that it’s done, what’s done in a way that we approve of.
CHS: Okay. Back to affordability, rent control, and maybe even beyond. Are there any levers, for rent control that we can actually put in place to put the brakes on this?
Durkan: I think a couple of things. One, as mayor, I would like our city to have the ability to give property tax breaks to those landlords that are actually providing affordable housing. I know people, and I’m sure you know people, who have been in the same place for a while. As property taxes go up, suddenly rents are being jacked up. I just was talking to someone this morning, rent went up $300 a month, almost not quite double but… I wanna be able to say to landlords, “Okay, I tell you what. You keep your rents affordable, we’re gonna freeze or lower your property taxes. And if you then jack up your rents, your property taxes are going up too, and you’re gonna have to pay back property taxes.” So I think you want that tool, I think you look at, we already have some rent subsidies, and you look at whether you increase those for people. I think the rapid re-housing for the homeless is one area where there’s rent subsidies that haven’t worked, so we need to look at that. I’ve been trying to read as much as I can about what has worked and not worked in other urban areas, because I don’t think we should reinvent the wheel every time. Rent control has not proven to get the benefits that we’re after. It may, it sometimes provides short-term relief, but over the medium and long-term, tends to fail. So I think we have to look for more durable options than that.
CHS: We haven’t talked too much about homelessness. I’ve been surprised there wasn’t stronger reaction to the cleanup around I-5 and the I-90 Interchange, in the, basically, the edge of The Jungle. It’s amazing, there is giant fence there now, and it is incredible to see the change and how dramatic that sweep was. So what’s the future of homelessness in Seattle look like? And is it like that, is it cleaning up in these kind of very tall fences and those things? What can we do that’s like that or not like that, to make this a more humane city?
Durkan: And humane’s the exact right word. I think that whatever we do, our approach has to be grounded in deep compassion, a sense of respect and humanity. We’re dealing with the most vulnerable people in a city that is has, probably one of the best economic times it’s ever had, and yet we have these economic refugees. But people end up on the street for varying reasons, it manifests itself in the same thing. They lack a home. And I think what it looks like in the future is, we are much more intentional about providing short-term shelter that is really geared to the homeless community of today. And that means low barriers, so that they can, not have to check in at 5:00, have chow, and be back on the street at 7:00. It means that they can perhaps be there with family members, where they have a loved one, or kids, or just someone. It means there’s a place to store your things.
But the number one goal, from the housing side of it, has to be that the shelter part of it is as short-term as possible and the home part of it starts as soon as possible. And that only happens if we fix this affordable housing part of it, because right now, they’re… You know, I’ve been working with and talking to as many people as I can, both the housing advocates and the homeless providers. We simply don’t have enough alternatives right now for homeless to move into that’s affordable in the city, and so people, too many people, are stuck in the shelter system. So we need to make sure that that shelter system itself is better and delivers better services, and services more geared to what the population is today, but that also is helping move those people and prepare them for longer term housing. And then the piece that is completely missing from, as a cohesive factor, is we gotta marry it up with mental health treatment and drug and alcohol treatment. Now I was talking to one of the outreach workers for Union Gospel Mission. And I said, “Tell me… ” You know, they’re in the encampments and under the bridges all day every… That’s what they do.
And I said, “So what… You know, you say you know most of the people who are still on the streets. What percentage of them do you think have drug addiction problems?” His estimate, 85%. I don’t know if that’s high, but my guess is it’s somewhere above north of 70%. If we don’t deal with that issue, homelessness will not change. And you saw that with the mental health part of it, with Charleena Lyles. This woman was struggling. So homes are critical, but we gotta have those underpinning social services.
CHS: But what are your thoughts on sweeps and cleanups? I feel, in some ways, like the business pressure on some of the things that happen close to downtown, wasn’t humane. It feels, to me, like a rush because there was a desire to clean up. And what can we do about that?
Durkan: Yeah. Here’s what I think. I think the idea of a sweep, treating people like refuse, being disrespectful of their property, just wanting to move them out and not caring what happens to them, I absolutely reject. But I also think that the unsanctioned encampments are not a moral choice, and that we have an obligation to move people out of the encampments. And let me tell you why. You know we have… I was looking at some of the… Asking some questions and got some records on what have we spent on homelessness and where have we spent it, just in this year. And in a two-month period, we as a city spent over $2 million hauling tons, literally tons of garbage out of the unsanctioned encampments.
That’s $2 million that’s not spent on mental health treatment. $2 million that’s not spent on housing. $2 million that’s not spent on drug addiction treatment. We have these people living there, and when city workers go in to meet with them, talk to them, do outreach, they’re given what’s called encampment pay, because the city has deemed it so dangerous to send its own workers in there. It’s well documented, there’s human feces, rats, human trafficking, violence, and tons of garbage, and my question is, why would we let anyone live there? I think it is a moral imperative not to let people live in those kinds of conditions. So the question is not should they live there, the question is how do we make sure that they can live somewhere else?
CHS: Big challenges. Alright.
Durkan: That’s what I’ve got.
CHS: Thank you very much. I appreciate your time.
Durkan: No, thank you.
CHS: And it’s gonna be very interesting to watch. I picked a bad time to be on the sidelines but…
Durkan: Yeah, tell me what you’re doing.
CHS: Off the record. [chuckle]