EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the fifth of six profiles of 2017 mayoral candidates we will be publishing before the Stranger Election Control Board announces its endorsements.
At a mayoral candidate forum held in a dimly lit building behind a Capitol Hill church, former US Attorney and candidate for mayor Jenny Durkan takes her first question: Does she support a city income tax?
"I think an income tax is critical," says Durkan. "I think the city council is right to move forward and see whether we can test the law."
It's a notable shift in tone from a much more skeptical take on the same question when she kicked off her campaign a month earlier. The change is emblematic of the calculating candidate who knows when to tack left and when to embrace Seattle's political establishment, even as other candidates sprint in the other direction.
With $191,000 in her war chest and big endorsements like the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce's PAC, Durkan is the favorite to make it through the August 1 primary. She speaks the language of Seattle politics: pragmatism, consensus, incremental progress. The same strategy won current mayor Ed Murray the seat in 2013 and looked likely to win him an easy reelection until allegations of sexual abuse surfaced this spring. That's no coincidence. Durkan's political consultant used to work for Murray, and 19 percent of her money has come from people who previously donated to the mayor.
She has become the face of maintaining the status quo. But for many in Seattle, more of the same will not be enough.
In a city attracting young tech workers, the income gap among twentysomethings is widening. Home prices hit a record high this year and rents continue to rise.
As the city has tried to address these issues, the scale of the problems has far outpaced some of the solutions. In 2016, Seattle voters doubled a housing levy to build or preserve 2,150 apartments for low-income people. But at last count, about 8,500 people lived in shelters or on the streets in Seattle.
Durkan, 59, is making her first run for public office, but she's not new to local circles of power. Her father was an influential state legislator. Her brother is a local lobbyist who works for advertisers and landlords, according to city documents. Jenny Durkan has long been—and remains—a close friend and counsel to the family of former governor Christine Gregoire.
Durkan says her father's career centered politics in her childhood. She remembers him meeting with farm-worker advocates and members of the Black Panthers, who marched on the Capitol in Olympia in 1969. "In lots of families, the rule is you never talk about politics and religion at the dinner table," Durkan says in an interview at a downtown cafe. "That's all we talked about."
After getting an undergraduate degree, Durkan spent two years working with indigenous people in Alaska as part of the Jesuit Volunteer Corps Northwest before going to law school. After law school, she worked in criminal defense for several high-powered law firms in Seattle and Washington, DC.
Kari Tupper remembers Durkan not as a lawyer for the powerful, but for the vulnerable. In 1987, US senator Brock Adams allegedly drugged and sexually assaulted Tupper. As Tupper, whose family was close with the Democratic senator, endured a hot media spotlight and public attacks from the senator and his supporters, Durkan took her case pro bono.
"She believed me from the beginning," Tupper says today, her voice cracking. "There was never any question."
In 1992, eight other women came forward in a Seattle Times story with similar stories about Adams. The senator dropped his bid for reelection. Tupper felt vindicated, and on the night the story dropped, she says Durkan celebrated with her. It was one of the few times she saw Durkan cry.
Durkan became a household name in 2005 when she represented the state Democratic Party when Republican gubernatorial candidate Dino Rossi challenged his narrow loss to Christine Gregoire. (The Democrats prevailed.) In 2009, Barack Obama appointed Durkan as US Attorney, making her the first openly gay person to hold the job. As US Attorney, she created a civil-rights unit in her office. She won praise for prosecuting cybercrime and would-be terrorist Ahmed Ressam, who was convicted of planning to bomb the Los Angeles Airport.
Not all of her cases were popular, though, particularly on Seattle's far left. In 2012, Durkan's office led an investigation of several people jailed for refusing to testify about vandalism during May Day protests. Federal investigators attempted to compel four people not present at the protests to testify about local property damage. When they refused, they were sent to jail. The search warrant for one of the three said FBI agents were looking for, among other things, black clothing and "anti-government or anarchist literature." Eventually, after they continued to refuse to testify, they were freed.
In the wake of the financial crisis, Durkan's office did not file criminal charges against executives from Washington Mutual over that bank's collapse.
In 2013, her office prosecuted Abu Khalid Abdul-Latif, later convicted of plotting to attack a military facility in Seattle. The case involved a convicted sex offender who worked as an informant and, along with a police detective, deleted text messages that should have been preserved. Federal judge James Robart called that destruction of evidence "at-best sloppy."
Jeff Robinson, the current deputy legal director at the American Civil Liberties Union (though he spoke to The Stranger only in his personal capacity) calls Durkan "one of my closest friends in the entire world." He says as US Attorney, Durkan "definitely approved of sentences I thought were too severe" and, like many other federal prosecutors, pursued drug cases he opposed. "But one of the things I always knew was she was doing what she honestly believed to be the right thing," Robinson says. "And that's why I respect her so much."
In the campaign for mayor, Durkan highlights her work on police reform. While it's true that Durkan didn't oppose the federal consent decree that has helped lead to reforms at the Seattle Police Department, community organizations were also key in bringing the Department of Justice to town. The ACLU of Washington and others urged the Feds to investigate Seattle police as early as 2010. And Durkan's relationship with reformers has had rough patches. In the early days of the consent decree, Durkan scolded local reformer Lisa Daugaard in a public meeting, telling her, "You don't own the community."
After Durkan stepped down as US Attorney in 2014, some wondered if she hoped for a spot in an eventual Hillary Clinton cabinet, perhaps even attorney general. She went to work for Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan, a firm with offices in Washington, DC, and Seattle, where she has focused on cybersecurity. FIFA hired her in 2015 to represent the organization as it battled corruption charges. Earlier this year, she represented the Muckleshoot Tribe during the inquest into the fatal police shooting of Renee Davis.
As mayor, Durkan says she would address the city's homelessness crisis by opening more emergency shelter beds across the city, increasing outreach to people living in cars and RVs, and coordinating more closely with the county to provide services.
She supports the housing affordability plan charted by Murray's Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda task force (known as HALA), which will implement a series of upzones across the city where new developments must set aside space for affordable housing or pay a fee.
On policing, Durkan supports the package of reforms recently passed by the city council and promises to ensure full compliance with the consent decree.
But the candidate does not have a signature issue. The closest her campaign has come to carving out a cogent message is running against the Trump administration. But the primary will be a test of just how much that message resonates. In Seattle's political landscape, where elected officials trip over themselves to be part of "the resistance" while their city struggles with a growing economic divide, promising to fight Trump is not exactly unique.
In a race of candidates arguing for the urgency of changing course for a rapidly changing city, Durkan is arguing to stay the course. In a city where the gap between the wealthy and the poor has widened, Durkan claims she can represent both. Don't eat the rich, her campaign argues, bring them to the table.
The Murray-like middle-road strategy could work. The last time Seattle picked a mayor, just 52.5 percent of registered voters turned out. Most of them lived in the city's whiter, wealthier neighborhoods.
At the candidate forum on Capitol Hill, the mayoral hopefuls take a question about their donors. Have they received money from corporations, developers, or people who live outside the city? And do they think that reflects what Seattleites want?
"I don't know about corporations because I don't look at the list," Durkan says. "I assume I've gotten it from developers and people who—" Some in the crowd interrupt her with boos, but she presses on. "I've also got it from working people," she says. "And, I'll tell you, if people give me money, they know they're giving it to me because of my values and what I care about and the city I want."
"Corporate!" someone in the crowd shouts.
Other candidates might have been rattled—but Durkan continues, unfazed.