Jenny Durkan, the 56th mayor of Seattle, marked a couple of milestones when she took the oath of office at the Ethiopian Community Center in Rainier Beach. She is the first woman to hold the position in nearly a century and the first lesbian mayor of Seattle ever. Winning 56 percent of the vote, Durkan begins her first term with a mandate, and she got to work right away. She spent her first week signing executive orders launching a rental vouchers program, mandating city hall department heads undergo implicit bias training, and creating a framework to give students two years of free community college.
At the same time, distrust of Durkan from the activist left—over her prosecutorial background, her wealth, and her long list of corporate backers—has endured. The mayor faced her first protest on November 30 at Elliott Bay Book Company as she announced a small-business advisory council. At least one person was detained.
The morning after her inauguration, I met with Durkan on the seventh floor of City Hall. She had recently stepped into her office for the first time.
I spoke with former mayor Charles Royer the other day. He said his first reaction when he became mayor was: "Oh my God. What have I gotten myself into?" When did it kick in for you?
The first oath I took yesterday made it the most real. My reaction was a little different. It was, "This is such an incredible honor." So fantastic.
Given the historic weight of your election—being the first female mayor in nearly a century and the first lesbian mayor of Seattle ever—do you feel added pressure?
We've seen a number of historic elections across the country. If you look, for example, at the number of transgender people who were elected, the number of women elected, and the number of people of color elected, it reflects that our nation has moved to a place where that is possible. But also that people want change. I feel an enormous responsibility to live up to the expectations of voters. But I'm going to go to work every day for the city and really work on all those problems we now have facing us. I was in every corner of the city for the last six months. We have a great city, and there are great people living here. We're still doing some really cool stuff, so we can't let our challenges blind us to the fact that there are enormous opportunities and enormous resources here.
We're having a national conversation about sexual harassment and assault in the workplace. The Stranger recently reported that employees at City Light have come forward to allege sexism and sexual harassment in that department. What policies do you propose to ensure that human resources works to resolve these complaints in the interest of justice?
It's such a critical area. I'll be meeting with our director of human resources to ensure that, with the processes we have in place, there is an easy and safe way for people to raise concerns. One of the things you see in workplaces is that people are afraid to speak up. We see it across the nation with people who are very powerful. People fear their jobs will be jeopardized and other work conditions will be jeopardized. We want to make sure that the City of Seattle sets a good example, that people have a safe way to raise concerns, that we deal with problems fully, fairly, and effectively. And that we create a culture so [people] know they will be valued for their experience and their capabilities.
One of the most important jobs of the mayor is hiring a police chief.
What we need to do here in Seattle over the next four years is to not just move forward on reforms but to really change the police culture. We need to bring it in line with where we are as a city and make sure we continue to build that connection between community and police.
How are you approaching the hiring process in general? Should we expect more people from your transition team to join your administration?
It's a large government that needs all kinds of talent. So we're looking far and wide to make sure we're looking at different people who can maybe help the city move forward. We want to make sure our city government reflects the diversity of this great city that we have.
The city is currently negotiating some police reform measures with the Seattle Police Officers Guild. Are there certain measures you're hoping don't get watered down or removed during those negotiations?
I can say we will not water down reforms. We will continue to move forward on reforms. We will work not just under the parameters of the consent decree, but really establish the Seattle Police Department as a world-class department that can move forward whether or not there is a federal court involved.
At some point, and I hope soon, we will come into full and effective compliance. We have proved over two years that we have made the cultural shifts we need to. But that doesn't mean we're done. That means we just need to keep having that continual self-improvement process. I've been around the police department for a long time, and I see we really have to do a lot of work to change cultures. I also know police officers join the force because they want to make a difference in their communities. We just have to make sure those two things work together so we have the best police department everywhere and that every community in Seattle feels they are being protected and served and don't have any fear of their police.
Is there anything specifically in the legislation you hope doesn't get cut in negotiations? For example, the Seattle Police Management Association's recently approved contract doesn't include the disciplinary appeals process called for by the police accountability legislation.
We need to look at the discipline system as a whole. I look forward to sitting down with the new director of the Office of Police Accountability. I also hope we can get an inspector general on board quickly. And then sit down as a team and decide how we make sure the accountability part of the police department works together with the reforms we're making. Because it's not enough just to change the policies, practice, and culture of the department. In order for it to be real, we have to make sure the discipline process matches that system.
This last budget session was one of the most contentious in Seattle history. What's your read on the current divisions in city hall? And what are your plans to mend some of those divisions?
I think it's been a hard time in the city generally—not just in city government. The city has grown so quickly that people are feeling anxious, and rightfully so. The growth has really changed the character of the city, and that's reflected in what shows up here at city hall. Because everybody comes to work representing their districts. I've reached out and talked to every city council member, and I'm confident we'll have a positive working relationship. There's much more that unites us than divides us. We all recognize what the issues and problems are, and we're going to have a positive relationship moving forward. Will we disagree sometimes? Absolutely. But that's okay. What we have to keep in mind is we are really going to serve the people of Seattle.
Let's talk about the proposed head tax. The city council rejected it and approved a plan to vote on a per-employee tax or another progressive tax by March. I know you opposed the head tax during the campaign, so I'm wondering what your position is now and what other progressive taxes might you push?
I would turn it around a little bit. What I want to do as mayor is understand what areas are not being served now. Where do we need additional resources, rather than let's just get resources and go spend them. I promised during the campaign, and I meant it, that I want to make sure, as we're moving forward, that we're looking at each program to ensure we're spending tax dollars wisely. And then come back to the voters and public and say, "Here's where we need more resources." I indicated before, and I've seen nothing to make me think differently, that we'll need more resources for effective treatment of mental health conditions and the opioid crisis. That's not going to come from Seattle alone. I want to look regionally, to King County, the state, and even our federal partners, because it is a problem that touches almost every family in Seattle in one way or another.
For some on the activist left, the type that show up to City Hall to protest, there is distrust between them and you. Critics point to your wealth and corporate backers to make the case that you will not be a mayor for them. What will you do to prove them wrong?
I hope to prove them wrong. We have to value the activist voice. I came up that way myself. And it is often the dissent that keeps us most honest. I don't think Seattle has ever been a place that shrinks from that. To remind me of that, I have a picture of [El Centro de La Raza cofounder] Roberto Maestas getting arrested. Here is a man who was the definition of activist. He and his friends took over schools, Fort Lawton, you name it. And those are the people who have defined some of the best places in our community. I will reach out to everybody, but I also understand that part of the process is that people have to keep pushing government and the people who were elected.
The Stranger gave you a lot of flak during the campaign. Is there anything you want to say about our coverage or local media in general?
Part of the media's job is to keep people honest. It's not to give people a pass. I hope people are willing to give us a chance, look at us and report fairly on our efforts. I look forward to developing a stronger relationship with The Stranger, keeping good relations with the media but also understanding what your job is. That's okay. What we really want is to make sure voters don't feel distrustful of government based on things that aren't accurate or not giving the full picture. Given who our president is, one of the most dangerous things I think he has done is erode the public's trust in the government. I want people to know that we are always here for them. We won't always get it right, but we'll always try.
Can you tell us a little bit about your dog, Gumbo? Will he be allowed into City Hall?
Gumbo is a piebald dachshund. He is very sweet at home but very protective. Like many dachshunds, he does not view himself as small—and is ready to take on even a mastiff. Unfortunately, city rules allow only service animals in City Hall. Maybe we should revisit that—animals can have a civilizing effect!