After a crowded and confusing mayoral primary, it’s down to two candidates: former U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan and civic activist Cary Moon. Durkan enters the fall campaign as the strong favorite to become Seattle’s mayor, and many observers are already assuming her election is inevitable.
They shouldn’t. Cary Moon can beat Jenny Durkan.
To be sure, Durkan has some formidable advantages. She is the near-unanimous pick of Seattle’s political and civic establishment, inheriting much of the support that, until April, made Ed Murray’s re-election seem inevitable. She’ll raise enormous amounts of money, and will also benefit from third party spending (mostly from business PACs) that Moon will get little of.
But Moon has advantages, too. And Durkan has vulnerabilities.
Start with those primary results. Durkan nearly doubled Moon’s vote total in the early going - but critics of Seattle’s status quo split their votes among five major candidates. Moon, Nikkita Oliver, and Bob Hasegawa all clearly ran in opposition to the business-as-usual approach represented by Murray and Durkan. Durkan, at week’s end, had 48,193 votes. Combined, Moon, Oliver and Hasegawa drew 70,325 votes - and in the general election, the average voter will be younger, less affluent, and less white, which also favors Moon. Viewed through that lens alone, Durkan suddenly seems quite vulnerable.
Of course, Moon still has to win over the people who didn’t vote for her. That’s by no means a given. Oliver finished a strong third running with the support of the newly formed People’s Party. Moon will have to make the case to Oliver and her voters that not all Democrats (or wealthy white women) are the same, and that she shares far more of the People’s Party agenda than Jenny Durkan ever will.
For voters, part of Moon’s challenge will simply lie in introducing herself. Before this year’s campaign, Moon was virtually unknown; her highest-profile work had been her opposition several years ago to the downtown tunnel project. Durkan at least has held a high-level job as U.S. Attorney. Moon still needs to prove to most voters that she has the chops to be a big city mayor, and to demonstrate what her priorities as mayor would be.
Durkan’s experience is a strength, but it’s also a significant vulnerability. Beyond being widely viewed as a representative of Seattle’s civic establishment, she’s not well-defined. Moon can help do that by, for example, linking her to the establishment resistance (including the last three mayors) to wholesale SPD reform. No other single issue is as likely to help mobilize Oliver and Hasegawa supporters.
Durkan has also not been clearly defined on how she’d handle the ill-effects of Seattle’s population boom. For over a decade, establishment politicians like her have shoveled massive amounts of corporate welfare into developer and real estate pockets. In contrast, Moon made her name opposing the tunnel as a multi-billion-dollar, taxpayer-funded real estate scheme. Moon needs to make the case that Seattle’s affordable housing crisis requires radical solutions, not the nibbling around the edges (while things continue to worsen) proposed by Durkan - and that affordable housing is also the single best way to address Seattle’s homelessness crisis.
About 70,000 more Seattleites will vote in November than in August. Those new November voters are on average less engaged and less likely to know the candidates and what they stand for. Moon doesn’t need to equal Durkan’s prodigious fundraising, but she does need to raise enough to be competitive in getting her message out - and her message needs to be clear and memorable enough to withstand Durkan’s inevitable October advertising blitz and high-profile establishment endorsements.
Moon can’t make up the ground she needs to simply by having a more winning or sympathetic personality or promising to “get things done” more effectively. Routine messaging alone won’t be enough. Her best hope for overtaking Durkan is to turn the race between the two into a referendum. If you like how things are going in Seattle - a booming economy and population, construction everywhere - vote Durkan. If you think Seattle needs a corrective to inadequate infrastructure investment, traffic gridlock, overflowing schools, a city government that shuts out the concerns of many of its residents, and policies whose affordability “solution” is to force any household that doesn’t have a six-figure income to leave town - vote Moon.
That focus would draw the ire of Seattle’s business establishment - and the likely support of most Oliver and Hasegawa voters, and more than a few backers of Mike McGinn (who also once won election as an outsider) and Jessyn Farrell. That leaves the younger, less affluent, and more non-white electorate that didn’t vote in August to tip the balance.
In that scenario, if you’re Cary Moon, you’ve got to like your chances.
GEOV PARRISH is cofounder of Eat the State! To comment on this column, write to QAMagNews@nwlink.com.