Seattle’s next mayor — for the first time in more than 90 years — will be a woman. What’s also a given is that she’ll have held no prior elected office before being sworn in on Nov. 29.
The two to emerge from a 21-candidate primary to fill the role, former U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan and urban planner and activist Cary Moon have spent much of the past three months belaboring several small, but key differences, in a race between a pair of self-professed progressives.
Perhaps the biggest distinction between them, both say they have the right experience to lead the city despite boasting decidedly different backgrounds.
Durkan cites her time as a U.S. Attorney, saying there are a number of similarities between the mayor’s office and that role, in which she grappled with a wide variety of subject matters, stakeholders, and employees over an area that stretched from the Canadian border to the Oregon border, west of the Cascades.
“The challenges in Hoquiam are very different than the challenges in Seattle,” she said, “and so you have to be able to gauge how you move the resources forward, how you communicate with people, [and] how you make sure that you’re staying in touch.”
That’s a background she said her opponent doesn’t have.
“That’s not to take away from the importance of what activists do, it’s just a very different path,” she said. “I think the clearest thing for voters is do you want someone who hasn’t had that kind of experience as a mayor, or do you want someone with experience as a mayor?”
Not so, says Moon. Over the past two decades, she’s worked on issues of urban growth, city building, public life, and building the urban environment, all of which gave her direct hands-on experience on how things work on the municipal level.
“I have very specific experience in this city on these issues because cities are not just my passion, they’re my profession,” she said. “And I would just contrast that with my opponent, who has an impressive resume but only in the field of corporate law and prosecution, which is really pretty much unrelated to the challenges of urban growth and city building.”
Moon also said her leadership style sets her apart, and that she’s committed to, “inclusive, participatory leadership,” and empowering city employees to help shape solutions to the issues Seattle faces. To that end, she wants to shift how the city operates to become more inclusive.
“I’m going to share power across race and class and gender in the mayor’s office and in departmental leadership teams and as much as possible in boards and commissions across the city, so at least we have people at the table who represent other perspectives,” she said.
Moon and Durkan have also clashed on the topic of real-estate speculation, as it relates to the housing affordability crisis.
Moon has made it one of her signature issues, and said she hears daily from realtors who frequently see last-minute cash offers tens of thousands of dollars over the asking price from out-of-town buyers. But beyond the direct stories, she points to the macroeconomic analysis of hot housing markets around the world, as both people and corporations with excess money have begun putting it in local real estate in locales like Sydney, London, Miami, and Vancouver.
“We have to really look at the global macroeconomic level, and then bring it down and look at local data about exactly what’s happening here,” she said. “Is it private equity funds? Is it Wall Street? Is it individuals buying second, third, and fourth homes? Is it outside investors parking money in real estate and never even occupying them? We’ve got to get the data to understand the right disincentive.”
Durkan, meanwhile, questions whether there is local data that would prove speculation is a problem in the Seattle area. The city’s rapid population boost, coupled with the high salaries many newcomers are earning, has meant a lack of housing and in turn, displacement and higher prices.
“If you are a mayor, you have the obligation before you propose a solution as one of your key platforms, you have to see whether it’s a problem, and none of the data right now indicates that that’s even an issue in Seattle.” she said.
The two do find some common ground is on homelessness — specifically the need for more short-term emergency shelter options across the city, and working with various communities to get there — but both believe their plans distinguish them from their opponent.
Durkan said her opponent, “talks about what we need, but has made no specific proposals on how we get there,” and contrasted that with her own plans to break ground on and site 1,000 tiny houses in her first year in office.
Moon, however, critiqued the former attorney’s strategies on affordable housing as unrealistic for solving the problem.
“They’re basically market-based solutions that have been tried other places and barely do much at all,” she said, “and I don’t think she has the right analysis or understanding of this crisis.”
She also said her approach to unsanctioned encampment sweeps sets her apart, “because I want to focus on getting the places for people to come inside, and then go to he people outside and invite them in, instead of going with a punitive, law and order police response.”
In recent weeks, the candidates have also been forced to grapple with the decision by Amazon to seek a second headquarters (or HQ2) outside of the Seattle area.
That announcement gave Moon a sense of relief, as the city hasn’t kept up with the current pace of growth. That’s led to the displacement of communities of color, low-income residents, and the city’s “creative soul.”
“To me, it’s a sensible decision,” she said. “If you looked at their RFP, their very first requirement was, ‘Do you have a site that meets these criteria?’ Well, we don’t. We’ve gotten so dense we don’t have the space and we don’t have the capacity to accommodate more growth. … They’ll stay here, they’re continue to grow more slowly here, and bring the rapid increase in growth to a different place and balance it out.”
For Durkan, the decision indicated that employers are seeing the same problems with affordability, homelessness, and transportation that everyone else is.
“Until we fix those things, I think it’s going to be hard for any employer to commit to long-term growth in the city of Seattle,” she said.
The two have also responded in the past month to a proposal from councilmembers Mike O’Brien and Kirsten Harris-Talley to reinstate the head tax on large employers, with the funding aimed at the factors contributing to homelessness.
In its current form, neither support the measure.
While Durkan was happy to see several parts of the proposal line up with her own platform, she expressed concern that the model itself, which would affect the top 10 percent of highest-grossing businesses in the city, could inadvertently pull in small businesses.
“Small businesses are really struggling,” she said. “When we talk about affordability, we often talk in terms of housing affordability, but commercial affordability has gone through the roof too.”
The concept of a head tax is one Moon said she supports, but like her opponent, she’s weary of the way the latest effort is written.
“We have to be really careful,” she said. “… The business has to be large enough and actually have the ability to generate profits. I think we have to get the math right of how we measure it.”
The question of funding looms large across each policy conversation. Durkan has consistently emphasized that she does not want to discuss seeking new revenue until she’s certain its necessary. That said, she believes it’s likely that homelessness, in tandem with addiction and mental health services, are the areas that will likely require it.
“We just don’t have enough money to deal with that issue on the streets,” she said.
She doesn’t hesitate to call the current tax system regressive and unfair, but feels it’s unlikely that the city will get significant help from Olympia. Even if substantial reforms, like a statewide income tax (she supports it), luxury real estate tax, or capital gains tax, make it through, Durkan would want to lower regressive taxes in kind.
“We cannot assume that it’s just going to be like the whipped cream on top,” she said. “We have an obligation to people to try to lower their day-to-day costs.”
Moon said that getting a more progressive tax code at the state level, “is everybody’s responsibility.”
“We all can look and see the glaring gap between how much we need to invest in a healthy society and a great school system, and how much the state is actually raising and spending,” she said. “… Cities need to unify. We need to keep pushing from Seattle, because until we get a progressive revenue system where the wealthy and corporations pay their fair share, and low-and-middle-income people pay less, we are never going to be able to invest in the future the way we need to.”
In the meantime, the city needs to be as efficient as possible with the revenue it does have, with the hope that further refinement can allow for the delivery of more services and programs for the same amount of money.
The two also agree on the example Seattle can set for the rest of the country.
“It is clear to me nothing good’s going to come out of Washington D.C. in the near-term, and maybe the long-term, and so it’s going to be up to cities to step up,” Durkan said. “And I think Seattle is the city that is best placed to show people how we can get it done.”
As for Moon?
“Seattle needs to be the place, that is the beacon of hope, that figures out how to build a city that really watches out for the well-being of everyone, where we all feel safe and we’re protecting the well-being of all of our brothers and sisters,” she said.
Who carries that vision forward is now up to the voters.
To learn more about Durkan’s campaign, visit www.jennyforseattle.com. For more information on Moon’s campaign, go to www.carymoonformayor.com. To comment on this story, write to QAMagNews@nwlink.com.