Can Seattle finally stabilize mayoral role mired in controversy, single-term tenures?
In a city without mayoral term limits, Seattle has maintained a dubious streak of one-term mayors dating back over a decade, all while the office has faced scandals and controversies to boot. Now, voters are set to decide on a candidate who will serve as the city’s sixth mayor since its last two-term mayor left office.
Seattle’s last two-term mayor was Greg Nickels, who left office in 2010 after failing to make it out of the August primary. As a post-mortem from the Seattle Times put it, Nickels left office with a less-than-flattering reputation for being a “revenge-seeking Chicago-style heavy.” But the last straw for voters truly came after the city found itself woefully unprepared for an historic snowstorm in December 2008, leaving crucial roads unplowed and residents trapped in their respective neighborhoods.
Mike McGinn then assumed the reins in 2010, kicking off Seattle’s decade-plus-long streak of single-term mayors. While McGinn was widely viewed as someone willing to push forward an ambitious progressive agenda, he eventually “became toxic even to much of his base, which could neither defend his missteps nor cite many concrete accomplishments,” The Stranger wrote following his November 2013 electoral defeat.
Enter Ed Murray, whose tenure as mayor was cut short by the biggest scandal Seattle City Hall had seen since 2003’s Strippergate fiasco. Murray faced sexual abuse allegations from five separate accusers, one of whom was his younger cousin, who claimed he had been repeatedly molested by Murray while he was a teenager in the 1970s. While Murray initially attempted to brush off the scandal as “a political take down,” calls for his resignation grew loud enough for him to step down in May of 2017.
Given that 2017 was an election year, and with six months to go before the city voted for a new mayor, then-councilmember Bruce Harrell was tagged to step in to fill the office on an interim basis. Harrell wasn’t without controversy surrounding Murray’s ignoble exit himself, notably stating prior to Murray’s resignation that Seattleites “did not ask us to judge anyone for something that happened 33 years or maybe didn’t happen — we just don’t know.”
“And I would ask that I don’t want to be judged for anything 33 years ago,” he added.
Harrell later claimed that he had “never defended Ed Murray,” and that his previous statement had come at a time where there wasn’t enough available evidence. On the same day he made that statement in 2017, then-councilmember and current mayoral candidate Lorena Gonzalez became the first councilmember to call on Murray to resign.
Harrell ended up serving as interim mayor for five days before stepping down, citing “issues facing this city bigger than me.” Exiting Councilmember Tim Burgess was then named interim mayor for the remainder of the term, after which Jenny Durkan assumed office after winning the 2017 election.
Although Durkan defeated challenger Cary Moon by a wide 56% to 43% margin, she leaves office now amid a fair share of her own controversies, as well as a tenure defined by frequent sparring with city councilmembers over a range of prominent issues.
That included calls for her resignation from three city councilmembers following social justice protests in the spring and summer of 2020, where police had deployed tear gas and flash bangs in the city’s Capitol Hill neighborhood on multiple occasions.
At the end of that year, Durkan announced she would not be running for reelection, saying she believed she “had a choice to make” between spending 2021 campaigning for reelection and “focusing on doing the job” of governing during what was thought to be the tail-end of the pandemic.
Then in May of 2021, an investigation into a whistleblower complaint revealed that Durkan’s office had failed to properly handle a series of public records requests, after it discovered that 10 months of the mayor’s text messages had gone missing. It was later discovered that text messages from the summer of 2020 belonging to several other prominent city leaders had gone missing as well, including former SPD Chief Carmen Best, Fire Chief Harold Scoggins, and members of SPD’s command staff.
The two public records officers who reported Durkan’s missing texts later filed claims asking for $5 million in damages from the city, alleging that they had been retaliated against in the weeks after they blew the whistle.
The Seattle Times also filed a lawsuit against the city regarding the controversy in early June, detailing records requests made by four reporters, and accusing the Mayor’s Office of not promptly fulfilling those requests, intentionally obfuscating the fact that the messages were missing in the first place, unlawfully withholding records “not exempt from disclosure,” and failing “to conduct an adequate search” for others.
The current mayoral election cycle now features Harrell and Gonzalez, both of whom have experience serving as council president, and each likely hoping they can be the one to break Seattle’s 11-year cycle of one-term leaders.
By next month, Seattle voters will have chosen a new mayor, similarly hoping beyond hope that whoever it is that wins will finally manage to stick around.