MAYOR DURKAN: Michael, it’s great to be here. Good to see you.
MR. DUFFY: Thanks for joining us. Let’s start with vaccinations and COVID. More than 80 percent of Seattle residents above the age of 12 have had at least one shot. I think you were the first city to do it. Seventy-one percent of all residents have had both. To what do you attribute that success?
MAYOR DURKAN: You know, it is a combination of things, Michael. First is, you know, we were the first into the pandemic, and we had no federal leadership, no guidebook. And so, we learned early on we had to rely on some really key things. Number one is, we had to listen to science. Number two is, we had to have leaders on the same page so that the public knew very clearly what was expected of them and be very transparent as to why, and then to really rely on scientists and researchers as to what did we need to do to fight this virus. I know we’re going to talk about testing. That was one of the first big things.
But building on that, you know, I was able on a weekly basis--I had a group of advisors, both national and local advisors, telling me what to worry about next and how to basically overcome COVID. And it was critical that vaccinations were going to be key to us reopening as a city, not just our economy but our schools and coming together again. And so, we had a very all of government focus on how did we build out and get vaccinations to everybody who could. So, we had both mass vaccination sites and local sites, and we worked very closely with communities of color to make sure that we get--did vaccinations equitably.
MR. DUFFY: The team that told you what to worry about next, Mayor Durkan, what are they telling you about the variants now? What do you--how do you keep your eye on those, and what has it meant in terms of your plan?
MAYOR DURKAN: Yeah, I think that the variants are, you know, as we’ve seen both globally and nationally, the variants are on the rise, and particularly the Delta variant right now. It is particularly worrisome for those people who are unvaccinated. And still here in Washington state, and even more so nationally, our communities of color are lagging. If you look at hospitalization rates, the people who are vaccinated are much less likely to be hospitalized or get sick.
So, looking at the variants, we’re really worried about what that will do to people who aren’t vaccinated, including children. We don’t know yet 12 and under kind of what the impacts of COVID will be, and so people bringing home that disease to their families. So really looking, how do we continue to increase vaccinations? And then the next thing we all have to be thinking about is a booster, which I’m sure no one wants to be thinking about, is the next series of shots we have to get.
MR. DUFFY: Yeah, and we’re not quite sure when we’re going to have to get those yet. You mentioned that there’s a difference--different demographic groups between a rate of vaccine uptake, there times more for Whites than Blacks, and seven times more when compared to Latino populations. To what do you attribute the differences there.
MAYOR DURKAN: It’s a combination of factors. Very early on, we knew that there was going to be vaccine hesitancy both because of language barriers, historical disparate treatment, particularly to African Americans, by the medical community, and access to healthcare. So, it was one of the things that my advisors very early on starting building those relationships with communities of color. So, the city of Seattle was very focused on making sure that we did that, and working with people who were trusted in those communities to almost 50 percent of the vaccinations that the city of Seattle gave through its program actually went to communities of color, to our BIPOC communities.
We’re still lagging behind, but we’re better than the national rates. And now we know what works. We just have to make sure we start doing more of it and raise the consciousness of people, so they know how vulnerable they are if they don’t have the vaccine.
MR. DUFFY: Seattle also launched a pretty aggressive campaign to vaccinate kids 12 and older. Was that controversial?
MAYOR DURKAN: It was not controversial, but it--but I think we set a national model on how to do it. And it--we were lucky, in some ways fortunate because it coincided with the reopening of schools. And we knew families with kids would be back in schools, so we worked with the Seattle Public Schools and were able to get vaccination sites set up in every middle and high school. And that gave us an advantage on getting to those populations to get people vaccinated.
MR. DUFFY: Do you think that puts this--the public school system in a stronger position for the fall, or do you expect another round of hesitation about going back to school when all the kids return to Seattle’s a hundred and something schools?
MAYOR DURKAN: I think it puts us in a stronger position, because not only have we gotten many people vaccinated 12 and older, but we also now have built the systems in place, both the trust with the parents and families, as well as the schools and the teachers. We as the city of Seattle have already invested heavily into the health systems for our students and our public schools, and that gave us a natural in to those schools.
So, I think we have an advantage here in anticipating what we’re going to need, and working closely with the Seattle Public Schools has given us an advantage there. It’s the only reason--you know, we were the first in the country not just to get to 70 percent but to have it 12 and older. Many people, it was 16 or 18. But we knew having that demographic of 12 and older was going to be important for the next round. I mean, everyone expects there to be some kind of resurgence of COVID, particularly this fall, when people go back inside and because of the cycles of this virus. And we wanted to make sure that our children and our families were as protected as possible.
MR. DUFFY: The state of Washington, I suppose King County have at the moment not changed their guidance about masking because of the new variants. Do you expect that to change in the next couple of weeks, or are you just watching? What is your position with regard to--some cities have gone back to a more restricted protocol.
MAYOR DURKAN: Yeah. And the state of Washington just announced that they’ll follow the CDC guidance last week. And so right now there’s no required masking except for in limited places like hospitals and the like. I think that you will still see a number of places, workplaces. We’ve heard from employers and the workforce that they would like there to continue to be some period of time where there’s masking indoors. I think that this is a dial. It’s not a light switch. None of us have ever been through this before. And we realize that once we shut things down, reopening is a little bit more difficult because it is so complicated.
So, I think that we will continue to follow CDC guidance as we bring employees back to work for example. Our guidance that we just gave to all employees will be, if you’re fully vaccinated, you do not have to wear a mask at work. But if you’re not vaccinated, you do. And you have to for us it's through attestation, but you have to show that you are vaccinated in order not to wear the mask.
MR. DUFFY: Let’s talk about another unprecedented challenge of the last couple of weeks and months, the record temperatures came to Seattle and much of the Pacific northwest. Yours is a city that usually has plentiful rainfall. That has not been the case this spring, the driest in a hundred-some years. We don’t usually think about drought affecting Seattle. How has it affected your city this year?
MAYOR DURKAN: You know, Michael, I could tell you, hugely. And I don’t think we’ve ever had this constellation of crises before. Not only did we have this global pandemic which was the health crisis, but layered on top of that was the economic crisis it brought, and it’s juxtaposed against the climate crisis that we’re in the middle of that has made all these things more difficult. I think--you know, I was born and raised here. I never experienced a summer quite as warm as this, and every summer we seem to get warmer. It’s been over three weeks since we’ve had rain in the city of Seattle, and we had three days where the temperatures exceeded 100 degrees--first time in the history of our city that’s happened. This is all the result of climate change.
Two summers ago, we had what we call smoke events, which meant that because of the forest fires burning in Canada and in California and Eastern Washington, the air quality in Seattle was worse than Beijing for a period of days because the smoke would get stuck here. So, we’re having to climate-proof our city in ways we never have had to do before, and we’re having to--you know, it’s just accentuated how important it is for us to take the steps to fight climate change.
MR. DUFFY: The climate has extended beyond of course Seattle to--up into British Columbia and west into the mountain states, down into California, as you mentioned. Have you seen anything from what--how other governments are responding in the region that might be good things for governments to apply in your area? Have you--has there been any kind of regional cooperation to deal with it?
MAYOR DURKAN: You know, we’ve had a lot of regional cooperation in the United States region. And now that the border’s opening up, we’ve had historically really strong cooperation with the government of British Columbia and Vancouver. And we’re seeing the same phenomenon up and down. In fact, British Columbia was--suffered probably more than anyone in the West in terms of number of deaths and what happened in this last heat event.
And so, we really--if you look at what we’re doing is, it’s not only what we’re doing to make sure we fight climate with electrification of, you know, our transportation infrastructure, to make buildings smarter and safer, but for the smoke events themselves we have to do really fundamental things like where can people go if it’s a hundred degrees or if there’s three days of really bad air quality. So, we’re creating cooling centers in our city. We’re also--we swapped out our HVAC system in our community centers so could filtrate the smoke so people would have a safe place to go. We’re taking a number of steps like that, but we’re also working with the state on forest management practices. How do we reduce the number of forest fires even with climate change? And so, I think all of those things are going to have to work together.
MR. DUFFY: You know, Seattle’s energy use has increase. So has, of course, calls to your fire and EMS crews. This has to have put some kind of unprecedented pressure on your budget. How are you coping with that?
MAYOR DURKAN: It is putting pressure on our budget across the board, and we see that escalating over time. And it also does--puts pressure another place. Because, you know, for example, we’ve always had plentiful water. But as the snowpack diminishes and our water supply diminishes, you know, will we have to increase those water rates? What do we do to make sure that we can get access to clean water for all communities? And so, it’s both a budgetary pressure but it’s also really how do you plan equitable growth in a city? And one of the keys to that is making sure you have access to clean water, affordable electricity, affordable housing, but also to parks and other amenities like that--all of them dependent on the same city budget that is stretched in times like these.
So, it really requires us to take a number of steps, including looking at, you know, more equitable taxation streams. And Washington state is one of the only states in the nation that does not have an income tax. And we rely mostly on the sales tax here, which is a very regressive tax. And in a time of economic downturn, there aren’t sales, so our budgets get stretched even more thin.
MR. DUFFY: Like a lot of cities in America, Seattle’s seen a sharp rise in crime. I think the homicide rate is up 50 percent, or maybe just the numbers over 2019. To what do you attribute this increase, and how are you addressing it?
MAYOR DURKAN: You know, we’re seeing this. I have the good fortune of talking to mayors from across the country regularly, and we’re seeing this in all the major cities. And there’s a number of root causes to this. One, of course, is the access to guns. We’re seeing more guns on the street than we have historically before. So, we have to really cut off that supply to guns.
Second is, coming out of COVID, there’s a whole range of things that have led to the increase in violence and desperation. And then we look at the underlying reasons people are turning to some of the criminal activity and really working with community, because those solutions to those have got to be community based to a certain degree. So, I’m meeting with regularly now communities that are most impacted by this violence to figure out community-based solutions to that. We just gave--we are just about to roll out an unprecedented number of investments in alternatives to policing and interventions into anti-violence programs that are community-based and have trusted messengers that we hope really can help reduce the violence.
MR. DUFFY: Yeah. I noticed also that the city of Seattle Police Department has lost some number in its ranks in the last year, a sixth or a seventh. I didn’t do an exact calculation. What can a mayor do to fill those ranks back up, and what are you doing?
MAYOR DURKAN: So, we are hiring right now, and we’re working very hard to hire. We lost a lot of police officers, a record number in the last 18 months. A lot of that is around a number of factors, but part of it was associated with the uncertainty in jobs with the push to cut the police department by 50 percent in the city of Seattle by our city council. We were able to stop that.
But we’re in the process now of really reimagining what does the job of a police officer look like. What are the best things and the most important things you need an armed response to, and what are some alternatives? And I think, Michael, what’s really interesting is, if you sit down with police officers and community organizations, you’ll find a lot of agreement that some of the jobs that officers do today belong somewhere else. And so how do we make sure that just as we’re recruiting police officers, we’re also making sure that they’re not the first that have to show up to every crisis call.
You know, Seattle police officers responded to almost 17,000 crisis calls in 2019. When those happen, so much else in society has already gone wrong. We need to get upstream, fix it, and have alternatives to those responses.
MR. DUFFY: What might some of those roles that can be transferred to a different kind of responder be, if you can just--
MAYOR DURKAN: So, we’ve got a great example--yeah. We’ve got a great example here. We found when I came in--we looked at the calls and we saw a huge number of calls that police officers went to or to people who were in crisis that were either experiencing homelessness or what we call low acuity. The only alternative the officer had was either to arrest them or try to take them to a hospital.
We instituted a program called Health One, which is like Medic One which rolls up when there’s a heart attack. It’s a firefighter medic with a social worker. They can respond, work with a person to determine what really do they need to stabilize and what’s the best response. Obviously, they won’t need it--they don’t show up when you do need an armed police officer if there’s any sign of violence, but it’s been so effective now that we’ve tripled the program, and we will be increasing it throughout the city so that we know that there are times when if you’d have a health-based response to these kinds of calls, you can actually save money, save police officer time, and do more good.
MR. DUFFY: Do you find that the department or the officers in the department are responsive to this kind of a handoff on those kinds of encounters? What’s the reaction?
MAYOR DURKAN: Absolutely. We’ve gotten great buy-in both by the communities served by this but also by police officers, fire department, and by those folks who also respond, our service providers, because everyone understood that there can be a better way for some of these calls, which end up being very time-intensive. Police officers know sometimes they’re not the best response, but there was nobody else to come. And so, if we have these alternative responses, it frees up our officers to do those jobs where you really do need a police officer to come.
MR. DUFFY: Put on your political hat for a minute and talk to me about whether you think nationally or at least perhaps in your city that whether the defund the police movement has peaked. Do you think that’s possible?
MAYOR DURKAN: I think that we now have moved to the--you know, I was kind of a lone voice that saying that defunding by 50 percent was not only not realistic, it wasn’t going to get us what we needed. And I--you know, there was many components. The first component was, community--we’ve had our communities of color, we have underinvested in them. So, I’ve pledged a hundred million dollars to invest in things like affordable housing, education, access to healthcare, transfer--generational transfer of wealth. If you make those kinds of investments, you will have healthier, more resilient communities.
We now have a majority of our city council realizes that just defunding the police is not the answer. What you really need is to build up alternatives for response. But more importantly, you really have to build that opportunity in communities of color so that we have equitable access to all those things that are quincentennial to the American dream.
MR. DUFFY: Seattle, in addition to being hit very early, maybe earliest as you noted from COVID, was also one of the cities that had a particularly difficult time in the aftermath of the death of George Floyd. With a little--with a year’s hindsight, can you talk to us just a little about what lessons you took away from that episode? I know it was a challenge. Certainly, it was a--it required leadership during crisis. As you think back upon it now, Mayor Durkan, are there--are there things that you learned or you might have done differently if you had to do it all over again? Anything that--you probably haven’t had time to reflect, but I thought I’d ask anyway.
MAYOR DURKAN: No, it’s a great question. I mean, I reflect on it a lot. And I think that what I would say is, through any crisis, you have to rely fundamentally on your values and make the decisions based on the values you had before the crisis came. And so, we as a city, for example, were already investing significantly in building a more equitable economy. You know, Seattle had huge disparities between the new innovation economy--because we’re one of the best tech sectors in the world--and the quote "old economy." And the disparity was made even more stark during COVID.
But we created, for example, free college for every one of our Seattle public school students, free transportation for those students in our low income. I announced almost a billion dollars in affordable housing, and then put in an anti-displacement executive order that would give communities the ability to stay in place in their neighborhood. But it wasn’t enough. But I will say by really thinking about what are the things you’re going to do that go fundamentally to changing the long-term impacts, that’s the best you can do in a crisis. So, you have to manage the day to day. But the decisions you make have to be more durable.
And so, the--my resistance to the defund 50 percent wasn’t that I didn’t believe that we couldn’t do policing different and better, but we had to have other alternatives both in investment and community and alternatives to policing in order to get there. And so, I think looking really at what are the durable solutions and how are they rooted in the values that are most important is the thing that gets you through a crisis.
MR. DUFFY: One of the other challenges facing all cities in the country--but particularly in the Pacific Northwest--is homelessness. This is a problem that’s been building for years, has gotten significantly worse in the course of the pandemic, and it’s matched, of course, with a separate crisis, like a completely different weather system, but closely related, and that is the shortage of housing. As you think about finding solutions to both going forward for cities large and small, do you see a secret recipe to either?
MAYOR DURKAN: Well, the first thing I would say to every city that isn’t where Seattle is, build as much affordable housing as you can. And yesterday I was able to meet with Senator Cantwell, who’s sponsoring legislation in the infrastructure bill to increase the low-income housing tax credit. As mayor, I’ve announced over a billion dollars of new affordable housing. Right now, the median price for a house in Seattle is over $800,000. If you’re a minimum wage worker, or even a teacher, that’s out of reach. And so, we have to build more housing. The national government has walked away from that and has not had a big housing investment initiative in decades, almost a generation. So, we need the federal government to step up to help us in that.
And cities really need to be looking today, as they grow, how do they make sure that they have enough affordable housing, because not only do we have the issue with homelessness, which has increased during COVID and the pandemic because the CDC guidelines, but our middle class is being priced out of our city. And if you lose those middle-class workers, your teachers, your firefighters, your grocery store workers and others, you can really lose that heart and resilience of a city. And so, it’s really important for a city as we move forward that we’ve been really, really fortunate to have some of the most innovative companies on the face of the earth here in Seattle. But with that has become a huge displacement of people who aren’t in that part of the economy.
MR. DUFFY: You announced in December of last year that you could not seek a second term. How come?
MAYOR DURKAN: So, it was clear coming out of last year when we just had this whole constellation of crises--you know, the murder of George Floyd, how do we invest in our BIPOC communities, how do we reimagine policing, how do we tame the virus, which we had not done yet, and we’re still working on that--so how do we both beat COVID but then recover economically. And it was clear to me that I couldn’t do both. I couldn’t focus both on the beating COVID, getting vaccinations, and recovering, and run for mayor. And I--you know, in simplistic terms, I could either do the job I was elected to do, or I could run for the job. And I couldn’t do both. I needed to be able to do it not through a political lens but really focusing on it. And I have to say that I think it was a really sound decision. And our vaccinations are proof of that.
We were able to work with communities across the board and be the first in the country--despite the fact that we had no direct access to vaccine. We built the largest scale vaccination civilian-led center anywhere in the country, but we didn’t have vaccine yet. So, we then had to go to the White House and other places to get access. All of that we were able to do because it was really focused on what was the right thing to be doing and not through a political lens.
The same thing with reimagining policing and our anti-violence strategies. Those now can be judged no really working with communities across the spectrum to do the right thing for the future of Seattle and not through a political campaign.
MR. DUFFY: You once said--and you may have been U.S. attorney when you said this, I don’t recall--that there were days when the job of tugboat captain looked pretty good. And I think it was because you said, you know, I don’t have to talk to anyone, and no one’s talking to me. Is there a wheelhouse in your future?
MAYOR DURKAN: You know, I think that tugboat looks really good, although I think, you know, maybe just a quiet town in Montana or somewhere on a beach. Look, it has been--I will say this. You know, I--it was--I don’t think anyone really appreciates I think mayors saved America. I think cities have become not just the new safety net, but they’re the new laboratory for America. And by mayors banding together, we were able to come up with strategies to get us through this global pandemic, to rebuild our economies, and to do it in an equitable fashion. And so, I continue to think it’s a really hard job.
Seattle was particularly difficult because we were facing not only those crises, you know, but we were doing it in a national framework where, you know, we had a president of the United States who said he was going to send troops into Seattle. That was a really difficult time to navigate. But, you know, as they said in the "Morte d’Arthur," you know, you must take the adventure that God gives you, and that’s the one that I and other mayors across America got in the last 16 months.
MR. DUFFY: Last words. We’ll leave it right there. Mayor Jenny Durkan, thank you for joining us today and sharing your perspective and your time with all of us about leadership during crisis. Always good to see you.
MAYOR DURKAN: Good to see you. Thank you, Michael. Take care.
MR. DUFFY: And please join us at 11:00 a.m. Eastern standard time on Friday when my colleague Eugene Scott in another in our series of Leadership During Crisis interviews New Jersey governor Phil Murphy.
You can always go to WashingtonPostLive.com and register and learn more. Thank you very much. And good afternoon.
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