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Why Can’t Seattle Find a Mayor It Likes?

Ed Murray’s resignation represents a trend: Unlike most big cities, mayors there tend to last one term -- or less.

Seattle Mayor Durkan
Jenny Durkan is vying to be Seattle's sixth mayor elected since 1989.
(AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Seattle Mayor Ed Murray’s announcement last month that he would resign was the definition of news that shocked but didn’t surprise. Murray stepped down in the wake of sexual abuse allegations, which he denies. But the allegations had already led him to announce back in May that he would not seek a second term this fall. 

Murray’s problems are unique to him, but for Seattle voters, having a mayor leave office before starting a second term is nothing new. Seattle has churned through a lot of different leaders in recent years. Next month, voters there will elect their fourth new mayor in as many elections. 

Why are Seattleites so unhappy with their political leadership? Unemployment is well below 4 percent, with a talent war in the tech sector, and nearly 2,000 people are moving to Seattle a month, making it the fastest-growing big city in the country. The simple explanation for voters’ dissatisfaction is that with growth comes challenges. “Our city is thriving, but it’s also changing rapidly,” says Maggie Humphreys, president of the National Women’s Political Caucus of Washington. “Huge new challenges for transportation and housing and growth management have forced us to have a conversation about where we see ourselves as a city.”

The problems of growth are good ones to have, but they can still be unsettling. Take rising home prices. Seattle has led the nation over the past year. House prices were averaging around $500,000 just three years ago; now, they’re well above $700,000. Rents have also shot up nearly 60 percent over the past six years. This rapid price rise has contributed to the city’s serious problems with homelessness.

Then there’s traffic. It has long been a source of complaint in Seattle, but now it’s inescapable with the extra people pouring in each month. “With constant change, we don’t have the continuity in leadership we once had,” says Peter Steinbrueck, a former member of the city council. “The growth dynamic is increasing the division between those who are doing very well and those who are struggling.”

Indeed, glaring income inequality is offending voters in a city with a proud populist tradition, as well as the progressive sensibilities of most of Seattle’s many newcomers, whose loyalties are up for grabs. “We have a very progressive population, and there’s a lot of change all at once,” says Don Blakeney, vice president of the Downtown Seattle Association. “We’re a challenging city to govern.”

Seattle’s mayoral turnover dates back to 1989. Five different mayors have been elected since then. By comparison, Chicago has had two. Seattle’s experience is exceptional, especially given that most big-city mayors will be re-elected this year. 

One thing is certain: Seattle is about to elect its first woman mayor since the 1920s. The choice is between former prosecutor Jenny Durkan and activist Cary Moon. One of them may reap the political benefits of presiding over a booming city. “Maybe Jenny Durkan gets elected and stays for 20 years,” says Chris Evans, a former Washington state GOP chair. But then again, maybe not.

Alan Greenblatt is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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