Skip to content
Musings on digital media, urbanization and politics from Seattle, Wash.

Jenny Durkan and public embarrassment’s diminishing returns

JPEG image-58DDE4C0605D-1

Photo by Joe Mabel

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan is not running for reelection. That’s for good reason. The big-money centrist conservative has been the executive progressives feared she would be and the Nextdoor commentorati who backed her will never be happy. So she would’ve lost.

And that’s a good thing. Because she’s pretty bad.

Seattleites are familiar with her handling of last year’s Black Lives Matter protests, which included tear gassing the city’s most densely populated neighborhood and the Seattle Police Department abandoning their East Precinct, the epicenter of the protests.

What went into those decisions? Who made the call to abandon the precinct? We’ll never know because the mayor and many of the people around her committed the felony of deleting their text messages.

The Seattle Times had the initial bombshell whistleblower report, and KUOW shared their own experience trying to obtain text messages from the week the precinct was abandoned.

It includes this tip, potentially from the same whistleblower:

“You had requested a week’s worth of Mayor Durkan’s texts for June 5 through 10th,” the email began. “The texts you received were not actually Durkan’s texts. They were recreated from other staff members’ phones because the Mayor’s texts are gone.”

The email continued: “Under the PRA they are supposed to ask your permission first before they recreate records. They were hoping that you wouldn’t notice. I would ask them to reopen your request and provide you the records you asked for. I hope this is helpful. I don’t like to see this blatant disregard for transparency and I think it’s wrong.”

The mayor office’s response? That came from their legal counsel, Michelle Chen.

Chen wrote that over the past two years, Mayor Durkan has had multiple phones replaced, and that the mayor’s last phone backup did not have the records for the specific date range of my request.

The request was made on June 12, which made this explanation a little dubious, given that it was a two-day window for the mayor to lose her texts. The records department wouldn’t discover the missing texts until August 2020, however.

Well, that was a lie. Durkan had her phone set to automatically delete all text messages. Not something that happens by accident!

If this weren’t egregious enough, consider she’d already gotten in trouble for this type of thing before.

From The Urbanist:

Durkan had been reprimanded in a 2019 settlement stemming from Deputy Mayors deleting text messages during the head tax debacle. She and the legal counsel (Michelle Chen) she continues to employ were instructed to get “refresher training” on public disclosure rules and recordkeeping practices. To proceed to destroy 10 months of text messages within the next year does not seem an accident. It would appear either grossly negligent or a purposeful coverup.

On the idea of whether or not it was a coverup, the city does little to dispel the claim that they weren’t hiding something. Beyond Durkan, others who deleted their texts for the time period:

  • Then-Police Chief Carmen Best
  • Fire Chief Harold Scoggins
  • Four members of the Seattle Police Department’s central command

How weird!

Obviously, she’s gotta come out and own up to all this. She must have apologized, right? Be considering resignation?

Nah, just some empty nonsense to Brandi Kruse, the similarly-conservative “I’m just asking questions” reporter at Q13.

So finally, the general point I wanted to make—does being thoroughly embarrassed by the media, through them simply revealing your clear actions, not do anything anymore? Nothing registers? Really?

Takes me back to this SNL bit:

I was only referring to the first part, less on whatever they had related to Nixon. But Nixon and his resignation is something I actually think about a decent bit—particularly framed in the context of today’s political scandals.

Nixon was ultimately brought down by his own “Smoking Gun tape,” one that revealed he’d—in the days immediately following the Watergate break-in—sought to instruct the FBI to slow down the ensuing investigation.

And honestly? It’s kind of tame in comparison to today’s scandals. Sure, actually breaking into DNC offices is real bad, but the cover-up is awfully similar to what we saw with Durkan.

Not only was she deleting texts, but her legal counsel—her legal counsel!—instructed public records officers not to include texts when asked for the mayor’s communications, not to inform records requestors that texts were missing and, when applicable, not inform requestors that some texts had been recreated artificially.

Real, well, smoking gun stuff there.

So what is all this? What do we do about it? What caused it?

I don’t know. It’s easy to say that this is a byproduct of the diminishing power of journalism in today’s world—and it is true that journalism’s power has been diminished—but a claim like that normally centers around a lack of reporting and, behind that, a lack of resources.

But the journalists did their job here. So did the whistleblowers. We found out what happened. We learned the mayor broke the law—clear as can be.

And what do we have as a result?

We have the mayor, an elected public servant who works for us, effectively looking us dead in the face and saying “Screw you. I don’t care. I’ll do what I want.”

I have no idea where we go in an instance like this, as a society, when powerful figures have no shame. I guess that’s the power of power, to not care. But it’s one thing when it’s some unelected corporate crony, it’s another when it’s a public servant.

Still, shame is not enough. Good journalism is not enough. And that’s a bummer.

Maybe it’s just that we have to find a way to arrest people who have done things that warrant arrest, or at least force them out of positions of power. But even then, that involves leveraging (shaming?) other public figures into making that move.

No such luck in Seattle, where Lorena Gonzalez—president of the Seattle City Council, which can force Durkan from office with enough votes—proposed creating a new independent office to handle mayor’s office public records. Sigh.

This might be a lot of words to say “Uh, guys, we might be screwed.” I hope we’re not screwed. But we might be screwed.

Though, I guess the first step in figuring out a way to not be screwed is to realize you kind of are.

We should all acknowledge that great journalism—and through that, scorn for those who deserve it—isn’t enough anymore. It’s going to take more. What that “more” is, I don’t know.

But let’s work on it. A better world is possible.

Posted in: