balancing-act:-what-seattle-mayor-jenny-durkan’s-quick-tenure-says-about-operating-a-tech-hub
Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan friends out on the Amazon Spheres from the corporate’s Amazon Web Services constructing that opened final 12 months. (GeekWire Photo / Monica Nickelsburg)

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan sought to construct a bridge between the tech business and its harshest critics within the divided metropolis throughout her first time period. In a one-week tech blitz final 12 months, Durkan paid visits to Amazon, Expedia, and Apple’s downtown campuses to have fun the speedy development of the tech sector. She additionally invited high tech firms to construct municipal merchandise and advise the town.

But Durkan, who introduced final week that she is not going to search a second time period, made few pals in her makes an attempt to steadiness Seattle’s competing ideological branches.

The Seattle enterprise group threw its affect and monetary weight behind Durkan throughout her candidacy, serving to her soar to victory in 2017 with 56% of the vote. Despite that help, Durkan didn’t emerge because the business-friendly ally at City Hall that many anticipated, some group leaders advised GeekWire in interviews for this story. But others stated she did her greatest to create a welcoming surroundings for enterprise within the face of adverse obstacles.

Seattle’s progressive wing is extra doubtful. Activists and labor leaders have lengthy seen Durkan as too cozy with large enterprise. They criticize her for failing to supply a stronger verify on the affect wielded by Seattle’s booming know-how business.

The actuality is probably going someplace within the center. But in her try to string the needle between Seattle’s competing forces, Durkan ended up with critics throughout the ideological spectrum. Balancing the targets of progressives who gravitate towards booming cities and the companies that make them affluent is a tall order.

Former Expedia Group CEO Mark Okerstrom (proper) walks Durkan by the plans for the corporate’s new Seattle campus. (GeekWire File Photo / Nat Levy)

“Mayor Durkan made a real effort to harness the tech industry to help government,” stated Heather Redman, co-founder of Seattle enterprise capital agency Flying Fish Partners who’s engaged in civic and coverage sectors. “However, given the political climate, I don’t think that she felt she could robustly partner with any aspect of the business community, especially tech, and still work with the City Council.”

Though she made no point out of tech in her departure announcement, Durkan’s determination to not search a second time period, after initially signaling she would run for re-election, exhibits simply how troublesome it has turn out to be to run a giant tech hub.

It’s a narrative that continues to play out in Seattle, San Francisco, New York, and different cities the place the overwhelming majority of residents vote blue however divisions nonetheless dominate the political panorama. The divide separates business-friendly moderates who worry world-class tech hubs might lose their edge if coverage swings too far left, and liberal progressives would love the cities to turn out to be check beds for social justice causes.

Taxing the tech business

Supporters of the top tax rushed the City Council chambers throughout a vote to repeal the controversial laws in 2018. (GeekWire Photo / Monica Nickelsburg)

Durkan’s tenure is bookended by the contentious debate over taxing large enterprise, together with giant tech employers. Her first months in workplace had been slowed down by the City Council’s “head tax” on Seattle’s high grossing companies.

Durkan, who didn’t reply to a request for an interview for this story, initially signed off on the tax after the City Council unanimously permitted the laws. A number of weeks later, the council and mayor repealed the controversial tax when confronted with a protracted battle with Amazon, different employers, and Seattle’s business-friendly wing.

The head tax ordeal soured many Seattleites on new enterprise taxes. It was two years earlier than the City Council took up the difficulty once more. But this summer time, the town handed a brand new payroll tax on the highest salaries at Seattle firms with annual payroll bills of $7 million or larger. The tax is anticipated to generate $200 million yearly to fund aid for households in the course of the pandemic and alleviate Seattle’s homelessness disaster.

Durkan opposed the tax and didn’t signal the laws however it turned regulation by a supermajority vote of the council. Last week, the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce filed a lawsuit difficult the brand new tax.

“Durkan, to a degree, got trapped between the interests of the Amazon leadership and the interest of Amazon employees,” stated former Seattle mayor Mike McGinn. “The leadership obviously had very strong opinions about taxes in Seattle, spent so much money in the last City Council cycle, but a lot of the employees and the young people that come to work at Amazon, they have an interest in a different type of city than the interests of their bosses.”

A good friend to labor or enterprise?

Unlike the enterprise taxes that the City Council championed, Durkan’s administration was the driving drive behind an effort to ascertain labor requirements for gig staff serving to shuttle individuals round as Uber drivers or delivering groceries for Instacart. Durkan spearheaded laws to ascertain a minimal wage for Uber and Lyft drivers and tax firms that function transportation networks within the metropolis. The “Fare Share” program had help from Seattle labor unions. Durkan additionally pushed by a cap on the charges that providers reminiscent of UberEats cost eating places in an effort to mitigate the monetary hardship the meals business faces in the course of the pandemic.

Despite these packages, Seattle’s progressive wing largely views Durkan as a centrist ally to large enterprise.

“The gig workers legislation aside, [consider] whether or not there were any real material gains for working people over the last three years or whether or not we continue to backslide into making Seattle a more exclusive, cost prohibitive city,” stated Shaun Scott, a social justice activist and former City Council candidate.

Durkan tried to construct a bridge between City Hall and the tech business within the wake of the top tax ordeal. In 2018, she created the town’s first Innovation Advisory Council, tapping firms reminiscent of Amazon, Zillow, and Expedia to construct know-how merchandise to unravel municipal challenges. A 12 months later, the town unveiled seven initiatives constructed by the IAC, together with a housing affordability portal, homeless service applied sciences, and an early earthquake warning system.

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, Amazon public coverage supervisor Eileen Sullivan, and sea.citi CEO Nick Merriam introduced the launch of sea.citi in 2018. (GeekWire Photo / Monica Nickelsburg)

The IAC acquired criticism from progressives who questioned Durkan’s determination to offer the tech business particular entry to metropolis officers. But Durkan’s staff defended the IAC as an revolutionary approach to leverage the tech expertise in Seattle to enhance authorities processes.

“A mayor needs to work with lots of different stakeholders so we appreciate that she has been intentional about including business in that,” stated Alicia Teel, a spokesperson for the Seattle Chamber.

A number of weeks after launching IAC, a few of the greatest tech firms in Seattle launched a brand new group known as sea.citi to attach their workers with civic life. Durkan spoke on the launch occasion.

Durkan additionally requested the Washington Technology Industry Association to assist recruit a brand new chief know-how officer for the town, based on WTIA CEO Michael Schutzler. Durkan in the end chosen Saad Bashir, former chief info officer for the City of Ottawa, to run the town’s IT division. Schutzler stated he was “impressed” with the method and thinks it’s the primary time the town requested business representatives for assist to rent a tech chief.

But Schutzler wished Durkan had been extra actively engaged in making tech extra inclusive, by initiatives reminiscent of Apprenti, the WTIA’s tech apprenticeship program.

“The biggest missed opportunity in my view is the city never engaged in workforce development,” he stated. “We have had great partnerships in other cities across the country, but her staff never was willing to explore how we set up something in Seattle to help women and people of color get access to tech jobs through apprenticeships.”

Tech hub turmoil

Durkan takes questions from reporters following a June 2019 occasion for Apple’s new Seattle campus. (GeekWire Photo / Monica Nickelsburg)

Shortly after Durkan turned the primary overtly lesbian lady to guide Seattle, San Francisco elected London Breed as the primary black lady mayor of its metropolis. The two share extra in widespread than trailblazing.

After Amazon confronted off with the Seattle City Council over the top tax, San Francisco progressives sought a unique strategy to taxing the enormous tech firms which have reworked their metropolis. They put a brand new income tax on firms with greater than $50 million in gross annual receipts to the voters with a 2018 poll measure known as Proposition C.

Much like Durkan, Breed opposed the plan, and like Seattle’s head tax, a wonky native proposal attracted nationwide consideration when the tech business received concerned. Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff was a vocal supporter of Prop C, and had a public debate on-line with Square and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey over his opposition to the proposal. Dorsey stated that he supported Breed’s different strategy to addressing San Francisco’s homelessness disaster. But not like the top tax, Prop C turned regulation and a courtroom victory in September will unlock the funds raised by the tax for homelessness providers.

Both Breed and Durkan are seen as centrist-leaning politicians in one-party cities. Both have held the chief workplace whereas their cities experimented with novel enterprise taxes designed to seize a few of the wealth generated by tech. Seattle and San Francisco are residence to a few of the largest and strongest know-how firms on the earth, and each cities are grappling with deep inequity and challenges related to their tech booms.

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, Microsoft President Brad Smith, and King County Executive Dow Constantine at a January 2019 launch occasion for Microsoft’s $500 million housing fund. (GeekWire Photo / Monica Nickelsburg)

But Durkan has fielded extra staunch opposition from her critics in current months than Breed has. The anti-Durkan camp went so far as a launching recall marketing campaign till the Washington State Supreme Court tossed out the trouble in October.

Support for the 2 mayors diverged in the course of the Black Lives Matter protests over the summer time. Durkan took warmth for her police division’s use of drive towards protestors, whereas Breed gained help throughout the ideological spectrum for a proposal to reinvest funding from police to the Black group, SF Weekly stories.

In New York, the nation’s different main tech hub, the comparability is sophisticated by elements distinctive to the metropolis. Tech is one among a number of main industries in New York, the place managing the coronavirus disaster has eclipsed most different points over the previous 12 months. But in a parallel to Durkan’s tenure, the enterprise group has criticized New York Mayor Bill de Blasio for failing to type extra significant partnerships with the personal sector.

Taken collectively, it’s clear that operating a booming, progressive tech hub is a troublesome job by which allies are powerful to maintain. Cities like Seattle, San Francisco, and New York have turn out to be testing grounds for a few of the most progressive financial insurance policies within the nation. At the identical time, the prosperity of these cities hinges on the success of their high employers, a lot of which might endure beneath insurance policies designed to steadiness the scales of financial justice.

Redman, the Seattle enterprise capitalist, stated it was “sad” that Durkan couldn’t each companion with the native enterprise group and in addition work with the council.

“It is sad because the only way forward in our region is together — government, business, education, activists all working together (with some raised voices at times) to solve the region’s problems and provide an equitable future for all,” she stated.

The challenges are prone to turn out to be much more acute because the long-term penalties of 2020’s telecommuting experiment play out. Many firms have signaled they are going to transfer or dramatically cut back their presence in costly tech cities now that they’ve adjusted to distant work. The forecast for city cores reminiscent of downtown Seattle is especially grim. The neighborhood has been roiled by COVID-related enterprise closures, incidents of violence, and property injury over the previous 12 months inflicting concern for employers.

That is the complicated and dynamic scenario that Seattle’s subsequent mayor will inherit and, maybe, it’s one purpose Durkan selected not to enroll in the job.