Political News

How a series of sexual abuse allegations doomed Seattle's mayor

Posted September 13

Seattle Mayor Ed Murray is facing allegations for sexual abuse.

Embattled Seattle Mayor Ed Murray, a Democrat, finally resigned this week -- after months of sexual abuse allegations from a quartet of men. Murray's resignation drew national attention -- the "Today" show mentioned the story in its first five minutes Wednesday morning -- but Murray has been a big story in the Pacific Northwest for a while now. For some context -- and a look at what comes next -- I reached out to Jim Brunner, the Seattle Times political reporter who has been leading the way on the Murray story. Our conversation, conducted via email and lightly edited for flow, is below.

Cillizza: Let's start with the basics. How did Murray get elected? And what was his reputation prior to all of this?

Brunner: Ed Murray has been a big deal in Democratic politics in Seattle for a long time. He was state legislator for 18 years, representing Seattle's 43rd legislative district. In Olympia, he'd built a reputation as a skilled lawmaker -- a progressive pragmatist -- who was at the center of budget deals and multi-billion dollar transportation packages. He's also been a gay rights pioneer who was prime sponsor of our state's gay marriage law. Over the years, Murray had a good relationship with the media. He liked talking to reporters, though he could be thin-skinned over perceived criticisms.

He'd had his eye on the mayor's office for a while, and took the leap in 2013, beating incumbent Mike McGinn. He moved fast on a lot of big issues in his first term, putting in place a phased-in $15-an-hour minimum wage, declared a homelessness emergency (which still remains), up-zoned neighborhoods to make way for more housing, and has been cooking up an arena deal to try to lure the NBA back to Seattle. Before these sex-abuse allegations came out, he was generally popular and seen as a shoo-in for election to a second term this fall.

Cillizza: When did the allegations against him begin to be aired publicly? And how quickly did things move after that?

Brunner: Everything started collapsing for Murray in April, when a lawsuit was filed against him in King County Superior Court by a 46-year-old man initially known in court papers only as "D.H." That man, who later revealed his name as Delvonn Heckard, claims Murray raped and molested him decades ago, paying him for sex when Heckard was a drug-addicted teenager roaming the streets of Seattle. At the same time, me and my colleague Lewis Kamb reported in The Seattle Times on two other men who were also making sexual abuse allegations -- stretching back to when Murray lived in Portland in the 1980s. A fourth accuser, a friend of Heckard's, later emerged with similar claims.

One of those men, Jeff Simpson, had been Murray's live-in foster son for about a year. He reported Murray's alleged abuse, which he said began when he was 13, in 1984 after being removed from Murray's home. There was a police investigation, but no criminal charges were filed. However, an Oregon child-welfare investigator concluded Simpson's claims of abuse were valid, leading that state to say Murray should never again be permitted to be a foster parent. Murray left Portland and moved to Seattle after the investigation. Records of the 1984 investigation had stayed buried for years, with officials saying they'd been destroyed. But the Oregon Department of Human Services earlier this year found the records in an old file and released them to The Seattle Times in July under public-disclosure laws.

Murray has vehemently denied all of the claims -- at times suggesting they're motivated by some sort of right-wing political conspiracy. He and his allies sought to discredit the accusers over their lengthy criminal and drug records -- which led to blowback against the mayor from abuse survivors and others.

Murray ended his bid for reelection in May but had rejected calls to resign until this week. Seattle's LGBTQ Commission and a couple City Council members had urged him to quit, along with the state's Republican Party chair. But most of the City Council and four former mayors had continued to back Murray finishing his term despite all the claims against him.

CIllizza: Why did Murray resign this week? Was there a straw that broke the camel's back?

Brunner: For all his denials and previous political support, Murray could not survive a fifth claim this week which came from inside his own family. On Tuesday, Kamb and I reported that Joseph Dyer, a younger cousin of the mayor's, alleges he was sexually abused by Murray in the 1970s in New York.

Murray, then in his early 20s, had gone there to live with relatives following the death of his mother. He shared a bedroom with Dyer, who was then about 13. Dyer claims Murray sexually abused him repeatedly for the year or so he lived with the family. Murray said that claim also is untrue and attributed it to a longstanding rift in his extended family. He initially told us he would not resign. But within hours of the story breaking, he changed course and announced he'd leave office effective 5 p.m. Wednesday.

Cillizza: Who becomes mayor now? And is there any sort of legal proceeding against Murray?

Brunner: In the very short term, Seattle City Council President Bruce Harrell will become mayor. He'll have five days to decide whether he wants to serve out the last couple months of Murray's term -- but he may not want to do that since he'd have to give up his council seat.

If Harrell decides against the short-term appointment, the council will pick another of its members to be mayor for that period. We have an election in November between former US Attorney Jenny Durkan and local urban planner and activist Cary Moon. (Sidenote: Moon or Durkan will become only Seattle's second female mayor and the first since Bertha Knight Landes was elected in 1926!)

Because of Murray's resignation, the winner of the Durkan-Moon race will take office immediately after the election results are certified in November, instead of waiting to be sworn in in January as is usually the case.

As far as legal matters, there is no active claim against Murray and statutes of limitations could make civil lawsuits difficult for his accusers. Heckard withdrew his lawsuit in June after some legal setbacks but said he intends to re-file after Murray leaves office. Heckard has filed a claim against the city of Seattle, seeking millions of dollars in damages. His claims says the mayor used his public position to "falsely and defamatorily" accuse Heckard, who is gay, of participating in "an anti-gay right wing conspiracy."

Cillizza: Finish this sentence: "The collective response in Seattle when Murray resigned was _______." Now, explain.

Brunner: "Relief."

Whatever you make of the accusations against Murray, it was hard to see how he could hang on to the job in any even-marginally-effective way given the latest allegations. Even those who had been defending him staying in office after four accusations changed their minds after Murray's own cousin added his accusations to the mix. Durkan, who had accepted Murray's endorsement, called for him to resign immediately following the latest story. Within a couple hours, she'd scrubbed his name from her website.

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