An official portrait of former Soviet Union President Mikhail Gorbachev graces Jack Durney’s office at the insurance company that bears the Durney family name and heritage.
Why the attraction to an artifact from a Communist autocrat?
“He was a dictator,” Durney says with a satisfied smile.
The official portrait, however, doesn’t show Gorbachev’s distinctive birthmark on his forehead, something that appears to have been air-brushed out. That’s what makes the Gorbachev likeness all the more appealing and mysterious to the mayor of Hoquiam.
Durney also treasures a photo taken with former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in Seattle, which shows the strapping figure of the mayor of Hoquiam towering over the much more diminutive diplomat.
“As you can tell, he’s quite a bit shorter than I am,” Durney said, recalling the two later met in the dinner buffet line.
“I couldn’t think of a thing to say,” Durney said. “What do you say to Henry Kissinger? I can talk to anybody about anything generally.”
For an insurance salesman from Hoquiam, it was one of Durney’s few speechless moments.
The pair of office mementos help define the fascination the Hoquiam mayor has with how things are run and governed, whether it’s internationally or locally.
Kissinger was part of the Nixon Republican administration Durney was so fond of growing up in the 1960s and through his college years into the early 1970s. He said another friend, former Daily World Publisher John Hughes, would always refer to him as “Barry Goldwater block captain because I was fascinated by him when he ran for president.”
Throughout his youth,Durney was active in Republican organizations from Hoquiam High School to Grays Harbor College, to the University of Washington, where he graduated in 1970 after majoring in political science.
At the UW, Durney was a member of the more moderate College Republicans rather than the more conservative Young Republicans, he says. This was the Republican party of former Gov. Dan Evans, former U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton, who was attorney general at the time, state Secretary of State Ludlow Kramer or Congressman Joel Pritchard, who also served as lieutenant governor.
“I say to this day that I think Dan Evans was the best governor we ever had,” Durney said. “And it was a time of progressive things happening.”
His first role out of college was an Evans appointment to a state project called the Women’s Council in the early 1970s.
“We were dealing with laws that were negatively affecting women,” Durney said. “When women got the vote in the early part of the (20th) century, that didn’t make things equal in a lot of ways. At the time, Ididn’t know anything about that topic, so getting appointed was a real education, and I have been far more interested and supportive of equal rights because of that. It has been a big deal.”
Like many things about Durney, his politics are not just something he believes in but something he practices, whether it is in personal life, business or as the only person who has ever been both the mayor of Hoquiam and the mayor of Aberdeen.
Durney has found himself at odds with his own party over the years.
“Jack was so outraged over Watergate that he publicly resigned from the Republican Party — for a while at least. He has always been an Evans-Rockefeller progressive,” Hughes said.
Durney now considers himself a part of the “mainstream Republicans,” with a moderate and progressive philosophy. He admires the Evans-era Republican party for its commitment to the environment.
“I think the country is screaming for people who aren’t extreme in their political views,” he said.
From experience, Durney knows that you have to compromise to get things done in politics, especially locally. One of his heroes in public service was former Grays Harbor County Commissioner Leighton Powell, who was elected as a Republican but later switched parties to become a Democrat in 1958 and served until 1970. Powell was a friend of the Durney family.
“I was co-chairman for John Earley, the owner of Earley Tire, who was one of my hereos as Port Commissioner,” Durney recalled. “He ran for the Legislature and I was the youth chairman for him. And I worked on the campaign for a Republican by the name of Wayne Adams who ran against Julia Butler Hansen, the longtime Congresswoman from the Third District in 1968.
“In all honesty, I thought some day I would be in the Legislature, some day I would be in Congress.”
Grandfather Robert Durney came to Hoquiam in 1883 and was among a group of men who drove the piles for the old West Mill in Aberdeen (1883-84), according to Ed Van Syckle’s Harbor history book, They Tried to Cut it All.
“He was from an Irish family from New York and came across the country and landed in Hoquiam when he was in his 30s,” Durney said.
After pile-driving, he also was a timber cruiser and then spent some time in Alaska during the gold rush. Durney’s father, Bob (Robert with no middle initial) met his wife Helen at the old Grays Harbor Pulp and Paper mill, and got into the insurance business in 1945 by buying a small business in Hoquiam. His office soon became a focal point for the community, also serving as the office for the Hoquiam Chamber of Commerce.
“He always said that one of the worst things that happened to Hoquiam was merging the Aberdeen and Hoquiam Chambers and creating one Grays Harbor Chamber of Commerce, because we lost our identity,” Durney said.
Bob Durney’s insurance business also branched out by selling tickets for West Coast Airlines, which was flying commercially out of Bowerman Airport at the time. Jack has an old West Coast airline prop in his office.
“He and I would fly up to Seattle on occasion,” Durney recalled of his early experience in the insurance business. “We would fly into Boeing Field and then we would take a taxi because all the insurance companies were downtown. We’d call on Safeco and other companies they represented, and we flew in DC-3s, the backbone of the American Air Force.”
Durney was elected to a third term as mayor in 2011, citing successes in his previous terms such as improving the city’s economy, beautification projects, community-backed sidewalk repairs, updated infrastructure and improved public safety.
Many of those priorities came out of Hometown Hoquiam meetings and a process where Durney and the city had to make some hard choices to set a course for renewal. His community involvement includes prior service on the Hoquiam and Aberdeen city councils, serving as Aberdeen mayor in the late 1970s and early ’80s, and the Board of Trustees of Grays Harbor College.
Durney is known to run meetings smoothly and promptly and believes in working in the background as much as possible when it involves issues he has no direct control over.
“I don’t take a real high profile on some stuff. One of the reasons is how it affects (the insurance) business, and the other is how it affects the city,” Durney said. “I don’t want to imply that if I’m supportive of gay rights or legalizing marijuana that I believe the mayor should be talking about that sort of stuff. When you talk about it, it hurts your effectiveness in getting everybody together to go in some direction.”
One of his best assets, others say, is his ability to choose good people around him, and Durney acknowledges his staff as the main reason for his mayoral accomplishments and Hoquiam’s success.
“His commitment of time and administrative skill to his community as mayor has been extraordinary over all these years,” Hughes said. “He prides himself on hiring bright people and giving them the tools and leeway to do their jobs.”
Durney points to the hiring of City Administrator Brian Shay, Finance Director Mike Folkers, Planner Alissa Thurman and Police Chief Jeff Myers as helping to make Hoquiam one of the most honored small cities in the state.
As a politician and a person, Durney “always chooses to see the best in everyone and works to convince them to join his vision for Hoquiam,” Myers said. And he “reaches out to even those whom have taken cheap shots at him because he wants to do what is right for Hoquiam.”
Shay credits Durney with completing the renovation of the historic train depot, downtown and waterfront improvements, renovated parks, water and sewer improvements, re-opening the jail, a new fire station. There are “residential sidewalk replacements, strong financial reserves, industrial and commercial economic development, the Hoquiam Business Association, Tree City USA, AWC Municipal Excellence Awards, Governor’s Smart Communities Awards, Department of Historic Preservation Awards and much, much more all happened under his watch as mayor.”
“Mayor Durney has exceptional vision and leadership qualities that inspired our staff and our community to make significant improvements to the city even during tough economic times,” Shay said.
Not all runs for political office turned out well for Durney.
Durney once ran for county coroner and lost when his basic platform was that the job was not needed as an elected office and should be staffed by a qualified, hired medical examiner.
“One need have no law enforcement or medical credentials,” Hughes said, recalling that “Jack boasted sarcastically that he was well qualified because he had a Red Cross First-Aid card.”
Durney continues to question the very existence of the position in its current form: “Why is the position partisan?” How in the world would a Democrat function differently than a Republican in that job?”
When he ran for coroner, Durney said he chided the county about paying the corner $4,000-$5,000 a year.
“That position has now mushroomed into a full-time position with several more deputy coroners then we had at that time,” Durney notes.
Ultimately, Durney lost the race in the primary, and he ran as a Democrat.
“The winner, Blaine Jex, had a medical background and occupied the position for two or three terms,” Durney said. “He was a very good guy and I am sure was shaking his head during the entire campaign.”
Durney sets ambitious goals for Hoquiam: economic development, improving the security and appearance of neighborhoods, creating more opportunities for citizens to participate in shaping the community’s future, and “making sure that the City of Hoquiam is well managed and responsive to the need for change.”
Working in the insurance business has afforded him the opportunity to be mayor and still earn a living, with his office only a couple of blocks from City Hall.
“It has allowed me to do what I do in the community other than the business,” Durney said.
He enjoys a good cigar, his vacation home in Tokeland, his children and family, and is a passionate Sounders fan and follower thanks to his son, Patrick, an original season ticket holder.
Mostly, he seems to enjoy figuring out how to get things done.
“Too many people, whether it’s being involved in a union or a political party, leave it to other people to do stuff,” Durney said.
Durney has been doing stuff at the local level since 1971, when another of his early mentors, former Hoquiam Mayor Rolland “Omar” Youmans, was elected County Commissioner.
“I was fresh out of college and lived in the Second Ward, which is downtown. John Baker was appointed to serve out Omar’s term until the next election. And because of Omar’s influence on the council, they appointed me to replace John Baker.”
Years later after serving as Aberdeen mayor, he would move back to Hoquiam again to stay, Durney sold his Aberdeen home to current Aberdeen Mayor Bill Simpson.
“The house is haunted, I guess,” Durney chuckles.
Are there differences in being mayor of Hoquiam compared to mayor of Aberdeen?
“I think communities are different, and I love Aberdeen because I lived there and it’s a part of Hoquiam as Hoquiam is a part of Aberdeen. We’re just twins,” Durney said.
Aberdeen, however, is more challenged, he contends, because it has “disparate communities within the community. They have South Aberdeen and the hill and the flats.”
In Hoquiam, Durney said, the city lives by the old Avis motto: “We try harder.”
“In fact I had buttons made up that said, ‘Hoquiam, we try harder.’ In Hoquiam, we have kind of an inherited inferiority complex to a degree. We want to show that we are better.”
It’s just part of the job to Jack Durney, like initiating a city policy that another tree has to be planted for every tree that is removed or envisioning a wider tree-planting public-private partnership.
Although he no longer sees himself in the Legislature or making a run at Congress, Durney has set his sights on revamping county government through the freeholder process and a charter change, which is a long public process that ultimately goes to voters.
“I believe the result is going to be that the county commissioners will be like mayors in the respect that they will have administrative control over the various functions of county government as they should,” Durney explains. “Moreover, as we do in the cities, they will be able to make sure that all county functions are moving in the same direction and are accountable. Right now, with multiple elected officials, county functions are fractured, incoherent, and are extremely financially inefficient.”
Just one more local issue down the road for the man who was meant to be mayor.
Angelo Bruscas, a Daily World reporter, can be reached at 537-3916, or by email: firstname.lastname@example.org