On occasion, more controversial politicians have upstaged Seattle City Council member Bruce Harrell, but that speaks to his credit. Harrell wields his words like weapons: His voice is sometimes lost among the council’s parliamentary tedium, but it booms when he takes up an issue, including job rights for ex-convicts and public nursing rules for new mothers. And by announcing this week that he’s running for mayor, ready with a slew of ideas to set the city on a new course, Harrell will be thrust into the civic spotlight where he’s most at ease.
Facing six opponents, the chair of the council’s Public Safety, Civil Rights, and Technology Committee nonetheless finds himself at a convenient crossroads of support. He will be uniquely positioned to satisfy a base that knows him as a social-justice advocate—reining in a troubled police department—while appealing to influential business lobbies. They’re two constituencies that tend to clash, but then again, Harrell’s five years in office have defined him as uncommonly independent.
“Bruce has always been known as his own guy,” says Seattle city attorney Pete Holmes, who has not made any endorsement in the mayor's race, and applauds Harrell’s work to appoint a strong court monitor to oversee police reforms (despite pushback from Mayor Mike McGinn).
Already, Harrell has made several specific promises, including a plan to fund a year of community college for all public-high-school graduates, set rigorous new standards to gauge the police department’s effectiveness, and organize a statewide initiative on gun control. “My groundswell will come from peeling off a lot of people in the different bases,” Harrell says, citing labor, parents with children in public school, business, and legal blocs (he’s also an attorney).
For an example of Harrell’s fancy political footwork, Holmes says you can look to the spring of 2010, when Harrell crossed polarized factions in city hall. Mayor McGinn was facing off against a wealthy downtown business conglomerate that was lobbying hard to penalize aggressive panhandlers. The city council had just narrowly passed a bill, but the mayor threatened to veto it. (The tourism industry argued that new panhandling fines would make visitors feel safer, while advocacy groups and lawyers questioned whether the bill was even constitutional.) So McGinn—an opponent of the deep-bore tunnel who was also locking horns with the council—nixed the panhandling bill at a press conference. And who was there to back up the embattled mayor? Harrell. Harrell disagreed with the mayor on the tunnel and he was certainly an ally of downtown business, yes, but he’d also opposed the panhandling bill on ethical grounds and came to the mayor’s defense.
“Mayor McGinn could cure cancer tomorrow and the headlines would read ‘Mayor cures cancer too late,’” Harrell jokes. It’s an affable speech, but a daring one to make in front of newspaper reporters.
That moment encapsulates Harrell’s style as a politician who has refused to be beholden to one ally or the other, and who is now even challenging the very mayor he defended a few years ago. “I take pride in the fact that I have a lot of people around me who challenge me and what I do,” says the 54-year-old candidate from Seattle’s Central District. “The people around me know that they can cuss me out or praise me and they will still be my friend. Having worked with this mayor, I don’t know that he’s as open to opposing feedback as a strong leader should be.”
Although elected twice to the city council, Harrell may not be as well-known as the local giants who have already joined the crowded mayor’s race. In fact, when he ran for reelection last year, a poll on our website found that 45 percent of our readers did “not know anything about Bruce Harrell.” As he faces off in a race with titanic challengers in this election—including McGinn, Council Member Tim Burgess, former council member Peter Steinbrueck, and state senator Ed Murray—the attention on the mayor’s race gives Harrell a civic platform to charm the hell out of Seattle.
Which isn’t to say that Harrell is relying on theatrics.
Among Harrell’s accomplishments: systemically switching the city to cost-saving, environmentally conscious LED streetlights when he chaired the council’s City Light Committee. Next month, Harrell says, he expects to pass a bill that would ban companies in Seattle from asking about the criminal record of people applying for employment or denying them jobs based on that history (except in certain circumstances). “This is a policy change that can help us with recidivism, and the data is overwhelming that when employment increases, crime decreases,” Harrell says. “It has upset many people in the business community, but in that process, I think I’ve gotten nearly all of them to come around because I have forced a very difficult discussion about what our society does to people who have committed crimes and how they are treated.” Harrell says he has the votes to pass it. And if such a bill costs him the donations of some well-heeled campaign donors, that’s not a concern.
“I honestly believe that this particular campaign is not going to be a race to see who raises the most money,” Harrell says. “I think money is used for publicity, and this race will get a lot of publicity. I will raise enough money to be very competitive, and there are plenty of people waiting to write me checks. But I want this to be about who has the best ideas.”
And Harrell has plenty of innovative—if unconventional—ideas.
Harrell wants to use his position as mayor to help expand a program at two South Seattle high schools that guarantees graduates one year at community college. By raising a $20 million endowment, he says, that promise of offering a 13th year of education can be extended to all students enrolled in Seattle Public Schools. “Under my leadership, I will raise that $20 million and we will send a message to these kids that going to college is there for them,” he says. He would also use that bully pulpit to run a statewide initiative allowing cities, such as Seattle, to enact gun controls more restrictive than state law. “Rather than rely on Olympia to afford us that relief,” he says, that freedom would allow Seattle to “tailor laws to protect our city.”
Harrell further vows to maintain efforts to affix body cameras to Seattle police officers, thereby creating a video record of incidents, increasing transparency and accountability.
I also ask Harrell about race. Half Japanese and half African American, Harrell doesn’t think it makes a difference. “This city has clearly demonstrated a willingness to look beyond race when electing people,” he says, adding, “I don’t subscribe to the belief that all communities of color think alike.” And while that’s true, it may also be true that in a city with a growing Asian population—and an African American population looking for a police force more sensitive to racial minorities—a mixed-race candidate may have an irresistible appeal to some voters.
It certainly seemed to help at a packed reelection campaign fundraiser in 2011, when roughly 80 percent of the crowd was nonwhite. “As an elected official, there is envy in my heart because it is difficult to get such a diverse group… together for one politician,” Larry Gossett, the only African American on the King County Council, told me at the time.
And Harrell acknowledges that his own background is key to understanding why he’s running for mayor. His grandfather moved to Seattle in 1942 without a high-school education, and his Japanese grandfather arrived about a decade earlier. “This was a time when racial bigotry was common practice,” Harrell says, but Seattle showed them the compassion that allowed them to be successful. Nowadays, he says that compassion is lacking, people are divided into camps. “For instance, I will define you as someone who rides the bus, and you will define me as someone who drives a car,” he laments. “As a community leader and a mentor, I try hard to listen and to understand the needs of people. So you ask why I run for mayor, and I say I am running for mayor because I want to resurrect that spirit in this city of compassion and understanding.”
This article has been updated to clarify that Holmes has not made an endorsement in the mayor's race.