This summer, during the heat of the primary campaign season, Seattle City Council member Bruce Harrell took me to the Rainier Community Center to watch an intramural basketball game. He shook hands, gave hugs, and asked people about their kids.
"I will guarantee you," he told me emphatically, "when my opponents walk in here, no one will know who they are. So don't tell me I'm out of touch with my community. They are out of touch with my community."
At the time, Harrell—a former lawyer and two-term city council member who considers himself a swing vote on the council—was up against two challengers. With Seattle's switch to district elections, the race was focused sharply on who could prove the deepest connection to South Seattle and the International District, now known as District 2.
Harrell made it through the primary election easily, winning almost 62 percent of the vote and narrowing his competition to one challenger: food policy consultant Tammy Morales. Given the advantages of incumbency, his strong primary showing, and the fact that Harrell had out-fundraised Morales three to one, conventional wisdom said the race was over before it began.
But for anyone who'd written off the race—and, presumably, for Harrell himself, although he didn't respond to requests for an interview for this story—the results on election night were a surprise.
Harrell has indeed been reelected, but by a very slim margin. In the part of the city he claims to know best, most people didn't vote at all. Of those who did, almost half didn't vote for Harrell. In the latest numbers available at press time, Harrell was winning reelection by just 354 votes (with only 22 certified ballots left to count).
Upping the potential consequences of winning by such a narrow margin, sources inside city hall say Harrell is angling to become the next city council president. With allies across the council, including current council president Tim Burgess, he seems likely to get the necessary votes. That means the first council member to represent Seattle's South End in the new district system and the likely new leader of the entire city council will have arrived at his positions with just a few hundred votes to spare.
"That's sort of been Council Member Harrell's claim to fame, right? He is from the community," Brianna Thomas, a political organizer who ran unsuccessfully for a different district seat this year, said at a recent postelection panel in Columbia City. "He has been walking these streets and at that coffee shop at the Safeway forever, and he knows every door in the district. But the votes show that maybe he doesn't know the community as well as he thinks he does."
The results in District 2 have launched a conversation about Harrell's campaign, his connection to the South End, and media coverage of the race for Seattle's only majority-minority district. While some outlets paid attention to the race with news coverage and endorsements, others largely ignored it—probably because of the assumption that Harrell was headed for an easy win. South Seattle Emerald founder and reporter Marcus Green describes the relative lack of District 2 coverage when compared to coverage of other important city council races as being a "voluntary media blackout of our area."
Morales has argued that if reporters and pundits had paid more attention to District 2, the close results on election night wouldn't have come as a surprise.
"I knew because of what I was hearing in the community that Bruce was vulnerable," she says. "That's what gave me confidence... There was a palpable sense of frustration with the type of leadership this community has received."
The numbers bear that out. Between the primary and the general election, according to the most recent available results, Harrell received an increase of about 1,400 votes while votes for Morales grew by far more—about 5,900.
Part of what may have attracted more voters to Morales was the way she sharpened her message for the general election, getting more specific on the issues and aligning herself with socialist council member Kshama Sawant by calling for rent control, progressive taxation, and fees on developers. Morales also ran a fierce door-knocking campaign. (Although The Stranger switched its endorsement from Harrell to Morales between the primary and the general, most of the people in District 2 who I interviewed for this story credited Morales's evolution more than this newspaper's switch.)
Some, like former 37th Legislative District chair and Harrell supporter Michael Wolfe, say the lower voter turnout in District 2 contributed, too. Wolfe predicts the final results will show "underperformance in communities that would traditionally support Bruce." As of this writing, only 19,800 ballots had been received and counted in District 2, which is home to about 90,000 residents and nearly 50,000 registered voters.
The assumption that Harrell would win easily, Wolfe says, may have led some of his supporters to just sit this election out.
South Seattle Emerald's Marcus Green describes Harrell's reputation in the district in one word: "polarizing."
On one end of the spectrum, Green says, "people are somewhat fed up with the establishment and its seeming nonresponsiveness to [their] concerns. For good or ill, I think Bruce Harrell represents that for some people because he's been in city hall eight years." Green and others say the issues facing South Seattle and the International District aren't so different from other parts of the city—particularly housing affordability and gentrification—but that they're compounded by a historic lack of city investment in the area. To address violence in the district, advocates say Harrell, who is currently the chair of the council's public safety committee, should emphasize police accountability and alternatives to jail, rather than only hiring more officers.
"On the flip side," Green says, "there are other people who would say this is a very strong African American male, and we have a large swath of African Americans in this community. He's the embodiment, if you will, of the American dream."
Given that dynamic, it's unclear what effect Harrell's narrow win will have on his future as council president.
The council presidency is part boring administrative work and part powerful citywide representative. The president has to show up at a lot of press conferences with the mayor, which can be a distraction from council business. But the president also gets to set the agenda and timing of when legislation gets voted on, and he or she plays a key role in deciding who chairs which council committee, which can shape legislation. The spot is ripe for politicization and fireworks, if the person in the seat is so inclined.
Just because he was barely reelected doesn't mean Harrell will face an uprising on the council. He has a good relationship with the mayor and most of the people who will make up next year's city council. But the mix of needing to represent a district and being council president will be new. Harrell's role could elevate the interests of South Seattle to a new level, if he chooses to make that his focus. On the flip side, if he's seen as favoring his citywide role at the expense of the South End, he'll be in trouble when he's up for election again in 2019.
"We want to see some real support," says Dominique Davis, who runs the 180 Program, which offers youth mentorship and workshops as an alternative to jail time. Davis is an outspoken critic of the voter-approved rebuilding of the King County juvenile detention center and says the city should put more funding toward alternatives to incarceration for youth. (Harrell and most other city council members voted for the land use bill that will allow the new jail to be built, but the city's involvement with the project is limited since it's a county project. This year, he voted for a non-binding resolution setting a city goal of zero youth detention and co-sponsored a budget amendment to spend $600,000 on alternatives to youth incarceration.) Davis says he reluctantly supported Harrell in this year's election, but he wants to see more of a focus on education and juvenile justice.
"Bruce is not the worst guy in the world," Davis says, "but at the end of the day, where is the proof? What has he shown us? There's nothing I can say he's done that made me go, 'Yeah. Good job. That's what we needed.' And a lot of people feel the same way."
When asked what Harrell should take away from such a narrow victory, multiple people I talked to for this story used the word "humility." One said he was "cocky" and the results should serve as a "wake-up call." They all emphasized accessibility inside and outside of campaign season.
Again, Harrell didn't respond to my requests for an interview, so I can't talk to him directly about this. But people inside the district say he didn't run much of a ground campaign because he seemed so confident he'd win.
Morales, on the other hand, "was able to reach people who normally don't take part in local elections," says Sheley Secrest, a past president of the Seattle King County NAACP who lives in the district and endorsed Harrell. "That's something Bruce will have to take into account. He'll have to answer to a lot more people who are watching."
A couple weeks before Election Day, Morales and other candidates took part in a rally for housing affordability outside City Hall. There, a South Seattle tenant named Sahro Farah took the mic.
Farah is a tenant of Carl Haglund, a landlord who Council Members Kshama Sawant and Nick Licata and others had protested for raising rents despite poor living conditions. Like Sawant, Harrell visited Farah's apartment building to see the conditions. But Farah told the crowd at the rally that, despite calling Harrell's office, she didn't get a response until after she contacted Sawant and Licata and they staged a press conference at her building.
A month after that rally, as the city council voted on a lengthy list of changes to the mayor's budget (including some Harrell introduced), he was absent. His office wouldn't say why.
Inaccessibility was an often-repeated critique of Harrell during the campaign—and one those of us in the media know well. Districts will demand a change in form.
Sharon Maeda, a longtime activist in the International District, began this year's election season supporting Harrell but later switched to Morales. She says that after Harrell's first year on the city council, she heard from community members that he'd stopped returning calls. She says she urged him to be more responsive but she became only "more and more disappointed over time."
"I think this close race, more than anything else, shows that people are hungry for somebody in government who will pay attention to them," Maeda says. "In some ways, it's a chance for him to start all over again."