Bruce Harrell is ending his 12-year career on the Seattle City Council.
Bruce Harrell is ending his 12-year career on the Seattle City Council. Lester Black

A new Seattle City Council is taking shape at City Hall this month. When the holidays are over and the New Year has begun, oaths of office will be sworn and the new members will join returning members to take Seattle into the new decade. But for the first time in 12 years, Council Member Bruce Harrell won't be part of the effort.

After three terms in office, the current council president decided not to run for reelection this year. Harrell, 61, a former corporate attorney and University of Washington football star, will be replaced by community organizer Tammy Morales.

A lot has changed since Harrell first took office. When he won his first election, Amazon employed fewer than 5,000 people in Seattle (they now employ over 50,000 inside the city), the national economy was deep in recession, and George W. Bush was still president.

More than 140,000 people have moved to Seattle since Harrell took office, and when he leaves City Hall next month, a piece of Seattle as we know it will leave with him: the Seattle City Council will lack a black person for the first time in 52 years. Harrell's story is part of a disappearing thread of Seattle's multicultural past. He was born in Seattle in 1958 to a Japanese mother and a black father. His mother had been detained in a Japanese internment camp in Idaho during World War II. His father’s family had left the deep south for better opportunities in the Pacific Northwest.

The Stranger recently sat down with Harrell to learn what he’s going to do in his post-council life, what he's proud of, what he regrets from his tenure on the council, what he thinks about Amazon’s attempt to buy this year’s election, and what he thinks about the new City Council lacking an African-American person for the first time in more than five decades.

You’ve been working in this building for 12 years—what are you going to do that first week that you are officially not on the clock here?

My wife told me we are going on a vacation. I’m not even sure where we are going, we might just take a drive somewhere. But [after that] I am going to keep working. I’ll announce in the later part of the year something I will be doing. I am an attorney by profession and I will be doing some quasi-legal work.

So only a couple of weeks off? You’re not even going to give yourself a full month off?

Yeah, you know I only know how to stay active. A close friend of mine lost a sibling in the last couple of weeks and took some time off of work as she should. She was healing and she lost her sister. It occurred to me that while I have been in office I lost my mother and my older brother. I didn’t share that a lot around here, but I never missed a day of work. The reason I didn’t is because I realized I deal with emotional challenges by staying busy. Sitting around and just chilling on a beach is not how I heal. So we all heal and process things differently and, for me, quote-unquote retiring or doing nothing or working at half-mast is just not in my DNA.

When you leave this building next month will there be specific goals of yours that you feel are unfinished? Will there be things in your mind that you wish you had accomplished, or done differently?

Yes. Did I accomplish all of the things I really want to accomplish? I would say no, because I read a lot and as I continue to read my thinking continues to evolve. I’m reading more and more about job creation, good job creation… And the more I read about job creation, the more I wonder whether I personally, or collectively as a council, we focused on job creation as much as we should have.

We focus on homelessness, housing affordability, and education, and all of these things are incredibly important. And when I think about upstream services and what a good job does for a person’s self-esteem and an ability to sustain themselves and how many problems can in fact be solved by a good job? I think I might have underestimated that.

That’s interesting to hear, because Seattle has had a lot of job growth during your tenure on the council—job growth that a lot of other places are envious of. But a lot of these jobs that have been created here are really going to people who have recently moved in from out of state. So are you saying there’s not enough jobs for the people who were already here?

That’s why one of the things that I am most proud of, that I have done, is that I’ve thought about that pathway to the good jobs. And whether we are creating the pathway.

An example would be what we developed as the Great Student Initiative, and that is a program that as we speak, a child in public schools on free and reduced lunch can get high speed internet and a laptop inexpensively. This came out as a result of me working with the major carriers—at that point they were Comcast and CenturyLink—and saying, "You have to invest in these young kids because number one, they are going to be your customers someday, but also they are your workers." So we were able to achieve that and that resulted in me receiving a national award because they rolled it out nationally.

And then, [another program I'm proud of is] 13th Year. We had just one briefing that we looked at a lot of the kids coming out of school with a 2.6 GPA. Well what is a child supposed to do coming out with a 2.6 GPA? They’re not going to get accepted to the major schools... So, it occurred to me that these kids that are graduating from Garfield with a 3.8 or 3.9 GPA, they’re going to be OK. They’re going to get some of these jobs. But a great majority of kids that are just graduating—what is their path?

So, years ago I funded what was called 13th Year, a standalone program through the community colleges. Once you graduate you are automatically accepted and you can go tuition free to these schools. I said that is the key to helping these kids get some of these good jobs. I mustered up the votes a few years ago to put a pilot into our budget and Mayor Jenny Durkan ran on that platform and it became the Seattle Promise program that we fund through the Sweetened Beverage Tax.

The beauty of that program is that once they finish high school they have one year to really get their life together, to think about what their options are and what they want to do. So not only is it job creation, but it’s investing into that pathway for them to get the good jobs. The last thing we want to do is create all of these jobs if we can’t get them for our own people.

Harrell during a July city council meeting.
Harrell during a July city council meeting. Lester Black

When you leave this office, what do you think you will be most proud of in terms of being able to say, “That right there is something that I got done.”

I would say two things. One is the race and social justice legislation. Mayor Nickels started the Race and Social Justice Initiative, which was a brilliant initiative, primarily a public safety initiative to look at what was happening to our young African American kids and how they were killing each other. And when Mayor Mike McGinn won, I looked at his background extensively and I saw zero involvement in communities of color and on issues of racism and discrimination. He came in as an environmentalist and an anti-tunnel advocate.

When he first got elected and during the winter of that year, I began having meetings with many Black employees for the city, primarily department heads and those close to department heads. We were having meetings at my house, 15, 20 African Americans and myself, talking about what the city would look like with this new unknown leader. And it was through those discussions that the idea [came up] of having a race and social justice lens on all of our issue, whether or not we were at the table.

So when he was elected, I then sponsored the race and social justice legislation, which required us to look at all issues through a lens of equity and make sure we were inclusive in our thinking, and that quite candidly was my idea.

I would also say the ban the box legislation that I was the sole sponsor of, I am most proud of because as our country continues to realize the effects of mass incarceration we are also looking at the effect it has on jobs for people who have already paid their debt to society. I did not have hardly any business support or even community support in some circles for that legislation, but I got it passed. And now cities and states are recognizing the damaging effects of barring all felons or misdemeanors for even applying to jobs and the effects it has on homelessness and recidivism.

Your personal family story is pretty incredible, in that one generation ago your mother was interned by the federal government, and you are now sitting in the council president’s office, with floor-to-ceiling windows in one of the wealthiest cities in the country. Was your mother’s history and how the government treated her part of what led you here?

Unequivocally yes… Everything she taught me is still with me. She worked for the city, she was the director of finance for the library, which is probably where my love of books came from. But she also ran for the Seattle city credit union board for three terms and was elected… She imparted a spirit of service to me that became part of my DNA… What went into my DNA was a spirit to serve and a spirit to serve well and take it very seriously, but also do enjoy the journey. If you know my style I bring a lot of levity to a room. I come by that very honestly in that, all of these huge problems that we have—housing affordability, environment sustainability, transportation, public safety—they’re not going to be solved in twelve months, unlikely to be solved in 12 years. So between now and that window we have to enjoy the journey getting there, and I quite candidly don’t think that some elected officials understand that, that the journey is as important as the destination. My mother raised me that way.

We just went through an intense, vitriolic campaign with a huge amount of money going into the election from the business community, especially from Amazon, only to have voters largely reject the business candidates. Do you think there is a mandate for the new council to pass progressive business taxes, and do you think that’s the right path for the new council to take?

I think some companies, like Amazon to be specific, expressed their dissatisfaction in a manner that was totally ill-advised. No voter wants to elect officials who they think are beholden to large corporations. And it astounds me that no one in the rooms where these decisions were made would raise their hand and say, “Hey, this might look like electioneering. This may look like we are trying to buy an election. This may not work out so well for us.” If anything they demonstrated their unawareness of how voters think.

I also think it’s ill-advised to have an axe to grind against these large corporations. What we need and what we should demand is that they come to the table. They must acknowledge that our tax system is hugely unfair. That when companies extract billions and billions of resources and wealth out of a community, that they have an obligation to give back.

Bruce Harrell pictured during his senior year in the 1976 Garfield High School yearbook.
Bruce Harrell pictured during his senior year in the 1976 Garfield High School yearbook. Seattle Public Library

This next Seattle City Council will be the first in 52 years to not have a Black council member on it. I think some people are looking at that and seeing how the city itself has changed. Do you think a lot has been lost in that shift? Is there something sad about this community that you grew up in not having the same strength that it used to have? Or maybe you disagree and it does have the same strength?

No, I think the numbers speak for themselves. That kind of demographic change does sadden me, because there’s so much history that has been lost…

My black grandparents, who came here from New Orleans, Louisiana, [were] part of that journey from down south. This was a movement from around the 1920s to the 1970s where the vast majority of African Americans moved from down south to the cities up north for a very simple reason, jobs and opportunity. And that was a leaderless movement—in fact, if you look at the history books that described that era, most of the African American leaders and the church leaders and the community leaders, many of them were saying, “Stay here.”

I say that, because the African American community has always been mobile in that sense. We grew up in the Central District because we were redlined out of the other areas. That wasn’t part of a led movement to all live in the same area; the options were low. And now that the legal restrictions are open and the city has gotten so expensive to live in, the migration further south is almost a natural byproduct of that.

If you look at the council members in Tukwila, and Kent, and Redmond, and Tacoma, you still have African American electeds. And I know most if not all of them. We still have representation in other cities and we don’t have it here. So yes, it does concern me, but what keeps me optimistic is I have faith that the full council, each member, all nine of them, understand the issues of racism, the issues of underrepresented communities, the issues of immigrant refugee struggles. I’m confident all nine of them will heavily invest and concern themselves with those issues.

The fact of the matter is that this change that we are seeing in the Central District is happening all over the country. Local policies can’t restrict that kind of change in a society where people can buy and sell their own real estate. And when you talk to people—and my parents were prime examples—in the African American community, the equity in our home has always been our greatest vehicle to create wealth, and when you buy an asset that quadrupled in its value, what are you going to do? The same thing that my parents did—they sold it and moved south.

The African American community is indeed resilient and will thrive and survive, perhaps not in the same geographic area but within a community that allows jobs and growth.

Do you think you and the rest of the Seattle City Council could have done more? Were there things that were missed?

I don’t think things were missed. An example would be in this most recent budget, the Seattle Vocational Institute building and another project in the Little Saigon area, and another project in the Central District dealing with the Mt. Zion Church—that I made sure there were monies in the budget to preserve these gems and make sure these buildings stay community based.

Now, you could always do more... Could a drastic policy such as rent control or a zoning mechanism of some sort have stopped the gentrification or slowed it up? Perhaps.

Well, every policy we’ve examined, whether it was our mandatory housing affordability, whether it was spot zones, whether there were public safety investments, what I’ve tried to do in every opportunity is, "Are we encouraging and incentivizing our residents in those areas to stay there?" So, I don’t think I missed anything, but the economic forces that are driving people out, the free market if you will, those are to some extent insurmountable.