A well-dressed crowd left work a little early one day last month and rode the escalators to the Westin’s Grand Ballroom for a Seattle mayoral forum sponsored by Seattle’s business leaders. Eight candidates shared the stage.
“I’m running for mayor because I am the strongest candidate up here,” said Bruce Harrell in his introduction. “I mean literally: I can bench press more than anybody up here.”
The business crowd cracked up.
Fast-forward three hours, and Harrell, a second-term city-council member, had removed his tie for a Rainier Valley forum at the Boys & Girls Club.
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He spoke frankly about youth violence and his own upbringing in the Central District in the 1960s, and the teenagers in the room applauded when he told them his hopes for them went beyond their just staying out of trouble.
“I want you to be empowered. I want you to be creative,” he told them, gesturing to a young woman in the crowd. “I’ve got to protect my little sister over here to make sure she can fly.”
Harrell’s ease in both situations illustrates the theme of his campaign. As mayor, he would bring strength and compassion, he says, a combination of boardroom toughness and street credibility that can knit together a city too often divided along socio-economic lines.
His campaign is grounded in social justice, and at a recent forum in the Central District, where Harrell grew up, he referred to it as a “movement.”
“We all do fine on the issues,” he said, gesturing down the row of candidates. “Only one leader can inspire a community, because I am the community.”
His energy and ability to win over crowds has made him a standout at campaign events in the crowded mayoral primary, where he is one of four big-name candidates in the running to get through to the general election in November.
Those who criticize Harrell don’t really know him, said James Kelly, the former longtime head of the local Urban League and Harrell’s former brother-in-law.
“He’s competent, courageous, passionate, dedicated, committed,” Kelly said. “Sometimes those attributes get misconstrued, and so I just think that, you know, once people get to know him, they will know him as a mayor they will like.”
In a mayor’s race as much about style as substance, Harrell portrays himself as an executive who doesn’t have time to mess around.
On the council for the past six years, Harrell has refused briefings from City Council staff — a routine he said is too time-consuming.
“Time is too critical for me,” he said. “Rather than waste 30 minutes to an hour briefing me, get me the documents, and I’ll let you know if I have any questions.”
Harrell’s aversion to meetings is one of his major differences with Mayor Mike McGinn, whom Harrell says does too much talking.
“I think big, and I do big things, and that’s how I have served two terms on the City Council,” he said.
Harrell and McGinn share a stubborn aversion to pandering to Seattle’s downtown interests.
In 2010, in the contentious early days of McGinn’s term, Harrell split with council leadership and sided with the mayor in opposing a law intended to crack down on aggressive panhandling.
As on other major legislation, Harrell stayed quiet until he had made up his mind. And then he let loose. On the council, Harrell is known for giving lengthy speeches that give no indication of which way he will vote until the last second.
His speechmaking has not always served him well. He faced criticism last year after a strange speech he made at a news conference the day of the Cafe Racer shootings.
He said, “I’m happy to be here,” and continued:
“You know, May 30 is generally a time of celebration … [but] May 30 was a tragic day for this city. A time where we celebrate the graduations of our kids, we go to proms, we fish, we golf. Tragic day.”
Last spring, Harrell joined two of the council’s most powerful members, Sally Clark and Tim Burgess, in publicly criticizing McGinn’s combative handling of a U.S. Department of Justice report on the Seattle Police Department.
Then a few weeks ago, he changed his tack. Harrell said he would have taken an even more aggressive approach than the mayor, suing if necessary to demand more information about the department’s findings.
It’s an unexpected flip-flop, and makes Harrell vulnerable to critics who say that if McGinn was too adversarial, then Harrell would have been even worse.
The downtown business community has not endorsed Harrell or given him much money, and the nonpartisan Municipal League gave him the lukewarm rating, “good.”
But Harrell is among the top candidates because of his strong campaign fundraising — nearly $200,000 so far — and deep roots. His top contributors are attorneys, Microsoft employees and representatives of the car-for-hire industry, which wants Harrell’s City Council committee to allow them to legally compete with taxi drivers.
Harrell’s campaign literature asks voters to imagine life with “a visionary mayor” like him.
“I have a healthy ego,” he said recently. “I think everyone should, quite candidly.”
Brains, not brawn
Harrell, a four-year linebacker for the University of Washington, was expected to be an early-round draft pick for the NFL. But he passed it up to go to law school, compelled, he said, by the possibility of changing the world with his brains instead of his brawn.
“He was, if you could say it, the perfect competitor and student,” said Jim Lambright, Harrell’s coach at the UW. “If he believes in something, then you want him on your side.”
Lambright said Harrell was quiet but aggressive, certain of exactly what he wanted.
Harrell worked briefly as a staff aide in the Seattle City Council offices after law school. In 1988, he started work at US West, as a corporate lawyer.
Colleagues said Harrell was a competent lawyer, but people who worked with him even in his 30s said they most admired him for his personal qualities.
“I was always impressed mostly with his humility,” said Corey Ford, a colleague of Harrell’s in the 1980s. “ … You had to force him to talk about football. He was much more focused on his career and what I saw even then, which was a dedication to community service.”
His first boss at US West, Marianne Holifield, said Harrell had confidence and leadership qualities but was not stubborn about changing his mind or yielding to her judgment.
And he never treated anyone differently because of their gender or level in the company, she said.
In 1998, Harrell left US West to start a private practice with three partners. His clients were small-business owners and people who wanted to file civil-rights suits. He was part of a team that filed a class-action suit against Boeing for discrimination against women, and he worked pro bono giving legal advice to local churches.
Modest to wealthy
Harrell refers often on the campaign trail to growing up in the Central Area. His Japanese-American mother worked for the Seattle library, and his African-American dad worked for Seattle City Light. Academics were highly valued at his house, and he used to sit in the kitchen as a child and read to his mother while she did the dinner dishes.
He was valedictorian at Garfield High School.
He met his future wife, Joanne, at US West, and they have three children, the youngest of whom is in high school.
Harrell is quick to say he thinks he could have run for mayor sooner, but he chose to start at the City Council level, running in 2007 against public-affairs consultant Venus Velazquez.
It was a close race when Velazquez got arrested three weeks before Election Day on suspicion of driving under the influence. She was later acquitted.
Harrell said publicly: “It’s an unfortunate situation.” But it sealed his victory.
On the council, he added civil rights to his responsibilities on the committee overseeing technology and City Light. It was an unusual combination, but one that reflected Harrell’s span of interests.
And he made the two work together, pushing for better broadband technology in the city’s poorer neighborhoods, leading the way on a fairer system of replacing burned-out streetlights, since wealthy neighborhoods are more likely to call in outages, and being the first to support body cameras for police officers.
It wasn’t until Harrell was already in the race for mayor that he passed what could be seen as his signature piece of legislation, a bill banning employers from doing criminal background checks on potential employees.
Business leaders lobbied against the bill but ended up praising Harrell for his willingness to compromise on some aspects of it.
Maybe he needed something like that to escape a negative storyline that he is too rich to be mayor, or too out of touch.
Harrell’s wife is a Microsoft executive, and they live in a 7,000-square-foot house near Seward Park, which they bought in 2011 for $1.4 million.
The truth is, Harrell says, he is as much a product of his modest upbringing as the wealth he enjoys today.
“He understands both worlds,” said Kelly. “You can’t punish people for being successful. I think the reality is, we glamorize the wrong stuff. We glamorize athletes but we don’t put in front of people the lawyers like Bruce. … That’s what black kids need.”
Emily Heffter: 206-464-8246 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter: @EmilyHeffter