When Omar Abdulaim called in to a recent forum on youth health and safety, he was frustrated with a lack of action by the Seattle government.
He recalled a time from several years ago when he met then-Councilmember Bruce Harrell and asked him to help Abdulaim’s youth football program in Rainier Beach stay afloat despite high facility-usage fees at a city-owned field.
“And basically you said you understood what I was dealing with, but that issue never got addressed,” a noticeably frustrated Abdulaim said when given the chance to ask questions of now-Mayor Harrell during the virtual event hosted by the SE Seattle PEACE Coalition in late March.
Abdulaim used the minuteslong back-and-forth to demand action from Harrell on issues ranging from crime and youth safety to affordable housing and property taxes.
Harrell, who had been characteristically laughing and joking at the expense of his staff on the call just before Abdulaim began, suddenly became more serious. He told Abdulaim he remembers the conversation the pair had outside of South Shore Middle School years ago, and pledged to have staff check on the status of city facility fees and scholarships.
No promises of affordable housing, lower crime or lower property taxes — not even lower fees for the football team — were made to Abdulaim during the Zoom event. But by the end of the exchange, Abdulaim was praising and trusting Harrell.
“I’m pretty sure you’re doing everything you can to try to solve all these problems. I know you have a big task at hand. I know your heart’s in the right place,” he told the mayor. “And I truly believe that you will do what’s right with what you have to work with. I truly believe that.”
Harrell, whose campaign and early days in office have been propelled more by charisma than bold policy, said that exchanges like this one with Abdulaim show not only the importance of rebuilding trust with the community, but his ability to do so.
And as Monday marks 100 days leading a city that is pulling itself out of the economic and social rubble of the COVID-19 pandemic, while seeing an increase in some crimes, a complicated budget and a perpetual housing crisis, Harrell is making who he is as a person the bedrock of how he’s running the city.
“My authenticity and my record speak for itself,” said Harrell, a former civil rights and employment attorney who during his legal career challenged the likes of Boeing and the city of Seattle. “I have always stood up for those who are underrepresented and were putting powers in check.”
While acknowledging his own power as mayor, Harrell said one of his first priorities has been using his people skills to reestablish trust, hope and “local patriotism” in those who feel dejected by the city.
“They’ve witnessed an overhanded approach throughout this country by police officers. They’ve witnessed just incredible levels of income inequality when they see such wealth and such poverty in the same city. And they witnessed inaction by City Hall in the terms of the mayor and the City Council working together,” Harrell told The Seattle Times.
“The hand that I’ve been dealt”
In her first 100 days, Jenny Durkan, Harrell’s predecessor, signed multiple executive orders and pushed policy through the City Council to address housing, education and infrastructure, identifying herself as an “impatient mayor.“
Since he took office, Harrell has taken a slower approach to public policy, without a public plan for the first 100 days. He has not shared a set of specific goals for his first year in office either.
Instead, he says, his early days have been focused on studying the city and the office he inherited.
“We will be describing in better detail our one-year, two-year, three-year, four-year plans. But I think, quite candidly, an accurate assessment of the hand that I’ve been dealt as the 57th mayor — understanding, fully understanding, that hand is the first order of business,” he said.
That hand, he says, is made difficult by vacancies in the executive department; the number of interim department heads, like the police chief and the director of the department of transportation, for which Harrell has named search committees; a lack of internal communication systems; a projected revenue deficit in 2023; and a “devastated and demoralized” Seattle Police Department.
“I believe, as a leader, that it would be premature to describe accurately what can be done before such an intelligent assessment could be done,” Harrell said. “We can have goals and we’ve described goals, even while I was a candidate, but goals are meaningless unless you have the data and the information to make change.
“What’s more important for me is sustainable change, not quick headlines.”
Throughout his run for mayor, Harrell made several promises — with an emphasis on lowering crime and homelessness in the city — earning him nearly 60% of the vote in November’s general election.
While few of those commitments had deadlines, the mayor has boasted of making progress on them.
In an interview with The Seattle Times editorial board last year, Harrell and opponent M. Lorena González described actions they would take to address housing in the first 100 days, if elected.
Harrell committed to “identifying the first 1,000 units we will have operational in the first six months; bringing outreach and programs to scale that help people in inhumane conditions transition from parks and sidewalks to housing and services; prioritizing areas that need immediate engagement, including school and park properties that are incompatible with encampments,” beginning “on Day One.”
Last week, the administration refused to share how many units had been identified so far, but said they were on track to meeting the benchmark and that the mayor would identify 2,000 units of “emergency housing,” including shelter spaces, hotel/motel rooms, temporary housing and permanent affordable housing, by the end of 2022.
The city also helped raise more than $10 million in private donations for the King County Regional Homelessness Authority’s Partnership for Zero, an initiative to fund housing and peer navigators for those living without shelter.
Harrell has also noticeably increased the number of homeless encampment removals, noting that the city has done 30 encampment clearings and made over 300 housing referrals since the start of his term.
“What I want to impress upon you and others is that these are long-term projects,” Harrell said, noting that clearing larger encampments, like the one at Woodland Park, would take longer to execute and to find housing for those individuals.
Some voters, like tiny house resident Harold Odom, who hasn’t had permanent housing in about 13 years, says Harrell’s approach to homelessness so far has been “aggressive” in the wrong ways.
For example, Odom says the swift clearing of an encampment across the street from City Hall in March indicates the mayor’s disregard for unhoused people.
“That block was cleared so he didn’t have to see it,” Odom said. “But people are hurt and crying out for help and dying on the street and Mayor Harrell doesn’t give a hoot.”
“If you put people out of sight, they’re out of mind.”
Instead of focusing on so many early clearings, Odom said that he and other members of the Lived Experience Coalition, a community group of homeless and formerly homeless people, would like to see improved shelter conditions and more housing stock created to actually house those in need.
“We have to make shelters better, we have to have housing stock, and it looks like under Mayor Harrell that’s not going to happen,” he said Friday.
On his campaign website, Harrell also promised to dedicate a minimum of 12% of the city’s budget to the housing crisis, and at least 50% of the city’s American Rescue Plan funds to “housing and services.”
Last week, he said it is still “an achievable goal” for the city to allocate 12% to housing, but noted that uncertainty in the budget could change that figure.
“We’re proceeding along the lines with that assumption, but I will say that we’re still reviewing the budget,” Harrell said, noting a projected shortfall in the city’s 2023 budget.
Harrell announced during his State of the City address in February that if revenues and expenditures were to stay the same as in the 2022 budget — which was formed by Durkan and the City Council before Harrell took office — the city could face a projected revenue gap in 2023, as one-time COVID-related funds propping up new spending in the current budget go away.
“The 12% number is still a goal that we’re trying to achieve,” Harrell said, adding that he “will reserve [his] right to make a course change if the data suggests we make a course change.”
Relatedly, Harrell will not be able to meet his commitment to allocate 50% of the one-time funding toward housing, since the funds were budgeted in the 2021 and 2022 spending plans, before he was in office.
Harrell said last week he would “always” consider additional tax revenue as an option, noting that he will be forming a working group of big businesses, small businesses, community members and tax reform advocates to look at “all possibilities.”
His other promises, and much of his early work, have centered on public safety.
Broadly, Harrell promised throughout the campaign to crack down on crime while providing a reformed approach to criminal justice.
Since being in office, Harrell has focused on “stabilizing” areas of town with high crime rates, including Third Avenue and the intersection of 12th and Jackson, where an emphasis on felony arrests and visible increase in police presence have shown early progress in clearing the areas of street crime. The effort, coined Operation New Day, resulted in 80 felony arrests over two months at 12th and Jackson.
Harrell and interim police Chief Adrian Diaz, whom the mayor is encouraging to apply for the permanent position in his upcoming nationwide search, say the program will address other areas as hot spots are identified.
But, Harrell says, his public safety initiative will also involve Police Department reform.
Relying again on his people skills, Harrell said in a recent interview he will personally reach out to each Seattle police officer in order to spread his vision of a reformed department.
“I will be visiting every single precinct and every single shift this summer talking to every officer, checking in with them so they understand my vision for the city, which is a safe city with bias-free policing,” Harrell said.
Senior Deputy Mayor Monisha Harrell also said the administration is researching ways to establish a third public safety department, separate from police and fire, to provide alternative responses to certain emergency calls.
The department would address calls that need “more social work level of skill than criminal justice skill,” including some mental health and domestic violence calls.
“If somebody was having a heart attack, and you called 911, you wouldn’t expect a gun and badge response, right? You would expect them to bring you an EMT,” she said, noting that in the early 20th century, police would respond to such calls before medical specialists became a part of emergency response teams.
“That’s the way this additional department would likely work, is, ‘What are those things in which a gun and badge response isn’t appropriate,’” she said.
Chief Operating Officer Marco Lowe, who has worked with three other mayors, says that Harrell’s love for “government minutiae,” including reorganizing departments and establishing new workflows, has been one of the biggest feats of the new administration.
“I think you need to work on the systems first. If you don’t have operations and things working the way you want them to, it would be very hard to make the much grander step of implementing policy change,” Lowe said.
Deputy Mayor of Housing and Homelessness Tiffany Washington, who has also worked in previous administrations, said that Harrell is creating the city’s Unified Response team and “breaking down silos” between different departments that used to handle housing and homelessness.
Now, with better communication and data collection in addressing the housing crisis, Washington is optimistic this administration can effect change.
“I know that citizens are weary and lack trust and have been given plans ad nauseam over the last couple of decades,” Washington said. “But I will say that I’ve seen more progress in just the last three or four months than I’ve seen in the totality of my time in the city. And, for the first time, I can truly say that I believe that we will make progress.”
For Abdulaim, who cautiously shares that optimism despite his frustration with Harrell and others in government, he hopes that change becomes real for people outside of City Hall.
“I think the mayor’s a lot like President Obama when he took office, because he came into a mess, but he’s brought us a lot of hope as a native son of this community who has skin in the game,” Abdulaim said.
“I just hope we actually feel the changes he says he can make.”