When Bruce Harrell told Seattle he would “clean up our parks and sidewalks,” hire police and hit a political reset button at City Hall, most voters liked what they heard, electing him mayor in a commanding win.
The next question is how much they’ll like what they see, after passing over, in three of four crucial elections this past week, candidates who pledged to divest from police and prosecutors to other services and to tax the rich and large corporations.
Once they take office in January, Harrell, plus new City Attorney Ann Davison and City Councilmember Sara Nelson, must try to deliver on their campaign promises and quickly show their ideas can work — without completely alienating progressive council members and voters.
That won’t be easy, as Harrell should know, having served on the council for 12 years, including four with M. Lorena González, his opponent.
Emptying homeless encampments, as opposed to pushing them around, will require more services and shelter. The city’s current mayor, Jenny Durkan, broke her campaign vow to site 1,000 tiny houses in her first year; Harrell has called for 2,000 additional shelter spaces in his first year.
Hiring police officers and unarmed first responders into a reformed force, as Harrell has promised to do, will require resources and time. Many top jobs are vacant or filled by interim leaders, including the police chief, and the city’s union contract with police officers expired almost a year ago.
Were Davison (an attorney who narrowly defeated Nicole Thomas-Kennedy) to surrender or lose the city’s legal defense of its new JumpStart Seattle tax on big businesses, there would be massive budget trouble. Transportation and zoning questions loom for Harrell and Nelson (a brewery owner who defeated Nikkita Oliver), including how to accelerate light-rail projects, whether to complete the First Avenue streetcar line and where to add dense housing.
Residents are still coming to grips with the deadly pandemic, economic upheaval and mass demonstrations against racial injustice last year. Five sitting council members backed González for mayor.
But Harrell is “the ultimate positive attitude person,” he said in an interview from a Seattle Municipal Tower transition office, energized by support from voters like the man who stopped by his table Thursday at a Denny’s in Sodo.
The man said, “Bruce, people are laughing and smiling again,” Harrell recounted, adding in his own words: “The most divisive issues, such as homelessness and public safety and race and social justice, they don’t have to be divisive. With the right leadership … these should be unifying discussions.”
The candidates defeated in Tuesday’s elections and their supporters, including most labor unions, aren’t smiling, of course, especially about Seattle’s election of a Republican for the first time in more than three decades in Davison.
Davison castigated incumbent City Attorney Pete Holmes for reducing misdemeanor prosecutions in the primary election, then tacked to the political center with vague statements in her matchup against police and jail abolitionist Thomas-Kennedy. Now she could tack back and ramp up prosecutions, or not.
Joe Mizrahi, secretary-treasurer of UFCW 21, which represents supermarket workers and which spent close to $200,000 to boost González, said she and other candidates were caught up in a national trend that saw defeats for Democrats and progressive causes elsewhere.
“Obviously, we’re disappointed by the results,” though the elections were “an uphill battle from the beginning,” Mizrahi said. “It’s just sort of a pendulum swing in the other direction.”
The new balance of power isn’t completely clear yet, because Councilmember Kshama Sawant, a socialist pulling City Hall left since 2013, could be recalled or retained in a special election on Dec. 7.
Harrell will be Seattle’s second Black mayor, first Asian American mayor and, more specifically, first mayor whose mother was incarcerated by the government along with other Japanese American residents during World War II. He’ll carry a duty, based on that history and shared with everyone in the city, to ensure that no groups are treated that way again, said local author and activist Lawrence Matsuda.
The winning candidates, particularly Harrell, campaigned on can-do messaging, vowing to gain ground on Seattle’s greatest challenges and help the city recover from COVID-19.
But they also ran against City Hall, channeling displeasure over mayor-council clashes, apparent stasis on homelessness and whipsaw rhetoric on policing. Davison and Nelson especially performed best in affluent neighborhoods with less density and racial diversity, according to election-night data.
Assunta Ng, publisher of Northwest Asian Weekly, said she saw a surge in political organizing, particularly for Harrell, by Chinese American and other Asian American residents, especially older voters.
The city’s growing Asian American population is no monolith, but ballots cast by community members with concerns about public safety made a difference in Tuesday’s elections, Ng said.
There were holes in the moderate-conservative “change agent” argument, considering Harrell served on the council from 2008 to 2019, ran with similar themes as Durkan’s 2017 campaign and was backed by a similar coalition of supporters, including business interests that have opposed higher taxes aimed at funding affordable housing.
A surge in visible homelessness this past year was connected to COVID-19 as much or more than City Hall policy, with shelters and services scaled back due to virus concerns, and an uptick in gun violence was replicated in cities across the country.
But Durkan wasn’t on the ballot, having declined to seek reelection, and neither was COVID-19. Meanwhile, a strong “wrong track” sentiment among voters, demonstrated repeatedly by polling, stuck to González, the council’s current president, and by proxy to Thomas-Kennedy and Oliver.
Many voters for Harrell, Davison and Nelson said they were choosing order over chaos and practical solutions over radical rhetoric, and they saw those views reinforced by business-backed political action committees that collectively spent more than $1 million on television commercials, mailers and other advertisements.
Pre-campaign tweets by Thomas-Kennedy expressing “rabid hatred for the police” and similar opinions were fuel for the fire, showing up in attack ads.
Victoria Beach, who chairs the Seattle Police Department’s African American Community Advisory Council, said she had “never ever ever” voted for a Republican before but couldn’t support Thomas-Kennedy’s agenda, which called for eventually ending most prosecutions.
“People are fed up. They want their children to be able to play in the parks. They want people to be held accountable. You can’t just let everything go,” she said, adding, “I voted for who is best for our city and is going to get our city back on track. I don’t care if they’re a Republican or a man from Mars.”
González said she’d stick up for workers, telling voters she would push for taxing the wealthy to solve Seattle’s problems and repeal “exclusionary” single-family zoning. She warned that Harrell was backed by conservative corporate executives and landlords, and that he wouldn’t get tough with bad cops in a systemic way.
But her side lacked the villain that emerged in 2019’s elections, when Amazon drew backlash by spending $1.5 million in an effort to reshape the council. Meanwhile, González apparently struggled to connect her ideas with voters. When Harrell criticized her on encampments and police defunding, she sometimes sought to change the subject rather than describe her alternative strategies in detail.
“The status quo got reelected last night and nobody would have known it from the campaigns that were run … I don’t know how the left allowed that to happen,” progressive consultant Bill Broadhead said on the local podcast Hacks & Wonks, slamming González’s campaign for “political malpractice.”
Though Oliver touted a robust ground game, sending a community-building message into neighborhoods across the city with volunteer door-knockers, their campaign spent relatively little on mass communications that can be key in a citywide election with more than 250,000 voters to reach. Nelson, meanwhile, benefited from large numbers of mailers dispatched by her own campaign and a PAC.
The contests weren’t a total sweep against progressives. Incumbent Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda secured reelection while touting the JumpStart tax that she and González championed last year to patch up the city’s budget and fund affordable apartments. The tax passed, along with some police cuts, in a moment of momentum spurred by the protests and pandemic.
Mosqueda didn’t lead bridge engineer Kenneth Wilson by much Tuesday night, despite his lack of money and endorsements. But as more votes were counted she coasted to an easy victory.
Kamau Chege, director of the Washington Community Alliance, said there were structural factors at play in the left-wing losses (Seattle turnout landed at 55% for the odd-year election, versus almost 90% last November, when more young voters showed up), and strategic factors.
“As a progressive movement, we have a moral obligation to win, not just fight the good fight,” he said, arguing that movement shouldn’t have allowed Harrell to co-opt the popular concept of increasing investments in nonpolice safety.
Political watchers on both sides say Seattle’s swing shouldn’t be exaggerated; Thomas-Kennedy almost won, for example, supporters are pointing out.
“What Seattle voters said is they want City Hall to get its act together to take care of these problems,” said consultant Tim Ceis, who advised on a pro-Harrell PAC. “I don’t think people should mistake that for moving to the center.”
Yet John Murray, a consultant for the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, said Harrell could benefit from a more compliant council. “If you’re looking at these outcome[s]” as a council member, “you’re saying to yourself: ‘I might want to rethink how I’m operating,'” he said.
Councilmember Andrew Lewis, who endorsed González for mayor, said he and his colleagues need to heed the wins by Harrell, Davison and Nelson.
“Voters sent a really, really clear message that we need a city government that can work together to deliver on the really big problems they see in the city every day,” Lewis said. “They sent folks to City Hall they felt were action oriented. That’s a mandate we need to embrace.”
Lewis said he’s ready to work with Harrell to speed up the addition of tiny houses and other low-barrier shelter options such as hotels that have demonstrated some success in persuading people to move out of tents in public spaces, suggesting that Harrell immediately tap millions of dollars allocated to homelessness that Durkan has allowed to go unspent.
At the same time, Lewis said he does worry about a new-look City Hall using an overly aggressive approach to clearing parks, without making appropriate shelter available.
“If you are removing encampments without making plans and contingencies for the displaced,” you’re just shifting them somewhere else, he said.
Colleen Echohawk, a nonprofit leader who finished third in the mayoral primary, is somewhat optimistic about Harrell, noting he vowed in an election-night speech to set Seattle “on fire with our love.”
Echohawk said she hopes the new administration directs that love at unsheltered people by providing housing, suggesting Harrell embrace a push by the new King County Regional Homelessness Authority to target downtown Seattle with extra outreach and shelter.
Not everyone is so optimistic, including Chege, mentioning that Amazon’s public policy director was at Harrell’s victory party, cheering.
“I think what we’re looking at is a new administration that isn’t going to be able to deliver on its promises … to working-class communities because it’s an administration dependent on support of a business community that wants to lower taxes and lower spending and lower public investments,” Chege said.
Unions that opposed Harrell this year endorsed him in past elections, Mizrahi mentioned, saying UFCW 21 would be reaching out for “relationship rebuilding.” Davison’s takeover is more concerning, he said, based on a lack of confidence in her to protect pro-labor policies.
The opportunity and the challenge for Harrell, Davison and Nelson on policing will be to adopt a “both/and” approach, pursuing alternative responses while ensuring Seattle has enough officers around to deter crime, said Chukundi Salisbury, a community advocate and former state House candidate.
Faith in Harrell to try that approach is why Salisbury supported the candidate and why many other voters did, too, Salisbury believes, contrasting his own perspective with that of less practical “keyboard warriors.”
Success on public safety will partly depend on whether Harrell hires strong and collaborative advisers with new voices and in-depth knowledge who can “tell him what he needs to hear,” said Anne Levinson, a former deputy mayor and judge.
The new mayor will have a chance to rapidly “follow through on past promises to really fix the police contracts, leverage the city’s decade-old consent decree to further civilianize and reform policing (rather than to block changes), and achieve better results” on case closure rates and response times.
“Expectations are high, but in my experience that’s often where the best window of opportunity for real progress lies,” Levinson said.