This November, Seattle will elect a new mayor with extensive City Council experience, a compelling back story and a noted legal career.
The question for voters over the next three months is: Which one?
They’ll choose between former Council President Bruce Harrell, who touts deep community roots and a business-friendly approach to social justice, and current Council President M. Lorena González, a former civil rights attorney and advocate for progressive taxation with strong support from labor.
Harrell, 62, and González, 44, drubbed a scrum of opponents in Tuesday’s nonpartisan primary election and will advance to the Nov. 2 general election. As of Friday, with González gaining ground on Harrell in batches of ballots tallied after election night, he had 35% and she had 31%.
Nonprofit leader Colleen Echohawk had 10%, while former state Rep. Jessyn Farrell had 7%, construction executive Art Langlie 6%, former Deputy Mayor Casey Sixkiller 3% and architect Andrew Grant Houston 3%.
After growing up in the redlined Central District and playing football at the University of Washington, Harrell represented telecommunications companies, churches and nonprofits as a lawyer.
González, whose Yakima Valley farmworker parents were undocumented when they arrived from Mexico, has advocated for immigrants, child care and labor protections.
They overlapped for four years on the council, mostly voting the same way, and they spent more time in the primary on personal branding than challenging each other. But their disagreements on some core issues and their distinct political styles will be accentuated as they compete head to head.
Harrell wants to hire more police officers, opposes defunding the police, supports a city charter amendment that could alter Seattle’s approach to homelessness, and says he’d “make sure everyone is at the table” for talks about taxes and zoning changes.
“I have a very inclusive style that I think will set me apart,” Harrell said.
González has pledged to redirect spending from the police to community solutions, opposes the Compassion Seattle charter amendment that will be on the Nov. 2 ballot, and says she would push hard for corporate taxes and denser housing in neighborhoods now reserved for detached houses.
“I’m going to stand for working people and their families,” González said. “That means holding big corporations accountable to pay their fair share.”
Though Seattle voters are overwhelmingly Democrats, the city’s politics are relatively polarized, as demonstrated in the primary results.
In the primary contest to replace González on the council, middle-ground candidate Brianna Thomas was overpowered by Nikkita Oliver to her left and Sara Nelson to her right. In the race for city attorney, incumbent Pete Holmes conceded Friday to challengers Nicole Thomas-Kennedy on his left and Ann Davison on his right.
The Harrell-González contest, like past mayoral matchups, may divide the city somewhat between view-neighborhood homeowners and dense-neighborhood renters. Hotel-worker and supermarket-worker unions funded a pro-González political action committee in the primary, while real estate executives made large donations to a pro-Harrell PAC, setting up a potential business-versus-labor battle.
Echohawk, who hasn’t made an endorsement yet in the November election, expects the Harrell-González race to come down to the wire.
“I think it’s going to be tight,” she said. “I just hope (the candidates) are really clear about what we can expect from them.”
The primary results were relatively predictable, based on various indicators.
Harrell and González enjoyed better name recognition than their opponents, having won multiple elections and served on the council. They also received the most monetary support, when accounting for donations to their campaigns and the independent PACs. The Harrell, González, Echohawk, Farrell and Houston campaigns all raised more than $400,000, but Harrell and González attracted much more PAC spending.
Harrell was praised by the Downtown Seattle Association and endorsed by The Seattle Times editorial board (the news operation at The Times is independent from the editorial board).
Though Harrell has secured labor-movement support in past council bids, nearly all unions and The Stranger endorsed González in the mayoral primary.
Some voters were distracted by their summertime, post-pandemic lives, Farrell said. “In a crowded primary … name ID really mattered and newspaper endorsements really mattered,” added Farrell, who also has yet to endorse a general-election candidate.
Turnout this summer was similar to 2017 and 2019; officials had received ballots from about 42% of Seattle’s active registered voters as of Friday. Older voters participated at much higher rates than younger voters, as usual.
Echohawk, Farrell and other candidates cast themselves as political outsiders, hoping to capitalize on anger with City Hall as they linked Harrell and González to problems like homelessness. Polling suggested many voters thought Seattle was on the “wrong track,” signaling hunger for change.
But the outsider pitch didn’t sell, as most voters stuck by Harrell, a council member from 2008 to 2019, and González, a council member since 2016. Heather Weiner, a Gonzalez campaign consultant, called the anti-council narrative “wishful thinking” pushed by conservative critics.
Evaluating the electorate’s desire for change is more complicated. Harrell is courting some voters who are angry with City Hall, arguing conditions have worsened since he departed. González says picking the daughter of migrant workers to lead Seattle would be transformative.
“For too long, the wealthy and powerful have had control of the mayor’s office,” she said.
In the primary, Harrell and González emphasized their backgrounds. Harrell was raised by a Japanese American mother who worked for the library and a Black father who worked for City Light. González worked picking cherries as a child in Central Washington.
As an attorney, Harrell’s clients included workers alleging discrimination. He’d be the first Asian American mayor and second Black mayor elected in Seattle. When González was a lawyer, she sued the city over allegations that a police officer had threatened to beat the “Mexican piss” out of a Latino man. She’d be the city’s first Latina mayor.
“I think my story in this city resonates,” Harrell said. “It’s a story about creating opportunities for everybody.”
Seattle’s taxpayer-funded democracy vouchers, used in a mayoral contest for the first time this year, made fundraising in the primary more competitive than it might have been otherwise. Echohawk and Houston each raised more than $300,000 in vouchers and Farrell nearly $300,000 — more than González and Harrell.
But some candidates paid canvassers to collect vouchers, leaving less money to spend on advertising. As of Friday, Houston had fewer votes than voucher donors. His campaign was strongest on social media, Weiner said. “I thought he’d do better because I live in the Twitterverse,” she said.
Harrell credited his primary success partly to time spent speaking with voters outside supermarkets and with small-business owners. He relied on “old-school campaign tactics,” like television commercials and mailers, consultant Christian Sinderman added.
“Bruce derived energy from getting out in the field,” Sinderman said. “Some candidates really love retail politics, and he’s one of them.”
González benefited from her visibility as council president, making headlines separate from her campaign, Weiner said.
In the general election, the Compassion Seattle charter amendment put together by business leaders may drive some debates. Proponents say it would compel City Hall to provide more shelter on a quick timeline, while critics say it would write cruel encampment removals into the charter without providing any additional shelter funding.
Voters should press Harrell for a more detailed plan on homelessness, said Echohawk, who helped Native people experiencing homelessness at the Chief Seattle Club before her mayoral bid. Voters likewise may ask González to describe in more detail how she believes the city should increase taxes on large corporations.
González has dialed down her defunding the police talk since last summer’s racial justice protests, when she endorsed a plan to shift 50% of the police department’s budget. But the topic may receive more attention, as Harrell calls for “reform, but not at the expense of effective policing.”
Both candidates have extensive legislative records for critics to comb through, though they voted together on many bills, including a 2018 police-union contract blasted by reformers. Harrell championed a law prohibiting employers from rejecting job applicants solely based on criminal records; González sponsored protections for retail and hotel workers.
They butted heads a bit when González and her allies proposed an annual $500 per-employee “head tax” for big businesses. Harrell and some colleagues countered with $250 before the council settled on $275 (they both later voted to repeal the tax).
In an interview, González mentioned the sexual-abuse scandal that sunk then-Mayor Ed Murray in 2017. When new records from Murray’s past surfaced that summer, González publicly asked him to consider stepping down. At the time, Harrell said he wasn’t asking Murray to resign, citing due process and other considerations.
González said a general-election aim is to “coalesce progressives behind my campaign.” That could involve seeking endorsements from Echohawk and Houston. Harrell is more likely to win voters who backed Langlie and Sixkiller, Sinderman said.
Some voters who skipped the primary will participate in November, and some unions that stayed out of the primary, like those representing firefighters and construction workers, hold endorsements still up for grabs.
Some pundits have likened Harrell, a genial campaigner with moderate politics, to President Joe Biden, and pointed to the recent win for former police officer Eric Adams in New York City’s Democratic mayoral primary, suggesting that voters in major cities are turning to law-and-order leaders.
Weiner pushed back against such comparisons. Seattle is a “Bernie (Sanders) city,” and there were no progressive contenders in New York as strong as González, she said.
Live debates could be a wild card in the general election race, after the dozens of tame Zoom forums that preceded the primary.
Celebrating on election night at a restaurant on Lake Washington, Harrell vowed to be Seattle’s “leader of action” as longtime friends shouted, “Bruce! Bruce! Bruce!” In a speech at a Georgetown brewery, González thanked union supporters and closed with a chant, “When we fight, we win.”