Seattle City Council President Bruce Harrell took the oath of office Wednesday afternoon, a day after a fifth man — a relative — accused Ed Murray of child sexual abuse dating back several decades.
Seattle City Council President Bruce Harrell took the oath of office to become mayor Wednesday, as Ed Murray, disgraced by allegations of child sexual abuse, ended his time at City Hall.
Though an upcoming election means Harrell’s time as mayor will be short, he vowed to be more than a “caretaker.”
“I’m joined by many cabinet members, elected officials, friends, family,” Harrell said, surrounded by city department heads and several City Council members.
“And their presence should signal to the people of Seattle that our duties to be leaders and public servants, our duties transcend a person or office.”
The moment was bittersweet for Harrell, a Seattle native who advanced from Garfield High School to the University of Washington and its football team, a legal career and three terms on the council.
The 58-year-old assumed the city’s highest office after Murray on Tuesday announced he would step down amid allegations that he sexually abused multiple teenagers decades ago, including a younger cousin. The cousin’s accusation was first made public Tuesday in The Seattle Times.
Murray did not attend the brief swearing-in.
In remarks before taking the oath, Harrell said the city should be looking for ways to support survivors of childhood sexual abuse.
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“I personally believe now is not the time for division or taking sides. For me, it’s a time for healing,” he said, calling the claims against Murray “unsettling and disturbing.”
This summer, after four men had accused Murray of abusing them when they were teenagers, two council members urged Murray to step down.
Harrell was not one of them. At the time, he said he believed Murray could continue to lead and told reporters, “I don’t want to be judged for anything 33 years ago … And I would challenge each of you to think about where you were 33 years ago. The question is are you doing your job today right now?”
Questioned about those comments Wednesday during a media session, Harrell attempted to clarify them.
“If any kind of heinous act was committed … certainly a person should be judged for that,” he said.
But he also mentioned his church upbringing, saying he attempts to judge people “on who we try to become — not on our mistakes.”
The city charter’s language on the transition of power ensures that Harrell won’t be mayor for long.
Though the charter calls for the council president to take over immediately when the mayor’s office becomes vacant, it gives Harrell five days — until 5 p.m. Monday — to accept or decline a longer tenure.
If Harrell accepts, he’ll serve as mayor until Nov. 28, when the results of the Nov. 7 mayoral election between Jenny Durkan and Cary Moon are certified.
If Harrell declines, he’ll become mayor pro tem and the council will have 20 days to choose another of its members to serve into November, City Attorney Pete Holmes said Wednesday.
“The overall logic of the charter is to make sure there’s complete continuity,” Holmes said. “There’s no period of time without a mayor or a mayor pro tem.”
Harrell didn’t say which way he was leaning, but there’s a chance he’ll decline.
If he were to serve as mayor until Nov. 28, he would forfeit his council seat, Holmes said.
Harrell has set a personal deadline of 5 p.m. Friday to make his decision, he told reporters, drawing laughs when he said his wife would be making the call.
He said his choice would have “nothing to do with my personal agenda” but rather would depend on “the needs of the city.”
Whoever occupies the mayor’s office later this month will be expected to propose a new city budget, Harrell noted, identifying the budget as “our highest priority.”
He said he would ask top Murray aide Fred Podesta to help with transition plans, also soliciting input from Durkan and Moon.
A meeting of Murray’s cabinet members is scheduled for Friday, and Harrell said he would send email to the city’s employees to thank them and stress that “continuity is key.”
“I don’t see this as a caretaking obligation,” Harrell said. “I see this as an opportunity to set the stage for excellence.”
If Harrell declines to serve until Nov. 28, the council may vote as soon as Monday to send someone else from its chambers on the second floor of City Hall to the mayor’s office on the seventh floor, he said.
Councilmembers Tim Burgess and M. Lorena González likely would be leading candidates to serve as mayor. Burgess is retiring at the end of the year, while González is favored to win re-election to her council seat in November.
González could give up her citywide seat to serve as mayor and then win it right back, Holmes said. She and Kshama Sawant were the two council members to call for Murray’s resignation in July.
Asked Wednesday why the council, under his leadership, hadn’t investigated the allegations against the mayor, Harrell replied, “Our role is not to be an investigative body. Our role is to be a legislative body.”
Most recently elected in 2015 to represent Southeast Seattle neighborhoods such as Beacon Hill, Rainier Valley and Rainier Beach, Harrell has more than two years remaining in his term, which runs through 2019.
Harrell was first elected to the council in 2007, winning an open seat vacated by Peter Steinbrueck. He ran for mayor in 2013, falling short in a crowded primary election that saw Murray and incumbent Mike McGinn move on.
In 2015, he narrowly defeated underdog council challenger Tammy Morales, who said his politics weren’t progressive enough.
Married to Joanne Harrell, a Microsoft executive and member of the UW Board of Regents, he lives in Seward Park.
The son of a Japanese-American mother who worked for the Seattle Public Library and an African-American father who worked for Seattle City Light, Harrell grew up hearing stories of his grandfathers working hard amid bigotry.
“He has deep roots in the city, deep roots in the community,” said Ollie Garrett, president of Tabor 100, an empowerment association for African-American people and the community at large. “He’s very committed to inclusion — making sure everyone is treated fairly and equally … He understands discrimination.”
Added former Councilmember Sally Clark, “When I think of my time working with Bruce, I think of a guy with his nose to the grindstone … And he knows a heck of a lot of people.”
Clark said she texted Harrell Tuesday, telling him he’d “do great.”
“He gets to take the oath of office,” she said. “It’s under strange circumstances but, even for a short period of time, it’s heady and momentous stuff. It’s a big responsibility and he’s got big shoulders.”
Harrell will be Seattle’s 54th mayor. The city’s last mayor to resign was J.D. (Dorm) Braman, who stepped down in March 1969. Floyd Miller served as interim mayor until Wes Uhlman was elected that November.