In a way, the 2021 race for Seattle mayor began years ago, when candidates Bruce Harrell and M. Lorena González were sitting next to each other at the City Council dais. The scene was a May 11, 2018, committee meeting with a raucous crowd, framed by a tech boom and a growing homelessness crisis.
González was pushing a new “head tax” that would have charged big businesses $500 per employee annually to fund homeless housing. The aim was “not just seeing less tents,” but also “reducing the amount of human suffering” on the streets, she said then. Harrell, with Mayor Jenny Durkan, proposed cutting the tax to $250, expressing concern about the city losing jobs. He called that “a strategic approach, recognizing we still want to grow a city here.”
But the debate briefly exposed one of the city’s essential political divides, with González and Harrell on opposing sides. In that moment, and others as council members, the mayoral candidates engaged with Seattle’s challenges differently, setting the stage for their Nov. 2 election this year.
González has staked her bid on the concept of higher taxes for those who can best afford to pay, while Harrell is vowing to partner with corporate leaders to combat the homelessness crisis. The former is explaining her support last summer for defunding the police, while the latter is touting his past votes to expand the force.
Because Harrell served on the council from 2008 through 2019, and because González has served since 2015, they’re on video discussing everything from encampment removals to residential zoning. Rarely do two candidates boast such extensive, overlapping records for voters to comb through, including legislative wins, policy disputes and conduct that’s raised questions.
For Harrell, the 2018 head-tax episode underscored his belief “that a healthy business environment” is crucial for jobs. González says she was on the right track, because a similar tax adopted last year with her support, aimed at high salaries at large corporations, is propping up Seattle’s budget and housing efforts today.
Harrell was first elected to the council in 2007, snagging an open seat over public affairs consultant Venus Velázquez. He was the council’s only elected Black member from 2010 on.
His first signature measure, in 2009, was a resolution directing city departments to apply a racial justice and social justice lens to their work. Then-Mayor Greg Nickels had previously launched an initiative to combat institutional racism within government, but Harrell’s measure cemented the effort in the delivery of city services.
In 2013, Harrell championed legislation that “banned the box” on job applications where employers would ask about criminal convictions and restricted the circumstances under which employers could reject applicants. “For decades I’ve seen people who are trying hard to turn their lives around be permanently labeled a criminal,” Harrell said then.
Chris Stearns, who chaired the Seattle Human Rights Commission at the time and who’s endorsed Harrell for mayor, said Harrell “really charged into” the effort, despite some business-group objections.
Harrell was reelected to his at-large seat in 2011 and to South Seattle’s District 2 seat in 2015, when seven council positions moved to geographic representation. He bowed out in 2019 rather than square off again with Tammy Morales. Morales had nearly unseated Harrell in 2015, running to his left and criticizing him as unresponsive to constituents.
Harrell has cited his evangelism for body-worn cameras years before the practice went mainstream. Former Councilmember Tim Burgess says Harrell, council president from 2016 to 2019, “didn’t always take enough credit for the things he did.”
If he didn’t before, Harrell is taking credit for his work now. In a recent interview, he mentioned measures in 2010 to create a Seattle City Light customer review panel and in 2016 to cover non-tuition expenses for South Seattle College students.
The review panel, which includes industry, environmental and low-income representatives, watchdogs City Light’s spending, providing the council and the public with independent input. Durkan and the council have expanded the college program, which served more than 800 students at three campuses last year.
González was first elected in 2015, defeating neighborhood activist Bill Bradburd for an open, at-large seat. Months after taking office, she teamed up with Councilmember Lisa Herbold to pass a suite of schedule protections for retail workers like Starbucks baristas.
“This is about giving workers predictability,” González said at the time, mentioning she had once worked in a fast-food restaurant. “I understand what it means to have a lack of predictability.”
Unionized retail and hotel workers are spending big on her candidacy, whereas real estate executives are putting money behind Harrell. “Of all the people I’ve worked with on the council, I most admire [González’s] strength,” Herbold said.
González made headlines in 2017 for shepherding a package of police-accountability changes through City Hall, including the creation of an Office of Inspector General. The legislation, mostly crafted by the Seattle Community Police Commission, was partly undermined a year later by a police-union contract that Harrell and González both voted to approve.
Also in 2017, González spearheaded Seattle’s funding of legal representation for immigrants in deportation proceedings, noted Jorge Barón, who has endorsed the candidate in his personal capacity rather than as executive director of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project.
Donald Trump had just become president, raising concerns about a crackdown on immigrants. Resisting Trump was a political slam dunk in deep-blue Seattle, but González pushed the envelope, ensuring that immigrants with criminal records would be eligible for help, Barón said.
“Sometimes there’s this fear [among politicians] of being attacked for somehow being soft on immigration, even on the Democratic side … She was fearless,” he said about the council’s current president.
Harrell and Gonzalez voted together on many measures, including bills banning the criminal-background box for rental housing applications, requiring bike lanes and establishing a tax on sugary drinks. But the candidates also diverged on homelessness and land use.
In this year’s race, González has emerged as the urbanist, saying City Hall should end “exclusionary zoning” by allowing multifamily housing to be built on all residential blocks. She was a major proponent of upzoning legislation in 2018 to allow larger buildings in 27 neighborhood hubs, in exchange for developer fees.
Harrell has urged caution, arguing apartments should continue to be concentrated mostly around transit hubs. In 2012, he sought unsuccessfully to limit new buildings around the Roosevelt light rail station to four floors rather than six, siding with some existing residents over density advocates. He voted for the 2018 upzones after securing an exemption for part of Mount Baker.
This year, Harrell is courting residents who are fed up with homeless encampments in parks, pledging to boost outreach and mete out “consequences” for people who don’t accept shelter offers. González is objecting to encampment removals, citing a lack of appropriate shelter options.
That disagreement has animated Seattle politics for years, including in 2018, when González and some colleagues tried to scale back an expansion of the city’s Navigation Team, which used police and social workers to remove encampments. Harrell’s side won that round, but González in 2020 helped eliminate the team altogether.
Policing is another hot topic in the mayoral race. But the history there is more complicated, because Harrell’s take on the city’s police-reform consent decree twisted a decade ago, and González’s views on the force have changed.
Harrell initially criticized then-Mayor Mike McGinn for resisting the federal decree. Later, as Harrell sought to unseat McGinn in the 2013 mayoral race (he finished fourth in the primary), he criticized McGinn for capitulating.
González voted repeatedly with Harrell to increase the Seattle police budget, then apologized amid last year’s racial justice protests, and endorsed a plan to defund the department by 50% and move the dollars to alternative services.
The council has reduced the budget by much less than 50% and the term “defunding” has been absent from González’s campaign. Still, Harrell has pointed out the contrast, saying City Hall should add cops while bolstering alternatives.
González says the council has responded to 2020’s protests by directing tens of millions of dollars to residents who have been “pleading for people in power to invest in their communities … without an overreliance on law enforcement.” Harrell says, “We will revisit everywhere [an officer with] a gun and badge goes but at the same time demand seven-minute response times.”
At a basic level, González and Harrell operate differently, their colleagues say. With some exceptions, González tends to chart a course and drive a policy ahead, while Harrell likes to mull multiple perspectives along the way.
Herbold says she wants a bold and straightforward leader as mayor, rather than someone who hems and haws. Burgess says the city needs a mediator, rather than someone who pursues ideological experiments.
Other episodes have received less attention on the campaign trail.
In 2018, Harrell involved himself in a wage-theft investigation by the Seattle Office of Labor Standards.
The investigation of Royal Esquire Club, a private social organization for Black men founded in 1947, began when an employee complained she hadn’t been paid for some after-hours work. In a call to OLS, Harrell, a longtime member and a leader of the club, criticized aspects of the investigation and mentioned his role in OLS’ budget, lead investigator Daron Williams wrote in a memo at the time.
Jenni Wong, who was assistant enforcement manager for OLS, said she perceived “a level of intimidation and implied threat.” Marty Garfinkel, who was OLS’ director, called Harrell’s budget remarks “totally inappropriate.”
Harrell defended his actions this month, saying he was sticking up for a nonprofit in his council district that wanted information about the wage-theft allegations. While he publicly criticized OLS at subsequent council meetings, saying he’d heard “horror stories” about the agency, he did not move to cut the office’s budget.
“I was completely compliant with my ethical obligations … and because of that I backed off,” Harrell said, noting the club hired an attorney to handle settlement talks. In the end, he said, the matter was “amicably resolved.”
The Royal Esquire Club agreed to pay the complainant about $11,000 in back wages, interest and penalties. “OLS should be commended on a process that worked,” Harrell said.
Around the same time, the city paid $38,500 to settle lawsuits alleging the City Council, including Harrell and González, had broken the state’s Open Public Meetings Act in machinations related to the 2018 head tax.
They and Durkan deputies engaged in private conversations, then abruptly voted to repeal the tax in a special meeting, announcing the plan in a joint statement less than 24 hours prior. Though a majority of the council never discussed how they planned to vote, the private conversations allegedly allowed a consensus to take shape.
Shortly before the special meeting was announced, a González staffer texted her a photo of a printed tally sheet marked “Vote Counts” that listed the council members with boxes titled, “Approve,” “Decline” and “Other.” Pen marks checked the “Approve” boxes for the members who ultimately signed the statement and voted to repeal.
González later said that the sheet “was not a tally of votes,” but rather “my legislative assistant’s attempt at tracking — for himself — who he believed would sign onto the press statement. He did not do this at my direction.” The city said her office had used the sheet “on a limited number of occasions.”
To settle allegations against González in one of the OPMA lawsuits, the city promised that council members would be advised not to use tally sheets.
“I complied fully with the OPMA and did not engage in any inappropriate behavior,” González said this month.