Editor’s note: In advance of the Aug. 3 primary, The Seattle Times is profiling candidates for Seattle mayor.
As Bruce Harrell campaigns for mayor, he hears longtime Seattle residents bemoaning the city’s trajectory on problems from neighborhood crime to divisions over policing and homelessness.
Harrell has echoed the chorus of discontent.
At his campaign announcement in March, he declared “this is not the Seattle where I was born.” Last month, he denounced city inaction during a visit to a controversial tent encampment near Broadview-Thomson K-8 school. Last week, outside a Lake City grocery, he nodded as an elderly woman told him she no longer feels safe in her neighborhood.
Casting blame toward City Hall is a time-honored campaign tactic — but it’s a tricky proposition for a politician who spent a dozen years on the City Council, ending when he declined to seek reelection in 2019.
Harrell, 62, picked an opportune time to step away, as polls show voters increasingly sour on the city’s direction after a chaotic year marked by increasing tensions over homelessness and clashes between protesters and police — including the “CHOP” protest zone that occupied several city blocks last summer.
Though he’d previously run for mayor in 2013, finishing fourth in the primary, and served a few days as interim mayor in 2017 after the resignation of Mayor Ed Murray, Harrell says he had “truly retired” and had no plans to run again after leaving the council.
He changed his mind, he says, after watching city leaders fumble through crises, citing the CHOP occupation and the public humiliation of former Police Chief Carmen Best, who quit after the council moved to shrink the police force and cut the salary of her and her command staff.
“I saw nobody taking accountability and everybody blaming one another. And I said enough is enough,” Harrell said. “When I take office, you will see a decisiveness, you’ll see a sense of urgency. You will see someone tethered to a political agenda that is strictly focused on solving the problems.”
Harrell’s appeal rests not so much on a detailed policy agenda — though he has put out plans for policing reform, addressing homelessness, reducing gun violence and aiding small businesses.
Mainly, Harrell is playing up his deep community roots, leadership experience from the sports field to the council chambers, and a can-do attitude, arguing he’s uniquely positioned to restore accountability and public trust in city government.
In an interview, Harrell boiled his central campaign theme down to “strength and unity.”
Supporters say Harrell as mayor could govern in a progressive manner aligned with Seattle values, but without bowing to pressure from extreme activists on issues such as defunding the police.
“He is a strong person. We need a strong leader who is not going to let people bully him, even though some decisions might not be the most popular,” said Victoria Beach, chair of the Seattle Police Department’s African American Community Advisory Council, and who has known Harrell since junior high school. “I really feel like Bruce will give us that safe feeling back.”
Progressive critics have knocked Harrell as a business-establishment candidate, noting a business-linked political action committee backing him has raised more than $200,000 from real-estate and other interests. Some have suggested his council record was lackluster.
“Bruce would have a few signature issues, but you didn’t really feel like he was fully engaged with all of the issues on the council,” said former Mayor Mike McGinn, who has endorsed mayoral candidate Colleen Echohawk. “It just felt like Bruce was always a bit more about Bruce than about the constituents.”
Harrell is competing in the top-two Aug. 3 primary against a diverse array of rivals, including City Council President M. Lorena González, former state Rep. Jessyn Farrell, architect Andrew Grant Houston, and Echohawk, former executive director of the Chief Seattle Club. They’re among the candidates providing answers for The Seattle Times’ online Meet the Candidates guide.
The top two vote getters in the primary will advance to the November general election for a chance to succeed Mayor Jenny Durkan, who declined to seek a second term.
If he wins, Harrell would be Seattle’s second elected Black mayor, after Norm Rice (1990-1998), who has endorsed him, and its first Asian American mayor.
‘I don’t run away from contact’
Harrell grew up in the Central Area, the son of an African American father, who left the Jim Crow South and worked for Seattle City Light, and a Japanese American mother, who worked for Seattle Public Libraries and whose family was held at an incarceration camp during World War II.
He graduated as valedictorian from Garfield High School and went on to the University of Washington on a football scholarship. In the 1970s, drugs were rampant and even glorified, Harrell recalls, but he concentrated on sports and school, inspired in part by the lyrics of the Curtis Mayfield song “No Thing on Me”: “My life’s a natural high; The man can’t put no thing on me.”
“So I incorporated that in everything I did. I say ‘Man, I’m naturally high,’ and that’s how I carried myself to this day,” Harrell said.
At the UW, Harrell was a star linebacker and president of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, while also volunteered to tutor incarcerated people and led protests to end UW investments in apartheid-era South Africa. He was regarded as an NFL prospect, but, with an eye on some day entering politics, passed up professional sports to go to law school.
Known for deploying sports analogies, Harrell said his time as a linebacker translates to politics: “It demonstrates one thing: I don’t run away from contact. OK, I’ve never been a finesse player.”
After receiving his law degree from the UW in 1984, Harrell worked as a attorney in private practice, representing clients including telecommunications companies and nonprofits. He also represented a group of Black Boeing employees who said they were subjected to racial slurs and other mistreatment, in a major lawsuit against the company.
Harrell married his wife, Joanne Harrell, in 1992. She is a senior director at Microsoft and a University of Washington regent. They have three grown children and live in the Seward Park neighborhood..
Ex-colleagues: Harrell is amiable, unifier
Harrell was first elected to the City Council on a citywide basis in 2007, and reelected in 2011. After the city switched to a largely district-election system, he was narrowly reelected in 2015, beating current City Councilmember Tammy Morales to represent South Seattle’s Council District 2. He declined to seek reelection after Morales announced she’d run against him again in 2019; she went on to win the open seat.
Harrell points to accomplishments on the council, where he chaired committees overseeing utilities and public safety.
He was an early advocate for police body cameras, pushing the first pilot project for Seattle police to wear them. He successfully sponsored a “ban the box” ordinance, which prohibits employers from rejecting job applicants solely based on criminal records. Harrell also pushed the city to convert to LED streetlights and to improve replacement of burned out lights in poorer neighborhoods.
Harrell was regarded at times as a swing vote between the council’s more moderate and activist wings, leaving his position up in the air as votes approached, either to help make up his mind, or gain leverage, some ex-colleagues recalled.
“He would hold off until the end to see how things were going to break,” said former Councilmember Nick Licata, who has not endorsed in the mayoral race. “If you are a critic, you call it wishy washy. If you are a supporter you call it strategic.”
Licata said Harrell “likes to think out loud,” leaving his position unclear at times in both private meetings and on the council dais. “I expect if he becomes mayor, it will probably drive some of the council members crazy.”
Harrell served as council president for four years starting in 2016, elected to the position by his colleagues. “He really worked hard to bring the council together and show us unified more often than not,” said former Councilmember Tim Burgess, who has not endorsed a candidate in the mayor’s race.
Even some councilmembers who diverged on policy with Harrell described him as amiable and respectful.
“Bruce was really pleasant to work with,” said former Councilmember Mike O’Brien, who has endorsed González for mayor because of her more progressive agenda. “Even when he would disagree with me publicly, he would tell me behind the scenes, ‘Hey, Mike. I’m going to go out there and yell at you in a minute but don’t take it personally, because you know I love you.'”
Harrell has staked out a position against major cuts to the police department, saying the size of the police budget isn’t the correct focus. “It is truly the return on investment on what goes in… you might have to improve funding, or increase funding for training,” he said.
Responding to the woman in Lake City last week, who cited crime as her chief worry, Harrell pointed out that when he chaired the council public safety committee in 2016 “that was the time when we had the most officers in our city’s history.”
Harrell drew the wrath of some police accountability advocates for voting with his council colleagues for a police contract in 2018, which critics warned would undermined previously enacted reforms. His rival, González, has taken similar heat for the same vote.
The Rev. Harriett Walden, a longtime police accountability advocate, says she disagreed with that vote. But she endorsed Harrell because she also believes the council acted rashly last year, when it moved to swiftly slash police department funding amid protests in the streets and outside the homes of councilmembers.
“There’s a group of people in Seattle who are in the middle … not far right, not far left, who remember what Seattle used to be like,” Walden said. “I think Bruce Harrell is a candidate for the people in the middle.”
On the campaign trail, Harrell has staked out policy proposals that rely in part on his ability to tap community connections to enact change.
On policing, for example, he says he’d emphasize training and identify “internal change agents” to shift the Seattle Police Department’s culture. He’d also ask all city police officers to watch the video of George Floyd’s death, and to sign a voluntary open letter saying “inhumane treatment of fellow human beings will not be tolerated in Seattle.”
On homelessness, he supports the proposed Compassion Seattle charter amendment, which would demand the city spend millions to rapidly create new shelter and housing, and require parks and other public spaces be kept free of encampments.
Harrell also says he’d work to solicit more private donations, and encourage city residents to engage more in services for people experiencing homelessness, such as food distribution and mentoring.
While Harrell has acknowledged his political ambitions from an early age, he says he doesn’t see himself running for any higher office if elected mayor.
“This isn’t a stepping stone. This is the final stone,” he said.
Seattle Times staff reporter Daniel Beekman contributed to this report.