With ballots arriving for Seattle voters, mayoral candidates M. Lorena González and Bruce Harrell clashed in a televised debate Thursday night, emphasizing differences on homelessness, policing and corporate campaign contributions.
It was clear from the start the rivals came prepared to hit each other’s perceived weaknesses.
Harrell, a former City Council president, attacked González, the current City Council president, for Seattle’s worsening homelessness crisis and efforts to defund the police department, and for advocating an end to single-family zoning.
Voters “are starving for effective leadership,” Harrell said in his opening statement. “They want people out of the parks and off the sidewalks and out of tents … They don’t want to be demonized for saying they want the parks back because they want them to be housed … we’re not getting that from City Hall.”
In her opening comments, González emphasized her career as a civil rights attorney and councilmember, saying she’d made it her life’s work “to stand up and fight for working families.”
González went on the offensive early, too, targeting some of Harrell’s biggest campaign backers during a discussion of Seattle’s stance toward Amazon and other large corporations.
She pointed to a political action committee backing Harrell that has been bankrolled by business interests suing to overturn the city’s new “JumpStart” payroll tax on companies with payrolls of at least $7 million.
“My opponent … is supported by the very people who are in court right now fighting to overturn a progressive tax on the largest, wealthiest corporations in our city. So that is a huge distinction,” González said, noting one of the top donors to a pro-Harrell PAC, real-estate executive George Petrie, is also the state’s top donor to ex-President Donald Trump’s political committee this year.
Harrell protested what he called a “false narrative,” saying he’d never met the big donors González was mentioning, and noting Petrie also has given to Democrats like Gov. Jay Inslee.
While Thursday’s debate was billed as focusing on the economy and businesses, the issues of homelessness and policing often took center stage as debate moderators and the candidates acknowledged the topics are intertwined with the city’s business neighborhood and business climate.
Harrell repeatedly brought up González’s statements from 2020 in support of cutting the Seattle Police Department budget by 50% and directing money to other services. “If you talk to small businesses … they want strong public safety. And that’s why [when] my opponent made the commitment to defund the police by 50%, she missed the mark,” he said.
González said she supported defunding efforts not out of any “animus” against police, but in response to widespread protests against police violence.
“I made a commitment to look at shifting dollars away from the Police Department in direct response to the murder of George Floyd and the action that we saw in our city,” she said.
Hundreds of Seattle police officers have recently left the department, citing poor morale and lack of support by City Hall. But González said the staffing issues “predated me” on the council and are a national issue. She also criticized the Police Department, saying “deep cultural reform issues” need to be addressed.
Pressed on how the city should deal with homeless encampments in parks and other public spaces, both candidates said they want to quickly offer more housing and mental health and addiction counseling.
On whether people camping in parks should be forced to leave even if they refuse shelter beds or treatment, González said, “we have to be careful about crossing that line,” likening it to tactics of the failed war on drugs.
Harrell said he wanted to create better services to get people to voluntarily leave parks. But, he said, “the fact of the matter is I want our parks back and I want our sidewalks back, and I want to house people.”
Harrell repeatedly went after González for endorsing “the total elimination” of single-family zoning in the city, saying he’d include neighborhoods in zoning discussions. González said she wants to create a city “that is not just available to the wealthy, with exclusive neighborhoods and million-dollar homes.”
Near the end of the debate, the two candidates found themselves in solid agreement on one point.
Asked what they’d say to employees who don’t want to comply with a COVID-19 vaccination mandate, each replied, in essence: Tough luck.
“I strongly believe that it is important for all of our public employees to receive the vaccine,” said González.
“It’s a mandate. You are a first responder. I expect you to take your oath of office to the point where you realize you have to lead with vaccination,” Harrell said.
Harrell has raised about $1.1 million for his campaign, while González has raised about $914,000.
They’ve each received added big-money support from independent political-action committees, which have started bombarding voters with negative TV and digital ads.
Bruce Harrell for Seattle’s Future has raised nearly $1.3 million, with backing from business and real estate executives. Essential Workers for Lorena has pulled in nearly $1 million from big unions representing hotel, grocery and healthcare workers.
Harrell won the August primary with 34% of the vote, edging González by less than 2%.
The debate was held at the KCTS 9 studio with no in-person audience. A second debate on public health and safety is scheduled for 7 p.m. Oct. 28. Both debates are organized by the Washington State Debate Coalition and the Seattle City Club.
The debate was moderated by Mary Nam from KOMO and included questions from a media panel of Daniel Beekman from The Seattle Times, Amy Radil from KUOW and Chris Daniels from KING 5.