In the spring and summer of 2017, Seattle leaders were confronted with an unprecedented political scandal.
Then-Mayor Ed Murray, a former Democratic state senator and gay-rights pioneer, was heavily favored to win a second term, when his plans were upended by stunning allegations that he’d sexually abused teens decades before entering politics.
Both of Seattle’s 2021 mayoral candidates, Bruce Harrell and M. Lorena González, served on the City Council at the time; Harrell was council president and González was a first-term member who had previously worked as Murray’s legal counsel.
In her campaign for mayor, González has sought to contrast how she and Harrell handled the Murray scandal. Those efforts backfired to some extent last week, when she aired a controversial TV ad that featured a white female rape survivor saying she could not support Harrell, who is Black and Asian American. Amid blowback and accusations of racism, González discontinued the ad (though not before mailing a similar piece to thousands of Seattle households).
Still, leaving aside political spin or recriminations over the ad, how each candidate responded as an elected leader during the Murray scandal is fair game — even as polls show the mayoral race is likely to turn on topics such as homelessness and policing.
In a nutshell: González was the first council member to push publicly for Murray’s resignation in mid-2017, after new revelations about a 1980s child-abuse investigation. Harrell, like most on the council, cited due process and never publicly urged Murray to step down, though he criticized the mayor’s victim-shaming rhetoric.
Months of public silence
The Murray scandal left Seattle leaders of all political stripes frozen and for months unwilling to make public judgments about the allegations against one of the city’s most respected politicians. It broke just before the “#MeToo” movement, which has brought more immediacy and attention to allegations of sexual misconduct by powerful men.
The scandal erupted on April 6, 2017, when Murray was sued by a 46-year-old Kent man, Delvonn Heckard, who alleged Murray had raped and molested him over several years beginning in 1986, when Heckard was 15. The Seattle Times reported that day that two other men, including Murray’s former foster son, Jeff Simpson, also had accused Murray of sexually abusing them decades earlier when they were teenagers in Portland.
Murray vehemently denied the accusations. He highlighted his accusers’ criminal records and published an op-ed in The Stranger attacking the allegations as politically motivated. Some of his longtime allies, including state Democratic Party Chair Tina Podlodowski, also questioned whether right-wing forces were behind the allegations.
For months, the City Council avoided weighing in on the veracity of the allegations. Neither Harrell nor González called for Murray’s resignation or removal between April and mid-July, even as an additional accuser came forward.
Murray dropped his reelection bid in an emotional Alki Beach news conference on May 9, 2017, still denying the allegations but acknowledging they’d dominate the election if he ran for a second term.
One of his accusers, Lloyd Anderson, demanded Murray go further and resign. Some mayoral candidates also joined the calls, including ex-Mayor Mike McGinn and urbanist Cary Moon. But Murray refused and vowed to serve out the remainder of his term.
In mid-June of 2017, Heckard dropped his lawsuit, with his attorney saying it would be refiled later. Murray and his supporters pounced on the development at a City Hall news conference, claiming he’d been the victim of a “political takedown.” He talked about resuming his reelection campaign as a write-in candidate.
Who said what and when?
But the scandal took a significant turn on July 16, 2017, when The Seattle Times revealed that an Oregon child-welfare investigation in 1984 had concluded Murray sexually abused Simpson, his foster son. While Murray was not charged criminally, Oregon officials barred him from ever being certified again as a foster parent.
The next day, González became the first council member to press publicly for Murray’s resignation. In a lengthy statement, she cited the new revelations, saying she was “deeply concerned about this Mayor’s ability to continue leading the Executive branch… As a result, I am asking the Mayor to consider stepping down…”
González proposed that if Murray refused, the council should quickly “convene its own committee to determine if a transition in Executive leadership is merited.” She added: “This situation is unprecedented in our city’s history. We cannot pretend otherwise.”
But González’s call was rejected by Murray and her council colleagues. At a council briefing, then-Councilmember Sally Bagshaw said “I hope we can avoid grandstanding on this.”
Harrell also declined to call for Murray’s resignation or impeachment — even though as council president he was in line to become acting mayor if Murray left office early. He said Murray was still “showing up for his job every single day” and took a legalistic view of the council’s responsibility.
To push the mayor out, Harrell told The Seattle Times in an interview at the time, the council “would have to make factual and legal conclusions based on events that occurred 33 years ago and in another state … that would be a tough task.”
“I don’t believe he should resign today,” Harrell said. “If I see examples of him abdicating his responsibilities, not working hard, and not making sure a smooth transition occurs, I would ask for his resignation. But I have no basis to believe that at all today.”
He further told reporters at City Hall that Seattle residents “did not ask us to judge anyone for something that happened 33 years ago or maybe didn’t happen,” according to local news site Crosscut, adding “I would ask that I don’t want to be judged for anything 33 years ago…”
While rejecting calls for impeachment or resignation, Harrell did cowrite a letter admonishing Murray to stop referring to the criminal records of his accusers. “Allowing due process … does not lessen our compassion and understanding of victims who have been assaulted. These crimes are unspeakable and require the utmost attention from our legal and social service system no matter how long ago they might have occurred,” the letter stated.
It later emerged that González secretly was being urged to push for Murray’s resignation by Jeff Reading, one of the mayor’s longtime political advisers and a former spokesperson. In a series of text exchanges, Reading argued Murray never would have been elected mayor had the Oregon abuse finding been known. He said Gonzalez should correct “an accident of history” and “get the abuser out of office.”
Noting her colleagues were being lobbied hard by Murray to oppose calls for impeachment or resignation, González replied, in part: “If I’m on an island alone, I’m okay with that. I also don’t want to be the banner carrier for this movement. Being the kick starter of the conversation was important to me.”
After being shut down in her calls for Murray to step down — Kshama Sawant was the only other council member to join in calling for his resignation — González did not follow up with any any formal resolution to push Murray out.
What candidates say now
Politically damaged and isolated, Murray stayed in office until Sept. 12, 2017, when The Seattle Times reported that a fifth man had come forward to accuse him of abuse. The man, Joseph Dyer, was Murray’s younger cousin, and alleged Murray forced him into sex for a year when the two shared a bedroom in the Long Island town of Medford, New York.
The allegation had been known in Murray’s family for years, but he denied it along with the rest of the accusations of abuse. Still, Murray’s political position was no longer tenable. He announced his resignation within hours of the news. Harrell was named acting mayor, but served only a week, deciding to return to his council position.
Lincoln Beauregard, the attorney for Murray accuser Heckard, briefly pursued a recall campaign against Harrell in 2017, arguing he’d violated open meetings laws in orchestrating a response to the abuse allegations.
However, Beauregard is backing Harrell in the mayoral race this year, and was among a group of Black civic and political leaders to denounce the González ad.
“Was I frustrated with both of them [Harrell and González] in positions of leadership? Yeah,” Beauregard said in an interview, speaking about their responses to the Murray scandal. “But it’s a nonissue to me as far as what’s going up on the city now,” he said.
Harrell, in a statement on his handling of the Murray scandal, says: “As an attorney who has worked with survivors of violence, as well as people of color wrongly accused of crimes, I approached this initially from a lawyer’s perspective – but my choice of words, taken out of that context, told an incomplete story.” He added: “I am proud of my lifelong, unflinching advocacy for survivors, and for the civil rights of all people.”
González, in a statement on her response, says: “Four years ago I stood strong with sexual abuse survivors while then-Council President Harrell was shielding Ed Murray. As Mayor I will continue to stand up to powerful interests, whether it’s for survivors of sexual abuse, victims of wage theft, or families trying to keep a roof over their heads.”