Bruce Harrell and M. Lorena González are lawyers, so they know how to make an argument under pressure. But they’ve never taken a case with stakes this high.

In the Nov. 2 mayoral election, Seattle voters will be the jury, with the city’s well-being on the line.

Harrell and González are best known as politicians, having served on the City Council. But each would also, as mayor, draw on skills honed, lessons learned and connections made as attorneys, before they entered government.

Despite campaign-trail clashes over issues like homelessness, their careers include marked similarities. As lawyers, they represented clients who alleged discrimination, motivated to pursue that work partly due to their own experiences as people of color.

There are contrasts, too. Harrell, 62, practiced for more than 20 years, including stints at a telecommunications company and nonprofits. González, 44, spent about 10 years at law firms, capped by a year as counsel to then-Mayor Ed Murray.

Harrell tangled with Boeing in a major class-action lawsuit, while González made headlines for cases against the Seattle Police Department.

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Brewster to Seattle

The legal career that led González to big-city politics began in a small-town movie theater. 

She was still in law school at Seattle University, interning with the law firm Gordon Thomas Honeywell, when she started work on a case for the city of Brewster, in Okanogan County, against the school district.

The case alleged discrimination in the majority-Latino town of less than 3,000 people, saying Latino junior high students had been locked into meeting with police, lectured by their principal about test scores, warned about gang activity and told they could “end up working in the orchards like [their] parents.”

To collect evidence, González’s team invited students to a movie theater to share their stories. In an interview, she recalls one student in particular.

“He broke down and started crying in front of me,” said González, who grew up in a similar town, Grandview in Yakima County. “I had never felt so connected to an issue.”

The case settled in 2006 for $300,000 and required the district to take steps to prevent discrimination against students.

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González, who graduated from law school in 2005, later returned to Brewster to help to win an acquittal for a Latina woman charged with assaulting the town’s then-police chief, Ron Oules. They sued over the arrest.

González’s client, Alejandra Solis, had been yanked out of her car, wrestled to the ground and shot with a Taser. The chief had stopped her for cutting through a parking lot, but Brewster had no law against that.

The chief claimed Solis had struck him while he was trying to pull her out of her car and she was trying to unbuckle her seat belt. The lawsuit settled for $250,000.

Solis said she leaned on González. A relative had been involved in the school district case. “I knew right away that I was going to be OK, just by talking to her,” Solis said.

González was the junior lawyer on the school district case, but she did most of the work in Brewster, recalled Darrell Cochran, her co-counsel. The case showed a young lawyer “how much she could do” for communities like the one she grew up in, Cochran said.

“We all recognized early on that she was the type of leader who might get interested in politics,” he added.

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Jerry Moberg, a lawyer who represented the defendants in both Brewster cases, said his battles against González were tough but collegial. He later donated to her council campaigns.

“I thought she was a top litigator,” said Moberg, arguing the school district case led to improvements. “We were able to talk about the issues.”

González didn’t stay long at Gordon Thomas Honeywell. For seven years with the law firm Schroeter Goldmark Bender, she specialized in representing cheated workers, like armored truck drivers who said they had been denied rest breaks, and survivors of sexual abuse, including women who had been preyed upon by a youth pastor in Spokane.

Becky Roe, a lawyer who worked with González on such cases, said she was “hardworking, organized and prepared.”

Two lawsuits against the Seattle police bolstered González’s status. First, she represented Martin Monetti Jr., who accused an officer of kicking him in the head after stopping him during a search for robbery suspects.

Monetti was released without being charged, and a video camera caught the officer threatening to “beat the Mexican piss” out of him. Like in the Brewster cases, González said she “really connected with my client” in the Monetti case, describing those lawsuits as “why I went to law school.”

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By then, González had built a monthly legal clinic at El Centro de la Raza in Seattle, recalled Janet Rice, a lawyer who also worked on the lawsuit.

In 2012, the Monetti case settled for $150,000 and González went back to court against the police, this time over an incident in which an off-duty officer stepped on the head of a handcuffed man after they brawled outside a bar.

The incident attracted scrutiny partly because the officer’s defense noted that a friend of González’s client had referred to the officer, a Black man, as a “spook” while being taken away, leading the police union to assert that racism played a role in the encounter. Gregory Jackson, a lawyer who represented the officer, Garth Haynes, said González pressed Haynes when deposing him. “I was 180 degrees on the opposite side, but I can’t say her being aggressive was wrong,” Jackson said.

Haynes declined to comment when reached last month. González said his misconduct was clear cut. The case settled for $75,000.

“If I had thought that case had stemmed from my client engaging in racist behavior, I would have declined participation,” she said.

Hired by Murray in early 2014, González worked on matters ranging from marijuana regulations to police accountability. She helped set up a labor-standards office and was part of the “executive team” that helped Murray vet ideas.

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“I didn’t just wake up today and decide this work was important. I’ve been doing the work,” she said.

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Linebacker to lawyer

Harrell’s trajectory traces back to his decision, decades ago, to forgo the gridiron in favor of the courtroom.

A dominant linebacker on football teams at Seattle’s Garfield High School and the University of Washington, he was scouted as a likely pro prospect. But he declined to enter the NFL draft.

The political science major had long been interested in law and government, snagging an unpaid internship with Charles V. Johnson, the UW alum and trailblazing Black judge. He’d also participated in racial-justice protests and activism from his youth.

“I was raised watching the civil-rights movement unfolding in front of my eyes,” said Harrell, recalling marching in a demonstration as a 10-year-old with his mother after the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

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Harrell obtained his law degree from UW in 1984, then went to work as counsel for U.S. West, the regional telecommunications company that emerged from the breakup of the national Bell system monopoly. There, he negotiated multimillion-dollar contracts and rose to senior attorney and chief counsel as the company moved into the burgeoning wireless business.

But the ambitious Harrell was itching to strike out on his own. In 1998, he hatched a law firm to take on civil-rights and employment discrimination cases for clients who sometimes had trouble finding representation.

“If I remember correctly, the tagline was we’d be ‘the premier civil-rights attorneys in the area,’” said George Hunter, one of the lawyers Harrell recruited. “Bruce was the director of this. He had a network of people. I don’t know if you could call them influencers … a network of people in the community.”

Rick Gautschi, another attorney who joined the firm, said “it doesn’t surprise me that he went into politics, subsequently.” He said Harrell “sees what needs to be done and follows through.”

During his decade at the firm, Harrell took on cases including suing the city of Seattle, school districts and other local governments and businesses, on behalf of people who claimed they’d been wrongfully terminated or passed over for promotions.

Harrell also served as counsel for community-development institutions, including the Rainier Valley Community Development Fund, as well as nonprofits, Mount Zion Baptist Church and First African Methodist Episcopal Church.

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As a politician, Harrell has frequently cited his most headline-grabbing case — a class-action racial discrimination lawsuit against Boeing.

The lawsuit on behalf of roughly 15,000 Black employees accused the company of systematically denying them promotions and allowing them to be subjected to racial slurs and other abuse.

Developing the case, Harrell and other attorneys interviewed more than 1,300 Boeing employees across the country and reviewed more than 32,000 pages of internal company documents, seeking to prove a “good-old-boy” culture led to “widespread discrimination,” court records show.

In 1999, a federal judge approved a $15 million settlement of the case, in which Boeing also agreed to change promotion policies and strengthen internal discrimination investigations.

But that deal was overturned by an appeals court in 2002, which sided with a group of dissenting Boeing employees who described the deal as unfair, in part because of the $3.8 million in attorney’s fees it awarded to Harrell’s firm.

“We represented people who didn’t want to see that settlement go through because it was thought the attorneys were taking far too much money,” said Alan Epstein, a Philadelphia attorney who objected to the settlement on behalf of about 2,000 workers.

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In its ruling, the appeals court described the attorney-fee calculation as “irregular” and raised the “possibility that class counsel were accepting an excessive fee” at the expense of pushing for a better deal for the Boeing employees.

Epstein said his impression of Harrell was “he was the kind of guy who could get things done,” but added, he wasn’t “completely enamored” with the legal briefs his firm filed.

In the end, the objectors would have been better off if the settlement had held up.

The case was sent back for a trial, which took place in late 2005, with the noted class-action Seattle law firm Hagens Berman acting as lead counsel. The result was a total victory for Boeing, as a federal jury rejected claims the company had engaged in a pattern of discrimination against its Black employees.

Despite the verdict, Harrell said the case made a difference. “We believe we made incredible changes to the Boeing company, which was what that lawsuit was about,” he said.

Harrell wound down his legal work as he prepared to run for Seattle City Council, winning a seat in 2007 and getting reelected to two more terms before declining to run again in 2019. After leaving the council, he resumed some legal work.

On the mayoral campaign trail, Harrell has pointed to his law firm’s focus on discrimination cases to combat critics who try to brand him as the business-backed candidate.

“I chose to represent the little guy,” Harrell said. “I never defended big business. I was a plaintiff’s lawyer. I represented people who were aggrieved.”