Mayor Bruce Harrell: Can He Save Our City?

New Mayor Bruce Harrell has an almost singular focus on uniting deep divisions within Seattle

By Chris S. Nishiwaki and Rob Smith June 16, 2022


This article originally appeared in the March/April 2022 issue of Seattle magazine.

“If there’s one thing I believe in, it is that there’s ‘one’ Seattle. in ‘one’ Seattle, we put in the work and we lead with humility, urgency and compassion.”

New Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell wasted little time in tackling one of the city’s thorniest issues.

Just 40 days after his swearing-in, Harrell signed an executive order announcing an end to the moratorium on residential and commercial evictions. At the same time, he extended protections for at least six months to vulnerable tenants. The announcement came after Harrell solicited opinions from tenant advocates and small landlords, a move that reflects his philosophy of governing.

“If there’s one thing I believe in, it is that there’s ‘one’ Seattle,” Harrell says. “In ‘one’ Seattle, we put in the work and we lead with humility, urgency and compassion.”

Harrell, who became the city’s 57th mayor after a surprisingly easy victory last fall over progressive City Councilmember Lorena Gonzalez, is now faced with unifying a shell-shocked and divided city. During his first State of the City address, he pledged to end homelessness, reform the embattled police department, crack down on crime, embark on economic and pandemic-related recovery, and upgrade the city’s infrastructure and transportation system.

The consummate teammate has seemingly been preparing for this considerable challenge his entire life.

During a lesson on diversity as a sixth grader at T.T. Minor Elementary, his teacher divided the class into Black, White and Asian students. Harrell, whose father is Black and mother is Japanese American, was left out of the exercise.

Harrell was No. 1 in his 1976 Garfield High School class, delivering the graduation speech as the valedictorian. While at Garfield, he was captain of the football team, finishing his career in perhaps the most exciting Washington high school football game ever, a four-overtime loss to defending state champion Bishop Blanchet, led by future Husky teammate Joe Steele at running back.

Harrell would finish a successful football career at the University of Washington in 1979, selected first team All-Pac 10 and an academic All-American. He would enter UW Law School immediately after graduation, eschewing a possible professional football career.

Harrell doesn’t exactly represent new blood. He served on the City Council for 13 years until deciding not to run for reelection in 2019. He also served as interim mayor for five days in 2017 after Ed Murray resigned before the end of his first term amidst sexual-assault allegations.

He does, however — much like his predecessor, one-term Mayor Jenny Durkan — represent an alternative to the far-left City Council. Unlike Durkan, Harrell brings a wealth of experience to city politics. Durkan was a criminal defense lawyer and civil litigator who previously served as United States Attorney for the District of Western Washington.
Harrell, as a centrist, is in a unique position. Based on the election, he seemingly enjoys the support of left-leaning Seattle. At least for now.

“Good leaders identify common ground. My feeling is that has been lacking,” says former Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, Seattle’s last two-term mayor from 2001-2009. “Philosophically, I think you govern from the center. In Seattle, from the center-left. I am hoping Bruce can get us around the same table.”

Several major cities have new mayors, including Boston, New York City and Pittsburgh. Like Seattle, New York and Boston face major issues around housing affordability and homelessness. New Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey is confronting numerous public safety issues. All must rebuild their cities as the pandemic eases.

For Harrell, a critical first step toward “one Seattle” is healing a fractured City Council. He campaigned on an ambitious vision for the city and bold promises to voters, promising to be welcoming to big business to create jobs and raise tax revenue to fund his ambitious agenda.

King County recently said 40,000 people experienced homelessness in 2020. That’s more than three times as high as previous counts, which were conducted only on one night in January. Harrell’s plan to end homelessness involves moving people into 1,000 units of housing in the first six months of his tenure and to devote 12% of the city budget to the housing crisis.

He adds that the city had six different systems in six different departments tracking outreach and services and lacked “clear departmental systems” to deal with either public safety or homelessness when he took office.

Ending the crisis, of course, doesn’t begin and end in the mayor’s office. The Partnership for Zero Kickoff launched last winter with $10 million in yet another attempt to combat the problem. But the mayor, as the equivalent of the city’s chief executive, can use the influence of the office to drive conversations and set policy.

“These are the kinds of systems issues where we must do better,” Harrell said in his mid-February State of the City address. “Along with systems reform, we need new units of housing, including leasing and buying buildings.”

YWCA Seattle Chief Executive Officer Maria Chavez Wilcox says Harrell won’t fare any better than his predecessors in alleviating homelessness unless he reaches out to those battling the crisis on the front lines. The YWCA is the region’s largest housing services provider, with 24 transitional, temporary and permanent housing locations in King and Snohomish counties. It served more than 7,000 families last year.

“He has said he wants to involve the voice of the community,” says Wilcox, adding that a previous “Ten-Year Plan to End Homelessness” failed miserably in large part because of a lack of outreach. “You can’t just talk to government folks. There’s been talk for a long time about using human services providers as a sounding board on some of these issues, but it hasn’t really happened.”

Marc Dones, chief executive officer of the King County Regional Homelessness Authority, says Homelessness Authority officials have already had several conversations with the new mayor. Dones acknowledges that there’s a “tremendous amount of pressure” on elected officials to have a quick and ready solution for homelessness. That’s simply not realistic.

“The fast and easy thing breaks every time,” Dones says. “It’s all about building the relational infrastructure necessary. What I’ve seen thus far from the Harrell administration is a willingness to embrace that this is complex work, that it isn’t a 90-day timeline.”

Harrell has also directed interim Police Chief Adrian Diaz, a candidate for the permanent job, to focus on high-crime areas in response to an alarming rise in statistics. The department’s 2021 Year-End Crime Report showed skyrocketing increases in violent crime and gun violence. Aggravated assaults rose 24%, shots fired increased 40% to reach an all-time high and violent crime was the highest it’s been in 24 years.

Harrell has pledged to focus on the violent crimes that frequently affect the most vulnerable in the community. He has also shone a spotlight on the chronic issue of thefts plaguing the city’s downtown-area businesses.

“We will not tolerate organized retail theft, which has become rampant, causing businesses to close and leave our city,” Harrell says. “We will not look the other way while the fabric of our neighborhoods and city is destroyed.”

The mayor received a victory of sorts this past winter, when timber company Weyerhaeuser announced its employees would be returning to their offices in Pioneer Square. The company cited the crackdown on crime in the neighborhood as a key reason.

Harrell acknowledges that in order to improve public safety he must address the challenges associated with the city’s depleted and demoralized police department. The department has been mired in controversy since the Black Lives Matter protests, the Capitol Hill Occupied Protest — when police abandoned the East Precinct and protestors took control over several city blocks — and calls to defund the department. Nearly 350 officers have quit as the previous City Council cut funding by 50%.

Harrell’s cabinet, a mix of both newcomers and veterans he’s familiar with, offers an early indicator of his approach. He raised some eyebrows when he appointed his niece, Monisha Harrell, as one of his three deputy mayors, though her qualifications are unquestioned. Others include Kendee Yamaguchi and Tiffany Washington. All three are women of color, making Harrell’s leadership team the most diverse in the city’s history.

That, Harrell said during his swearing-in ceremony in January, comes with a unique lived and professional experience that will bring a fresh perspective to City Hall.

“I hope that you come to know their stories and how they overcame race discrimination, gender discrimination, LGBTQ bigotry, and yet rose to the level of top leadership and educational attainment,” he says. “We will be a city of renewed optimism, a city that treats all with dignity, and appreciates the richness and diverse voices and perspectives of our communities and people.”

Even with all of his experience, Harrell is in a different part of City Hall now and on a different level, says Charles Royer, who served as Seattle’s only three-term mayor from 1977 to 1989. Royer hired an entirely new cabinet and department heads when he was first elected and admits he didn’t learn how to effectively govern until his second term.

“His biggest challenge is going to be that City Council,” Royer predicts, referring to a body that often frustrated and thwarted Durkan. “You are all alone in that job.”
He doesn’t have to be.

“My highest hope for the Harrell administration,” Dones says, “is that he continues to focus on bringing different people to the table.”

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