For a candidate who—like all the other candidates—says his run against incumbent mayor Mike McGinn isn’t about policy disagreements, second-term Seattle City Council member Bruce Harrell, who announced his candidacy in mid-January, sure criticized McGinn a lot during an hour-long sit-down with the editors of PubliCola at Seattle Met at his Central District headquarters.
Harrell, the only minority among the major candidates (at press time it was not clear if former King County executive Ron Sims was in or out), is half African American and half Japanese American, and also talked a lot about race. But not in a Malcolm X way. A Garfield High School valedictorian and UW football star (the dude is big), Harrell has a fancy corporate law background, owns a ritzy condo in Bellevue, and accents his impeccable suits with schmancy cuff links. Indeed, he’s a formal guy for such an informal city: ESPN-style, he was wearing a matching purple tie and purple pocket square.
Elected to the council in 2007, Harrell started out as a low-profile legislator chairing the energy committee but emerged during the 2010 John T. Williams tragedy, connecting with the public, and particularly with angry minorities, who had reached their limit on Seattle police misconduct.
He’s not blustery, though. Harrell is a measured, thoughtful speaker who often finds his way to data points rather than emotion. Thinking back on his youth in the Central District and his family’s classic up-by-the-bootstraps story, Harrell said, “I don’t think this mayor has a clue about that. He would have a sense of urgency on looking at failing graduation rates of young African Americans...and the circle between poverty and people of color,” he concluded.
PubliCola: Mayor McGinn won four years ago by bringing together environmental advocates and neighborhood activists. Who do you consider your constituency?
Bruce Harrell: If you look at who votes and how they vote, I draw from a cross--section of all the bases. I was once a business lawyer, a telecommunications lawyer. People look at my background and know I can read a balance sheet and a profit-and-loss sheet. They look at the neighborhood work that I’ve done, so the neighborhood leaders like me. Labor groups support me—I’m a former Teamster; I’m pretty outspoken about working with labor. I have intentionally not been pigeonholed.
PubliCola: To what extent do you consid-er communities of color your constituents, given that you’re the only major candidate of color in the race so far?
Harrell: I’m a person of color, and so I’d have to be honest and say that people like seeing themselves in candidates, but I firmly believe that whites like good candidates irrespective of color, so I think my message resonates with all folks. Quite frankly, when you’re of mixed heritage, you don’t think in racial terms. I don’t look at an African American and think that because we both have pigment in our skin, we have something in common.
PubliCola: After several years of being a fairly low-profile member of the council, you’ve emerged in the last couple of years as a voice for police accountability, particularly with your call for body cameras on police officers. But so far, that initiative has only resulted in a trial of six cameras. What went wrong?
Harrell: First of all, I’ve been very loud for five years on the council. But the things I’ve been loud about—for example, having $1 million in the rainy day fund for City Light doesn’t make a lot of noise out there, because people aren’t following that issue. … Those are critical pieces of work. They were just not as newsworthy, for lack of a better word.
The reason we do not have body cameras on officers is because this mayor has not pushed it, and of course the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild and the rank and file do not like cameras, and I understand that…but the officers will love these cameras once they start to use them.
PubliCola: Your council colleague and opponent in this race Tim Burgess has said that, as part of his effort to improve police accountability, he would replace police chief John Diaz. Do you agree that ousting Diaz would help?
Harrell: I totally disagree. That is not the answer. You can terminate Chief Diaz and still not get the kind of change you want to see. There’s a huge disparity between the leaders and rank and file. The impulse to fire Diaz is just a knee-jerk reaction.
PubliCola: You were one of two votes on the council against increasing building heights near the Roosevelt light-rail station. Do you think the city is heading in the right direction on density?
Harrell: I don’t think there’s been an honest discussion about our density needs. We’re not growing nearly as rapidly as we thought we would. Our growth has been very flat. Our birth rates are flat. We keep using density as the catchphrase to say we have to build all this growth. … I love a walkable community, and I do support aggressive upzones around areas that are transit friendly, and South Lake Union is a great example where we have to achieve this.
In the Roosevelt situation, to me, a deal is sort of a deal. When you have neighborhood activists who put their heart and soul into neighborhood planning…for us to then, after the fact, change the zoning, I didn’t think that was appropriate. … Those are real human beings. They matter.
PubliCola: Tell us more about why you think McGinn has failed.
Harrell: The challenge with McGinn, I would suggest, is that in four years he has not initiated any creative legislation. I would actively ask people to find where his policy record is and where he’s been creative. An example would be our youth violence prevention initiative, which was started under former mayor Greg Nickels. McGinn’s response was to pour more money into it. … Preventing violence is just one small part of the equation. They could not be violent, but they could still be failing miserably in life.
PubliCola: What about McGinn’s plans to build a high-speed broadband system using the city’s miles of unused “dark fiber”? That seems creative.
Harrell: We’ve asked the executive for years to look at unused fiber and dark fiber and create some connectivity. It would be a complete misstatement to say that using dark fiber was the mayor’s idea.
PubliCola: Is race a factor in Seattle elections?
Harrell: Absolutely. But here’s the interesting thing about Seattle. I don’t believe we have a bunch of racists in the city thinking about, ‘How do we discriminate against this group?’ I think we’ve become so indifferent to race that we don’t see the disparate impact we have on different communities. …
In our streetlight work that we do, in looking at who complains about streetlights going out, poor people and communities of color do not complain about streetlights as much as more affluent people. … When we realize people are being impacted in a disparate way, we have to change our policies.
If you had a young black boy, or two black boys, in your house like I do [Harrell has two sons], and you see what’s happening to their friends, you will have a different sense of urgency
on those issues.
Under my leadership, we’ll do several things. The first thing is we will convert all or the vast majority of our community centers to empowerment centers, using that as an asset to teach anti-violence, self-esteem, and environmental sustainability. We’ll pipe in, through technology, different mentors that look like them. This is a program that is not heavy on capital investments. …
How you help a child is very simple: You have to have tutors and resources around them to help them understand the curriculum and good teachers that are culturally competent. You have to have role models around them so that they can see themselves doing better. …
I do not need to teach another African American boy to play basketball. What I do need is to have an African American teacher who can talk to that kid.
I grew up three blocks from here. I can tell you what this city looked like back in the ’60s, and I could take you to places where people were killed over drug deals. But on the positive side, my black grandfather came here in 1944 with three sons, uneducated, and was able to build a home, buy an apartment building, and do quite well and send two kids through college and graduate school.
My Japanese grandfather came here from Japan in 1916. He could barely speak English and was able to buy commercial property here and build a thriving flower business right here at Ninth and Jackson. This was a time when racial bigotry was overt. What is different between then and now? You had leaders that were compassionate and gave hardworking folks opportunity.
Former mayor Wes Uhlman, when I was 12, put his arm around me and gave me hope that I would be able to be on the city council and perhaps run for mayor. You had compassionate leaders who know the art of listening. I have seen what this city can be if we listen. I don’t think this mayor has a clue about that.
PubliCola: You’ve called for a statewide ballot initiative that would give cities the right to adopt stricter gun regulations than the state. What are the prospects for that proposal?
Harrell: I think who will win the mayor’s race will be the person with the most creative ideas, and so I looked at our legislative agenda with regard to guns and public safety, and it’s been the same legislative agenda year after year after year: ban assault weapons, ban large magazines, close the gun show loophole. I’m suggesting a different strategy…of giving cities local flexibility in their gun safety laws. … We can’t just wait on Olympia to pass something. ... I don’t have all the faith in the world right now in Olympia, so I don’t like beating my head against a door to get things done.
Published: March 2013