City Hall

A Cola Q&A with the Latest Mayoral Contender, Bruce Harrell

City Council member Bruce Harrell, jumping into the mayor's race today, says incumbent McGinn "doesn't have a clue."

By Erica C. Barnett and Josh Feit January 15, 2013

For a candidate who—like all the other candidates—says his run against incumbent mayor Mike McGinn isn't about policy disagreements, Seattle City Council member Bruce Harrell, who announced his candidacy today, sure criticized McGinn a lot during an hour-long sitdown with PubliCola at his Central District headquarters at 23rd and Union this afternoon.

Similarly, for a candidate who, unlike the rest of the candidates, is a minority, but says race isn't a factor in his campaign, he sure got passionate about race in our Q&A. (Harrell is half African American and half Japanese American).

But don't worry, lily white Seattle—not in a Malcolm X way. Harrell, a Garfield high school valedictorian and UW football star (the dude is big), has a fancy corporate law background, owns a ritzy condo in Bellevue, and accents his impeccable suits with shmancy cufflinks. Indeed, Harrell's a formal guy for such an informal city: Today, ESPN-style, he was wearing a matching purple tie and purple pocket square.

Elected to the council in 2007, Harrell, who's in his second term, 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. His assessment of race in Seattle is a perfect example. "The officers will love these [body] cameras once they start to use them."

"I don’t believe we have a bunch of racists in the city thinking about, 'how do we discriminate against this group?'" he said when asked if race was an issue in Seattle. "I think we’ve become so indifferent to race that we don’t see the disparate impact we have on different communities. … In looking at who complains about streetlights, 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."

And Harrell thinks that kind of change in policy is not likely to come from the incumbent mayor.

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, putting his fingers in two overlapping circles.

PubliCola: Mayor McGinn won four years ago by bringing together environmental advocates and neighborhood activists. With so many people in this race, the winner is going to have to do something similar. Who do you consider your constituency?

Bruce Harrell: I don’t subscribe to that. I think that 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. Businesses, for example, that do like how I approach city government in terms of reducing costs do not like how we will advance ex-offender legislation.

PubliCola: We’ve heard that you promised former King County executive Ron Sims that you wouldn’t run if he decided to get in the race. Is that true, and to what extent do you consider communities of color your constituents, given that you’re the only candidate of color in the race so far? 

Harrell: That rumor about if Ron runs I wasn’t going to run was not true. I’ve had conversations with Ron, and I’ve been talking about running for mayor for years, so it wasn’t a secret to anyone. Ron is a friend. There was never a deal that we wouldn’t run together.

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 [as chair of the council’s energy and technology committee, you’ve really 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 small 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 [but] they were just not as newsworthy, for lack of a better word.

[With regard to police accountability], all this talk about race and social justice training and defining our use of force policy more clearly, that all fails in comparison to having a strong evidentiary record, which is what body cameras represents.  … The reason we do not have them 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.

[With regard to body cameras], I haven’t failed. In fact, I’ve succeeded in making sure that at public forums the mayor and police chief have had to say they like these cameras. … 

The challenge with the current mayor, Mike McGinn, is that he’s shown flat leadership. We can’t really attack him. He’s actually decent with regard to some of his policies. But style becomes substance when you’re not driving a certain outcome in terms of not being collaborative, having people push back on ideas, not being creative. "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."

For example, on the tunnel, style becomes substance when you tell a voter base you’re not going to oppose it and then you [waste] a couple of years based on a cost overrun theory that is a flawed theory.

PubliCola: Your council colleague and opponent in this race, Tim Burgess, said today 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. The real issue is not Chief Diaz. The real issue is how decisions are made form the top down. You look at Diaz, [deputy chief Clark] Kimerer [assistant chief Jim] Pugel and [deputy chief Nick] Metz—together, they have over 100 years of experience. They are all strong leaders in that department.

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. You could fire Diaz as long as you want and you’re not going to effectuate the kind of change you want to see. [The impulse to fire Diaz] is just a knee-jerk reaction.

PubliCola: In entering the mayor’s race, you’re also running against a colleague on the council, Burgess. How do you expect that will affect your working relationship, and have you talked to him?

Harrell: We just exchanged a text message.

PubliCola: That’s very Tim Burgess.

Harrell: Look, Tim’s a friend and my friendships mean a lot to me. We may have different styles and substantive and policy decisions that we make, but I don’t think it will be difficult at all [to work together during the campaign].

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 catch phrase to say we have to build all this growth. I do like building density to increase [housing] stock in town. … 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. "The challenge with McGinn, I would suggest, is that in four years he has not initiated any creative legislation."

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. 

To me, the question becomes, do we have a leader in McGinn that is able to bridge those communities? I don’t think we do. There’s no right answer in terms of what should be upzoned, and again, I think you can achieve aggressive density in some areas, but the rush for density needs to be balanced by growth numbers.

If you’re building high-rises in South Lake Union, I’m not convinced it’s going to be [for example] the East African community who’s living in them.

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: Is race an issue in Seattle? 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 street light work that we do, in looking at who complains about street lights [going out], poor people and communities of color do not complain about street lights 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 antiviolence, 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.

Currently, there’s a program called 13th Year that’s offered at Cleveland and West Seattle High Schools, and a child that graduates can go to South Seattle Community College and have their tuition paid and fees paid, 100 percent, with remedial education mentors and role models. For $3 million, we can extend it to Franklin and Chief Sealth. For a $20 million endowment, we can extend it citywide. I will raise that 20 million as the mayor.

I grew up three blocks from here [Harrell’s campaign office at 23rd and Union]. 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 1933. He could barely speak English and was able to buy commercial property here and build a thriving flower business right here at 14th and Yesler. 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

He would have a sense of urgency about looking at the failing graduation rates of young African Americans. He would have a sense of urgency about looking at role models of all kinds.

PubliCola: You’ve proposed hiring more cops and 20 new community service officers, a program that was cut because of budget shortfalls under Nickels. How do you propose to do that?

Harrell: It can be paid for. Under my administration, you will never hear lack of resources as an excuse. That’s a delay tactic.

If you look at what I did at Seattle City Light, we were able to save $100 million during its worst years. We are not prioritizing, in my mind, the right investments. We complain about public safety, but we could have had adequate officers. That’s why I pushed for another 1$ million in funding. I would have a $6 million reserve fund just for officers

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.

PubliCola: Finally, why did you decide to locate your campaign headquarters in the Central District?

Harrell: This is the heartbeat of the city right here. … We had a forum at Garfield [High School] where there were people who grew up in the community saying, ‘this is my community, and you folks moved here.’ I would like to see a Seattle where people of color could afford a house anywhere they want in the city. … I went to school at T. T. Minor. My mother and father bought a house here in the Central District. My father was a lineman for the city of Seattle and my mother worked for The Facts newspaper.

Read PubliCola's earlier Q&As with mayoral candidates Tim Burgess and Ed Murray

Show Comments