2021 Election

The Defund Debate Finally Took Center Stage in Seattle’s Mayoral Race

In their last televised appeals to voters, M. Lorena González and Bruce Harrell sparred over their positions on policing.

By Benjamin Cassidy November 1, 2021

From the first debate, but same vibe.

It was always going to end this way. Ever since Seattle mayor Jenny Durkan bowed out of the race to keep her current gig, the next contestants for the city’s top post were destined to relitigate how City Hall reacted to the protests of 2020.

Durkan's "summer of love" was anything but. The city's response to Black Lives Matter demonstrations and CHOP faced legal threats for, improbably, representing either too much leniency or force. Though Durkan cited the time-sapping fight against Covid-19 as a prime reason for her dropout, the mayor's midsummer nightmare undoubtedly factored in.

M. Lorena González and Bruce Harrell, the candidates in question now to succeed Durkan, had very different vantages on Seattle's police conduct. Harrell was on the sidelines of city government, having departed the council a year prior. González, meanwhile, was the president of Seattle's legislative body, a group that heeded protesters' calls to defund the police. The majority of council members, including González, backed a pledge to slash police funding by 50 percent and use the money to address other community needs. Ultimately, the council's cut amounted to less than 20 percent.

González's proximity to that stance, coupled with a controversial campaign ad, meant she would be on the defensive last Thursday during the race's debate on public safety, the last televised appeal to voters before Election Day. While halving the police budget garnered widespread support among those protesting in Seattle's streets during the summer of 2020, such a large measure hasn't resonated with the broader Seattle electorate since. As early as fall of 2020, only one-fifth of voters supported a 50 percent cut, though more than half favored moving dollars away from law enforcement and toward community-based programs, per a Crosscut/Elway Poll. As of this September, more than half of surveyed voters preferred to hire more officers and provide additional training, rather than reduce police funding.

Positioning himself as an outsider to city council's thinking (despite more than a decade serving on the body), Harrell has made that position one of his central campaign tenets. Scores of Seattle Police Department cops have quit since 2020 (police chief Carmen Best resigned in August of last year). He wants to replace those officers and then some, restoring seven-minute response times to crimes. "Make no mistake about it: I'm not defunding the police," he said during Thursday's debate.

González isn't talking about defunding the police so directly anymore. She stresses the need to bolster funding for mental health services to address the root causes of crime, as well as redirect the many 911 calls that don't require an officer response. "I still think it's important for the city, in this historic moment, to continue to evaluate how we can invest in community-based safety and non-law enforcement systems," she said. That involves looking at "what kinds of body of work need to go away from the police department to other systems that are more capable of dealing with those issues."

Harrell advocated for mentors to meet with repeat offenders but emphasized that "you have to enforce the laws." González wasn't impressed. "I think my opponent is trying to have it both ways," she said. "He wants to say that he’s not criminalizing poverty, while also saying that all the laws on the book need to be enforced. And the reality is that there are laws on the book that criminalize poverty."

The debate's media panelists were often less adversarial when addressing Harrell ("I just want to be sure that we're fair to [González]," KIRO 7’s Essex Porter said at one point after a pointed round of questions from Q13’s Hana Kim toward the city council president and a response from her opponent). Still, Crosscut's David Kroman didn't let Harrell off the hook for City Hall's spending on police reform during Harrell's tenure. "I’ll be the first to say that if I could have been more effective and more efficient in city government when I was on the city council for 12 years, I certainly will bear that responsibility," Harrell said.

Who will we hold accountable on police accountability in the mayor's office? Even after Thursday's debate, nobody's certain just yet.

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