Editor’s Note: We asked two District 2 residents to make a case for each of the candidates vying to represent the district as its first-ever city council representative. This is the second of those two articles. Read The Case for Tammy Morales here.
Understanding the Passion of Bruce Harrell: It’s Why You Should Vote for Him
By Cindi Laws, South Seattle Emerald’s “Emerald in the Rough” columnist
When I first met Bruce Harrell, he was registering voters on the South End of Seattle in the late 1990s, at least a decade before he ran and won a seat on the Seattle City Council. He caught my attention because he was comfortably engaging with everybody as though he were a fresh 18-year-old voter, casting a ballot for the first time. As someone who’s registered tens of thousands of voters since the early 1980s, I wanted to get to know this guy.
Watching him interact with the very population that had been so hard to engage in voter participation – youth – I soon learned he was also coaching hundreds of kids playing football and baseball in Rainier Valley. He was serving as their bus driver, mentor and watchdog. “Most of the parents of these kids can’t take them to practice or games,” Bruce told me. “And catching the bus for them with all this gear doesn’t work, so we improvise.”
I later discovered Bruce was also an accomplished attorney and community volunteer who represented, pro bono, nonprofit groups such as the Central Area Motivation Program (CAMP), the First AME Housing Corporation, Mt. Zion Baptist Church and the high school Metro League. His energy seemed boundless when it came to serving others.
To understand Bruce Harrell, to understand why he holds public office, to understand his legislative record and passion, you have to understand his past.
Community activist Charlie James states, “Bruce has a historical perspective of what the Central Area and South Seattle used to be. He grew up in it. That perspective is useful in guiding the city’s future. He is the perfect kind of politician to help us develop Martin Luther King’s beloved community here in Martin Luther King County.”
Bruce Harrell grew up here in the time of racial segregation. Redlining in Seattle. Extreme housing discrimination. A time of political unrest. A series of protests interrupted by bloody riots back-dropped by never-ending war. It was a perfect time to come of age and be influenced by the events of the world; the city in which one is raised; of the history of one’s own family.
Bruce Harrell was born October 10, 1958 with each foot in different worlds. Bruce’s mother, Rose, had been imprisoned at Minidoka Internment Camp with her parents and 10,000 other innocent Japanese American citizens from the Northwest1. Upon her release at the age of ten, Rose grew up in Seattle. Because employment was tough immediately after the war, her family continued their trade back home: running flower shops. That is why his mother was named Rose. It was hard, long work, but they endured.
Bruce’s Black grandfather came to Seattle from Louisiana as part of the Great Migration – African Americans fleeing Jim Crow for jobs in industrial northern cities. William Harrell found work as a carpenter/latherer and he settled in Seattle’s Central District – the only part of Seattle where Blacks were allowed to live. Bruce’s father graduated from Garfield High School and, after serving in the Korean War, worked as a lineman for Seattle City Light. He was one of the founding members of the black city employees association in the 1970s. His parents met at the age of 14.
When he was a just a child, his father took him to see Martin Luther King Jr. during his only visit to Seattle. On November 9, 1961, Dr. King spoke on the UW campus where more than 2,000 people heard him talk on “Segregation and the Civil Liberties: Implications for Students.” Also, that night, he was at Temple de Hirsch. The next day, Dr. King spoke at Garfield High School and finally to a huge audience at the Eagles Auditorium downtown.2
Bruce’s father had worked on urban renewal projects such as Model Cities, intended to implement affirmative action programs for housing and jobs in Seattle. Community activists doing the same kind of work in Seattle with his father are John and Mary Charles (District 2 residents), who say, “We know Bruce’s roots and have watched him grow into the fighter that he is.”
On July 1, 1963, Bruce’s mother marched him from their Central District home to take part in a demonstration with hundreds of vocal African Americans demanding an end to redlining and to protest Seattle’s inaction on legislation. These protests, led by Rev. Samuel McKinney of Mt. Zion Baptist and Rev. Mance Jackson of the Bethel Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, and a student occupation of the office of Mayor Gordon Clinton, produced the City’s first open housing ordinance. Seattle voters defeated that ordinance in March 1964.3
A few years later, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. Two months later, Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated. Malcolm X was assassinated in 1965 and on January 26, 1969, civil rights leader and Seattle Urban League Executive Director, Edwin T. Pratt was assassinated. As a youth in Seattle, Bruce was being mentored at the Meredith Mathews YMCA, the Rotary Boys and Girls Club, and by UW College students, which molded his outlook in politics and social justice. Bruce Harrell was to become a man of action, a man seeking justice, a man fighting for an oppressed minority.
Following a federal court order to desegregate schools in the Spring 1968, Dr. Forbes Bottomly, Superintendent of Seattle Public Schools, proposed closure of Horace Mann Elementary School and busing out its 240 students. “Mann (was) 94.6% Negro. ‘There are no plans for bussing white children next fall into the central area,’ he said”4. Bottomly’s changes were to integrate schools in parts of Seattle, by converting Washington, Meany and Hamilton Junior High schools to multiracial middle schools by 1971. Bottomly recognized “strong resistance by many Negro parents to the idea of transporting only their children.”5
The biracial Harrell family insisted that Bruce, like his father, would stay in the community. A few months later, Bruce Harrell met Larry Gossett, a junior in history at the University of Washington, and Chairman of the Seattle Alliance of Black Student Unions. The 23-year-old Larry Gossett was at Garfield speaking with Black parents about the need for Black faculty and policies that would prevent schools from easily suspending and expelling Black students. Gossett had been arrested in June after leading a demonstration at Franklin High School.6
Inspired and Engaged
Equipped with this firsthand experience of discrimination, unfairness and a thirst for equal opportunity, Bruce became the student body president in his middle school and was elected in 1976 as Garfield’s “Mr. Bulldog” by the entire school for his commitment to the student body. Bruce was also Garfield High School’s valedictorian and Most Valuable Player in 3 sports.
Bruce’s former high school history teacher Barbara Jarrett states, “In high school, Bruce was always asking provocative questions about history, justice and fairness. It was apparent, even at a young age he would be in a leadership position serving others.”
Bruce was accepted to many elite schools including Harvard and Stanford, but his choice was to stay in Seattle and excel in the community that he loved. Bruce accepted a football scholarship to the University of Washington and played on the Championship teams of the 1978 Rose Bowl and the 1979 Sun Bowl. He won the Most Valuable Defensive Player Award in 1979, and was 1st Team All Pac-10.
Tellingly, Bruce was expected and recruited to enter the NFL draft. He instead chose to stay in Seattle. A Times headline wrote, “Harrell Refuses Draft” and talked about how he was likely one of the best athletes in the country headed to the draft. In 1984, Bruce graduated from the University of Washington’s Law School. Bruce participated in the UW’s Prisoner Counseling Program, tutoring inmates at the Monroe reformatory, allowing them to earn a GED and re-enter society as productive members. Bruce also saw the recidivism, felt the pain of men who could not get jobs, who couldn’t even get an interview for a job, because of their record.
Rectifying the Wrongs
Bruce Harrell was elected city-wide to the Seattle City Council in 2007, winning 60% of the vote.7 He became the first Councilmember of Japanese descent in Seattle history. He would win re-election in 2011 with 61%8. In 2013, Seattle voters approved a move to district representation, and Bruce decided to run for the District 2 seat, representing the base that has filled his life and his passion.
“We know Bruce’s roots and have watched him grow into the fighter that he is,” said John and Mary Charles, community volunteers and Seward Park residents. “He is the one to make sure our neighborhoods are safe; investments are made in our community; and uses common sense to make decisions. He is the best and only pick for District 2.”
As Bruce Harrell achieved in school, in college, on the football field and in court, Bruce has achieved on the Seattle City Council. Appointed Chair of the Public Utilities Committee, in just his first year in office, Bruce authored 28 ordinances. The Committee name and scope changed to include Energy and Technology, and engaged in a series of environmental reforms and restructuring of revenue bonds that saved ratepayers more than $67 million and created a $100 million rate stabilization account that protected taxpayers from market pricing instability. Keeping his precious underserved community at heart, the first streetlights to convert to brighter, long-lasting LEDs were installed in the South End. He also pushed for expansion of high-fiber cable networks with more competition to benefit consumers and particularly focused on underserved neighborhoods like Beacon Hill, the South End and the Central district.
Bruce Harrell’s oldest son Jason was the third generation of Harrells to graduate from Garfield. His daughter graduated from Cleveland High School last year. With his commitment to public education, he invested the interactive knowledge he received from students to develop innovative programs for them that are now expanding state and nationwide.
It was Bruce Harrell’s experience with his kids and their friends’ struggles to find money for college that led Bruce to be the Council’s strongest advocate for the “13th Year” program. This program, implemented at Cleveland and Rainier Beach High Schools, allows every graduate to attend South Seattle College for one year, tuition free. All the graduate has to do is apply. “By the end of my next term, every high school in District 2 will be under the 13th year program. I will find them the resources. Our kids have to see a pathway in order to succeed. There is an abundance of corporate and individual wealth around us. I will see these kids have the opportunities that I had.”
“Bruce knows that our success as a community is closely linked to the success of our students. He is a product of our Seattle Public School system. He will roll up his sleeves to get us the resources and provide the inspiration that our community needs.” Dr. Jennifer Wiley, Principal of Franklin High School
One day, while Harrell was on his computer with his daughter and her friends, he noticed how amazed these students became while using high speed internet. Many of them were on free and reduced-priced lunch. Knowing that Comcast was purchasing NBC Universal and the FCC would likely approve the merger if a strong community benefit package was included, Bruce developed the idea of “The Great Student Initiative,” an idea to have Comcast provide high speed internet to low-income families with children in the Seattle Public School system. This high speed service would be offered to these families for $9.95 per month. Comcast agreed and, taking Harrell’s idea, took the program national. Bruce Harrell was awarded the prestigious National Broadband Visionary of the Year Award and Comcast has publicly stated the idea originated from Bruce Harrell.
From Crisis to Change
What a politician does in times of crisis can truly set an agenda. On August 30, 2010, First Nations Woodcarver John T. Williams was killed by Seattle Police Officer Ian Birk. Birk fired four shots just seconds after shouting at the mostly-deaf Williams, who was crossing the street as he held a block of wood with a pen knife. While others expressed sadness and many accepted the officer’s version of events, Bruce Harrell began demanding answers. He began demanding dash-cam footage from the patrol car, and demanded an investigation.
Bruce Harrell’s 2010 committee – the Energy, Technology and Civil Rights Committee – would spend months pushing for an investigation of the Williams shooting.9 That work would pull from Bruce’s upbringing—from the arrest and imprisonment of his Japanese American grandfather; the police overreaction that he witnessed of Larry Gossett and Aaron Dixon; to the quick dismissal of a life of a person of color.
Bruce Harrell’s questioning of data collection in the Williams case led him to call for an expansion of dash cams, and the technology investments to better access and manage the footage. He realized that the most important video in the Williams shooting was outside the scope of the car video; the car video only viewed the limited area immediately in front of the hood of the police car. Most importantly, it gave strength to the call he issued months earlier in a media release proclaiming that police body cameras should be deployed to improve police accountability.10 The public was curious at best; politicians were skeptical and opposition was high.
Five years later, in 2015, President Obama agreed and secured funding; the Federal Department of Justice awarded $23.2 million to 73 local and tribal agencies in 32 states to expand the use of body-worn cameras and explore their impact. Seattle recently obtained $600,000 for its body cam implementation program.
After calling for a federal investigation of biased policing, Bruce became chair of the Public Safety Committee in 2012. He led the effort to ensure compliance with police reforms and worked the legislative side to change the structure and culture of the department, including hiring a new police chief. He changed a law that had stood since the 1970s that allowed the chief to hire command staff externally. “It has become clear that nobody could do enough for police reform. I have tried to change policies, leadership and systems thinking in the police department, but we are dealing with decades and decades of a department doing things a certain way; just like they did when I was a child.”
Bruce has gone to countless funerals and has delivered numerous messages to residents who have lost loved ones to senseless violence. “Decades before I was elected, I sponsored, year after year, a youth law forum designed to curb youth violence and foster better relations between youth and law enforcement,” Bruce said. “We involved prosecutors, judges, defense attorneys, police officers, detectives and parents. I have also delivered eulogies when youth have been gunned down and I recently spoke at a service where my daughter’s classmate was killed in a drive-by. I’ve been asked how I sleep at night, and I say, ‘It keeps me awake at night, thinking of innovative ways to fix problems, because I have personally felt them my whole life. ”
Under Bruce’s fire and with new leadership in the Seattle Police department, SPD has created a Gun Crimes Task Force and have taken 600 guns out of the hands of criminals, more than in any other year. They have been addressing the underlying issues of poverty and lack of opportunity by investments in youth jobs and universal pre-K. A three-fold increase in proactive policing and a 25% decrease in calls for service. By the end of 2016, there will be 1,404 police officers, the highest ever for the police department.
Bruce has a third major policy area that is now gaining national momentum: Ban the Box legislation. Harkening back to his days volunteering in prison, Bruce understood that our “justice” system is unjust, that Black men without a high school education are more likely to be incarcerated than employed.11 And that an unemployed Black man with a record is not going to get a fair shake – or a job. Bruce wrote his landmark “Ban the Box” legislation. When it was first introduced, it had little City Council support. The legislation was strongly opposed by the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce. It passed 9-0. In 2015, Bruce Harrell testified in Olympia in favor of state Ban the Box legislation. Last month, President Obama took up the call.
“I want a leader who understands this city from all angles. I want a leader who not only completely understands the workings of government but also comprehends the needs of the private sector in this evolving city “I want a leader who will continue to force the City’s departments to listen to the voice of neighborhoods. Bruce Harrell is that leader for our district.” Jeannie O’Brien, parent, small business owner and community leader
When African Americans, Asians and Jews were segregated into the Central District and South End, “Rev. Dr. John H. Adams, minister of the First African Methodist Episcopal Church, said tersely at one point, ‘You cannot put out the forest fire of racial tension with the hot dry air that comes from committee rooms.’”12 Bruce Harrell grew up in First AME; he attends that church to this day. And he uses the Rev. Dr. Adams’ teachings to guide his actions in regards to housing discrimination. He recently gave Dr. Adams a hug at a recent Youth and Law Forum and Dr. Adams expressed how proud he was of Bruce.
In December of 2010, Councilmember Harrell directed Seattle’s Office for Civil Rights (SOCR) to conduct an audit of rental housing practices in Seattle to determine whether landlords were discriminating against potential tenants. The 2011 audit focused on African-Americans and people with disabilities and found that 55% of the attempts showed evidence of unlawful discrimination. In 2013, Councilmember Harrell was the lead sponsor to add another $50,000 to continue enforcement of the housing discrimination laws. In 2014, the audit’s scope expanded to discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals and those whose country of origin is not the United States.
Fair and Affordable Housing
Rose Harrell, Bruce’s mom, was born in Seattle and lived here her entire life. She bought her first house here with Bruce’s father. Upon Bruce’s father’s death, she lived alone. She died just one year ago. “The crisis in affordable housing becomes a reality when you are forced to tell your mother that the city she loves has become unaffordable to live in on her own,” Bruce said. “I continue to advocate for and develop every available tool to achieve affordable housing. That is why I learned how to develop Real Estate Investment Trusts using federal tax credits and advised affordable housing corporations. Ideas are only good if you know how to actually implement them.”
Vote for Bruce Harrell
District 2 needs this kind of passion to take things to a new level. As South Seattle residents, we are very fortunate to have a Councilmember for District 2 that comes with this kind of energy. He has exemplified what we want to see in our youth; what we want to see in our neighbors; and, what we want to see in our leaders: a love for and a commitment to community. For me, I am looking for a District 2 leader who can uplift a community; who has lived and experienced Seattle’s past; who walks their talk; and a person who has new and creative ideas to move us forward.
Voters of District 2, you must know the life and values of your leader. If they have demonstrated a life of commitment to your community, you can trust them with the power vested as a City Councilmember. Bruce has proven to us that he cares about our community. He didn’t just move here and say, “Choose me to lead.” He has earned the right to lead.
I have seen Bruce court representatives of the Facebook Corporation and others to District 2, describing our area as underutilized and ripe with potential. He is currently working on the City’s budget to place $1.9 million in the City’s budget to build an Opportunity Center where job training, technology, small business incubator programs and community building can occur. “When I see our youth and our residents here, I see the new wave of employees and entrepreneurs just waiting to be nurtured. Cleveland is the only STEM school in the district,” Bruce said. “Rainier Beach’s International Baccalaureate program has the potential to attract students and employers from across the city, and Franklin is consistently producing scholars. With the right resources, we can do this.”
I learned all kinds of new ideas from Bruce while he served as his neighborhood’s block watch captain. I watched him organize turkey and food give-aways to 2,000 South End District 2 families with Seattle Seahawk Kam Chancellor and NBA greats Brandon Roy and Nate Robinson. Bruce Harrell is a man of constant action, and that is who we want representing us.
“I will fight for new strategies and more resources,” Bruce said, speaking recently at a youth event in New Holly. “I want to thank the hundreds of ordinary people who are also volunteering to improve public safety through mentoring, educational programs, crime prevention meetings, festivals, coaching, dancing, teaching art, and any other strategy, other than simply complaining without doing anything.”
Very recently I heard Councilmember Harrell pitch a new idea: “As we think about building a relationship between our youth and the Seattle Police department, we have hundreds, if not thousands of kids participating in sports, chess competitions or activities like Ultimate Frisbee. Can we build positive relationships between members of our Seattle Police department and these kids while they are young? Can these relationships continue? I envision officers on playfields, coaching, selling hot dogs, playing catch. I am developing a proposal called ‘public safety through youth sports’ in our budget because I think we have to be very intentional in how we build community and relationships.”
It’s classic Bruce Harrell. Last year, I approached him about creating an event, sponsored with the Seattle Police Department, to have a safe and fun Halloween in Rainier Beach. The result was “Boo Bash at the Beach,” underwritten by and hosted at the Rainier Beach Safeway. It was the first Halloween in years with no gunfire. As co-sponsor again this year, Bruce made sure that budget pressures were not going to get in the way of the 2nd Annual Boo Bash.
That is why the Labor movement is behind him; the teachers in Seattle Education Association, the retail workers in UFCW 21, the nurses and healthcare workers in SEIU 1199, childcare workers in SEIU 925 and longterm care workers in SEIU 775, the Longshoremen in ILWU, the bus drivers in Amalgamated Transit 587, the King County Labor Council, the King County Building Trades and dozens of other labor unions who endorsed Harrell over his opponent. Bruce’s passion for education won him the sole endorsements of the Seattle Education Association and American Federation of Teachers.
That is why Harrell was rated highest by the Municipal League; why the Seattle Times declared that he was the most qualified and why his rating and knowledge of LGBT issues as evaluated by SEAMEC was the highest.
Bruce’s vision for District 2 is that we all can live, work, and play in a clean and safe environment. A culture where we know our neighbor’s name and known for how we respect one another and how we see the best in one another.
South Seattle has, in its history, seen incredible injustice, unfairness, violence and strife. But we’ve also seen leaders emerge from that history improve things for a safer, healthier and productive future. Keep that future with positivity and inclusiveness; vote for Bruce Harrell.
Cindi Laws is a resident of the Rainier View neighborhood, a long-time activist and a former elected official in the City of Seattle. She is the founding columnist of Emerald in the Rough.
1 Many other Rainier Valley notables were imprisoned here, including Fujitaro Kubota (Kubota Garden), activist and teacher Aki Kurose, and artist and Professor Roger Shimomura. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Minidoka_National_Historic_Site
3 Dan Coughlin, “City Implies OK For Open Housing Law After Sit-In,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 2, 1963
4 Don Hannula, Seattle Times, “Bottomly Says Bussing is Essential” March 26, 1968, top of page 66
6 Constantine Angelos, Seattle Times, “Bottomly to Receive BSU Position Paper, 5 Requests” November 19, 1968, top of page 49
Feature Photo Credit: Alex Garland