Bruce Harrell holding a microphone and announcing his candidacy for Seattle mayor.

Q&A: Bruce Harrell, Councilmember Who Grew Up in Central District, Runs for Mayor

by M. Anthony Davis

Bruce Harrell, who served as Seattle City Councilmember for 12 years, has announced he’s running for mayor. Harrell’s time on the City Council included serving as Council President, and for five days in 2017, he was acting mayor after former Mayor Ed Murray resigned. Ultimately, Harrell decided to return to his seat on the Council instead of finishing out Murray’s term. In 2019, Harrell stepped down from his role on the Council and decided not to run for reelection.

Now, Harrell, who was raised in the Central District, attended the University of Washington, and is a longtime community leader, is back and ready to run for mayor. The Emerald had a chance to catch up with Harrell and discuss his plans for the future of Seattle. Our conversation covers why Harrell decided to come back to local politics, his views on homelessness and policing, his plans to rejuvenate local businesses, and what it means to be a Seattle native with the opportunity to lead the city in these tumultuous times.  

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

South Seattle Emerald: Can you speak about your connection to the community and how that will impact your approach to being mayor?

Bruce Harrell: I think if people have been around Seattle for a while, I’ve probably bumped into them one time or another. And one of the questions that people will ask me is how I’ve been successful in the things I have done, and I will tell people that it was because I had a really good community around me. 

I grew up in the Central District, and then moved toward Franklin High School when I was in high school. When I grew up in the Central District, there were mentors — African American and white males and females — who helped shape my life. I grew up playing CAYA football and our team was called the Blue Angels. We played games at Garfield. I also spent a lot of time at Rotary Boys and Girls Club. I went to a class there where we had to be there at 6  in the morning, and it was taught by an African American Rhodes Scholar named Dr. Emil Wilson and a superstar Seattle University basketball player named Lindsey Stewart. These two African American men required six of us to be at the Boys and Girls Club at 6 a.m. every morning. I was at this age of around 14, 15, and 16 years old, and it was a summer program, and it changed my life.  That particular program was called Basic English and Logic. It was a class we did from 6 to 8 a.m. and after that we would start coaching and spending time with the young kids during the day at the Boys and Girls Club. So, that class taught us, all of whom were African Americans, taught us how to learn and be strong young men, but then most importantly, how to give back. So, the coaching that I’ve done and the community work that I’ve done as a lawyer, the community work I’ve done as a city councilmember, I did it because it was a learned behavior. 

I will never forget a question that was asked in my class by Dr. Wilson. He said, “If you look back at history, pick anyone in history that you could be if you have a choice, and you get to walk through that person’s shoes.” Many of us said Martin Luther King, who had just died four years before. Some people said, Malcolm X. And we started talking about why we chose that person. I can honestly say, I don’t remember who I chose. But, regardless of who I chose, and who the others chose, Dr. Wilson’s question taught us how limited our dreams were. Because first of all, we were all men in the class, and we all chose men. We were all Black, and we all chose Black men. And they weren’t bad choices; there’s no right or wrong in this. But Dr. Wilson talked about how even in our wildest dreams, we put limits around ourselves. And he pointed out nobody said Jesus, who in our faith was the son of God because we were taught that would be sacrilegious to say. So, when I tell people to think about envisioning where you could be five years from now, ask yourself if you are putting parameters and circles around your wildest dreams. We have to unleash that because that’s learned behavior. 

So, to answer your question directly, my connection to the community is, I’m chairman of the board at the Royal Esquire Club, I’m president of the Central Area Development Association, I was vice president of the Loren Miller Bar Association, which is an African American Bar Association. I was president of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity for three years, which is an African American fraternity. I was a member of the Japanese American Leadership Delegation to visit Japan and meet with the Prime Minister. I’ve migrated to different organizations doing good work, all with the intention of helping people around me. It’s not work, because I enjoy it, which is a good segue to some questions about why I’m running. 

But for me, it’s all been about community service. There’s a younger generation out there right now that are doing some outstanding work. It’s also appropriate for some people like myself, to let their voices be heard, and not just presume that I am necessarily their leader. I want to be their ally, and their bench strength. But I think it’s critically important for people in your generation, to lead and to lead loudly and, for many of us, to give you our assets and our knowledge, our success stories and our pain stories for you to carry the torch. Leadership is an interesting thing, because nobody owns it. It’s meant to be shared. 

SSE: Speaking of the youth and their voices, in the wake of George Floyd and the summer protests, the defund the police movement seemed stronger than ever. What can you do to repair the relationship between police and the community?

B.H.: I think what we have to fully understand is the culture of the police department.

And the question becomes how do you change the culture? A consent decree, like the one we are under now, which was mandated by the court to put certain processes in place to require de-escalation in certain instances to measure the type and manner with which force is used to communities of color and all people arrested by the police. All of those policies would not change the culture. Even proper leadership and the proper training will not change the culture. 

Culture changes in an organization when the mass numbers within the culture decide what behaviors will be tolerated, and what behaviors will not be. I’m not ashamed to say that when I had my kickoff at Garfield on the 16th, that I had some police officers there, both active and retired. They were African American people who believe in community. What we have to do is make sure the informal leaders, if you will, because it doesn’t matter what rank; they could be a patrol officer, they could be a sergeant, they could be a captain. The people in the locker room that are charismatic sort of govern the topics of the day. The people who are influencers within your organization, irrespective of title, they must speak out, and they have to be loud and they have to be not monetarily rewarded, but praised for their leadership.

And what does that look like? That looks like getting 20 to 30 people in the different precincts that will stand up with you and me and say that “George Floyd was murdered, that John T Williams the woodcarver in Seattle was murdered.” That will go from example to example, of unreasonable force by any stretch of the imagination, that those informal leaders break that code of silence and they talk about how that won’t be tolerated here in Seattle, and that is not Seattle. 

And I’ve had too many officers tell me in these situations that would never be here, but they will whisper it to me. What we need to do is to change culture. In my first week, if there is no unreasonable force done, and no African Americans shot at the hands of the police, we’re going to go to each of the precincts and we’re going to high-five everybody. We’re going to celebrate good behavior. They need to be coached up. So yeah, we will continue to do all the right training. 

I said [in] my kickoff, we’ll be masters of de-escalation. If we’re asking the question whether a person wielding a knife 40 feet away, whether we can use our firearm against that person because they present an imminent threat of danger to the officer — and the issue is whether firearm force is used — that is the wrong question. The right question is: How can we use de-escalation on that person, particularly when they are holding a knife? And they may be holding a knife to their own throat. How are we the masters of de-escalation? Doesn’t that life mean more than that, even if you believe your force is justified? 

Charleena Lyles. We knew she had mental illness. Two capable officers with knowledge of her mental crisis, and she called the police. So culture will be changed when the officers discuss amongst themselves that yes, we could have been smarter, we could have done it better. Okay. You don’t hear mayors nonetheless, politicians, talk like this, because this is real talk. You do not grow up in Seattle, in the ’60s and ’70s, to not know what this culture is about. Right. So when I used to pick juries, as an attorney, I used to ask African Americans, “When you’re driving in your car, and you see a police officer driving in back of you, and you’re just going the speed limit, how does that make you feel?” And they say, “Not good. I’ve got my hands on the wheel, I’m looking in my rearview mirror, I make sure I’m doing everything right.” I asked some other white drivers how do they feel, and they didn’t have the anxieties. They didn’t have the level of anxieties that many of the Black drivers would have. So when you get into police culture and changing it, I’m asking the police to understand our vantage point when we look at them, and then we will have to understand theirs. We have to understand that they are being called to protect and serve. Policing is not a profession you just happen to go into. That’s a profession that you consciously choose to go into. We have to understand why. And perhaps some went in for the wrong reasons. So we need to know why they went into this profession. And if we have the wrong people, we got the wrong people. We’ve got to get the right people. So training, yes. Leadership, yes. But we have to change a culture. And that can be done with strong leadership within the organization. And that’s what we’ll do.

SSE: How do you plan on addressing homelessness in our city?

B.H.: We know what works. We know that rapid rehousing with a housing-first approach works, which simply means we don’t condition shelter based on whether people have a drug or alcohol problem. We try to shelter them. We know that building smaller homes or Tiny Homes with warm water and heat shelters people. We know that drug and alcohol treatment helps people recover. We know that people need money — who are housing insecure — in order to prevent foreclosures. We know what strategies work.

What we haven’t figured out, is two things. One is how to stop fighting for [the]status quo. We spend a lot of time in the city and city government arguing as to whether someone should be removed from this tent or not. Because people say we’re just moving the problem around. That’s the status quo. For me, the status quo is completely unacceptable. I don’t want anyone to have to live in a tent or in their car. But we spend a lot of time debating that issue. So we have to stop debating that issue and all agree on a baseline that we don’t want anyone living in a tent or in a car.

Number two. Another problem we have is the studies will show that we can build ourselves out of the problem. In other words, we can find enough real estate and build enough Tiny Homes and give the upstream services to people to do it. So it becomes a dollar amount, then the next obvious question is: Where does the money come from? Well, I’ll share with you that I have neighbors and friends who want desperately to help with the problem. They have discretionary income. They have energy to help. And their question is “What do I do? Who do I give to?” 

Well, we’re going to build an infrastructure for that. There’s a lot of wealth in this city. And we’re going to have an entry point where people can donate money that will go directly toward homelessness. We’ll have a special contract with a 501(c)(3), and that money will go directly to the homeless. And people say, “Well, how do you know that?” Well, my wife, an African American woman, was the president and CEO of United Way. They raised revenues, to the tune of approximately $100 million. We know how to raise money. And equally important is making sure it is commonly known through technology and through social media, where people could go. So, if right now we’re doing turkey giveaways down on Rainier Playfield, and a food and clothing drive down on Rainier Playfield, you can come down there and donate. And I would like your children to see you being compassionate. Again, we’re changing culture. Instead of looking at people with disdain, you’re going to look at those people and say, “How can I help?” That has to be the new norm. So we’re going to put structure around how people can help and that’s 700,000 people we have in the city who are sitting on the bench. We’re going to change the structure so people can give, and we can build, and people can participate to demonstrate we have a compassionate culture, because we do here in Seattle, that we do have people that are willing to help, so we have to make it easy for them.

The other piece is structural in nature. I’m going to put $10 million in each of the council members’ districts. We have seven districts. I want each council member to have $10 million to work with community on what’s most important for them. Because if your highest priority is addressing the homelessness issue, or preservation of a cultural institution, or public safety, or trash pickup, work with the community to determine what that is and invest in your district. Because right now, under the current situation, the mayor directs it citywide. And the city councilmember does not have the resources or ability to direct right in their own district. And it’s going to create a level of accountability and the councilmember to be directly responsible to his or her community as well. That’s a new level of accountability and a new method by which we could really look at homelessness in a granular way in the particular districts.

SSE: What is your plan to help downtown businesses, and how will you help businesses in the Central District and South End?

B.H.: So, I have a couple of plans. The first one is, when we look at downtown, to start there but not to end there, we have to first acknowledge the fact that even pre-COVID, there was a deterioration because we are an Amazon/e-commerce city. And a lot of those brick-and-mortar institutions were struggling to begin with and they had thin margins to begin with. So they were fragile. And I will contend that post-COVID, it will never be the same. It will not be the same downtown that you saw growing up and certainly not the downtown that I saw growing up. So the question becomes: How do I convene the smartest civic leaders, the smartest community leaders, urban planners, strategic planners to come together and talk about what the new downtown looks like? And ask the question, “Why do people go downtown to shop as opposed to South Center or Northgate or even Bellevue [Square]? What drives people down there to spend the money?” We will figure that out collectively. 

When we look at small businesses, and particularly businesses in the Central District and the South End, I’m going to share a short story with you that segues right into your question. I was a young lawyer at a Black-owned law firm that I managed. And I was asked to speak by a high school principal to a bunch of younger kids in high school that had aspirations to be lawyers. And he wanted me to meet with these kids and to talk to them. I said, “Why don’t you have your lawyer talk to them?” His lawyer was white. And I said, “You may want to consider that when you make personal choices, and you’re trying to recycle your money and have role models in certain communities, you may want to try to recycle your dollars in the community. We have African American attorneys and doctors and accountants and plumbers. One of the best things you could do for these kids is to demonstrate to them that I am choosing my discretionary money investing in my own community.” That’s the story. I ended up going anyway. And speaking to these kids, I said loudly that the attorney I used personally was African American, that my accountant was African American, that the contractor who painted my house was African American. I said we recycle our dollars. And when I was president of the City Council, we had a lot of events. I would always say we will hire People of Color and African Americans to do all of these events. I’m recycling our money. 

So, why do I tell you that story in terms of business development? What I have to do as mayor is make sure that we have an abundance of successful companies around here. Amazon, Microsoft, Starbucks, AT&T, Boeing, Tableau, Expedia. We can go down the list. I want to make sure that all of our minority-owned businesses have relationships so they can enjoy ancillary revenues and catering opportunities and strategic plan sessions and outreach contracts and social media contracts, such as these relationships allow us to recycle that money in our communities. 

And I’ve done this successfully for many companies as an attorney. One of the efforts that I’ve always made in my life is to have as much relationship capital as I can. So when I call someone who I didn’t grow up with, because I grew up with T.T. Minor, Meany, Garfield as my relationship capital, but I realized in law school that I had a deficiency in relationship capital. So how do I build that? Well, I build that by going to different events and meeting different people and going out of my comfort zone, particularly with people who may not even look like me to develop those relationships such that at this age, I have relationships throughout the whole world. People that I can call on because I have the relationship. So in Seattle, the relationships that I have, and I believe I have the strongest relationship capital, will pay off in dividends, because it’s mine to share for African American businesses, small businesses, and businesses trying to excel. And quite honestly, I’ve been doing that for years. And there are many people in our community that would attest to that.

SSE: Why did you decide to run for mayor now?

B.H: I see the most opportunity right now. It’d be easy if things were just going great and we were performing on all cylinders. Out of this pandemic that has driven us all near crazy, with morale at an all-time low, brick-and-mortar institutions struggling, the race issue being at the front and center of discussions unlike it’s ever been before in recent decades, and homelessness at an unprecedented level, now would be the time. 

I like personal stories, and I’ll share one with you. A lot of people don’t know this, but when I went to Garfield, I was known as a football player. But my freshman year, I didn’t go out for the football team. They were abysmal. I think they had won like one game. I was a trumpet player. I was in [Clarence] Acox’s band. I’m marching in the band, and we practice down at what’s now Washington Middle School. So I’m watching them play football, and I was thinking they are atrocious. Acox would get mad at me because I wasn’t concentrating on what I was playing. I wasn’t blowing, and I was just doing my fingers while watching them practice. And after the first week,  someone said, “Why don’t you just play?” My brother was on the team. He was a junior. I quit the band and joined the football team. I earned a first string position and got the Freshman of the Year Award. And I said by the time I finish here, we’re going to be undefeated. In my senior year, for the first time in Garfield’s history, we were undefeated. And it wasn’t because I was that good of a player, it was because I told everyone on that team, “We’re gonna work out in the morning, we’re gonna work out at lunchtime, we’re gonna convince ourselves that we’re the best athletes, not just the best football players. If they are bigger than us, we’re gonna be quicker than them. If they’re quicker than this, we’re gonna be stronger, then we’re going to find our pathway to victory.” And for the first time in Garfield’s history, we were undefeated. 

Now, I say that’s why I’m running for mayor because you can’t make those kinds of stories up. Those are real stories. And there are people helping me on my campaign that were 16 years old with me. Like Darryl Powell, who was on that team, who is now a Harvard MBA They said, “That’s the Bruce I knew in third grade or fourth grade.” They say I love to have fun, but I love to optimize what we’re doing. I’m not talking about it, I’m about it. So I look at what’s happening in the city, and if they’re ready for me, I’m ready for them. Now’s the time.

And I’ll tell you this, as we record this, that as I go through these different interviews. I’m meeting people on a more intimate basis like I’m meeting you. And I’m saying to everyone, come on board. Because I’ve worked very intimately with a lot of different organizations like at the Royal Esquire Club, every other Wednesday, we have a meeting, we end in prayer, and I have 40 African Americans combined together, thinking about what we’re going to do together. And they feed off of my energy, and we were able to break personal records in our club in terms of giving away scholarships and creating revenue for our community. I’m telling people, “It’s okay if you disagree with some of my strategies, it’s okay if you disagree with some of my opinions, but don’t disagree with the vision we’re trying to fight for.” So now is the best time to get some of this opportunity. Because I didn’t need this job. I was in a real good place before I decided to run. So I’m looking at the younger generation to say now’s our time. 

I want to share a story with you. When I was running for reelection, I think on one of my campaigns, I don’t remember which one, I had a fundraiser for me at a place. And I had on the stage, Adriane Brown, who was at the time the president of Intellectual Ventures; Blair Taylor, president of the Starbucks Foundation; Paula Boggs, who was the general counsel for Starbucks; Karen Lee, who is the president and CEO of Pioneer Human Services; my wife, Joanne Harrell, who was an executive with Microsoft. And I was the emcee. And in the audience, I had very successful lawyers, and doctors, and architects, and engineers — all more seasoned people who had done quite well in corporate America, and many of them did not live in Seattle, and many of them had moved here within the last five to 10 years, all of whom loved and respected the Black community.

And I talked to them. And I said, “All of us in this room, we’re beneficiaries of affirmative action. We’re beneficiaries of the people who were bitten by dogs and firehosed in the ’60s. And out of that, came the policies that allowed us to go to some good schools, and to get some good jobs. And we took advantage of [what] not everyone took advantage [of]. We took advantage of [it] and we’ve, quote, unquote, ‘made it.’” I said, “But we are so removed from those on the streets right now. They see that the rules have changed for them, that it’s harder for them to get us in the big schools, it’s cost-prohibitive for them to get so many schools that the affirmative action policies have eroded by law. 

“And they see someone like Jeff Bezos, who’s worth $186 billion. And I see people living in cars, and I see people like us, not on the streets, with them understanding their struggle. So the question then becomes: How do we build that bridge? Right? Because that’s our responsibility. That’s our responsibility.” And from that, to this day, some of those same great minds are supporting me, because that’s the bridge that I want to make, right? That bridge is not there. And we can’t blame anyone for that lack of a bridge other than our own community. I will say, I will tell people, a lot of my success was a result of affirmative action laws being in place, the right place at the right time, as a result of what happened in the ’60s. And your generation are not beneficiaries of that. So these are reasons why I’m running. We have an opportunity that we’ve never had before. And no one else — no one else in this race — could say they’ve demonstrated the commitment to what I just said, or has the capability of bringing it about the way I brought it about.

M. Anthony Davis (Mike Davis) is a local journalist covering arts, culture, and sports.

Featured image: Bruce Harrell announced his candidacy for Seattle mayor at an event near Garfield High School on March 16, 2021. (Photo: Susan Fried).

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