by Lola E. Peters
Act One was the campaign. We met the players, learned their public backstories, got hints about their character, and were introduced to the context of their stories. Act Two was the primary: a much shorter period where we learned about ourselves. Through social media, on Zoom calls, and over outdoor happy hour snacks we asked, “Who are you voting for?” or “Can you believe so-and-so is voting for so-and-so?” The end of Act Two revealed who were the players representing minor, though no less important, voices but no longer primary participants in the current play. We also learned whose dramatic arcs would move forward to the next act.
Here I sit, in the lobby, looking around at my fellow voters, wondering what they were thinking.
It’s public knowledge: I’m delighted to see Pete Holmes voted out of office. Under his watch, Seattle ended up paying the $250,000 yearly salary of the Seattle Police Officer’s Guild (SPOG) president. My tax money paying the CEO of a private, members-only organization with a history of actively supporting the murderers in their ranks! What kind of contract is that?
Seeing the results, how effective was the city attorney as legal advisor to the SPOG contract negotiations? Is that what we the people voted him into office to do? This raises a larger question, though: What exactly IS the job of the City Attorney and their staff?
When Seattle journalists vote for the person to fill this office, they apparently are also voting for the person they will have to oppose to get documents legally due them under the Freedom of Information statutes. When I fill in a bubble on my ballot to select the city attorney, I don’t think, “Hey, this person will one day defend an abusive bureaucrat for something they did to me or my family.” Quite the opposite. I think, “This person will stand up for me and my rights. They will represent me when the bureaucracy tries to harm me. Otherwise, why would I vote for them — give them access to resources and power.” And, apparently, I’d be wrong.
Donnitta Sinclair, mother of Horace Lorenzo Anderson, filed a federal lawsuit against Seattle in her son’s death, claiming Seattle’s bureaucracy failed in its response to the protests on Capitol Hill in 2020. Instead of having a publicly elected official fighting on her behalf, she is forced to hire a private attorney to stand in court against someone she may have voted for. This is the same public official responsible for advising on negotiations of the contracts of unions, including SPOG.
How is this not a conflict of interest? I cast my ballot to fill this position, yet it has no accountability to me, only to the bureaucracy?! When the institutions or individuals of the bureaucracy harm me, the citizen, the City Attorney is accountable not to me, the voter, but to the bureaucrats — many of whom I did not elect?
The federal government has a White House Counsel’s Office responsible for defending the presidential bureaucracy. It reports to the White House. The Justice Department, though situated within the executive branch of the U.S. government, is accountable to, and a defender of, the rights of citizens even when those rights are violated by the federal bureaucracy. Despite what the prior president believed, the Justice Department stands for the public. Washington State has a similar structure with a general counsel to the governor and an institutionally separate Office of the Attorney General to protect the rights of citizens.
It will be interesting to see what damage Holmes does during this intermission. And I wonder, as I look around, whether my fellow citizens see the irony of the two candidates left standing: two white women, both using the language of change. Ann Davison, who changed her political affiliation, is making her third attempt for public office having apparently not yet found the right fit and offers vague platitudes with few concrete policies, initially promising to implement policies not even in the purview of the city attorney. Nicole Thomas-Kennedy offers specific policy and procedural changes born from directly relevant experience. Both will be laden with the bifurcated and conflicting aspects of the system they will lead. I hope we get some more specific answers about their plans in the coming act.
Next my attention turns to the mayoral race. Of all the intersections within my life, being Black and female expose the most opportunity for oppression. I will never support a candidate who adds to my oppression as a Black person or as a woman. I will not participate in my own dehumanization.
In 2001–2002 I was on the board of a nonprofit providing services primarily to low-income Black people in the Central District. A senior staff member was accused of sexual harassment and predatory behavior. The irrefutable compounded evidence pointed to his guilt. The board turned to its legal counsel, Bruce Harrell, for guidance. Given the concrete evidence, he recommended we launch a campaign to discredit the reputations of the accusers. We did not follow his advice. However, I determined he was someone I would never support for anything, let alone public office.
Over the years, I’ve watched him trade on the insecurities of white people in the presence of mediocre Black men to gain access to power and resources. I’ve hoped he was maturing and learning from women’s lived experience of gender and sexual trauma. So imagine my chagrin as he repeatedly touts his role as chair of the board of The Royal Esquire Club, a men’s social club with membership exclusively for men.
In 2021 why would I, or any woman, vote for a candidate who brags about being the chair of a “social club” — actually a night club and bar — that denies women membership, allowing them only to serve in an auxiliary role with no decision-making power; an organization explicitly excluding gender in its public “anti-discrimination” policy; a men’s social club whose formal procedures only allow events sponsored by their members and permit women to enter if they are acceptable to a male member; where an unescorted woman traditionally has had to wait at the door until her male partner, brother, father, cousin, friend, or SON comes to the door to allow her entry?
I know there are Black men and women who are fine with this arrangement. I know there are Black men and women who believe the adage, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” I find the saying to be a keystone in silencing people experiencing harassment or oppression. Silence is death. I will not be party to my own subjugation and erasure and will never support a man who thinks my inequality is a minor and acceptable inconvenience.
I’ve also watched Harrell’s participation as a public servant and find myself asking why anyone would choose a candidate whose record of service is filled with statements of support for other people’s ideas without a single idea of his own; who thinks it’s wonderful to go backwards into the policies and strategies that created the mess we want the next mayor to clean up? While mediocrity has been a hallmark of Seattle’s leadership over the past two decades, a mediocre, moderate, visionless, Black, male version of Jenny Durkan is not what Seattle needs if it’s to fulfill its aspiration of being a world-class city. As I’ve written elsewhere, it’s time for someone with a vision of what can be, who is willing to take us through the challenges ahead beyond the outcomes of the past and exhibits the skills and knowledge to take us there. Several candidates in the primary fit the description. Harrell was not one of them.
On the positive side, it is wonderful to see such a variety of women moving into positions of power and delightful to see some races where the inevitability of a woman winning is so mundane mainstream media hasn’t even bothered to comment on it. If history is an indicator, though (and may it not be), backroom intrigue and drama during intermission could still produce a third act full of twists and surprise alliances.
Beware, my fellow citizens, of presumptions about what you think you know. Judge actions, not words in this next act. Be vigilant.
Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to more accurately reflect the role of the City Attorney and to correct typographical errors.
Bruce Harrell disputes the claims in this article.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of this publication.
Lola E. Peters is an editor-at-large for the South Seattle Emerald.
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