Now that the primary-election field of 47 has been narrowed to a comparatively manageable 18, I’m sitting down with all the council candidates to talk about what they’ve learned so far, their campaign plans going forward, and their views on the issues that will shape the election, including density, “neighborhood character,” crime, parking, police accountability, and diversity. I’ll be rolling out all 17 of my interviews (Kshama Sawant was the only candidate who declined to sit down with me) over the next few weeks.
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Today’s interview: District 2 candidate Bruce Harrell. I met up with Harrell at the Starbucks at 23rd and Jackson.
The C Is for Crank [ECB]: I wanted to talk to you about encampments, and this location is very appropriate for that conversation, because Central District neighbors were very accommodating about not one but three separate tent cities that located within a few blocks of here. Yet up in Ballard, people are threatening a revolt around the prospect of even one tent encampment in their neighborhood. Meanwhile, one of the finalists for a future encampment is in your district, near Othello Park, which already has problems with criminal activity. How do you think the South End community will react to a new tent city in their area–will they be more like Ballard, or more like the neighborhood we’re in right now?
Bruce Harrell [BH]: I’m on record saying that I want to be open, I want to find a location somewhere. We all feel comfortable saying we don’t want people living in tents, we all say, “Housing first,” but until we get housing for everyone, [a tent city is] a practical alternative. I want to support an alternative, even if it’s in my district, although that is not ideal. Ideally, we want strong services to get people off the street. We don’t want our city to be a place where, because of our tolerance, we just have tent encampments forever.
ECB: When you say an encampment in your district is “not ideal,” it sounds like you are saying that tent encampments are inherently a bad thing, something that gets “dumped” on neighborhoods. Is that what you’re saying?
BH: I don’t care how good-hearted people are—even the most liberal-minded people I know are not excited about having encampments close to their homes. They say, “I support it, just not close to me. I think we have a tendency to demonize that kind of person and to worry about crime and safety. That’s a reasonable position, but to some extent an undeserved position. In the North End, they were very safe, very well organized. It can be done where it doesn’t jeopardize public safety.
At 22nd and Cherry, I had mixed feelings. I get concerned when I see people living in tents, but I’m glad to see them living somewhere where they were dry and safe. They did not see a huge number of impacts. When we temporarily house someone in tents in the city, it’s not ideal. That’s why I’ve been progressive about exploring residential neighborhoods. [Currently, tent encampments are allowed on city-owned land only in nonresidential areas.] We have to acknowledge that we’re short of space and tents are what we have right now.
The face of homelessness has changed. It’s not what we used to call hobos and people drinking and moving from place to place with a long beard. It’s people who are down on their luck and out of work. It’s people with drug and alcohol problems, children, single parents. We have to be more willing to house them, perhaps even in tents. One of the problems we hear about in Seattle is that we’re enablers and we invited these people here, where they don’t have to work and can just get handouts. I’ve never met a child who says, “I can’t wait to grow up and be homeless.”
But that misses the point. the fact is that if we’re going to have a humane society, we have to commit to housing people. I don’t think Othello is an ideal location. It has an opportunity to be a thriving economic center, with jobs and training centers and apprenticeships. It could be a gateway to a better South End. So is that the ideal location? No. But to have it there as a temporary solution? I’m willing to consider it.
I already hear people saying the South End is the dumping ground for the city. [An Othello encampment] would play into this narrative. And, yes, there would be vehement opposition. It would perpetuate the narrative that we’re the dumping ground for social services agencies. And it would impact neighborhood policing and community-based organizations in a negative way.
ECB: You were standing behind Mayor Murray when he announced his crackdown [on which he has since backtracked] on hookah lounges, which are owned primarily by African immigrants. But I heard you were resistant to doing the press conference, and particularly to doing it in Hing Hay Park, near where [International District leader] Donnie Chin was killed. What do you think of targeting hookah lounges as a source of crime, and the specific way the mayor announced it? Do you think they’re really linked with crime, or are they a convenient scapegoat?
BH: It’s public safety. We need to know what the plans are, as well as actually plan for enforcement. I’m not going on the record saying I oppose what [Murray’s] trying to do. But I met with 10 of the 11 owners and had a robust meeting with them. In that meeting they did each seem to have valid concerns. They’re saying that if the city tells them what the rules, are they will comply. Right now, you can apply for a membership for five bucks a day. The department has ruled that that is not a proper membership, and they’re saying, then tell us what proper membership would look like.
They’re also saying that no marijuana is smoked in the place. I don’t know if that’s true or not. That was not the issue for me, but I want to know what occurred in those lounges. I believe they were not forthcoming, because we’ve talked to folks who say they’ve smoked weed in these lounges. The issue is if they’re not being honest. Every one of them said that no illicit activity takes place.
ECB: Have you ever been inside a hookah lounge?
BH: No, but I’ve talked to people in the East African community who’ve said most of them want those places shut down. [City attorney] Pete [Holmes’] letter says, you are not acting legally, however, we will work with you to be a law-abiding private club if you want. We owe it to them to have a clear set of guidelines.
The biggest travesty out of all of this is that none of us decision-markers has even been in a hookah lounge. I’m trying to better understand this culture. From our police department and law department, they are saying that illicit drug activities were going on. What they are saying is that they’re seeing rowdy behavior, some gunfire, weed in the parking lot . I’ve yet to see any data saying there is any link to violence.
ECB: Do you think the hookah lounges had any link to Donnie Chin’s murder?
That’s a legitimate question. I’m asking that myself. I have yet to see that linkage. The reason it didn’t occur to anybody is because all the information being thrust upon us is weed is being smoked and that there’s guns at night after hours. This is an after-hours spot, after they’re tanked up on alcohol—and then you go smoke weed… Sally Bagshaw and I have talked about going to one of these places some night soon to see for ourselves what goes on there, and I think we should do that.
ECB: I was surprised that, when he announced he was shutting down all the city’s hookah lounges, the mayor didn’t seem to notice he was targeting black businesses exclusively. Did you have any reaction to that fact at the time?
BH: I would have thought I would be the first to see the race issue. I saw a constituency that’s not valued as a constituency. Compared to taxi drivers, who are a vocal constituency of political players in town. I saw them as not politically astute, not politically connected or connected to politics in any respect. As a group, I don’t even know if they vote. I saw a group that needed to be somewhat organized and relevant.