By Erica C. Barnett
Last Friday, Seattle mayoral candidate Bruce Harrell headlined a large indoor event at the China Harbor restaurant, where attendees, including Harrell, appear to have violated local COVID protocols by going maskless.
Photos and videos posted on social media, which I tweeted out on Friday night, showed a large crowd milling around the room, sitting around empty tables, and taking large group photos without masks. King County regulations explicitly require people attending indoor events to wear masks at all times except when actively eating or drinking; there is no exception for indoor group photos, sitting down (at tables or otherwise), or standing and talking to smaller groups within a larger event.
The Seattle Times and My Northwest picked up on the story. In a statement to the Times, Harrell struck a defensive tone, saying that he only took his mask off for group photos (in fact, candid photos posted on Facebook show him standing maskless in the crowd) and while eating (one image shows Harrell and former Gov. Gary Locke, both maskless, shaking hands and leaning their heads close together to talk.)
The Times called Harrell Sunday morning, according to their story. At noon that same day, Harrell’s campaign manager and niece, Monisha Harrell, sent the Queen Anne Community Council a last-minute ultimatum: Remove me as moderator of their candidate forum, scheduled for 3:00 that afternoon, or Harrell would walk. The campaign claimed they made this last-minute threat because of PubliCola’s months-old primary-election endorsement for Harrell’s opponent, Lorena González. Because of this endorsement, the campaign claimed, I could not be trusted to run an “impartial” forum.
A candidate, particularly someone running for mayor, should be prepared to respond to people who challenge their policies and positions. The mayor represents the whole city, not just those who agree with him or her.
I got the news as I was heading to my office to set up for the event, less than an hour after discussing some last-minute details with one of the organizers. It was disappointing to learn that, after collaborating with the Queen Anne Community Council on the format and questions for the forum since August, I would no longer be able to ask the questions we came up with together. More importantly, it was disrespectful of Harrell to force the community council to make a choice between having me as moderator and holding their long-planned forum at all.
Monisha Harrell claimed the campaign didn’t know I was moderating the event until Sunday, a claim that strains credulity. In fact, the campaign was informed weeks in advance that I would be the moderator, and both my name and photo appeared on all advertising for the event. If the campaign was so disorganized that it didn’t check to see who was moderating, that’s a bad sign; if they made up this claim so that Harrell wouldn’t have to take questions from a particular reporter, that’s worse.
To take the campaign’s claim at face value for a moment: The idea that a reporter, commentator, or editor can’t be “impartial” if they’ve expressed a political “bias” in the past is patently ridiculous; by this standard, none the local pundits who get called upon to moderate political debates, including Civic Cocktail’s Joni Balter, KOMO-4’s Joel Moreno, and the South Seattle Emerald’s Marcus Harrison Green, would be eligible.
Making this specifically about “endorsements,” rather than opinions about issues and candidates, is a straw argument, since PubliCola is one of only a few local publications that issue endorsements. KIRO Radio, Sinclair-owned KOMO, and FOX 13 all have strong editorial slants, but Harrell will participate in a debate series next week in which all those outlets, plus the Seattle Times, will provide moderators.
Harrell himself is quite familiar with my moderating style, since he’s participated in several forums I’ve moderated in the past, including during this year’s election. I’ve been moderating debates, off and on, for about 20 years. In all that time, I’ve never sprung an unfair “gotcha” on a candidate, and there’s no reason whatsoever for anyone familiar with this work, as Harrell and his campaign are, to speculate publicly that I would.
Let’s say, though, that I had decided to go “rogue” and ask Harrell about the event on Friday. So? A candidate, particularly someone running for mayor, should be prepared to respond to people who challenge their policies and positions. The mayor represents the whole city, not just those who agree with him or her. “Mr. Harrell, why did you attend an event that appeared to violate COVID protocols?” is a legitimate question to ask someone who might have to implement COVID protocols and vaccine mandates. It is not “when did you stop beating your wife?”
If Harrell ran from the mere possibility that he would have to answer questions from a reporter he perceives as “hostile,” how will he respond to controversy as mayor of Seattle? No one is better off when city leaders refuse to talk to certain reporters or constituents. Marginalizing and silencing press who refuse to flatter you is a bad look, and it rarely works; reporters don’t respond well when politicians expect them to be stenographers. If the press only reported on smiley photo ops and press releases, Jenny Durkan would be skating to reelection right now, instead of limping through the final stretch of her single term.
Harrell’s decision backfired in the short term, as well. After the forum’s moderator, QACC board member Paula Mueller, read the first question, González broke format to raise the issue she called “the elephant in the room”—the fact that Harrell “demanded” that I “be replaced and not allowed to moderate today’s forum” after I reported on the maskless event.
“Leadership does not mean strong-arm tactics and silencing others, including female journalists, when you don’t agree with something they reported,” González said. “Leadership in my mind means that you cannot play by your own rules when it comes to public health, especially when the city is in a public health crisis while we are trying to get all of Seattle’s police officers and other public employees to comply with COVID vaccine requirements.”
The forum then continued, with both candidates answering most of the questions from the script that the community council and I wrote together.