In July, PubliCola endorsed city council president Lorena González for mayor, crediting her for having “well-defined agenda, a solid track record, and a set of achievable plans for addressing the city’s thorniest issues,” including homelessness, the role of police in public safety, and housing. In her two terms on the council, we wrote, González pushed for, and passed, important worker protections, election reforms, legal assistance for immigrants facing harassment and deportation in the Trump era, and a police accountability ordinance that advocates hailed as a groundbreaking step for reform.
We also criticized one of the other leading candidates, former council member Bruce Harrell, noting that he passed almost no major legislation during his 12 years on the council and “uses warmed-over management jargon to promote an agenda that would maintain the status quo.”
Now that the two candidates have had many opportunities to present their visions for Seattle in head to head debates, the choice is even clearer and more urgent. González wants to eliminate racist, exclusionary zoning policies, adequately fund homelessness programs, and enhance worker protections; Harrell wants to double down on the failed status quo by preserving exclusive single-family areas, and—even worse—reverse course by re-empowering the homeowner-dominated neighborhood council that helped block housing for decades. Moreover, his plan to address police accountability is a rehash of the wishful thinking embraced by one-term mayor Jenny Durkan and former police chief Carmen Best—the idea that if Seattle just commits to more anti-bias trainings, and to hiring “the best of the best,” as Harrell puts it, the police department will fix itself.
González rejects the myopic view that “love” and “coaching” is all it will take to fix a fundamentally broken approach to public safety.
We’ve had four years of slow, incremental change from a mayor who has resisted every effort to meaningfully shake up systems that harm people of color, poor people, renters, and people experiencing homelessness—four years of a mayor who represented the interests of her friends and donors while ignoring constituents who didn’t share her views. The race to replace Durkan presents a clear choice between a candidate who offers more of the same and one who embraces progress and change.
Harrell frequently mentions the fact that he was “born right here in Seattle,” a classic Seattle dog whistle that frames González as an inauthentic outsider because she moved here from somewhere else. (In other words: Unlike Harrell, González chose Seattle, as did the majority of people who live here.) At a recent debate, for example, Harrell said he has “skin in the game” on issues like police violence in a way that González, a first-generation Mexican American whose parents were migrant farmworkers in Eastern Washington, does not. “It’s not hard for me to talk to people when I walk the streets of Seattle,” he said. “This isn’t just academic for me. This is real stuff I’ve been dealing with decades and decades.”
This attempt to portray González as some kind of elitist outsider is both parochial and a distraction. Both candidates have lost family members and friends to police violence, and both are invested in eliminating police bias and racial profiling; the difference is in how they would address these problems. González may not be “from here,” but she actually prosecuted the Seattle Police Department for racist violence—representing a Mexican American beating victim in the infamous “Mexican piss” case—and won.
On this issue, the candidates might as well be running in different decades. Harrell says he will “change the culture of the police force,” “hire the best of the best,” and enforce a 2017 law that requires SPD to conduct anti-bias trainings and track data designed to reveal racial bias in policing. (While the city did require more anti-bias trainings, they’ve hardly led to a less biased police force, as González has pointed out.) On his website, Harrell promises he will “personally recruit officers looking to be internal change agents, heroes within the department to help coach, train, love and inspire our officers to be the department we all deserve.”
González, in contrast to Harrell, has committed to supporting new progressive taxes, aimed at the same wealthy corporations Harrell plans to hit up for donations, to fund the billions of dollars the city will need to truly address homelessness and, incidentally, help people move on from tent encampments in public places.
Harrell’s approach represents a retreat to the pre-June 2020 status quo, before weeks of protests led to a growing consensus that an incremental approach to police “reform” doesn’t work and probably never could. González rejects the myopic view that “love” and “coaching” is all it will take to fix a fundamentally broken approach to public safety. Instead of proposing data dashboards or more trainings of dubious value, she wants the city to invest in alternative crisis responders inside and outside the city, diversion programs that address the root causes of crime while keeping people out of the criminal legal system, and early intervention programs to put young people on “on a path towards towards actual resilience and empowerment,” as she put it during a recent debate.
Similarly, Harrell’s plan for addressing homelessness would turn back the clock to the pre-pandemic era, when the city swept multiple encampments a day. His homelessness plan replicates every provision of Charter Amendment 29, the so-called “Compassion Seattle” initiative, down to the number of shelter beds he proposes adding with no new funding (1,000 in the first six months, 2,000 in the first year) and the percentage of the city’s budget he proposes using for this purpose (12). This fear-based approach doesn’t acknowledge or address the fundamental economic and social problems that underlie homelessness, nor has building shelter, in itself, ever been the solution to encampments. People aren’t dots on a data dashboard, and they have legitimate reasons not to “accept” an offer of a random shelter bed.
Harrell offers lip service to the idea that solving homelessness will require housing and services. But his big idea to pay for those things—convincing large corporations to voluntarily give money to the city—is fanciful. Companies do run internal philanthropy programs, but big corporate gifts typically flow directly to nonprofits and pay for discrete projects—a shelter for women and children on Amazon’s campus, for example—that benefit the company’s reputation. Harrell has not presented any plan to convince Microsoft to pay for drug treatment for chronically homeless men, for example, and his plan seems to rely on his personal “social capital” and networking abilities rather than any kind of coherent strategy to convince companies to pay their “fair share” voluntarily.
González, in contrast, has committed to supporting new progressive taxes, aimed at the same wealthy corporations Harrell plans to hit up for donations, to fund the billions of dollars the city will need to truly address homelessness and, incidentally, help people move on from tent encampments in public places. Funding is key here. Starting next year, all of the city’s homelessness programs will move over to the new King County Regional Homelessness Authority. While the city won’t be able to tell the KCRHA what to do, the authority relies on Seattle for the majority of its funding, so a mayor who’s committed to spending what it will take to meaningfully shelter and house people experiencing homelessness will have considerably more leverage than one who believes all we need to do is shift dollars from one pot to another.
We’re also concerned that Harrell will run the mayor’s office as a Durkan-style closed shop, open only to constituents and organizations who share his views.
On the issue of housing, Harrell embraces the NIMBY notion that single-family areas require “protection” in the form of exclusionary zoning laws that force all the city’s new housing into tiny strips of land near busy arterial streets. Unlike white neighborhood activists, Harrell couches single-family preservation in the need to preserve “Black generational wealth” and prevent displacement, but that’s a false promise. The status quo Harrell hopes to preserve is at the root of the last 20 years of displacement and gentrification of Black neighborhoods; when all new housing is confined to tiny islands within vast exclusionary neighborhoods, the result is that prices go up and people who don’t already own property can’t afford to live in the city.
Here, too, Harrell leans on ’90s talking points, arguing that there’s already “enough zoning capacity” to house everyone who wants a place to live. This is a theoretical argument unmoored in reality; housing prices are out of control, right now, and only one candidate has an actual plan to address the problem.
González, in contrast, has vowed for years to “repeal our racist exclusionary zoning policies”—policies that preserve 75 percent of the city’s residential land exclusively for single-family homeowners and push renters and low-income people out of the city. Harrell knows Gonzalez plan scares voters who benefit directly from those racist, exclusionary policies—a group that is overwhelmingly wealthy and white—and has brought it up at nearly every debate, calling it a plan to “completely eliminate single-family zoning.”
At a recent debate, González turned Harrell’s criticism into a strength. “I believe that in order to have equity in the city and to fulfill our racial equity values, we need more housing choices everywhere in the city, not just in a handful of concentrated areas of the city. And that’s why I believe we need to allow more affordable types of housing to be built in our residential neighborhoods. That’s the kind of city I want to live in.”
We’re also concerned that Harrell will run the mayor’s office as a Durkan-style closed shop, open only to constituents and organizations who share his views. In 2018, when he was city council president, Harrell tried to strongarm the city’s Office of Labor Standards into dropping an investigation into wage theft at the private Black men’s club he chairs, the Royal Esquire Club. According to a memo written by investigator Daron Williams, Harrell threatened to cut OLS’ budget if they didn’t back off, name-dropping both Durkan and Fire Chief Harold Scoggins during the conversation. A mayor should act in the interests of the entire city, not throw his weight around on behalf of his friends and business partners.
On the campaign trail, Harrell’s disdain for González has been palpable. During debates, he interrupts González and makes dismissive, personal comments about her, accusing the well-spoken civil rights attorney of “stringing a bunch of words together” numerous times during one recent forum. His tendency to drop the names of prominent supporters when responding to policy questions makes us wonder whether he’ll be willing to take meetings with people who don’t support him, or listen to those who don’t share his views. We’ve had four years of a mayor who ran the office like a PR shop. We don’t need four more.
The PubliCola editorial board is Josh Feit and Erica C. Barnett.