Mayoral candidate Bruce Harrell and his supporters have spent several days denouncing his opponent, city council member Lorena González, as “racist” because of an ad she ran featuring a white, female sexual assault survivor. In the ad, the woman—identified only as Caitlyn F.—says she could “never” support Harrell because he defended former mayor Ed Murray, who resigned amid allegations that he sexually assaulted young men, including Black boys, in the 1980s. The ad also notes allegations that Harrell advised a legal client to “discredit” women who raised allegations of sexual harassment at a Seattle nonprofit he represented.
Given the long history of racist attacks on Black men in America, including vile, centuries-old tropes about Black men preying on white women, having a white woman issue this criticism of Harrell was profoundly tone deaf, at best. On Tuesday, González conceded this point, pulling the ad and apologizing for centering a white sexual assault survivor instead of survivors of color.
Having said that: The allegations the ad alludes to are both substantive and well-documented. That Harrell questioned whether Murray should be “judged” for “maybe” assaulting his own foster children is not in dispute. Nor is the fact that several of Murray’s alleged victims were young Black men, including one who died of suicide in 2018.
Here is what Harrell had to say on July 17, 2017, hours after González became the first Seattle elected official to call for Murray’s resignation: “The people of Seattle … did not ask us to judge anyone for something that happened 33 years ago or that maybe didn’t happen. We just don’t know. And I would ask that I don’t want to be judged for anything 33 years ago.” Addressing his council colleagues, he continued. “And I would challenge any of you to think about where you were 33 years ago. The question is, are you doing your job right now?”
Harrell has repeatedly evaded questions about his decision to make a public statement supporting Murray when the allegations came to light. (He eventually joined the rest of the council in calling for Murray to resign.) When Real Change asked him why he defended Murray, he said he didn’t. “I never defended Ed Murray,” Harrell told the paper. “I stated the facts.”
Given the long history of racist attacks on Black men in America, including vile, centuries-old tropes about Black men preying on white women, having a white woman issue this criticism of Harrell was profoundly tone deaf, at best.
One incident the ad doesn’t mention happened in 2018, when Harrell—then city council president—attempted to intervene in a city investigation into wage theft allegations made by five women who worked at a Black men’s social club where he serves as chairman, the Royal Esquire Club. (The club does not allow women as members but does hire them as waitresses.)
When the city’s Office of Labor Standards began looking into the wage theft allegations, Harrell contacted the city employee who was investigating the case, Daron Williams, to remind him that the council and mayor had the power to cut OLS’ budget. According to Williams’ contemporaneous notes, Harrell also mentioned that the current mayor, Jenny Durkan, was a supporter of the club, complained about the fact that Williams, who had been on vacation, did not immediately respond to his call, and demanded to know who had initiated the investigation.
Harrell alluded twice in city council meetings to OLS’ “horrible” treatment of an organization currently under investigation in his district, presumably the Royal Esquire Club, and sought to add $50,000 to the city’s annual budget for a survey of businesses about how the office had treated them. (OLS investigates claims against businesses, including claims of wage theft, so the likely result of such a survey would be a negative review of OLS.)
According to the eventual settlement, the club had to pay the women about $12,000 in back wages and fines.
In addition to Harrell’s supporters, a number of local right-wing pundits (including FOX’s Brandi Kruse and KTTH Radio’s Jason Rantz) have gleefully seized on the ad, using it as another opportunity to discredit González, a frequent target. Meanwhile, the Seattle Times, which has endorsed Harrell, ran a story on the controversy that dutifully parroted Harrell’s claim that the entire Black community in Seattle is united in outrage on his behalf—an insulting oversimplification that is as exploitative as it is inaccurate.
One incident the ad doesn’t mention happened in 2018, when Harrell—then city council president—attempted to intervene in a city investigation into wage theft allegations by five women who worked at a Black men’s social club where he serves as chairman, the Royal Esquire Club, telling the investigator that he had the power to cut their budget.
In general, attack ads provide the opposite of useful information; they’re designed to stir emotion while drawing contrasts, all in the space of 20 to 30 seconds. But the fact that Seattle’s largely white pundit class has spent several days talking among themselves about whether one of two mayoral candidates of color, (a first in Seattle) is “racist” represents a win for Harrell, who continues to evade important questions, including one posed by González’ flawed ad: Why did Harrell support Murray for so long—long after many of his colleagues had demanded his resignation, and what does that say about his judgment?
Why is Harrell’s donor list dominated by big real-estate and corporate interests, including Trump’s largest Washington State donor, and are these the people who will have his ear as mayor?
And, if elected, will Harrell listen to advocates who happen to support different policies than he does (those who disagree with Harrell’s commitment to expand the police force and double down on encampment sweeps, for example)? Or will he continue to respond to substantive criticism by attacking, evading, and shutting critics down?