Bruce Harrell is a former Seattle City Councilmember and interim Mayor. He’s one of the fifteen candidates vying to be the city’s next mayor. In NPI’s recent survey of the Seattle Top Two electorate, Harrell came out on top of the field with 20% of respondents indicating they were voting for him. 32% were undecided.
I spoke with Harrell on July 22nd to discuss his campaign and platform.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Ruairi Vaughan, Evergreen State Electoral Analyst (NPI): Thank you for taking the time to talk with NPI!
Bruce Harrell: Yes, my pleasure.
RV: You’re unique among the candidates in this mayoral race because you’ve actually held the job of mayor before, in September 2017. Of course, this was only for a short interval, but what insights from that time have helped prepare you for this election?
BH: I think I have a stronger appreciation for the enormous power and influence of the position. Not just having twenty-four departments with over a thousand job titles, but the cabinet and the sub-cabinet and the commissions and the department heads, gives the mayor incredible influence to actually get things done.
I don’t think others may have an appreciation for that until you’ve actually seen it; I have a great respect for what can be done.
We have a strong mayor system, and until you’ve actually been there, recognizing the power of either an executive order or direct action that can be taken under the existing budget, I don’t think many have appreciation for that. Which then creates enormous opportunity for an effective mayor.
I would also say that the importance of trust and building effective relations with your department heads is critical. I know a lot of the department heads, I’ve known and had pre-existing relationships with them even before I was on the Council. I have good relationships with many if not most of the department heads over the years – of course they change.
When I think about how the city runs, I think of a triangular relationship with the Mayor, the City Council, and the department heads. I understand there’s the court system and the hearings examiner and the auditor outside of that triangle, but for the most part I think of that triangular relationship that is critical toward the success of the city. If they are not communicating with trust and with transparency it breaks down and the city as a whole suffers as a result of that.
So during the interim period, I was overwhelmingly received by a lot of the department heads because I had worked with them. Quite honestly, a lot of them trust me and I trust them, and I will demand transparency from them to allow the to excel in their core competency without micromanaging them. But I also will make my deliverables and the outcomes I want to see very clear to them.
So I had an appreciation for that, because I was not sure how long I was going to keep that job, and I made it clear to them with both my legal and business background, that that was the kind of mayor I would be – I was going to hire the best and let them excel in their core competency.
I’m not a social worker, for example, so I can’t play one when directing the Human Services Department, but I can make it very clear on agreed-upon goals and outcomes and can drive that. So, I had a realization and appreciation for the importance of trust in the relationships with the department heads.
I think lastly, I had a new realization for the importance of transparency. If you go back to Nickels administration, despite a lot of the initiatives that he drove, people just recall his debacle during a snowstorm and what people would perceive as less-then-transparent decision making going out of his office.
Whether that is fair or not is not the issue, what the issue was is that the public thought there was a lack of transparency. Even with the current issue dealing with Mayor Durkan’s texts that were deleted, the public is expecting transparency.
So when I became Mayor, I led by openly saying things, as you may recall, such as the city has become filthy. I said that, tongue in cheek, because I have lived here my entire life and I have never seen such alarming levels of garbage, debris, and graffiti – as though we should now be used to it. I made it very clear from the vantage point of the mayor that that is not the city we want to be. So people had a strong appreciation for my candor, just because I was brutally honest!
So I think the lesson is that people want honesty and transparency, and that will go a long way. I had an appreciation for it just for the five days I was mayor.
RV: The most pressing issue facing the city is obviously the homelessness crisis. You’ve called for the city to use funding from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) to deal with homelessness, and also bring together funding from the county and state. How much money do you think it is going to take to solve this crisis?
BH: Well, I’ve read several reports on that issue and I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to state a dollar amount. I have heard the billion dollar amount thrown around, I have heard that hard housing costs less than $200 million, but I don’t think it appropriate to give a specific dollar amount until we have published a plan and I have the experts around to help me publish that plan.
I will say, though, with a level of confidence, that between the $150 million that the city is currently spending, along with the $160 million that we will get next year, that that coupled with the money that I will raise from the civic and philanthropic communities – which we can talk about a little more – will allow me to drastically change what we will see every day.
That means getting people into housing – whether it’s transitional housing or sustained housing, there will be a combination thereof – using the policies we’ve already implemented. These are good policies, these are best practices:
- Housing First is a best practice;
- Individualized case management;
- Whether you’re treating someone for drug and alcohol or mental illness or re-skilling them for job entry;
- Whether you’re conceding that someone may be chronically homeless;
- Or whether you’re meeting the needs of those who are disabled;
- Using a regional approach to address these issues.
These are best practices that I will implement.
So the toolbox is there. What is not there is simply the will to get it done. So you’ll see that I will revisit the siting and acquisition process. I will open it up to the public, using a regional approach.
You may also remember that one of my platforms will be to allocate $10 million to each of the seven districts. The reason I think this becomes critically important is each of the council members of the seven districts all seem to be totally committed to solving homelessness. I read their newsletters and hear them speak.
I want to give them tools to help the executive achieve their outcome. They may use a portion of that, or a goodly sum of that, towards siting and building; they may also use some of that to leverage it into the general sub-fund or other funding. That’s going to force the city to work with their councilmember on a very granular basis while looking at how we house those people who are unhoused.
The siting and acquisition process becomes critically important for the number of RVs [recreational vehicles] we see on the streets. I think many of the people in these RVs would like to have services, would like to know how to improve their lives, and look at alternative forms of housing. I would like to assist these residents and see where they are in their particular life, and that’s where the individualized case management approach and best practice makes sense.
Now, what will be new under my approach is that I will call for at minimum 70% of the ARPA funds to be used, that’s north of $80 million, and I will raise hundreds of millions from the philanthropic communities, and I think you know I’ve talked about this on the campaign trail, that my wife was once the CEO and president of United Way. We assist United Way in our philanthropic efforts.
With that experience, we will build a dashboard and build a giving model so that not only will high wealth individuals give, but people can give $5 or $100, they can give clothing items, assist with resume drafting, they can bring food to the food bank, but I will create a narrative in this city where there are entry points for every person.
Ruairi, I think that is the problem, that everyone in the city really does want to help solve this issue, but most people don’t know what they are to do.
I get that daily, “How can I help?”
I think the city’s role is to build that infrastructure, by which everyone in the city who wants to help is able to help and that they know they are making a difference – that’s where the public plan comes in, so they can actually see the cost per unit, per person, the costs that are going to homelessness service providers.
We can go down the list of people who are doing good work and we are going to open up that database to show the city who’s doing the work and how much of the work they are doing, which ones are effective and which ones can improve.
The other piece of it is I’m creating a new department called the Seattle Jobs Center. We know for a lot of people that are homeless or unhoused that our society has created a whole new subclass of poverty – and no one really talks about that.
When I was young in Seattle, a disabled veteran, a teacher, a barista, a restaurant worker could afford to live in my neighborhood – that was in the Central District of Seattle. Well, a lot of people have been the beneficiaries of where societies have gone, with high-tech, biotech, the sciences, and aerospace, and many people just need to be retooled. So the Seattle Jobs Center will be the city’s attempt to make sure that every person who wants to retool themselves, tap into their gifts, learn new skills, will be able to do that.
We will harness all of the available services out there in the private market – these are apprenticeships, internships, training programs, scholarships, grant opportunities – we’ll put all that into a department and have counsellors ready to help people navigate their own lives and improve their lives.
The data suggest that a lot of people who are experiencing homelessness need that, coupled with health outcomes, hygiene services, mentoring, they need to have an opportunity and that’s what the city will create.
So I think that my plan on homelessness is well-rounded, established on best practices, and I’ve read quite a bit of material on homelessness. I think we can implement best practices here in Seattle and, quite candidly, show many cities how it can be done with the right political will.
RV: One of the points of your homelessness program is encouraging Seattleites to participate via volunteering efforts like resume drafting sessions. How do you make sure you’re preventing unqualified civilian volunteers from getting paired with people who really need professional help for mental health or addiction issues, and ensure everyone’s safety?
BH: That is the Human Services Department’s (HSD’s) role.
When you’re talking about individualized case management, that is a very specialized, trained area of expertise. The lay person may look at one person and think their needs may just be soft counseling, when in fact they could suffer from schizophrenic or paranoid behavior or other clinical problems that need a deeper level of treatment. So the HSD director will be very skilled in hiring the right people to pair the right treatment providers.
In my personal experience, I’ve mentored and tutored kids since I was fourteen years old. I realized even then, tutoring at the Rotary boys and girls club, about many kids – who were seven, eight, or nine – how different they were. I was teaching some of them to read, and I realized some just had an inability to read, but some had much deeper-seated issues.
So I personally gained an appreciation for how you must know what you’re doing when you’re offering services to someone who’s in need. So we’ll make sure we have the right screening process to get that right.
RV: I want to move on to another huge issue facing the city. In your time on the City Council, you spearheaded some important reforms to the Seattle Police Department. Despite these reforms, the department is currently facing class action lawsuits for assaults on medics and journalists during the protests last year, it had the largest contingent of officers at the January 6th riot of any police department in the country, and the police union is currently filing grievances against investigations connected to that riot. With all that swirling around, how will you restore trust in law enforcement in this city?
BH: So first, there should be some level of celebration for what occurred in Olympia, when you look at the dozen or so police accountability laws that were passed. I do not think it was coincidental that we had the most diverse set of legislators that we’ve ever had in our state’s history pass those dozen laws.
Chokeholds are banned, you have a new office of independent investigations, you have the reasonable care standard, as I recall, that requires a level of deescalation. I’m going from memory here, but you also had the requirement that officers intervene when they see misconduct occur.
These are groundbreaking laws, and as the City of Seattle and as the next mayor my first actions will be to make sure that through our training and through our regulation we fully implement these laws that were passed and we institutionalize them in how we do business. You’ve heard me say this before, but we have many good policies in place, being under a consent decree and with our examination of the use of force by our officers, our creation of our inspector general and our community police commission work that’s being done.
That’s why I keep talking about how it’s not a piece of paper that will change this department. Pieces of paper when memorializing strong policy are important, but the culture is not changing.
My approach, having changed cultures at organizations, will start with the leaders. I will hire the most effective chief that we can find in this country and we will start with the Mayor setting the tone for transparency.
It will also start with the informal leaders of the police department speaking out about that which they do not tolerate – which should be murder, fatalities, and unreasonable force. No one can say that our police department has broken its code of silence, and until our communities believe that the officers have broken their code of silence – much like we saw in Minneapolis when George Floyd was murdered – we will not have community trust.
While I knew I said a very provocative statement that I wanted the officers to voluntarily watch the George Floyd video and voluntarily sign a pledge, the reason I made that provocative statement is to impress upon people that if an officer cannot, on a human level, say that was murder, they have no place in our police department – none, zero!
The point being is that a piece of paper, or training, or a legal safeguard, or state law cannot make that officer effective if on a human level we cannot agree that was wrong. When we can agree that that was wrong, I think it is incumbent upon the officers – and consistent with their oath of office – to say and publicly proclaim that that was wrong and that will not be tolerated here in Seattle. And that is where you change culture, when the informal leaders of a group, regardless of rank, start describing that which the department will become, will be, will honor.
Critics want to simplify my statements by saying critical observations, which tells me they do not have a clue about how you change cultures.
The reason why in the sixties and seventies Black people said “Black is Beautiful” and “Black Power” is because we were changing the narrative in our community. We were saying that we are a creature of beauty and we are empowered; you change the narrative with proclamations and you change the culture.
You saw a revolution of the mind and the spirit, and in the police department that is what we must do if we are truly to change the culture.
We change the narrative, we change that which we celebrate and that which we denounce. Now we will have a new kind of officer, we will examine everywhere gun and badge goals, we will look at that. Charleena Lyles epitomizes the example of a person who is in distress, suffered from schizophrenic behavior, who needed a mental counselor and a crisis counselor, not a gun and a badge.
Last I will say that we need new leadership at SPOG [Seattle Police Officers Guild], there’s just no soft way to say that.
SPOG, unfortunately, are not embracing the kind of culture change that I would like to see, and I am hopeful that new leaders will come forth and make themselves known at SPOG so they can say amongst themselves, “We want to build community trust, we want to be respected and trusted in the community.” I don’t even hear them saying that and if they do not say that they do not believe that.
RV: Circling back to the proposal for officers to watch the George Floyd video, obviously it is a very sensitive video. Have you consulted with Gorge Floyd’s family or representatives about this proposal?
BH: No is the short answer. But to me, given the fact that millions and millions of people have watched that video throughout the world, that seems to be an illogical thing to have to do. Have you seen it?
RV: I saw parts of it.
BH: Did you ask for their permission?
RV: I did not…
BH: So why would I ask for permission to ask the officers to voluntarily watch it? I appreciate it, and that is the kind of question I do ask.
I watched it and I didn’t ask their permission, it’s in the public domain and therefore permission is not required.
RV: I wasn’t thinking so much about permission as about respect…
BH: So, I could just have easily said the [Manuel] Ellis situation in Tacoma or the John T. Williams situation that happened here in Seattle. I think you’re missing the point. The point is this: we have seen egregious acts of violence committed by police officers, murders. George Floyd is not even the point. These are unambiguous acts of murder. You take any one you want, and you have the police officers look at those acts of murder – I would like SPOG to admit that that will not happen in Seattle, Washington. George Floyd is only one of hundreds of Black men killed in this country at this time, so he is not even an issue, nor is his family.
RV: Let’s move on from policing. Another way to help communities of color is to help them recover from the Covid-19 pandemic. You were the co-chair of the small business recovery task force. How should Seattle move forward to ensure that the economic recovery is equitable for all the citizens of the city?
BH: We saw with remnants of the Trump administration dealing with the $28.6 billion federal fund that was related to the pandemic stimulus, that there was not the kind of distribution of funds that I would have liked to have seen – and that many small businesses would have liked to have seen. There are recent articles describing how a few of the large restaurant chains received $10 million and hundreds of the smaller restaurants – who were truly struggling – didn’t receive any.
One of the things I’ve done recently was small businesses tours in different parts of the city: Sodo, University District, Columbia City, et cetera.
I asked them, “What does help look like to you, what do you need?”
That’s where the answers come – I should not presume to know the answers!
One of the things they have said repeatedly is how can the city use its built environment, its structures, loosening up the regulatory environment to allow them to expand and provide the kind of services they want, to allow rights of way on streets for creativity in delivering their services. I’m extremely supportive of that!
The other thing they’ve asked for is – and many of these are businesses that still need access to capital – is to work with Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs) and Community Block Grant Organizations (CBGOs).
There are several around, but I think that the city of Seattle can make sure that these organizations thrive and are available to small businesses.
They cater to small businesses and better understand their unique borrowing needs than traditional banks. So you will see us, through my Office of Economic Development, establishing a much stronger consortium of CDFIs and CBGOs.
The other part I talk about is the public safety piece and the Seattle Job Center piece, because many of these businesses are fully convinced that the city’s lack of public safety is an impediment to their customers and employees getting to them.
So my stance on public safety – not just police reform but effective public safety –is being well-received by these small businesses.
The other portion that they are excited about is the Seattle Jobs Center, which assists employees to find jobs and employers to find employees.
A lot of them are having difficulty finding employees.
I will also mention that the work I have done with women and minority owned businesses and supplier diversity for thirty years.
We will key in on that to make sure our dashboard is transparent, that the city can see how we are using women and minority-owned businesses, coupled with other jurisdictions: the University of Washington, the State, the Port.
I want to put all of that on the dashboard, so that we can see who’s doing a great job when it comes to diversity of suppliers and who can improve.
I want the City of Seattle to be the evangelist of using women and minority-owned businesses, because they are all working separately on their issues and there’s not a unified attempt here. But the state of Washington has probably done the poorest in terms of supplier diversity and we want to improve that.
Can I ask you a question? I wasn’t getting snitty earlier with the video, was I? I was just making a point, but maybe I misunderstood your point?
I know we’ve left that topic, but I’d like to flip back to it if I may?
RV: The point I was trying to make was that there’s different kinds of watching the video. If you’re a news consumer watching the video, you’re not really under an obligation. If you’re a news media outlet rebroadcasting it, I think you have some degree of obligation to the family of the victim, and if you are the City of Seattle, as an employer, making it compulsory…
BH: There’s a word I keep using over and over and over, every time I use that description. You know what that word is? Voluntary! I said I would ask the officers voluntarily to watch the video. I never used the word mandatory, compulsory, or required. I always say voluntarily. I am SHRM [Society for Human Resource Management] certified, I am a senior-certified human resource professional. I know what a working condition is, so that’s why I say “voluntarily” watch the video.
When I said that, I said I would ask each officer to voluntarily watch the video and that I would ask each to voluntarily sign the statement saying this would not happen in Seattle. I said, what a great day that would be, where these officers voluntarily said to us, the public, that that would never happen – imagine that day! Do you think for a moment that the thousand patrol officers were all just going to go to YouTube and watch it?
I am making the point – and I don’t mean to condescend – but at some point you cannot train bad officers! We have to recognize that. People have to understand, do I really think that one day a thousand officers are going to wake up and watch YouTube? No I do not! But at some point we have to admit that perhaps we have some of the wrong officers on the SPD force. No one’s really saying that!
[Laughing] Now let’s go to a softer subject!
RV: So we were talking about small businesses, and one of the ways to help these businesses is to help their employees get healthcare, taking that burden off the businesses. You have a plan to build a Seattle-wide healthcare system, and none of the other major candidates have such a plan – why do you think it’s so important?
BH: I think it’s critically important! Firstly, it’s going to be called Healthy Seattle and it’s modeled after Healthy San Francisco.
You will see two things that’ are occurring.
Thank God that [Joe] Biden is our president and the [Patient Protection and] Affordable Care Act now has better legs, and the economy still has trauma-related health system, but you will still see that so many people still fall through the cracks. If you look at what our Human Services department currently does, they promote certain things like public health, healthy aging, these kinds of things.
But, particularly for the aging population – although this applies to everyone – that most people still don’t understand the difference between Medicare and Medicaid, that it’s somewhat of a max for a lot of people to achieve healthcare.
So I want to simplify that.
Medicare, of course, is based on age – but even though you may understand that, there are different parts of the sections that one is eligible for and it gets rather complicated based on the choices that one is required to make.
Medicaid, of course, is based on income.
But my approach is going to be to make sure that the Human Services department can in fact navigate through those choices, and we will implement Healthy Seattle, which is based on a small employee premium and their ability to pay – that may be zero or a small fraction – and we will make sure all our residents have health care. That’s not only going to help address the homelessness issue, but it will truly address the vibrancy of our city.
I talk about being the sole sponsor of the human rights legislation in 2012 – the reason I mention that is that many cities have not embraced that and not become human rights cities. I believe healthcare is a human right, that no one should be without, nobody. So we’re going to reflect that in Seattle and going to also assist those whose need a system to get through the eligibility issues – whether it’s Medicaid, Medicare, or the ACA – because quite candidly, there are people who speak English as a second language, there are people who just don’t comprehend the complexities of the application process. That’s where I think the City can come in and help people navigate through the healthcare maze.
RV: Another way to be helping people’s health outcomes is through things like reducing pollution. The City Council pledged to reduce emissions to zero by 2030 – do you think the city can make that goal?
BH: Yes. When I was part of the discussions in 2013 and 2019, we said we should not set goals that we cannot attain, we should always set realistic goals.
Now, I’m going to go back to some great history that was made in the state this year. Look at the cap and trade bill – that will clearly reduce our pollution.
That’s groundbreaking stuff that will produce hundreds of millions of dollars in the next couple of years. The clean fuel was awesome, there’s the [equity-focused] HEAL Act, all those great items coming out of Olympia this year, just incredible.
So one of the first things I will do coming in is mirror that and institutionalize that in our practice, and make sure again that we are a leader in this country.
I tend to think of climate change policies in two buckets.
One is individual behavior – what can you and I do as residents of this planet, how can we make good choices every day?
That’s why I drive electric cars and have solar power in my house.
I think that if a person is able to make changes that support the environment, they can. So one of the things I want to do is re-incentivize the state regulations on solar power – even understanding that a lot of our power is generated through hydro and carbon neutral sources – the more we can take off the grid the better! So you saw a lot of the state incentives for people to install solar on their homes start to minimize or lessen over the years, so I’d like to see those reinstated.
If I could digress for a moment about the heatwave we experienced, because heat is one of the deadliest kinds of extreme weather in our country.
People think it’s extreme cold, but the heat is worse.
You may recall that in 2003 heat killed over 70,000 people in Europe, and about ten years ago there were about 55,000 people in Russia who died from extreme heat! So I think about the record breaking heatwave that we received, which climate change experts suggest are proof positive that if it weren’t for climate change, that would have not happened. Our record breaking temperatures skipped the double digits, like eleven degrees, which is almost unprecedented!
I’m saying that as context because I think people are realizing how real this is.
So having said that, what I have to do, quite candidly, is I have to hire the best. When I think of who the best climate change advocate is for the city of Seattle, does a name come to mind? I want not one name, but three names to come to mind, so that people realize that under the Harrell administration I will have three leading climate change experts driving the policy. So to answer the question – will we achieve it? – we will because I will have the three top experts on climate change on my administration driving this work.
RV: And who are those three people?
BH: Oh no, I don’t know the three names, not yet; I don’t have the job yet, Ruairi!
RV: In contrast with other big coastal cities, Seattle’s population actually grew during the pandemic. As a lifelong Seattleite, why do you think people keep coming to our city, when places like New York and San Francisco are losing residents?
BH: I don’t know is the short answer. I could only speculate that we offer so much in terms of geography, the mountains, the water, the job environment, and we are a compassionate, liberal city. People still dig the vibe of Seattle.
Seattle’s not a place where you’re going from A to B and you happen to be here – Seattle is a place that you target. I think that Seattle still offers the different employers here, what nature has to offer here, and the people here – awesome people! I think the vibe of Seattle is still strong, and that’s why I love it so much.
If you notice in this campaign, others will move here and then they will complain about how bad it is! I’ve lived here my whole life, and while I’m not oblivious to the great challenges in front of us, I make it very very clear that I love this city, and that’s why I’m running for mayor.
I use a quote by Martin Luther King who said, “There is no great disappointment where there is no great love.” This city took someone like me, whose parents did not go to college, who grew up in the Central District – in a poorer part of the neighborhood at that time, in the sixties.
It took this little boy from public schools, raised him, and now I’m in a position to possibly be the mayor and certainly have a viable candidacy. That’s what this city is about in my mind. It took my Asian grandparents and my Black grandparents and allowed them to have a great living for themselves and their families – that’s the Seattle I like. So I think people still like the vibe here in Seattle.
RV: Bruce Harrell, thanks for taking the time to talk with NPI.
BH: My pleasure, Ruairi!