By Mahlon Meyer
Northwest Asian Weekly
It almost seemed like a going away party. At a Dec. 10 celebration of Bruce Harrell’s election as mayor, nearly every speaker seemed to want to remind him of his connection with the Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) community that helped elect him.
“We all did it,” said James Wong, Vibrant Cities CEO, and one of the emcees, pointing to the crowd of over 400 people packed into the Joyale Seafood Restaurant in the Chinatown-International District.
The three-hour fete verged on a raucous party at times intended to celebrate Harrell’s victory. But it also underscored the voting blocs that seemed to elect him.
Community leaders such as Tomio Moriguchi reminded Harrell of his family’s origins in the neighborhood. Former Governor Gary Locke jibed about Japanese American elected officials coming later to the scene than their Chinese American counterparts. Overall, the comments represented an impetus to find and build on the connections that constituted a newly-emerged, but perhaps still fragile, coalition.
Connie So, president of the OCA Asian Pacific Advocates of Greater Seattle and a teaching professor in American Ethnic Studies at the University of Washington (UW), said the appearance of Harrell at many events, including those organized against AAPI hate, helped garner him votes—in contrast to his opponent, whose absence was glaring.
“The votes in Seattle show that South Beacon Hill and the Rainier Valley voted for him,” areas populated by a large majority of Asian Americans, she said in an email. “I think this is why most Asian Americans that voted elected him.”
Harrell seemed fully cognizant of his debt to the AAPI community, as well as to the Black community (on his campaign website, Harrell describes himself as “the son of a Black father and a Japanese mother”).
“I am honored to be the right person at the right time,” he said, adding that his election had been helped by the 15% of the city’s residents that identify as AAPI.
“We politicians call that a voting bloc,” he said, while repeatedly being interrupted by cheers and catcalls. “We take that with the 7% of African Americans, and [in addition] you got 10% or 15% of Huskies that like football.”
Harrell played football at the UW (and received the Most Valuable Defensive Player Award during the 1978 Rose Bowl), another aspect of his identity as a native Seattleite to which speakers often referred.
Moriguchi, in introducing Harrell, referred familiarly to cousins of the mayor-elect who repaired cars in the neighborhood and a florist shop run by the sister of Harrell’s mother.
Assunta Ng, publisher of the Northwest Asian Weekly and one of the emcees, recounted when Harrell’s mother, worried about his popularity with female voters when he was running for mayor in 2007, invited a number of Asian American women to meet her son and advise him.
Other speakers said Harrell’s service was part of a long line of AAPI contributions to the city.
“Every road and brick that makes up Seattle” is due to the labor of AAPI immigrants, said Carrie Huie-Pascua, Washington State Commissioner on Asian Pacific American Affairs, reading a statement from Gov. Jay Inslee.
Harrell’s understanding of the needs of the community “comes from lived experience,” she said. “He will listen to the AAPI community.”
“We congratulate him for keeping the dreams and the legacy of the AAPI community alive,” said Hisao Inagaki, the Japan Consul General.
Locke offered congratulations to all the recently elected Asian American mayors, and seemed to imply that a cohesive identity among the AAPI community was in part at least formed by not only a history of antagonism but by more recent animosity.
“We are in very difficult times,” he said, mentioning the targeting of Asian American scientists who have any connection with China as an example. “We are the perpetual foreigner.”
Still, some political observers argue that the idea of an AAPI voting bloc is tenuous. Historically, different ethnic groups have voted differently and pursued different interests. It is not clear if the coalition of voters that supported Harrell could be divided in the future over some other issue, just as a single issue seemed to unite it this time.
“The recent surge in anti-Asian violence most likely brought the issue close to home for many Asian Americans, but I don’t know if it will translate into a coherent voting bloc,” said Moon-Ho Jung, a history professor at the UW. “The collective identity ‘Asian American’ is always in formation, with different meanings for different peoples. It is a contested process.”
Professor Jung added:,“My hope is that we can use our current moment to learn about the struggles of the most vulnerable in our communities because that is where we’ll find the most innovative and viable answers.”
The topic that seemed foremost on everyone’s mind, at least as registered by the cheers and applause, was public safety. Harrell had made support for the police a key component of his campaign.
He said he had just met with Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz, who led the inaugural dragon dance by carrying the dragon’s head on a pole, and vowed to work to bring response times to 911 calls down to seven minutes.
Yet he seemed, if not caught between two imperatives regarding the police, then at the very least seeking to unify two starkly oppositional attitudes toward law enforcement.
“I said I’m not defunding the police, but I understand the need to eradicate racism and unfairness in our police department. I understand the need to make sure people are not murdered at the hands of the police. I understand the need to give people mental counseling and mental illness treatment in a crisis situation because all of that will lead to keeping us all safe,” he said as he closed his remarks. “And that by the way may take more funding, not defunding.”
Yet the challenges besetting a mayor at this juncture as the city reels from public safety problems, homelessness, the pandemic, and other problems were also an undercurrent in the evening.
Black-suited volunteers with black masks standing outside the dining room of the restaurant checked arrivals for vaccination status.
Former Congressman Jim McDermott, who made a brief appearance, said the job of serving as mayor is tough at any time. When asked, he refused to run.
“It’s a tough job he’s taking on,” he said.
Former City Councilmember David Della said, “The city is at a crossroads.”
Perhaps sensing the stakes, Harrell occasionally hectored the crowd in a joking manner.
When one side of the room continually talked in a loud, swirling wave of chatter, he asked them to quiet down.
“Let’s have some real talk, family,” he said when he first came on the stage, which was hung with strings of Christmas lights in the background. “This side of the room—can you keep it down?”
Then, pivoting to the other side, he said, “These are the quiet ones over here.”
Pivoting back, he said, “But these are the party people over here.”
A wild cheer went up from that side of the room.
One reason for the ambient chatter, however, was simply the sheer number of guests in the hall—and the fare. Guests dined on dishes that were constantly being served, such as crab, prawns, Peking Duck, lobster, and free-range chicken, washed down with a long array of Chateau St. Michelle wines.
“Everybody in this room is very supportive of you,” said Moriguchi.
Ng closed by urging Harrell to appoint AAPI staff.
“Don’t take us for granted,” she said. “Representation matters.”
The theme for the dinner was, “AAPI Unity for Harrell.”
What better way to demonstrate that theme than with a room full of past and present AAPI elected officials, and many community, business, and city leaders.
- Consul General of Japan Hisao Inagaki and Mrs. Inagaki
- Taipei Economic and Cultural Affairs, Director General Daniel Chen
- The Hon.Gary Locke
- The Hon. Jim McDermott
- Secretary of State Steve Hobbs
- Port of Seattle Commissioner Sam Cho
- Seattle City Councilmember-elect Sara Nelson
- Bellevue City Councilmember Janice Zahn
- Burien Mayor Jimmy Matta
- Renton City Councilmember Kim Khanh Van
- School Board Director for Seattle Public School—Vivian Song Maritz
- The Hon. Martha Choe
- The Hon. David Della
- The Hon. John Okamoto
- The Hon. Cheryl Lee
- Leandra Craft, former Federal Way City Councilmember
Mahlon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.