By Kai Curry
Northwest Asian Weekly
Mayor Bruce Harrell spoke to the Rotary Club of Seattle on Dec. 14 about the newly approved budget—his budget, not the one he inherited—and his plans for the reactivation of Seattle.
The presentation was hosted by the Rotary, and the mayor was introduced by James Wong, co-founder and CEO of Vibrant Cities. The Q&A was moderated by former KING 5 anchor and former Rotary President Mark Wright.
At 18 years old, Harrell told his parents, “I want to be mayor.” This aspiration was remarkable for a biracial child, Wong commented, calling Harrell “a man with true heart, true vision, and true calling.” Wright asked Harrell how he came by that confidence and Harrell attributed it to love and also the toughness he learned as a linebacker for the UW Huskies.
“I was so privileged. There was a lot of love in my house.” Harrell’s parents—his father, who was the first Black union lineman for Seattle City Light, and his mother, who was interned at Minidoka Japanese Internment Camp—believed in Harrell’s potential to do anything.
But, Harrell also experienced harassment such as name-calling.
“I wouldn’t put anyone through some of the experiences that I had,” he said. “Meanness doesn’t know a color.” At that moment, he looked directly at his audience. “I don’t blame any of you for anything.” In fact, Harrell expressed thanks to the Rotary Club for their hard work.
“I know many of you love this city as much as I do.” Harrell’s parents have passed and did not live to see him become mayor, yet they’re “right here,” as Harrell pointed to his heart, and described their “love beyond race because they were of different races.”
Harrell’s talk followed a shorter presentation by Major Jonathon Harvey of the Salvation Army and a formal introduction of Rotary Club’s newest member—Eunji Seo, Counsel General of the Republic of Korea in Seattle. Seo is the first woman in this position in Seattle history and the first with a Rotary membership. Harvey talked about the Salvation Army’s slogan of “Love Beyond,” something that Harrell picked up on and mentioned frequently while he spoke.
“I don’t care what religion you are, what race you are, I will guarantee you that what we have in common is everyone wants to feel safe,” Harrell said, answering questions about his plans for the Seattle Police Department and how he will reactivate downtown Seattle. “You want your children and your loved ones to feel safe—that goes beyond race.”
Harrell’s new budget takes into account a goal of growing the Seattle police force to about 1,500 (currently we have about 950), which counters demands in the past few years for defunding and minimizing police.
“If we have the right kind of police, compassionate police,” Harrell insisted, the kind that understands “that no one should lose a life over failing to use their blinker” or that “there really shouldn’t be fisticuffs involved in a jaywalking ticket. That’s the officer that I want to see.”
At the same time, Harrell acknowledged that Seattle is experiencing “open-air drug dealing and violence—I can’t have that on my streets.”
He said he has spoken to every Seattle police officer, something no prior mayor has done, and he has put into motion a plan to create a new department which will have staff trained and certified in how to deal with health issues.
“We are asking our officers to do things that they are not trained to do,” said Harrell. “Our approach is creating a third department…an unarmed response, working in conjunction with mental health counselors, the county, and our police officers—that’s what you’re going to see…we’re going to get our city back…and it has to be layered upon public safety.”
One of the questions put to the mayor was, post-pandemic, how he would entice more employees to return to work in Seattle. Rather than supporting this notion entirely, Harrell pointed out that the workplace is changing, and that he’s working with civic organizations, including the Rotary Club, to figure out what the “new downtown” will look like. Ideas center around how to increase engagement and social gatherings, rather than just focusing on business. Harrell reminded listeners that Seattle was “lucky” for the number of creative and innovative businesses we harbor, yet it was not something promoted by policy—it just grew organically.
Corporations such as Amazon and Microsoft “understand that we are a wealthy city,” Harrell continued, and “many of us are beneficiaries of this climate here,” but “they also realize their corporate social responsibility.” This is why both companies have donated to Harrell’s affordable housing budget.
“I know many of you are old Seattleites like me,” he said, discussing how Seattle used to be a place where a teacher, a food service worker, a janitor, could afford to live. “Now they need $100,000 just to come up with a down payment…we’re working with these new partnerships to help in every way possible to make sure that we have that demographic here.”
Wright asked Harrell what compelled him to get back into politics, to lead this city at what Wright described as an unusually difficult time. Harrell responded that before running for mayor, after two terms as City Council President, he felt he was “in a good place” in his life. He and his wife were watching the trajectory of the city. They were watching the “radioactivity, the intolerable rhetoric,” and the number of people “yelling and not listening.” At that time, Harrell’s wife said to him, “I don’t know if I could stay the next 30 years with you if the wrong person is in office and we continue to go in that direction because I’m going to have to hear you.” The audience laughed, but it was serious, too. Serious enough that Harrell decided to run.
“I wanted to make sure that I could play a role in the redefinition,” Harrell said. He compared his situation then to sitting on the bench when playing football. You root for the team and “try to be a good cheerleader,” but you “want to get in the game.” More importantly, Harrell wanted to “bring others into the game…that might have been historically left out of the game—people who love this city as much as I do and fight for this city—fight through the noise.”
Harrell received a standing ovation after the session. One guest who lives outside the city was so inspired that he decided to volunteer for Harrell’s administration.
Kai can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Harrell received a standing ovation for his interview. One guest who lives outside the city was so inspired that he decided to volunteer for Harrell‘s administration.