Mayoral Candidate Debate on Homelessness Illustrates Differences


I doubt any votes shifted after last night’s virtual debate face-off on homelessness between mayoral candidates Lorena Gonzalez and Bruce Harrell.

It did make obvious the clear differences on what to do about illegal occupations of city sidewalks and parks; on that Gonzalez was unyielding:

“I’m the only candidate in this race who has unequivocally stated that I do not support forcibly removing people from public spaces when there is insufficient shelter or homes to offer people who desperately need it.”

Harrell, responding to neighborhoods near parks frustrated by months of illegal encampments, promises a speeded-up plan for more housing alternatives, and “consequences” (though he didn’t define them) for those in the tents who refuse to move even when offered some form of shelter.

Gonzalez’s problem on removals is her misread of the 9th circuit Martin v Boise ruling that governments cannot criminalize those illegally camped; it said only that – no criminalization, no jail – not that cities cannot move disruptive encampments to restore public use of parks and sidewalks.

But there’s the conundrum — without adequate housing ready, where would you move the camps? The answer working in other places – Boston comes to mind – to create safe camping areas offering toilets and services, interim spaces while housing develops, got no mention, though Harrell talks about an intense look at what’s working (and what is not) in other cities. He does note that beyond economic issues, encampments foster sexual trafficking and drug dealing, and make outreach to those with mental challenges difficult.

Two other issues of note —

  1. The debate over single-family zoning almost everywhere in Seattle, making development of affordable housing alternatives (apartment buildings, more density) difficult. Gonzalez wants to end single-family zoning, period; Harrell focuses on increasing density in transit zone clusters, likely more doable as wiping out all single-family zoning is a DOA issue, even in Seattle.
  2. Responses to an unexpected question – who will these two candidates, both Democrats, support in the supposedly non-partisan City Attorney race? Gonzalez is unequivocal – her vote goes to the prosecution abolitionist, Democrat Nicole Thomas-Kennedy, not to Republican Ann Davison who already has backing from former Democratic governors Gregoire and Locke. Harrell’s dodge was to say that as mayor he’d need to work with whoever wins, so didn’t see the point of a public declaration.

As a personal two cents — I’m a bit weary with the usual and predictable attacks on those who create jobs and vibrancy in Seattle’s downtown core; Gonzalez played the game again in going after the strong business support for Harrell, who is not shy about the need for more tax equity, but doesn’t see the point of seeking political punching bags.

There was more – watch for yourself .

Mike James
Mike James
Mike James was a long-time anchor newscaster at KING TV.


  1. In the KOMO/S360 poll results released earlier this week, respondents were asked if they favored or opposed “sweeps.” Despite the negative “sweeps” framing and the lack of any context, among likely voters the result was 58 percent favored sweeps, and 38 percent opposed. That is a strong sign of mounting public frustration, even among strongly progressive voters, with the nearly unchecked growth and spread of problematic encampments across the city, something that Lorena and her campaign — and the Seattle movement left Twitter bubble generally — seem completely tone deaf about.

    I would argue that the majority of voters are right. No encampment removals ever — even when encampment residents refuse offers of shelter and services — is neither good policy nor a winning political position in Seattle. Given Lorena’s admirable clarity on the issue, we’ll find out soon enough, I suppose.

  2. Mike,
    The most important voting issue this time around is the possible election of the anti-police candidate for city attorney (including those who endorse her methods). IF we elect a person in that job who not only doesn’t prosecute, but becomes judge and jury, we limit our legal system.
    But none of this matters if we do not change the perception that ALL drug usage is a personal choice and never criminally accountable.

  3. Thanks for your reporting, Mike.
    One oddity about last night’s debate was that both candidates answered the rather softball, predictable questions (no follow ups) as if their roles were reversed.
    Lorena, as incumbent council president, can shape policy today but, instead she proposed a pie-in-the-sky path (build thousands of housing units, paid for by what?) Bruce, out of office for two years, has not been calling the shots and could credibly take on the outsider role, yet he seemed to rely past accomplishments. It was an interesting evening. And, yes, we’ll find out soon which one gets the Oscar.


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