By David Brewster and Joel Connelly
David Brewster: Joel, I see we both watched and lobbed in a few questions at the Downtown Rotary Zoom session this past Wednesday. It wasn’t a debate, but the interviews matched up the two mayoral candidates, Bruce Harrell and Lorena Gonzalez. Usually, I get little new information at these mid-campaign debates and conversations, since by this time the candidates are well rehearsed by their polling and their handlers about what to say to the dog-eared questions. But this one was illuminating.
Gonzalez for her first 2015 run for city council managed to beguile the Chamber of Commerce into an endorsement (later regretted by the Chamber). But before this well-aged, pro-business group of Rotarians she gave no quarter, did no wooing, probably won no votes. And Harrell, once a star Husky linebacker, trotted out some new athletic metaphors and rallied the civic team, locker-room-style. Harrell, the coach. Gonzalez, the grouch.
Joel Connelly: Lorena was flat-out adamant: She will govern for the benefit of those who support her, notably SEIU and Unite Here. The unions have fueled an independent PAC that has raised $996,000. She spurned any nod toward the business audience, any coded message not to read too seriously her campaign themes. She defended the PAC’s smear ad, linking Harrell to Trump.
How will she get anything done? Only if the left has a ruling majority on the Council and rams through its policies. They’re not a very tolerant and inclusive bunch, and are quite ready to impose their will.
Bruce was avuncular before the Rotary: I think that word best describes him. Not exactly a gourmet offering of past achievements, but touting a mayor’s ability to work “The Seattle Way” — not by yelling at people (the Ed Murray style) but by negotiation. I did stifle a laugh at Bruce’s argument that top-notch police chiefs from around the country are looking at the Seattle job and eager to apply.
We both know that the Seattle business community has its progressive side, wants to get along, wants to work out society’s compromises, and does not lord it over the city. (Unlike the Central Association, which was dictatorial.) The Gonzalez appearance was a turnoff. She’s not tuned in to conditions that today’s audience must deal with daily, such as safety, a deserted downtown, employees getting mugged, and brazen shoplifting.
Brewster: The fact that we both start off talking about Gonzalez suggests how good she is at “performative politics.” She’s absorbed a lot of Bernie Sanders (as has the whole country). Go before an audience, rile it up by defying its shopworn values, and stand fast for the working class, with specifics. That draws attention, prompts the enemy to fight back (thus keeping media attention), and defines you sharply by picking fights. Too bad for her that Amazon is no longer willing to be the punching bag.
So let’s assess Harrell. He talks too long, as he points out, and doesn’t really say much crisply or draw blood. He wanders around on topics, which can be endearing and unscripted. But he is developing an effective overall narrative, that of an inspirational coach of the team. After all, that’s what he did as a leader in football at Garfield and UDub. “I was always on teams,” he noted, talking about his ability to spot a weakness, fix it, build bench strength, change the culture in a positive direction. Go team!
Asked what the city could do better about Seattle Schools, he stuck with the sports metaphor by talking about getting more dads to mentor lagging kids, as happened to the youthful Harrell. How to change police morale? Harrell told a story about showing up at kids’ games, mostly black families, and calling police over to hear his speech about how cops are there to protect, not harass kids, after which cops and kids all beamed. He’ll look for positive team leaders to charge up the locker room.
Little civic stories like these hark back to Team Seattle, not Steamed Seattle. Note all the emphasis on positive change by working together — the Biden playbook and the Harrell hymnal. That riff led to a good put-down of Gonzalez: “It’s all about what she will NOT do.” (No clearances of parks, no misdemeanor arrests, no single-family zoning, no answers to a downtown association’s questionnaire.) Winning Coach vs. Madame No.
Connelly: I recall the pre-COVID 19 Democratic presidential race. Bernie Sanders has big rally at a (partially filled) Tacoma Dome, with grabber warmup speeches by Kshama Sawant, Pramila Jayapal, and a supporting cast. Afterwards, usual suspects were lampooning Joe Biden’s hugs and sympathy, the anecdotes and empathy. Uncle Joe was depicted as dated and worn out. But not everybody agreed. Biden was nominated thanks to older African American voters in South Carolina. He beat Bernie here. Eric Adams, running on pledges of public safety, built a similar constituency to win the Democratic primary for Mayor of New York City. He lost Manhattan but won it in the outer boroughs. I can glimpse a slogan, “Feel Safer with Harrell” — except that Nixon used it in 1968.
Watching the Rotary event, my mind drifted back a few years to the rescue of part of downtown under Mayor Norm Rice, who got Pine Street reopened, built Pacific Place and a new garage, and got Nordstrom to take over the old Frederick & Nelson store. I can see Bruce Harrell pulling off a civic blood transfusion, although it’s a jump from what he has already done. I can’t see the Gonzalez-led left doing anything of the sort, because it would require collaborative work and business confidence.
I once watched Rep. Jayapal sell the $3.5 trillion budget-reconciliation plan in an interview with Chuck Todd on MSNBC. The Seattle Congresswoman was warm, engaging, and able to cite detailed benefits of specific programs. I didn’t hear such a pitch from Gonzalez. A lot of talk about speaking out for those “left out,” not much about how to bring them real programs.
Brewster: Ordinarily, the leftmost candidate wins in Seattle, and that is clearly Gonzalez. Working against her are these factors: No ballot measure to bring out her infrequent younger voters. No real way to pay for her ambitious housing-first solutions to homelessness except the trench warfare of raising taxes. Low regard by voters for the Seattle City Council, which Gonzalez has led. Harrell’s being from Japanese and African American parentage takes anti-racism off the table for Gonzalez. Rising crime in Seattle, some related to homeless encampments. The pandemic has put economic growth (not economic populism) back on the civic table. Democratic disarray at enacting sweeping programs, both in Congress and at Seattle City Council, makes one wonder how well the divisive and unloved Gonzalez could pull off her transformative agenda. I would add that Harrell’s ace political consultant, Christian Sinderman, has done an excellent job in positioning Harrell as a Seattle native with cred, and steering him away from a too-visible pro-business agenda (though that’s what we would get). Harrell gives a lot of cheers to the old, inclusive, labor-business style. But so far no exciting new programs or ideas. He comes off too much as a motivational consultant (which he used to be), not a leader.
There are some X-factors that could keep the race very close. One is turnout, and Gonzalez’s union-funded mailers-and-ads campaign is targeted to her base, not to the still-undecided voters. (Is there enough money to fund a strong get-out-the-vote component?) Another X-factor is the endorsement contest, which can swing late-deciders, and a key holdout is third-place finisher Colleen Echohawk. Gonzalez seems more prone to commit errors, as with her risible dried-cherries mailer, stiffing the Downtown Seattle Association questionnaire, and her refusal to deplore the PAC-led ad that strained in linking Harrell to Trump.
At the Rotary event I asked Gonzalez if she had regrets about the poorly managed Black Brilliance Research Project, meant to advance Black-led budget setting and badly collapsing into feuding rivalries. She refused this obvious occasion to break loyalty with the stillborn project, missing the chance to show some pragmatic independence. She spotted the trap and stayed on her Black-empowerment message.
Gonzalez is running a classic mobilize-the-base campaign, but her base is not a majority. Harrell is running a nostalgic coalition campaign, evoking the old saying, “all politics is about addition,” but the impatient urgency is on the Left and suspicious of appeasing moderates.
Connelly (getting the last word): The activist left of this city is, well, active. I expect it will mount quite a ground (and phone) campaign for Lorena, and gin up issues to make followers angry. A classic example: Bruce Harrell photographed not wearing a mask at China Harbor fundraiser. How were the guests supposed to drink and eat?
The 2013 McGinn campaign came fairly close to catching Ed Murray as the mail-in count came in. The tide of McGinn votes carried in Kshama Sawant, who came from an eight-point election night deficit to upset Richard Conlin. The desperate attempt to inject Trump into our Seattle election – particularly in whitewashing the hate Tweets of City Attorney candidate Nicole Thomas-Kennedy – is also a factor.
Watching the Rotary debate, I recall a remark by the Very Rev. Fred Northup (Sr.) then dean of St. Mark’s Cathedral: “Seattle is a city where everybody gets consulted about everything.” A classic definition of the “Seattle Way.” The Seattle Way or the Impatient, Hard-Left Way is the essential choice. Lorena is not retreating a millimeter from her promise to blow off and tax business, govern for those “left out,” genuflect to The Stranger and The Urbanist.
The Rotary interviews on Wednesday were most revealing. My prediction, however, is that a majority of voters will opt for Bruce Harrell in hopes of – to steal a famous Canadian motto – “peace, order and good government.”