Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell’s inaugural State-of-the-City speech evoked memories of a classic verbal trip-of-the-tongue by (the first) Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley: “We must rise to higher and higher platitudes.”
Only Harrell was delivering from script with such lines as: “The homelessness crisis should be treated as the crisis it is.” Hizzoner pledged to “hold bad actors accountable,” promised a policy of “reducing silos locally and regionally,” and said he would create “a transparent dashboard to track progress” in the Emerald City. Immediate, specific responses were largely absent while generalities proved abundant. Who could disagree with Harrell’s declaration: “Woodland Park is a gem of our City. Trash and fires are not acceptable,” or a promise of no deaths or injuries on “streets that prioritize people.”
“I believe in going back to basics,” said Harrell. O.K., but how will he restore basic safety downtown? Some years back, Seattle officialdom sought federal money for the Downtown Bus Tunnel with artists’ depictions of a Third Avenue with people sipping lattes at outdoor cafes beneath shade trees. Today, we have a reality of drug dealing, outdoor street sales of stolen merchandise, boarded up storefronts, and businesses hiring their own security. The city is feeling a sense of urgency. Harrell didn’t really promise anything on downtown, aside from having money to hire 125 new police officers. He made a fleeting reference to the waterfront park. No strategy for neighborhoods, no hint of a housing policy. The promise of an “expanded tree canopy” was about as specific a promise as could be found.
Harrrell did pledge detailed strategies to come, built on a collaboration with the Seattle City Council that was absent under predecessor Jenny Durkan. He managed to find praise for every member of what has been a divisive and tone-deaf council. (E.g. “I know Councilmember Sawant cares deeply about addressing inequality.”) When he was on the Council, Harrell was often late to commit and attuned to which way winds were blowing. He has taken that approach up to the 7th floor. The ringing conclusion of the speech: “The challenges Seattle faces are real, but I am confident that my team can partner with the Seattle City Council to make real progress. We can change the narrative in our city and make Seattle a better place for the people who call it home.”
The time to change that narrative is now, especially at a state of the city address, but we did not get a definition of “real progress.” Rather we saw a cautious guy, talking in the language of government, carefully wafting incense at the city’s interest groups, making fuzzy promises. He missed the moment, for the city is hurting, the town is impatient, and the new Mayor is promising only to be deliberate.