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Sunday, June 26, 2022

Mayor Harrell Doesn’t Suck so Far: So Here are Eight Suggestions

Overcoming a sluggish City Hall is one of the mayor’s challenges (Photo: Daniel X. O’Neil/flickr-under CC license).

It looks like Mayor Bruce Harrell will be cautious, deliberative, and seemingly indecisive on some of the big issues facing the city he now heads. This is not surprising, given Harrell’s fairly detached and amused style when on the city council. It is surprising, however, given how engaged and hard-working Harrell was as a candidate who swept the field in the 2021 election.

Harrell has done two important things in his first 100 days as a mayor, both correcting some serious flaws in the Mayor Jenny Durkan regime. Harrell has patched up relations with city councilmembers, smartly offering to help them on pet projects and spending lots more time hearing them out and exploring commonalities. The key movement may be from Andrew Lewis, who shows signs of moving from the Leftist bloc to a more pragmatic stance.

The other key signal has been getting serious about clearing out homeless encampments, where Harrell’s actions have wisely spoken louder than divisive words. That said, he was clumsy and slow in responding to the unpopulated tiny-house village.

Bruce Harrell (Photo: Seattle City Council-under CC license).

For the rest of the big issues Harrell has inherited — wait and see. Partly this slow pace stems from the need to get his leadership team in place. Partly this is the cautious learning curve. Partly this is Harrell’s style not to make needless enemies and instead to probe for consensus. It does seem to be working, for now, and the mayor’s popularity remains decent, 40 percent encouraged to 19 percent discouraged by the Crosscut Elway Poll.

But it is still the honeymoon period for the new mayor, and he has a relatively easy act to follow, given Mayor Jenny Durkan’s years of getting stymied by the council. If he gets lulled into this slow lane, he could soon join that long list of Seattle mayors mired down in our polarized politics.

Permit me to give Mayor Harrell some advice on how to sustain his early momentum, and get ahead of the inevitable criticisms the office will attract. Some of it echoing an earlier bit of advice I tendered (fast track for the first 100 days, be decisive) just as Harrell was elected.

1. Make some big things really work. Harrell needs to put his stamp on some visible problems and opportunities, not just be a finish-the-job, tweak-the-council mayor. Examples: Go big for tiny-homes, even if it means a fight with Marc Dones of the regional homelessness authority. Provide a vision for North Lake Union, west of the UW campus, now mired in political quicksand. Create a performing arts center in Southeast Seattle. Favor dramatic ideas for making Third Avenue work again. Build lots of new and affordable public housing, with a serious bond issue to fund it.

2. Embrace districts. This is a good way to empower city councilmembers, and to shift the focus from sluggish city hall to human-scaled district enhancements. District elections are not going to be overturned, due to the racial factors, so make them your own by opening district city halls and urging an open-space levy for all seven districts. Such an approach nets early victories and helps with pluralist politics.

3. Remagnetize the city. It’s tough to afford Seattle, and businesses are not eager to have employees back in the office. So, focus on this issue by creating more housing and support for artists, developing more affordable business districts outside of downtown, and helping young people to defray rents by committing to public service.

4. Make stunning key appointments. There are lots of key department heads to be replaced, owing to the aging out of the boomers, so make it clear that top national candidates should apply and will get tapped — in part by skipping over mayoral friends and longtime leadership. Example A: the next police chief, where Harrell has already discouraged outside applicants by his praise of acting chief Adrian Diaz.

5. Appoint key leaders who can make things happen. The city is stalled on many big issues, so a good solution is to pick department heads with strong track records of accomplishment. Honor must be paid to political and diversity agendas, but the stronger need is for people who can engineer change (and have the managerial record for doing so). City Hall is tired, and it needs vitamin-rich leaders who make the cushions bounce. Same goes for deputy mayors. The danger is for Harrell to be perceived as a placeholder and incrementalist.

6. Make some hard decisions early. Opportunities: Killing the downtown streetcar. Rezoning SoDo as a vital part of the city. Shake up the school board by having a few members appointed by mayor and council. We need Mayor Choose, not Mayor Dodge.

7. Be newsworthy. Dominate, don’t follow, the news cycle. Hire a top-notch speechwriter and others to make your position papers vivid and catchy. Have the messages be part of a larger, fresh theme. Be honest about how the city is in trouble, and how to fix it not hunky-dory. Adopt a Comeback Agenda, not Complacency Agenda. Answer questions from the media with strong specifics, not campaign-style evasions or delays.

8. Offense, not defense. Granted, you were a star linebacker for Garfield and UW. Now you need a game plan that organizes many players and strikes the citizenry as one with energy, consistency, pragmatism, and accomplishable in your four-year term. Establish your brand, or you will get branded by a city that likes to create failed mayors. “One Seattle” is too bland, as well as untrue and substance-free.

David Brewster
David Brewster
David Brewster, a founding member of Post Alley, has a long career in publishing, having founded Seattle Weekly, Sasquatch Books, and Crosscut.com. His civic ventures have been Town Hall Seattle and FolioSeattle.

Post Alley welcomes comments to our articles. Our guidelines: no personal attacks, stay on topic, add something of value to the discussion. Our editors will edit comments for clarity and to conform with our guidelines. We encourage writers to use their full names.

11 COMMENTS

  1. Harrell needs to start managing downtown Seattle’s decline. It lost its economic engine: white collar office workers packing in M-F. Now there are many vagrants shoplifting/sleeping/selling dope all around downtown. Those two trends are amplifying a negative-feedback loop of social degradation.

  2. #1 is your best advise……
    Along with getting back to basics (fixing potholes rather than adding bike lanes), MAKE downtown feel safe – add walking policemen to more areas – eliminate the tents and campers on our streets – encourage businesses to come back downtown and save the neighborhood stuff for later.

    Expect the council will mostly veer to the center to get re-elected.

  3. J.D. Vance, Harrell, Carville, Brewster.

    The other day I saw a James Carville headline that said, “J.D. Vance Sucks.” And I thought, “Only the Louisiana flamethrower can get away with a headline with that verb.” But I have had to revise my opinion now. Chapeau!

  4. An experienced city hall insider sends along these suggestions for other ways to “remagnetize Seattle”:

    1. Encourage the Downtown School. Tech businesses want it. Parents living Downtown want it. Both the Aquarium and Science Center might be enlisted to have a P-3 or K-8 school that builds a magnet curriculum (like Tacoma’s) on Puget Sound Marine Science.

    2. Reactivate the Mayor’s Office for International Trade and relations. Those efforts died about 6 years ago. Rachel Smith and Jon Scholes at the Chamber and DSA respectively could make this idea shine.

    3. Lead the efforts to revitalize Pioneer Square. There’s tons of potential there, but the usual squabbling between District business interests and the City and the County have bubbled up again.

  5. 1. Hire more police
    2. Litter pickup
    3. Kill off streetcar
    4. Breakaway from useless Homeless Authority
    5. Get city employees back downtown

  6. But please don’t “remagnetize” in a way that leads to more growth surges. The unsustainable growth of the last decade may not be contributory to all of our problems – it didn’t cause the problem with the West Seattle Bridge, for example – but our “success” has sure left us in desperate shape.

    The political circus of recent years is more a symptom of that, than a cause. As problems pile up, voters turn to leaders who they think will do something about them, which has been good for progressive candidates. That would have been fine if they could really deliver, but politically they can’t touch that root cause, so it’s flag-waving and band-aids. Voters are starting to see through that, but they still want something done, so … maybe they’re ready to face reality.

  7. To me the key message of your eight point piece is contained in three separate places and sums to “Get real things done.” In 8 you say, “Now you need a game plan that organizes many players and strikes the citizenry as one with energy, consistency, pragmatism, and accomplishable in your four-year term.” You title 5 with “Appoint key leaders who can make things happen” and begin 1 with “Make some big things really work.”

    The diffuse nature of much else you suggest, if adopted, could be the biggest barrier to your core message. Polling data and street gossip both tell us the electorate wants a focus on homelessness and public safety (both the crime and justice reform), fixing some bridges would be nice. In my archives I found a piece about a 2012 initiative to focus on downtown’s crime and homelessness problems from Pioneer Square thru Center City up thru Belltown. Its problem description could have been copied from today’s headlines. Wouldn’t it be nice to get to a 2025 Mayoral election and be able to say major strides have been made on these issues both in downtown and throughout our neighborhoods?

    My biggest fear is that Mayor Harrell and his former Council colleague and now Director of Strategic Initiatives, Tim Burgess, were on the Council for more than a decade pre-covid as these problems were building to the point they were declared a crisis in 2015. Addressed much too inadequately, the crisis turned into a disaster with the 2020 onset of the pandemic. My hope is the prior inertia taught them a lesson and they will use this Mayoralty to go after our core problems with the vigor your piece advocates.

  8. The key issues Mayor Harrell needs to focus on are crime and homelessness. A subset of those issues is the revitalization of downtown. The hiring of our new police chief and the city’s progress in hiring new police officers will be crucial to making progress on these issues. I want the mayor to focus on recruitment in the police department by making a bona fide effort to attract qualified candidates across the nation to apply to be our chief. I also believe cash bonuses will be necessary to attract more applicants to become officers here. The council’s decision to reimburse new officers’ moving expenses is insufficient: this is not competitive with the bonuses other local police department are offering. And downtown needs a much bigger come-back from covid shut-downs if its businesses and arts organizations are to survive. If people don’t feel safe coming downtown, they will not want to attend plays or music performances or frequent art galleries or restaurants.

  9. Can you provide clarification on your statement
    “Provide a vision for North Lake Union, west of UW, now mired with political quicksand.”? I’m sure that many of us living in NLU would like to have input into this “vision”. Many thanks!

    • The hope was to have a varied urban development: UW stuff, housing, culture, business. In effect, doing South Lake Union right. The main problem is assembling land for such development. The region will be blessed with two Sound Transit stations, at Brooklyn and 65th.

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