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Bruce Harrell third incumbent who won’t seek re-election to Seattle City Council

Seattle City Council President Bruce Harrell, first elected in 2007, says this will be his final term on the City Council. (Bettina Hansen / Seattle Times)
Seattle City Council President Bruce Harrell, first elected in 2007, says this will be his final term on the City Council. (Bettina Hansen / Seattle Times)
By Daniel Beekman Seattle Times

A third incumbent won’t seek re-election in Seattle’s big City Council elections this year. Council President Bruce Harrell, who was first elected in 2007 and briefly served as mayor in 2017, won’t run again, he said Tuesday.

He’ll leave City Hall along with Rob Johnson and Sally Bagshaw, who announced in November they wouldn’t seek re-election. All seven of the council’s district seats are up for grabs in 2019.

The news comes a day after community organizer Tammy Morales declared her candidacy for Harrell’s seat, touting an endorsement from U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal. Morales nearly upset Harrell in 2015, losing by fewer than 400 votes in District 2, which includes the Chinatown International District and Southeast Seattle.

Harrell said his decision was based on his own circumstances.

“Today I am announcing my intent not to seek re-election to the Seattle City Council for a fourth term because of my belief that three terms is sufficient in this role at this time,” he said in a statement.

Harrell’s decision puts Morales in the driver’s seat in District 2, though businessman Ari Hoffman and massage therapist Matthew Perkins also are running.

Raised in Seattle by a Japanese-American mother who had been interned during World War II and an African-American father from the segregated South, Harrell advanced from Garfield High School to the University of Washington, where he played football.

Before his election, he worked as a lawyer, representing telecommunications companies and nonprofits. He ran unsuccessfully for mayor in 2013.

“My goal has always been to serve with integrity and compassion,” Harrell said. “I have been afforded unimaginable opportunities … My focus has always been to create better opportunities for others.”

As a council member, Harrell has led on policies requiring police officers to use body-worn cameras and barring employers from automatically excluding job candidates with criminal records.

He proposed converting streetlights to LED technology, helped create a new savings account for Seattle City Light and pushed internet companies to provide low-income students with high-speed access, Harrell said.

Harrell has sometimes positioned himself to provide swing votes, occupying space between the council’s activist and moderate wings. He’s drawn socialist Councilmember Kshama Sawant’s ire more than once but decided the city should defend her in a defamation lawsuit.

Like Johnson and Baghsaw, the other business-friendly incumbents bowing out after this year, Harrell was backed in 2015 by the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce’s political arm.

“Our city struggles profoundly with reconciling the vast wealth that has been created in the same place known for food lines and homeless encampments,” he said Monday, pledging to work during his last year in office on coordination between governments and companies.

“Thriving businesses are discouraged when their work, commitment and ingenuity are met with public antagonism and resentment. Corporate social responsibility investments are lost in the noise of disenchantment.”

In an interview, Harrell said opting against another bid will allow him operate this year without having critics question his motives.

“People are quick to say that he or she is making choices for political gain. I want people to see that’s not why I do what I do,” he said.

Harrell stood by then-Mayor Ed Murray in 2017 after four men accused Murray of sexual abuse when they were teenagers, telling reporters, “I don’t want to be judged for anything 33 years ago … The question is are you doing your job today?” After a fifth man came forward and Murray resigned, Harrell called the allegations “unspeakable” and spent a few days as interim mayor.

During that short time, he directed Seattle to respond to Amazon’s request for proposals for a second headquarters and ordered the city to increase public-space trash removal. “Our city is filthy,” he said.

Then-Councilmember Tim Burgess replaced Harrell as mayor and served for 71 days, until Jenny Durkan won election and took office.

When the council split last year over the size of a per-employee tax on large businesses to raise money for housing and homeless services, Harrell supported a scaled-down tax. That version passed, but Harrell later joined most of his colleagues in a vote to repeal the measure rather than risk losing a referendum backed by players like Amazon and voters with concerns about city spending.

The head-tax collapse has rattled some at City Hall ahead of the 2019 elections. Harrell said voters shouldn’t blame the council for Seattle’s homelessness crisis and gentrification woes, however.

“I get the public outrage,” he said. “They assume it’s because of inaction or incompetency that these problems exist. But I will match the IQ and commitment of this council and mayor to any council and mayor in the country.”

He added, “We research the best practices and use that knowledge here in Seattle. These are complex problems in a growing city with a rich economy.”

In statements, Bagshaw praised Harrell’s “sense of humor and his willingness to search for solutions that benefit everyone, while Durkan described the council member as a friend of more than 30 years.

“For decades, he has worked tirelessly for our communities and for a more inclusive Seattle,” the mayor said. “Since our days together in law school at the University of Washington, I have known him to be a man of compassion and justice.”

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