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A Leading Question: Bruce Harrell and Lessons from Family Politics

Hayat Norimine

Editor's note: KPLU has asked all nine candidates in the Seattle mayoral race to tell us about a time when his or her leadership skills were put to the test. One candidate's answer follows.

Bruce Harrell put his campaign headquarters all of three blocks from the house he grew up in, in the Central District. Striding down 23rd Avenue, it's clear his history here is thick. Over and over he gestures toward a house. That's Mr. Buchanan's house, he says, and Mr. Carter's, Mrs. Young's.  

Then on the corner of 24th and Olive sits the two-story Craftsman home where he says his parents raised him to be street-wise and respect family.

A House Divided

Those roots made it that much tougher when years later, it was a family dust-up that tested his leadership. His grandmother had just died, and her three children couldn't agree on what to do with her old house by the Arboretum, whether to hang on to it or cash in. 

"It really tore our family apart," said Harrell. 

Harrell says it fell to him to chart a course through the emotionally-charged dispute. And it was especially touchy because, remember—this was his father’s generation he was dealing with. He had to play diplomat to his own father and uncles. 

"There's no right or wrong in most of these disputes," Harrell said. "Some family members wanted to sell it. Some family members were saying, our grandfather built that house here Seattle. And for a black man to build a house in the 1940s, we should always keep that in our family. So there's no right or wrong." 

Harrell says he finally did broker a solution that didn't back anyone into a corner. They did sell the house, but found other ways to honor their grandparents' legacy. The key to bringing everyone along, he says, is to assume people’s hearts are in the right place.

"In politics, people try to attack motives. And I don't. I assume most people are trying to do the right thing. It's just a question of technique and methodology," he said.
Politics Is Like a Family

Harrell says that attitude has served him well in political fights, like when he pushed through a measure prohibiting employers from denying someone a job just because of a criminal record. It wasn't a popular measure in many circles. 

And Harrell says the ability to win over people and make a case in good faith will help him keep his campaign promises, whether it’s a free year of college for every high school grad or more community policing.

You have to keep your priorities straight, he says. Just like in a family.

"In a family you can't take things so seriously that you forget the most important thing. And the most important thing is the family," Harrell said. "In this situation, the most important thing is the welfare of our city. That comes before all else."
It’s a lesson he learned right here in this neighborhood, at the core of Seattle, and of Bruce Harrell's political identity.

Gabriel Spitzer is a former KNKX reporter, producer and host who covered science and health and worked on the show Sound Effect.