When Bruce Harrell takes office in January, he will be Seattle’s first Asian American elected mayor, and the city’s second African American mayor.
Supporters believe his life experience – growing up in the Central District as the child of a Japanese American mother and an African American father – will give him a unique perspective as a leader.
“Bruce’s being visible as a leader in this city and being Asian, I think is great,” said Elaine Ikoma Ko, a longtime community activist. “Representation means a lot.”
Harrell’s mother, Rose Tamaye Kobata, was the youngest of 11 children. Her mother came to Seattle from Japan in the 1900s and ran a grocery store in the Central District with her first husband. Like other Japanese Americans, Harrell’s mother and other members of the family were incarcerated in Camp Minidoka during WWII, and their property and business seized by the government.
Harrell’s father, Clayton Harrell, Sr., met his mother when they were students at Garfield High School. Harrell also attended Garfield and went to the University of Washington on a football scholarship. He served on the City Council between 2008 and 2020, following years as a lawyer.
Ko believes Harrell is shaped by his working class upbringing, experiences facing racism, and his family’s incarceration during WWII.
“I think that for Bruce, he will carry that with him,” Ko said. “We’ve always had progressive mayors that are trying to do the right thing. But when you have a lived experience, you just have that intrinsic, natural connection.”
Harrell could not immediately be reached for comment.
While about 15 percent of Seattle is Asian American – compared to 7 percent nationally – the city has never elected an Asian American mayor.
“I think part of it is who is interested,” said Connie So, a professor of American Ethnic Studies at the University of Washington. “A lot of times people might not feel that they’re qualified, or that they have the support or the money or a lot of other factors.”
While Harrell’s election is a first, Seattle has no lack of groundbreaking Asian American politicians, So said. Even Ed Lee, the first Asian American mayor of San Francisco, was born and raised in Seattle. “We’ve had a lot of representation, we just haven’t had a mayor,” she said.
Trailblazing politician Wing Luke, who served as acting mayor for one week in 1964, was elected as the first person of color on the Seattle City Council as the first Asian American to hold office in the state. So believes that if he had not died in an airplane crash in 1965, Luke could easily have been Seattle’s first Asian American mayor. He was popular, a unifier, and successfully fended off racism and Red Scare tactics while embracing his heritage, she said.
Asian Americans followed Luke to the City Council in the following decades, including Liem Tuai, Dolores Sibonga, Martha Choe, David Della, Charlie Chong, and Cheryl Chow (whose mother Ruby Chow served on the County Council) – and the Council’s current longest serving member, Kshama Sawant.
Some came close to winning the mayor’s office. In 1974, Tuai, the second Chinese American to serve on the City Council, made it through the primary election, but lost to Wes Uhlman in the general. Sibonga ran for mayor unsuccessfully in 1989, the year Norm Rice won election as the city’s first Black mayor. Populist Councilmember Chong ran for mayor in 1997 and made it through the primary, but lost to Paul Schell. Harrell originally tried for mayor in 2013, but didn’t get through the primary
So believes Harrell won because his message resonated across the city. At the same time, he embraced his heritage and Seattle upbringing in a way that appealed to Asian American voters and other communities of color, she said.
“He’s a known, trustworthy person for a lot of members of our community,” said So, who is a lifelong resident of south Seattle. “He cares about our community, he listens, we see him at a lot of events,”
The Asian American community was not unanimous in supporting Harrell, noted Alisa Lee, program manager for Asian Pacific Islander Americans for Civic Empowerment (APACE), in an email. APACE endorsed Harrell’s opponent, Lorena González.
“APACE chose the more progressive candidate that best fit our values,” Lee said in an email. “To us it’s more than just a racial issue.”
While Harrell’s victory was “historic,” Lee said, “there has been criticism from the grassroots on some of his positions,” in particular on homelessness and policing. Harrell supports removing homeless encampments from parks and sidewalks, and of the two candidates, APACE did not believe Harrell was as open to exploring alternatives to policing, Lee said.
Frank Irigon, a longtime civil rights activist, believes Harrell will understand the importance of representing Asian Americans in city government, and offer Asian Americans significant roles “actually at the table as the head of departments.”
“We don’t have an Asian chief of police,” Irigon said. “If we get to have one, it sends a signal to our community.”
Harrell’s victory comes during an “exciting time” for Asian Americans in local politics, said Ko. Mobilizing to fight anti-Asian hate, and joining the Black Lives Matter movement, more Asian American candidates are running for office than a decade ago, she said, pointing to Joe Nguyen’s (ultimately unsuccessful) campaign for King County Executive, and Toshiko Hasegawa winning a seat as Port Commissioner. “You can’t downplay how significant that is,” said Ko. “I just think it’s a really exciting time for the Asian community, and it’s about time.”