Seattle lawyer and education advocate Girmay Zahilay announced he was running for King County Council in February. Back then, incumbent Larry Gossett, who hasn't faced a challenger for his District 2 seat since his election in 1993, was thinking about retiring. Things were looking pretty good for Zahilay. Seemed like smooth sailing. But then Gossett ended up declaring his intentions to run again in late March, which means we have a race on our hands.
The only thing more boring than the county council is the school board, but both are as important as they are boring. The council oversees an $11 billion budget, as well as the county's criminal justice system, health services, Metro Transit system, wastewater treatment facilities, and regional parks. District 2 runs from Laurelhurst down to Skyway, including the Central District and Beacon Hill.
Who Is This Youthful Challenger?
Zahilay was born in Sudan after his parents fled Ethiopia. The family moved to Seattle when he was three.
Over the phone, his mother Abie Zahilay said raising three kids in Seattle as a single mom was a struggle. They moved around a lot and lived in a homeless shelter downtown before settling in public housing on the Southend. Zahilay quit the day shift and doubled up on nights, working as a nursing assistant at two different hospitals in order to support the kids. "[Girmay] took all responsibility," she said. "He took care of his brother and sister and helped them with homework. He's different. He didn't grow up like a child."
After attending Franklin High School, he went on to Stanford and studied law at the University of Pennsylvania. Between college and law school he worked for the Congressional Hunger Center in D.C., an anti-hunger advocacy group. During law school, he somehow found time to intern at Obama's White House.
His policy work in D.C. and his rough background inspired him to start a nonprofit called Rising Leaders, which partners with local middle schools to give underserved students mentors and life training.
He took a corporate job after law school, though, to "make sure I didn't live in debt for the rest of my life," Zahilay said at a recent fundraiser. He worked as a lawyer for start-ups at Perkins Coie before leaving the firm this year.
Okay, Good for Him, but Why Is He Running against a Living Legend?
Zahilay realizes he's taking on a local civil rights hero he admires. "Gossett marched into Franklin High School to protest discrimination. Some years later I graduated from Franklin High School, so he literally paved the way for somebody like me to run for office," Zahilay said.
Rather than focus on "condemning" Gossett's track record as a council member, which includes originally cosponsoring the property levy to raise money to rebuild the youth jail and voting to take over 4Culture to keep a closer eye on their money, Zahilay says his campaign is about "getting our generation involved and leading with bold new ideas that meet the challenges of this new era."
"Our campaign launch had 250 people show up," Zahilay added. "So many of the people who showed up hadn't been to a launch before, hadn't been registered to vote before."
He appears to be gaining momentum, especially among the youths, the party's grassroots activists, and star of the HBO television series Insecure, Issa Rae.
"We went to Stanford together," Zahilay says of his celebrity endorsement. "I was a freshman when she was a junior, and we both hosted an event together for the black community. It was Kwanzaa dinner, I think."
Last month Zahilay secured the endorsements of all the Democratic clubs in his district, with sole endorsements in the 37th and the 11th, and a dual endorsement in the 46th. He's also picked up nods from State Senators Joe Nguyen and Mona Das, who just served their first terms in Olympia, as well as the King County Young Democrats and Women of Color in Politics.
But he's also getting support from veteran politicians. Over the phone, former state representative Dawn Mason said she was "impressed" with Zahilay. "He understands where we are and where we're going," Mason said.
"Larry is what we call old school," Mason added. "It doesn't mean that he isn't bringing something, but I think Girmay expands on that and will take the baton and continue to go where Larry thinks we should go."
Mason stressed that Gossett wasn't doing a bad job, but "he can’t bring to us what our younger generations can bring—it's their future," she said.
Tell Me More About These Futuristic Ideas
Like many progressive candidates, Zahilay says he's taking a "housing first" approach to addressing the housing shortage and the issue of displacement. He says he supports the creation of a central authority to address those problems. Lucky for him, a plan to do just that is already in the works.
To pay for housing Zahilay promises to lobby lawmakers in Olympia "to make sure we're getting the funding we need," and also to "think of creative ways to spend the money we have." One of those creative ideas is establishing a county bank so the county can increase its bonding capacity "and not pay interest and fees to Wells Fargo."
He also wants to create a public investment vehicle to invest public employee pension plans in local infrastructure projects. Zahilay says the fund would "provide a good rate of return for the employees, but it also gives us an extra source of money to invest in local infrastructure projects."
He's not sure how much money either proposal would bring in, but he said it would be "significant."
As for the county bank returns, his spokesperson pointed to North Dakota's state bank, which announced in April a "healthy 18 percent" return on its investments. King County only assumes "a 7.5 percent future investment rate of return on invested assets" in its financial reporting.
Over email Councilmember Gossett said he supported both ideas, adding that "that Senator Bob Hasegawa has been working on [a public bank proposal] for years and is finally getting traction both here in WA state and nationally." He likes the idea of a public investment fund for infrastructure, but says "we must be careful on these investments because these are peoples' pensions at stake."
One of Zahilay's major goals is to "eliminate our system of youth incarceration" by adding "massive investments in diversion programs and massive investments in community-based solutions."
"Let’s start with the idea that we're not going to create a whole system based on extreme cases," Zahilay added. "If our goal in the criminal justice system is to reduce crime and promote public safety, I don't think that tacking on criminal records unnecessarily and traumatizing them and creating mental health issues is a good route toward public safety."
Back in 2012, Gossett co-sponsored then King County Councilmember Bob Ferguson’s property tax levy to rebuild the youth jail. Gossett has since waffled on his support of the project, which is already pretty much built and ready to be decorated.
Gossett stands by his decision to cosponsor the levy proposal, saying "we needed a source of money to rebuild the Children and Family Justice Center since we are obligated by state law to have a youth detention center."
"In hindsight, we may not have wanted to build such a large facility or may have built it in south King County or reexamined the type of facility we were building," Gossett added.
Trying to beat Gossett at the ballot box will be an uphill climb, especially if major political players continue to line up behind him, but Zahilay is certainly raising money like he means it. So far he's brought in $90,000 against Gossett's $32,000.