While much of CHS’s attention on Election 2019 has been focused on the race for the District 3 seat on the Seattle City Council, for the first time in more than a decade, a competitive race is shaping up for the District 2 seat on the King County Council as a young upstart flush with cash challenges a Washington civil rights icon first elected to the council in 1993.
Larry Gossett, former council chair and longtime incumbent, will have a competitor to remain on the council for the first time in 14 years with South Seattle lawyer and nonprofit leader Girmay Zahilay mounting a serious challenge.
The county needs to “target the equitable development of educational opportunities for all our kids, but with a particular focus on low-income and minority kids who are being left further and further behind,” Gossett said.
In interviews, both Zahilay and Gossett listed similar priorities with specific focuses on affordable housing, reforming the county’s criminal justice system, and environmental justice. Zahilay, who considers himself a “progressive Democrat,” also included transportation equity for areas that lack public transit hubs and increased political access for those often left out of the process as goals, while Gossett mentioned wanting to better support the efforts of public schools to educate all kids.
Frequent candidate Stan Lippmann is also running while Mitchell Dillard said in an email he had plans to run for the seat for almost two years before being told by his attorney that he couldn’t partly because he was a King County employee.
The council, which represents the county’s 39 cities and more than 2.2 million residents, is responsible for public health and human services, Metro Transit bus service, wastewater treatment and solid waste management, as well as the criminal justice system, which includes prosecutors and public defenders, District and Superior Courts and both adult jails and juvenile detention.
Gossett believes the county government is overlooked because, in his estimation, no one pays attention until things go wrong.
Gossett, chair of the council from 2007 to 2013, has served six terms as a council member representing Capitol Hill, the Central District, Rainier Valley, and all the way down to Skyway. He was the second council chair to be African American and is currently the only non-white member of the body.
CHS wrote about Gossett’s civil rights legacy here in 2015.
The emphasis on nuts-and-bolts infrastructure contrasts against Gossett’s radical roots. The councilor first made a name for himself as a Black Power activist in the late 1960s, after becoming radicalized during a stint as a volunteer in Harlem. When administrators at Franklin High School suspended two black students (either for fighting, according to the Seattle Times, or for having Afro haircuts, according to HistoryLink.org), Gossett and others occupied the principal’s office in protest. As a result, he soon found himself in the county lockup — the same building in which, a quarter century later, he would become a member of the King County Council — where he and other activists started organizing black and white prisoners.
“It seemed that jail directors should have been glad of that, but it scared them to death,” Gossett told HistoryLink. “They were going to county commissioners saying: ‘You got to get these Negroes out of jail!’”
Zahilay would like to see the county, which uses Martin Luther King Jr. as its logo following a years-long push by Gossett, move away from its current youth incarceration system in favor of diversion programs and community-based solutions. Meanwhile, Gossett, chair of the Law and Justice committee, said he thinks the council has been relatively successful in using “creative solutions” to keep the number of detained youth low while also noting there is much work left to be done on racial disproportionality in the criminal justice system overall.
The challenger floated the idea of a public county bank to better fund programs, such as a pilot for a universal basic income, while also noting that he wants to work to better safety nets and regulations.
He also said he wants to see measures to make corporations pay their fair share in response to a question about Seattle’s failed head tax.
Zahilay, who was born in Sudan after his parents fled Ethiopia in the 1980s and arrived in Seattle as a refugee when he was just three, grew up in Holly Park and Rainier Vista and graduated from Franklin High School before going onto Stanford University and law school. He then worked in Washington D.C. and New York City before returning to Seattle to be an attorney for Perkins Coie.
Zahilay, in his early 30s, thinks his unique story could resonate with voters.
“I think a lot of people are excited to have one of the first people from our communities who graduated from Franklin, who’s from South Seattle, who’s a young black man, who’s a refugee, who’s an immigrant,” Zahilay said. “We just cover a lot of bases in our campaign for people who don’t feel very represented in local government.”
He recently left his job at the Seattle law firm to put more of his energy into Rising Leaders, a non-profit he started while living in Harlem in 2015. It partners with local middle schools to give underserved students mentors and life skills training, such as career development, public speaking, and know-your-rights workshops. The program has chapters in Washington D.C., New York, and Seattle.
Like Zahilay, Gossett also graduated from Franklin High School before working in Harlem. He then went to the University of Washington, where, in 1968, he was one of the original founders of the Black Student Union.
Zahilay has raised more than three times as much money as his opponent, bringing in nearly $90,000 since announcing his candidacy in late February, while Gossett, not used to needing to raising big sums of money for his races, has earned more than $26,000 in campaign contributions, according to filings with the Public Disclosure Commission (PDC).
Gossett recognizes he might get outraised, but is confident his roots in the community will lift him to victory. He also notes that Zahilay has raised much of his money from outside Washington as most of his biggest donors are scattered across the country.
Michael Charles, a partner at the campaign consulting firm CD Strategic contracted by Zahilay, called him a “once in a generation candidate.”
“His deep community ties, his incredible personal and family story, his work ethic, his attitude, his values that I think are just in line with where South Seattle and a lot of District 2 are,” said Charles, whose firm he says is basically acting as Zahilay’s de-facto campaign manager. He added later: “This is not just about Girmay or about, you know, King County, it’s also about the future of millennial progressive politics.”
Rohan Bhobe, who has been friends with Zahilay since their undergraduate years at Stanford and now runs a company in Washington D.C., said he’s thought for a while that his fellow classmate would be good in politics.
“I believe in his ability to be a compassionate leader in his community,” said Bhobe, who gave $2,000 to his campaign, according to the PDC.
It was unclear for a while whether or not Gossett would seek reelection due to health concerns, including a stroke in 2013, but he said he would only retire if there was another candidate he knew well enough to hand over the reins to. He didn’t find that in Zahilay, who called Gossett a “faithful public servant” and hopes to continue his work on poverty and social justice if elected.
Zahilay’s team doesn’t want to frame this race as a run against Gossett, but rather a chance to instill what it sees as fresh ideas and bold new leadership.
Gossett still thinks he is a shrewd lawmaker who believes his skills can “bear fruit” over the next four years more than someone completely new to the political arena.
“Some people think I’m getting old,” Gossett said. “I believe that I’m healthy, that I’m very experienced, I’m wise, I’ve very strategic, and I’m [a] very good policymaker” particularly in regional services.
The 74-year-old incumbent, who won his last election in 2015 with 98% of the vote, meanwhile earned the endorsement of MLK Labor earlier this month.
“Larry Gossett has been a steadfast supporter of labor issues and a friend to working families over his long career in public office,” Nicole Grant, executive secretary-treasurer of the county’s labor council, said through a spokesperson.
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