By Cormac Wolf, CHS Intern
There is another choice for local leadership to be made in November — but only part of Capitol Hill will be included in the vote.
Capitol Hill is represented by two county council representatives: Girmay Zahilay of District 2 including central and eastern Capitol Hill, the Central District, and South Seattle, and Joe McDermott of District 8. McDermott has decided not to run again to represent the district spanning from West Seattle, across downtown, and up onto western Capitol Hill, setting off a race between current citywide Seattle Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda and Burien Mayor Sofia Aragon. Zahilay is running for reelection unopposed.
“County government exists because lots of different cities wanted to share certain regional services,” says Zahilay. “Imagine hopping on a bus in SeaTac, and trying to travel around all those cities. You wouldn’t want your bus service to have to stop at the city line for SeaTac and then hop on the Tukwila bus and then the bus would drop you off right at the city line and you would hop onto a Seattle based bus. That wouldn’t be efficient.”
“So we set up a county government to be in charge of specific regional services that spanned many different cities and unincorporated areas in King County.”
Capitol Hill is split due to the mechanics of district mapping. Council districts are drawn with the number of people in each district as first priority, with geographic and community cohesion subsequent considerations. This means that in the most densely populated areas of the county, like most of Seattle, the population is sometimes split to ensure each district has an equal population, and some neighborhoods end split by the borders.
Mosqueda has said her pivot to the county level is driven by the prospect of working on public and behavioral health — issues under the county’s purview, not the city’s. She says she would be happy to stay with the city council if she loses this race. The city council will pick a replacement if she wins.
Mosqueda was elected to one of two citywide council positions in 2017. One of the council’s progressive members, she’s best known for championing JumpStart, the proposal passed last year which taxes large companies and redirects those funds to housing and other city priorities.
The county districts are redrawn every 10 years along with the census; every 10 years Capitol Hill looks on to see whether we will be reunited, so far only knowing disappointment. Capitol Hill was whole as recently as 2005, when a ballot initiative downsized the council from 13 to 9 members, eliminating four districts and resulting in the wonky map we have today.
The county council meets in 10 committees, with each member serving on multiple committees. An eleventh committee, the committee of the whole, comprises all nine members and is where council members meet to discuss and vote on council-wide concerns and issues that don’t fit cleanly onto existing committee agendas.
Zahilay, who chairs the Law, Justice, Health and Human Services committee and serves on several others, is trying to motivate people to care about the county council. He says Capitol Hill residents regularly rely on King county services like the bus system and sewers. King County Metro is the eighth largest transit agency in the country, with over 60 million annual riders.
Zahilay also cites King County public health and county-sourced housing grants. As an example of how the council has changed Capitol Hill daily life, he mentions that the county recently bought an apartment building just off Broadway for the Lavender Rights Project to turn into affordable housing for “queer, transgender, two-spirit, Black, Indigenous, people of color” experiencing homelessness.
A big decision
Zahilay is running unopposed, but Capitol Hill residents south of E Olive Way and west of 14th will be asked to decide between Mosqueda and Aragon.
Aragon was elected to serve as Burien city council member in 2020 and Mayor in 2022. She says her experience as mayor has been about facilitating conversation to find bipartisan consensus, something she hopes to bring to the county level. She says her experience in a town smaller than Seattle will enable her to advocate for King county residents outside the city limits.
Mosqueda has made public health and housing central to her campaign. In line with her championing of JumpStart, she says she wants wealthy corporations and individuals to pay more to support the county’s infrastructure and services.
Aragon’s plans are not as ambitious. She says she would allocate existing resources, such as housing grants, more strategically, though unlike Mosqueda she stops short of suggesting any tax increases or additional revenue sources.
Asked what the biggest difference between the two candidates was, Aragon said it was their approaches to law enforcement.
“Yes, there is racism and bias and harm to people in the past,” says Aragon. “But [law enforcement] is a key role of government and it’s our job to provide that service the best we can.”
Mosqueda called this a “lazy answer” from Aragon, saying that the police were not defunded after 2020, that the council “reprogrammed nearly $20 million of the $40 million total that was annually rolling over into the police budget that the department, the chief and the mayor all said that they did not plan to use.” CORRECTION: CHS has updated this statement from Mosqueda to correct our reporting error.
Aragon says Burien, which relies on the county sheriff’s office for law enforcement services, has been hit especially hard by recent law enforcement staffing shortages, and that addressing the sheriff’s staffing issues will be one of her top priorities.
“I agree that we need to improve how law enforcement interacts with our communities, there’s certainly work to be done,” she says. “But we’re also hurting from the shortage itself. The messages that are really negative towards law enforcement, I don’t think are helpful.”
She claims Mosqueda’s 2020 support for the Defund the Police movement precipitated current police staffing shortages.
Mosqueda says she does not plan on cutting funding for the sheriff’s office, calling her solution a “both/and approach.” She says that the focus should not be on more law enforcement, but rather on social programs that meet individuals’ basic needs. CORRECTION: CHS originally reported this as a “both hands” approach. Sorry for the error.
“The biggest difference between us,” she says. “Is that I actually believe in a public health strategy that I follow through on, that data shows that when we invest early upstream, it actually helps relieve the workload of officers and sheriffs.”
As for solutions to the region’s housing crisis, the candidates’ positions are much closer. They both agree that the King County Regional Homeless Authority is only the beginning.
Mosqueda, who has made building more housing a core campaign proposal, says she hopes to solve this problem with housing too.
“The regional homelessness authority is the very beginning of the spectrum of the type of investments that we need across the housing spectrum,” she says. “As well as ensuring that there’s emergency responses and emergency housing that people can go to.”
Aragon says the KCRHA needs better coordination from the county. She says she will offer that, and will also seek to source emergency stopgap housing, which she says is a necessary intermediary step while more affordable housing is built.
On the council the candidates would have authority over King County Metro, as well as Sound Transit, whose board is populated by several county council members and is largely managed on a county level.
Aragon has not yet decided whether she would support a fare free system, preferring to leave the decision to others, but that whatever the county’s position is needs to be enforced.
“What I’m hearing is that we’re not enforcing [fares], and yet we’re also facing a budget deficit,” says Aragon. “If we’re facing a budgetary gap, why do we not enforce fairs? I think the public wants some accountability about why not.”
Mosqueda says she supports a fare free system, and that regional transportation should be supported with more progressive revenue sources. Her long term transportation vision includes better funding for maintenance, continued investment in a green fleet, and higher pay to entice more workers.
On issues of housing, public safety, and transportation, Mosqueda and Aragon differ in their support for progressive policies as well as progressive revenue streams.
Mosqueda says she will use her contacts at the state level to source more revenue for the county, avoiding austerity measures. King County, she says, is home to some of the wealthiest companies and individuals on Earth. She suggests a tax on property sales over a certain sum, as LA county has recently adopted (though a surprise dip in real estate transaction revenue may throw that plan into doubt).
Aragon agrees there should be more equitable taxes, but intends to focus on allocating the county’s existing funds more strategically.
The county has limited authority to raise revenue via new taxes – most authority is tied up at the city and state level. Nevertheless, its various levers such as the transit levy and property tax levy mean the council still has a close impact on voters’ wallets.
Mosqueda won more than half the vote in the August primary, though turnout was low. If she maintains her momentum through November she will make for a loud progressive voice at the county level, but will leave the city council. Whether she wins or not, Capitol Hill will continue to be represented by her.
King County Elections says ballots will begin arriving in voter mailboxes next week.