Girmay Zahilay Politics for Skyway
The King County Council member wants to build a blueprint for community development in the overlooked neighborhood.
For many years, no one dared run against Larry Gossett. The “Gang of Four” civil rights activist had something of a bear-hug around voters in King County Council District 2, a swath of Seattle stretching from its southernmost communities up to the U District. But in 2019, Girmay Zahilay thought he could loosen the old guard’s grip. The son of Ethiopian refugees, the 32-year-old had navigated from low-income parts of the district to elite realms—Stanford, Penn Law, the Obama administration. Still, Gossett was an institution. “Oh, Girmay,” King County Democrats chair Shasti Conrad remembers telling him. “They will not let this happen.”
It turned out Zahilay also had tact beyond his years. He advocated for change, but not without recognizing the incumbent who once protested discrimination at Franklin High School so that future Black students there, like Zahilay, could feel welcome. “We stand on the shoulders of giants,” Zahilay said during his campaign. His mix of deference and dissent slayed the skeptics, winning 60 percent of the vote and charting a diplomatic course Conrad now encourages other progressive challengers to follow.
Since assuming office, Zahilay has begun to forge a different model: a blueprint for community development. Growing up, he bounced between Rainier Vista, New Holly, and Skyway. All were low-income areas with even lower expectations elected officials would represent the wants and needs of their denizens, Zahilay recalls—Skyway in particular. Without a mayor or city council, the unincorporated territory just south of Seattle relies on King County’s government to send dollars its way.
Earmarking funds for the neighborhood was the first step in his plan. Early returns have been promising: $10 million for a community center, $5 million for affordable housing, another $4.6 million for constituents to divvy out via participatory budgeting. Yet the fate of anti-displacement measures he’s crafting may ultimately determine whether long-time locals are the beneficiaries of those gains. “In so many other parts of our state,” says Zahilay, “we haven’t gotten that formula right.”
He’s made headway elsewhere. A charter amendment he proposed and got passed last year gave King County Council the authority to transition some of the sheriff’s duties to mental health crisis teams—exactly the type of reform Black Lives Matter activists have sought across the country.
That effort, like his other initiatives, aims to bridge the disconnect between the politics of a booming region and the struggling communities within it. “The people closest to the pain,” he says, “should be closest to the policy.”
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M. Lorena González
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