The Most Influential People in Seattle Politics
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.”
Retirement didn’t stop the one-time mayor from attempting a wonky flex: amending Seattle’s charter—that is, the very powers the city holds—to mandate the construction of housing units and sweeps of encampments. Though it ultimately failed, his controversial Compassion Seattle initiative set the terms for homelessness debates.
The first woman of color to chair King County Democrats has made inclusion a principal party tenet in backing local candidates. Now she’s expanding her influence across Washington: The Opportunity PAC she recently cofounded aims to elect Black women to the historically white state legislature.
West Seattle’s own toppled his first legit challenger in years (sorry, Goodspaceguy) to nab a fourth term as King County executive. Whether he’ll see it through to the end is anyone’s guess; many have speculated he’ll take over for bud Jay Inslee when the governor’s term ends in 2024.
Where do the next generation of politicians in this city look for guidance? Increasingly, to Upper Left Strategies, a political consulting firm cofounded by this City Hall alum who hones messages of activist-minded candidates like state senator Joe Nguyen.
Known nationally for blocking Donald Trump’s travel ban from more than a handful of predominantly Muslim countries, Washington state’s attorney general hasn’t kicked back since suing the former president more than 80 times in four years. In early 2021 he helped kibosh a Trump-era plan to expedite the sale and closure of Seattle’s National Archives.
M. Lorena González
Early worker-centric triumphs in law and city council netted the daughter of migrant farmworkers enough political capital to vie for the city’s top post. Unions lined up behind the Bernie-backed candidate, whose support for a secure scheduling law several years ago made her a favorite among baristas and barbacks. Among big business interests, though? Not so much. Her campaign couldn’t overcome them or other opponents of defunding the police.
The Seattle establishment threw its weight behind the city’s next mayor. His backstory is political catnip; the son of parents who faced multiple forms of oppression in the Central District, the erstwhile University of Washington linebacker passed on the NFL to pursue a career in law and, after a stint in corporate America, represent underdogs. A politics of moderation—more policing, less business interference—enticed enough voters to win him the race.
Did we know a governor had this much power? The Seattle-born presidential wannabe has turned the dial on the state’s activity during the pandemic, professing to follow the science as he delivers shutdown and reopening orders. A rare third term offers him a chance to summon similar urgency on climate change.
Who needs a squad? It’s not a stretch to say that the savvy Seattle congresswoman and Medicare for All champion is really the one tilting the country left. When moderate Democratic Party leaders sought to approve a bipartisan infrastructure bill this fall, the leader of the burgeoning Congressional Progressive Caucus wouldn’t cave without tying its fate to a liberal social spending program.
After years of legislative flameouts, city council finally passed a tax on big businesses in 2020. The JumpStart levy generated more than $200 million in revenue its first year for Covid relief and other pressing matters. Its architect? This citywide council member, who was reelected this fall.
Everyone has a take on Seattle’s political lightning rod. As the first socialist to win a citywide election in a century, she’s pushed for a $15 minimum wage (successfully) and rent control (unsuccessfully), the latter of which has angered the area’s real estate investors. A recall effort is underway to remove the city council member from office.
Ask any former mayor and they’ll tell you the chamber of commerce wields significant influence over local policy-making. That’s why the new president and CEO’s decision to withhold endorsements for mayor and two citywide races this fall was a shocker—a detente of sorts between the city’s corporate types and progressive pols.