‘A Seattle-only focus is no longer going to cut it’

Incoming council member Girmay Zahilay wants to hear and hire UW students

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Girmay Zahilay has had quite the year.

The 32-year-old lawyer announced his candidacy for King County Council District 2 in February, challenging 27-year incumbent and civil rights activist Larry Gossett. In the August primary election, Zahilay bested Gossett by 19.4%. In November, Zahilay did it again, defeating Gossett in the general election 60.36% to 39.27% to become the newest face on the King County Council.

But come January 2020, the real work begins. And as the county council member whose job includes representing the UW, Zahilay is ready to be the voice for UW students.

Unlike his predecessor, however, Zahilay has limited existing ties to the UW.

The son of Ethiopian refugees, Zahilay moved from Sudan to South Seattle at the age of three. His family spent some time in a Union Gospel Mission homeless shelter before bouncing between a number of Seattle’s public housing projects.

He graduated from Stanford University and went on to earn a law degree from the University of Pennsylvania. Later on, he interned at the White House during the Obama administration, worked for the Congressional Hunger Center in Washington D.C. and at a corporate law firm in New York, and founded Rising Leaders, a nonprofit that partners with middle schools across the nation to give underserved students access to mentorship opportunities and leadership training.

Despite going to school out of state, Zahilay considers his first real college experience to have taken place at the UW. During the summer of his junior year at Franklin High School — his and Gossett’s alma mater — he completed a research internship with the UW department of biology.

“It was the university I looked up to growing up,” Zahilay said. “It really made me feel like college was something that I could aspire toward. It was this big, prestigious institution that was right in my backyard.”

To make sure his constituents can reach him at almost any time, Zahilay plans to set up three district offices in Skyway, Central District, and at UW. At least twice a month, Zahilay will host drop-in hours and appointment-only sessions for students and nearby residents to speak with him about the issues most pertinent to them.

Inspired in part by his two campaign interns, UW students Nura Abdi and Julian Cooper, Zahilay plans to establish community councils composed of high school and college students to discuss policies relevant to King County.

“Julian and Nura showed me the value of having diverse input at the student level,” Zahilay said. “One of the big things I want to do with this seat is make a more inclusive government and that means employing as many students as possible and giving them opportunities to be heard.”

Although the details for the councils and the exact location of his upcoming offices have yet to be determined, Zahilay says these details are his primary focus.

With his election, Zahilay hopes to bring a renewed energy to the King County Council. He recognizes most Seattle-dwelling residents consider Seattle City Council to be the more important governmental body in the area and hopes to alter public perception of the county council.

“The idea that the King County Council is a background government is the exact reason why we need somebody to get in there and make it a leading voice in the community,” he said. “In this new era of mass displacement, people need much stronger regional solutions to the problems they are facing. A Seattle-only focus is no longer going to cut it.”

The King County Council represents over 2.2 million residents and oversees the Metro Transit system, the King County Sheriff’s Office, public health and human services, wastewater treatment facilities, regional parks, and the county’s criminal justice system.

King County Council District 2 alone covers some 240,000 residents across the U-District, Ravenna, Laurelhurst, Capitol Hill, Fremont, Beacon Hill, the Central Area, Seward Park, Skyway, and the Rainier Valley.

To Zahilay, a majority of the city’s most pressing concerns can be best tackled through a regional approach. The housing crisis, climate action, transportation limits, and regressive taxation can all be addressed or influenced by the King County Council, he said.

As January 2020 approaches, Zahilay is feeling a flutter of emotions. He is thankful, excited, and feels an overpowering responsibility to make sure he delivers on the promises he made to his supporters during his campaign.

Reach contributing writer Lily Hansen at news@dailyuw.com. Twitter: @lilyjhansen

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Editor's note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the King County Council's budget is double that of the Seattle City Council's. This article has since been updated to reflect that the councils operate with roughly the same budgets.

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