Meet the King County Council District 2 Candidates: Girmay Zahilay

The South Seattle Emerald met with candidates running for King County Council’s District 2 seat. District 2 spans from the University of Washington to Skyway and encompasses the Central District and Southeast Seattle. Incumbent Councilmember Larry Gossett has run largely unopposed for years, but this race faces newcomer Girmay Zahilay, who led the race in the August Primary. These interviews invite the candidates to talk about their campaigns in their own words. Today, we speak with Girmay Zahilay. These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

 by Aaron Burkhalter

These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

Aaron Burkhalter: So to start with, give me your campaign pitch. What is your background and what made you decide to run?

Girmay Zahilay: I’ll start from the beginning. My family is from Ethiopia. And my mom and my dad fled Ethiopia in the 1980s because communist military government had taken over. And so under the threat of persecution, they fled across the border into Sudan. And once my brother and I were born in Sudan as refugees, we had the opportunity to come to the United States. So we all boarded a plane and cross over the Atlantic Ocean, and moved to South Seattle when I was three years old. And my family the called South Seattle home. And so being new immigrants, not knowing the language, neither of my parents having gone to high school or college, not having much money really shaped our experiences in the United States, especially in South Seattle. We lived in many of the segregated neighborhoods, the housing projects that South Seattle is known for: Rainier Vista, Holly Park, we lived in Skyway for a while. And my mom, who was a single mother raising three kids, had to work as a nursing assistant for 20 years, working double shifts night shift every day, including weekends. So I graduated from Franklin High School, and I went off to Stanford after that. Once I got to Stanford, it really is the moment that I started realizing how many of our realities in South Seattle are so inequitable, right? Underfunded public schools, poverty. Our local environments were not as clean as they should be, you know, many kids that I grew up with in Holly Park had asthma. And I didn’t really put two and two together when I was young, that people having a disproportional amount of asthma has to do with environmental justice. That’s not something that I was thinking back then. But once I got to college, and I see how other people live, how other people in the U.S. live, that started to make me think that I want to go and shake some structural make structural change is to fight poverty.

So my first job after college was an anti-poverty, anti-racism fellowship program through the Congressional Hunger Center. And it has this really cool model where the first six months of the program you do anti-poverty work on the ground level at some neighborhood in the country, doing direct client services work, and then the second six months you go to Washington, DC, and do policy level work around those issues. So it really lets you marry the top-down, bottom-up forms of making change. So my first six months were in Bed Stuy, Brooklyn, where I was fighting for food access, healthy food access in neighborhoods that had food deserts, healthy food deserts. And I learned a lot of my community organizing community engagement work in that period of time life when I was in Bed Stuy in a predominantly African American neighborhood, high poverty, low access to resources that are needed, like as basic as healthy food access, engaged a lot of community members interviewed people. And I learned that doing that, that nobody can tell you more about the community and the issues and faces than the community itself. So no matter how much research I did, no matter how many institutions I spoke to, the most knowledge that I gained was having these one on one interviews with people in the community facing the challenges that I was seeking to alleviate. And then the second six months, I went to Washington, DC, and did policy level work to fight against poverty in the United States. So fighting for health care reform, tax reform on the federal level, taking the research that I did in Bed Stuy, Brooklyn, and presenting it to members of Congress to show them how policies are affecting people on the ground, building advocacy groups to teach people how to fight for the things that affect them both by lobbying their members of Congress by speaking up. And so it was there when I was in Washington, DC doing policy level work that I decided that I want to go to law school, and to better understand systems and laws and policies.

So I went off to University of Pennsylvania for law school after that. I got the opportunity while I was there to intern in the White House. And I got to see again, how grassroots efforts can translate into policy and shaking policy. I was there when they passed the Affordable Care Act. So seeing that shaped my view on how things get done. Once I got my law degree, I started out practice in New York, I was a lawyer at a law firm out there. When I was there, I started a nonprofit organization that I continue to work on. And that takes a lot of my time and energy right now at 501(c)(3) nonprofit where we partner with local middle schools, to give underserved students mentors and life skills training, like financial literacy, public speaking, career development, resiliency training, and we partner them up one on one with a mentor. And then we do those kinds of workshops for the students. We worked with them for all of seventh grade, and all of eighth grade in the hopes of ramping them up into high school. Since we founded it is 2015. It’s grown from Harlem, New York to South Seattle to Washington, DC. And so managing that is something that I really care about. When I came back to Seattle, I worked at a law firm here, Perkins Coie, and then brought my  nonprofit here, which is active here in South Seattle.

For me running at the county level stared because when I came back to the South Seattle where I was raised, suddenly, the whole community was completely different. People had been displaced out all the way out to South King County. I even remember a couple weeks ago, going to knock on the exact door where I grew up as a kid in Rainier Vista. It was unit number 4443. I went to knock on that door. And what was once a small, modest low income housing project had been transformed into a giant luxury house worth $825,000. And so things like that really motivate me to run at the county level. Because as people continue to get displaced and pushed out, just shaping Seattle, specific Seattle City limit policies will touch all of the people that I wants to touch with policy. So running at the county level is really to make a regional solutions for some of the major challenges that we’ve been seeing. And that’s what I want to do.

AB: Earlier this year when you announced your interest in running, it was not clear whether Councilmember Larry Gossett would run again. You said you had misgivings about running against him, but you’ve obviously made the decision to continue. How you came to make that decision?

GZ: For me, it was the fact that I wanted whoever takes that position to be somebody who’s going to build on a legacy of civil rights and social justice, someone who comes from the community, who can represent new voices and bring new voices in, and also push things forward with bold new ideas while recognizing and understanding the historical context we’re in. Yes, I thought the councilmember was going to retire. He never himself told me that to be clear. But for me, it’s not about running against any specific person. It’s about fighting for the values that myself and the communities that raised me care about.

AB: What is your strategy given Councilmember Gossett has such deep history in the community?

GZ: First, it’s bringing in new voices that have not participated or had the opportunity to participate in local politics. Because they haven’t felt like they have somebody who they look at and see themselves. And you see that in the events that we hold for this campaign, our campaign launch had 250 people show up, many of whom had not registered to vote, many of whom have never been to a campaign events before. There’s the excitement that’s drummed up when you’re bringing in new voices, a new generation of people and leading with new ideas.

Our strategy for winning the legislative district endorsements is rallying new people who haven’t been participating in local politics before. The second thing is being very bold and innovative with the policies we support. We don’t believe in youth incarceration. So that’s something that we want to abolish. Part of that is that many people who are opposed to abolishing incarceration don’t believe that there’s an alternative. San Francisco just became the first city in the nation to close its juvenile hall. Because again, they understand that putting kids in cages is not the most effective way of rehabilitating and restoring them, if that is our goal. It’s my goal personally. I also want to support new and innovative ways of funding King County government. Right now, the King County government is probably the most restricted forum is probably the governmental body that has the most restrictions in terms of how it can raise revenue. And those forms tend to be very regressive property tax sales tax. And so I want to make sure that we’re making the money that we already have go further. So I support having a King County bank, which is a public bank, where we hold our own revenues and don’t have to pay fees and interest to Wells Fargo, a multinational bank, it will give us more flexibility and what we can do with the money in terms of giving out interest free and low interest loans to people trying to buy their first house and also people who are trying to start businesses, and even people who are under the threat of being displaced and losing their home because they don’t have that last little bit of money to pay rent that month. So it’s up to of helping us prevent homelessness as well with through shallow rich subsidies. I support having a public investment vehicle where we invest some of our public pension funds into local green infrastructure.

AB: If elected, what would your approach be specifically to looking at youth incarceration and the youth jail?

GZ: I support number one having diversion programs for all non violent crimes. So I understand that you can’t do that on your own at the King County level. I’m sure there’s state stuff that we need to work through as well. But if you are somebody who did, you know, fair evasion or drug possession, or petty theft, I don’t want you interacting with the criminal justice system, because all the data shows us that interacting with the criminal justice system, especially in the form of going to jail, increases your likelihood of going to adult jail and decreases public safety. So that’s, that’s where I start, if it’s a non violent crime, and we can get into like what that actually means. you should not go to youth jail. Now for the more extreme cases, because that’s where people go, whenever I talked about this topic, if you abolish youth incarceration system of you, in prison, MIT, where do child murders go, for example? So I start off always telling them well, first of all, we don’t make broad policies based on extreme cases, we’ll make broad policies based on what the most cases are, and then handle the extreme cases separately. But for extreme cases, I support having close to home facilities. And what close to home facilities say is that we’re not going to form this giant warehouse like prison facility with many empty beds and putting any kid almost no matter what they did into the same facility, because that’s not good for mental health. It’s not good to saddled them with the criminal records that interrupt their education and job opportunities. And we’re not going to remove them from their communities and their kids being arrested. Far, far away from here, I don’t want to take them out of the communities where they’re from, and bring them you know, downtown. So what close to home facilities say is we’re going to have smaller facilities — of course, it’s not like you can still, you know, unlock the door and leave whatever you want — smaller, secure facilities that are in the community where the youth was raised. And they target that youth’s needs — we give that user response they need based on their needs. So it’s not a broad brush response, it’s saying you’re going to be still in your community is going to be a more holistic response. You will have mental health services, guidance, counseling, education, whatever the need is, we can target that at the close to home facility, rather than having these broad based responses in a giant warehouse like facility.

AB: You’ll be representing Skyway, which along with White Center is unusual in being unincorporated with no city councils but also not rural. What would you like to do for those areas?

GZ: Since the county is the closest form of local government, they do have that zoning power in unincorporated King County in a way that they don’t in Seattle, for example, because that would be Seattle City Council. So we can make sure to implement very strong anti-displacement policies as we develop in those areas. So you know, no net loss policies meeting that if a developer wants to develop out there, the number of affordable housing units that they destroy in the process, they commit to making up that same number or more; inclusion area zoning policy, saying some percentage of the housing that you build in this area has to be affordable, you know, based on area median income; community land Trust’s which promote homeownership, and people benefiting from there from the value that appreciation and value of the local property and real estate. So those are the things that I promote, that I would support in terms of preventing displacement because displacement and gentrification are on their way to Skyway and White Center and promoting homeownership. And then I also believe in earmarking tax revenues that come from places like Skyway to go back into Skyway. People are feeling like, oh, the, you know, the pot shops in Skyway, which are stimulating the local economy, we’re not seeing the tax revenues from that coming back into Skyway. So I think we need to do a better job earmarking that revenue to go back into Skyway, to promoting small businesses to developing infrastructure out there.

People are really worried because these are, you know, many of the business centers in unincorporated King County are owned by black and brown families. And it would be a huge tragedy if we didn’t take the opportunity to say, we’ve made mistakes in the South End, and we’ve made mistakes in the Central District, we’re going to learn from our mistakes and doing much, much better in a place like Skyway. And also just working with the local organizations that are already doing the work in those places, places, organizations, like Skyway Solutions, the West Hill organizations, just making sure that we work with them and listen to what they’re saying the needs are and in supporting them and doing that, especially through our newly formed Office of local services that is now dedicated to providing services to skyway and to unincorporated King County. But again, those organizations feel like that office is there for, you know, just zoning and land use purposes and not a more comprehensive serve at night as a more comprehensive service provider. So we need to make those organizations a more comprehensive service provider to an incorporated King County.

AB: What do you want to see happen on the county level in regards to homeless homelessness?

GZ: Yeah. So first, I really support the new push toward having a central authority at the county level, the Office of Homelessness. I think they’re beginning to do that now. But I would have liked that to happen a long time ago. Because when I talked to the people who are working on issues of homelessness, they say there’s a huge issue with coordination across the municipalities, that many municipalities are working in a silo. And I think it would be more effective to have a coordinated regional response or regional strategy that all of the local municipality these have a hand in, because that not only allows us to address the issues in a more coordinated way also would allow us to pull our resources I’ve seen I’ve taken a look at the list of grants, for example, that come into address homelessness. And all of them have their own metrics, their own restrictions, their own milestones, it would be much better if we were able to pool our resources, and handle handle the crisis in a more focused way. So I like having a central authority at the county level is one thing.

AB: There was a real strong push seven or eight years ago, following the Occupy movement, looking into public banks and movement by the Seattle City Council to shift away from corporate banks where it could. What are the steps forward to getting a public bank like North Dakota has?

GZ: It’s educating the public on what that is and what that means. Because when you build up the necessary political will, you can push back on the corporate interests that are at play and keeping the status quo and also push up against inertia. People are worried about doing something different, especially when it involves money. Yes, we’re paying interest in fees and, yes, we have all these restrictions when working with multinational banks, but it’s also what we know. So people perceive it as being safer. But in reality, you look at a place like North Dakota, they’re getting 18 percent returns on investment, compared to our 7 percent. They’re not paying interest in fees, and everybody in North Dakota loves their public bank. You know, I was speaking with Senator Bob Hasegawa, who’s been a champion for a public banks recently, and when talks to the legislatures and even the people in the financial sector in North Dakota, that everybody is really happy with that system, and it is a way of empowering the community financially in a way that we could do here.

AB: A lot of times the initial approach is to create a local bank run by a government entity for its own financial work. Will it be like that or broader?

GZ: I would want to try at the local level first. And there’s also this model called financial cooperative institutions, where all the local municipalities can work through a central depository bank, and lend each other money so that you’re paying interest or fees to another local government, which can go back into serving the local community, and especially if we’re thinking about having these coordinated regional responses to things like homelessness, but letting another local municipality borrow money is a great way to make sure that money is being cycled through the same region in a way that stimulates the local economy.

Featured Image courtesy Girmay Zahilay.