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 Larry Gossett.
by Aaron Burkhalter
These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.
Aaron Burkhalter: Tell me about the campaign and what you want to accomplish in another term.
Larry Gossett: I have unfinished business particularly in three areas that I want to share with you. First, on December 4, 2018, I led the effort to have the King County Affordable Housing Task Force made up of 15 elected officials from around the county who are looking at that very critical problem of displacement and gentrification to see what we can do, as government leaders, working with the private sector working with housing developers and working with the community to agree to create more affordable housing. I put forth the idea that we need to be extremely ambitious and adopt the goal that we ordinarily normally wouldn’t adopt. And then really work hard putting all the pieces together to be to get real close, if not to succeed, the goal. The goal: 44,000 units of affordable housing over the next five years. So that would be January 2019 through December 2024. It would be for people who live at an income of 50 percent area median income or below. In Seattle and greater Seattle, that’s around $41,000 a year as the average median income and below. That’s a tough task. I do not think it can be achieved without Larry Gossett being one of the main leaders because he has the experience, the wisdom and the very important ability to mobilize people from all sectors of our population, whether they be small business owner, other electeds by particularly the working class and people of color toward the effort of achieving that goal.
The second reason, I think it’s very important that I stay on a King County Council has to do with public transit. King County is under the jurisdiction primarily of King County, but not totally. The bus system is run by King County Metro. Sound Transit is run by three counties — Pierce, King and Snohomish — and of the 18 board members, the King County Council and King County government appoint five. So it’s not the majority but we have a lot of influence over the direction that Sound Transit is taking, will take in the future. I’m the one that sponsored every effort that we’ve taken at the Metro bus, like lowering the average costs are riding the bus for those population goes that are most dependent upon public transit: working class and poor people. We have what now is called Orca Lift Card you have to qualify for. It’s not a hard qualification. About 130,000 to 150,000 households have qualified for Orca Lift. It simply means instead of paying $2.75 to ride a bus one way you pay at most $1.50 some of them a dollar and a quarter — they meet a little tighter criteria.
Secondly, Larry Gossett, working with the Transit Riders Union and other organizations and the agencies that serve the poor and the very poor, is a sponsor of legislation to create bus passes for the homeless and really poor to ride for free. But they have to go to social service agencies that have these bus tickets, we sell them to the anti poverty agencies for at most 10 to 20 cents on the dollar for the bus tickets and then on condition that they give them to the real poor folks that they serve for no pay, but for specific kinds of purposes doctors appointments, job interviews, new apartment to see if they get it, etc., etc. I have legislation in the public transit arena that I want to push the further make it possible for lower income people to have a car and to be able to ride a bus like get it down to $1. I think it’s feasible with me and the leadership. I don’t think anybody coming in who could possibly put together that kind of — they can articulate their request — but nobody has the experience and the contacts and community organizing skills that I have to pull everybody together to get the bus fare even lower.
Nobody has been more successful than Councilmember Larry Gossett at developing political strategies that successfully are adopted by the county and other agencies to reduce the number of adults and youth in the King County Jail. Every intervention program we’ve developed between 2004 and today I sponsored or supported: Drug Court, Mental Health Court, community corrections assistance program where people go and get evaluated for jobs and other issues, domestic violence, other issues and impacted them to successfully keep them out a gentleman given some constructive take on the twin goals of public safety, and creating second and third chances for people in jail. We started this in 2004 on the leadership of Councilmember Gossett. We had 2,800 people in jail every day in 2004. We had about 224 on average daily population jail every day in the King County Youth Center. Today we have 1,850 last Friday, men and women and adult jail that’s a 23 percent reduction. In the youth jail we have 43 — that’s as a 75 percent reduction from where it was when we started. Again, to achieve the aspirational goal that our current executive Dow Constantine has established — zero attention — there’s no way we’re going to get close if Councilmember Gossett, the leader of these efforts, is gone. I want to continue to work on that.
AB: Tell me more about the experience you bring to this position compared to somebody new coming into this position.
LG: Somebody new, they don’t already have 25 years of experience as an elected official, who has developed close ties with various community groups that are impacted by public policy that we either have to carry out or need to develop in order to make their lives more healthy. How could somebody new that just got off the bus or just returned from college be able to do the community organizing, contact and involve all the groups that have to be involved. I have relationships with Youth Undoing Institutional Racism, EPIC, I was original founder of Village of Hope. I have all eight members of the King County Council endorsing me, I’m not going to have difficult time getting tough message past these people because they’ve been working with me for years. Those things have to be cultivated. I don’t see how anybody else could do that.
AB: When Zahilay initially announced his interest in running, he and others thought you might retire. Did you consider retirement?
LG: I get asked that a lot. I considered retirement this time around. I considered retirement to be truthful with you in 2015, four years ago. But legacy and the ability to get the work done for poor people, working class people, and particularly people of color immigrants and refugees is something that — I mean I’m a member of the Four Amigos. Not Girmay — nobody has that kind of experience that I have.
The first time I met Girmay, he asked me the same question: “I hear that you’re considering retirement. And I’d like for you support me.” I said I don’t know you; I’d have to vet you. I vetted the other people that I encouraged to run both in 2015 and 2019. I was not able to get a person that’s already rooted in the community that have great potential for being really aggressive and successful serving certain classes of people that I’ve historically been real successful at serving. I had a couple of people, but they were not willing to make the strong commitment that would be necessary to run. Even though they’re open to talking to me about, it did not work out. It was getting late. So on about March of this year, I said I was gonna have to run. In one or two years, I’ll start trying to vet other people. I do not plan to run again after this last four-year term. But I did not find the right person that was electable. How can you choose somebody you don’t even know is on the scene. He came in met with me, I don’t know, March, end the February, beginning of March sometime. I didn’t know him.
AB: He initially said that he wasn’t going to run if you would, but ran anyway.
LG: That surprised me. I didn’t think he would do that. Because he told me he wasn’t gonna run, if I ran. But then I had, you know, people that do opposition research found that he had filed early on with the state Public Disclosure Commission, to be able to legally raise money. And that he had decided that he needed to run anyway, even though I hadn’t I hadn’t finally made that decision. I don’t know why he did that. He tells me because I get interviewed a lot with him, that it was so many people going run, I just decided I wanted to take the risk to get ahead of the game and actually file, although I told Councilmember Gossett I wasn’t going to do that.
AB: I wanted to ask a little bit more about criminal justice reform. You’ve done a lot of work to reduce youth and adult incarceration. This is coupled with a lot of debate about the youth jail. What did you think of the No New Youth Jail protests?
LG: In 2012, around March or April, when it was announced that there was going to be an effort to get the voters of King County to tax themselves to build what we call the Children and Family Justice Center for about $200 million because of the very sad state and the dangerous condition that the existing King County Youth Detention Center. People felt it was about time that we have new one; there was no opposition. A committee was put together in around May 2012. And had Estela Ortega, from El Centro de la Raza. She — and you can ask her this — she went out and talked to people that she thought might be against it, like Village of Hope and American Friends Service Committee and all kinds of groups, 5, 6, 7 groups, and said do you guys [have a problem] with me being the co-chair of this effort to get people to vote to put a new facility together? They all said no.
It passed by 57 percent in November of 2012. Winter of 2013, Michelle Alexander’s very impactful and profoundly insightful and important book, The New Jim Crow came out. And it was after local folks read it, I would say five or six months after, around April, May of 2013, the first concerns about building a new facility began the pop up. And then other groups joined that effort, said No New Youth Jail. All after the money had been voted for building the new facility. And the only component part of the new facility they raised concerns about what the detention center, which about one fifth of the money was going for. The other four-fifths was for your court rooms, new gym that hadn’t existed in four years constant dysfunctionality of the existing meeting rooms and daycares for families and children that never existed, any rooms for family to meet with probation officers and their lawyers, instead of having 220 cells, the executive reduced it down to 110. Etc, etc.
And then the movement began. And by the end of the end of 2013, beginning of 2014 there was a fairly significant, influential movement against building a jail at all. But the boat already taken the money had already begun, at about the amount of $20 million a year was being raised for it at that time. So it came out after the fact.
AB: If you were to go back at this point, is there anything you would have changed or anything you would have wanted to see changed about that plan?
LG: That’s a difficult question. I think that the impact that it had was that there were very — I don’t know, if the executive would have dramatically reduced the number of rooms available for you to be detained if it hadn’t been for the pressure? I’m not sure. I think you came out with 136 [rooms] rather than 110 at first. I don’t know that that would have happened. But it’s hard for me to tell you that if I knew everything I knew and now would I have specifically asked for something else to be in that outline… From the beginning, I had said that, to the extent that we had a living units for detained youth that I would want that stuff to be convertible. That would be one of the main things that I raise. Instead of in areas where you can be detained that they could be used for small, three to five youth rooms were therapeutic counseling around drugs, or small group tutoring around development education on skills, or small classes on culture enrichment, African American history. And other things. Or smaller units for mentally ill, or smaller rooms that could be used for dealing with and helping youth who have serious problem with domestic violence could take place. I raised that from the beginning, and all those kinds of things, they’re going to be in the new spaces available for that.
AB: I want to talk a little bit about housing, affordability, housing and homelessness. At a time when there’s increased hostility toward homeless people and the region’s approach to homelessness, how do you push forward? How do you get the community to move forward on some solutions given how vitriolic and hostile it has become?
LG: First of all, I don’t think that we elected officials and other people that aren’t concerned about this problem of homelessness and lack of affordability, displacement and gentrification. We’re taking this issue, serious and critical enough to deal with it. To figure out how best to deal with the issue that you raised about. You know, NIMBYism, and people being concerned about the homeless, and the poor men in their neighborhood, we have to work on that.
All I would submit to you is that I’m on the newly King County Affordable Housing Committee. And we have realtors on the committee, we have Microsoft, that put forth $500 million housing issues for the whole country. But we hope to get a part of that here. We have a pretty good committee. And people are still serious about the 44,000 units.
We have not talked very much about the resistance that appears to have been growing in recent years to figure out how to deal with that. But we just started. I’m confident that people like me won’t be afraid to raise it and put it on the table. We gotta write articles. We gotta be willing to talk to the people. But it’s a real issue because I’m going door to door now. And I’ve had some people, a minority of people said, are you running for that. See when I say district two, they don’t hear King County, they hear.. “Oh no no no no no. they ain’t doing nothing about homelessness. I don’t want to vote for you.” And I said, “Wait a minute, I’m running for King County Council,” then they’ll listen a little better. But even though I raised the point about they want these people hidden, or in jail, they don’t talk about comprehensive and deeper treatment for people who are mentally ill, drug or alcohol abusers, and very alienated extremely poor folks who’ve been couch surfing for years. They don’t think about public safety being able to be positively improved by providing treatment services, education, skill development for that class. They think too much about jail and “not in my neighborhood.” I’m not gonna tell you that’s not a serious problem. But I’m hopeful with makeup of our group and the ability of leaders like me to reach out and talk, frankly, to people about these issues that we will be able to mitigate that enough to get something done for the homeless and very poor.
AB: Skyway is unique, being unincorporated. You’re basically the only local politician representing that area. What do you think are the biggest issues facing Skyway?
LG: I introduced displacement legislation that’s gonna be implemented in unincorporated King County. Two neighborhoods first: White Center and Skyway. The centerpiece of it is just cause eviction. Another part is landlords not been able to just wake up one morning and give people 20-day notice; we want to try to get that up to 120 days. Not being able to go up on rent with their dilapidated issues surrounding the building and just raise the rent, and you ain’t fix your building. All these kind of things. Creating a trust with the aim of helping more working-class people becoming home owners, but creatively, like owning the houses collectively, rather than independently. We’re looking at HomeSight, a program that in Rainier Valley and now around Othello built a lot of housing for moderate income, to own rather than have to rent. So my displacement legislation has all these elements in.
AB: Girmay talked a lot about a public bank. What your take on that is.
LG: Rep. [Bob] Hasegawa has brought that issue for the last three years. I’ve said at meetings, anything that will help reduce the need for the county to add to regressive — if I could use that term — taxation is helpful. A People’s Bank that’s not tied to some private institutional bank has the potential of helping out to generate some money that can be used by the public entity that controls and on behalf of the public. You know, I study collective ownership, both in this country and socialism around the world, and the impact that Monopoly capitalism has on societies. Even when it’s public, they control the money that we get down to the people that that it needs. So it’s an idea that’s worth the investigation. And we already have some our business finance people looking at how and what the legal barriers are to the county setting up such a bank.