by Lauryn Bray
On Jan. 21, King County Councilmember Girmay Zahilay announced the launch of his reelection campaign at Washington Hall. Joined by other County and City elected officials, community members and organizers, as well as news and media outlets, Zahilay recounted some of his successes over the past few years and tearfully explained there is still more work to be done.
Over 100 people gathered on a rainy Sunday to support Zahilay at his reelection kickoff rally. Before passing the mic to the guest speakers, Commissioner Toshiko Grace Hasegawa began the ceremony with a land acknowledgment and spoke briefly to the audience about the importance of voting to keep People of Color in office.
“We know — as we’ve been taught by our aunties and our uncles, who demonstrated what it is to use collective action and a unified voice to assert political power — that when one of our own steps forward to lead, then we rally behind them to support them,” said Hasegawa at Washington Hall.
Zahilay was elected in 2019 after defeating Larry Gossett, who sat on the Council representing District 2 from 2006 to 2020. Before that, Gossett served from 1994 to 2006 as the councilmember for District 10. Zahilay replaced Gossett as the only Black member on the King County Council. Zahilay, at just 35 years old, is also the youngest member on the King County Council.
Zahilay entered office during a time of crisis. Just three months after Zahilay was sworn in on Jan. 8, 2020, former President Donald Trump declared COVID-19 a national emergency.
During Zahilay’s time in office, he has co-created an equitable development initiative to prevent displacement while also supporting development; passed legislation ensuring that King County provides indoor options for avoiding extreme weather conditions; and secured $5 million for the provision of youth mental health services, including school-based services, mental health first aid, and suicide prevention. As of Jan. 31, 2023, legislation Zahilay proposed for the building of five crisis care centers has passed, and access to lifesaving care for mental illness and substance use disorders will be available across King County.
“Councilmember Girmay has always been transparent, consistent, and reliable. He’s always used his platform to break down government processes and bring people along with him, holding in-depth budget town halls, monthly Skyway meetings, visiting classrooms, and even adjacent to this, launching the Build the Bench initiative. [Zahilay is consistently] creating additional pathways for more people to become more civically engaged,” explained Ryan Quigtar, executive director of Renton Innovation Zone Partnership. “Personally, it’s been a huge motivation to see Girmay take a stand on so many fronts and fight for a better future for all of us.”
Zahilay was born in Sudan to refugee parents who had escaped Tigray in the midst of the Ethiopian Civil War (Sept. 12, 1974, to May 28, 1991). When he was just 3 years old, his family relocated to the Rainier Valley. As a child, Zahilay moved between homeless shelters and public housing, and watched his mother work double shifts to support the family. At Washington Hall, Zahilay’s mother cried as community organizer Ayan Musse and the audience applauded her for the sacrifices she made for her children.
Claudia Balducci, King County councilmember for District 6 and former council chair, also spoke on Zahilay’s behalf. She stated, “Councilmember Girmay is just over three years into his first term as a King County councilmember, and he has been one of the most effective local and regional elected officials you can imagine in such a short time.”
Zahilay was the last person to speak, and he spent the first five minutes expressing gratitude for everyone in attendance.
“Our first year in office, in all the chaos and all the crisis, we learned our most valuable lessons: Engagement is the enemy of apathy, grassroots connection is the antidote to cynicism, relationships with the most marginalized will guide us to the best solutions, the people closest to the pain have to be closest to the policy,” explained Zahilay.
Zahilay continued to elaborate on the importance of grassroots connections by telling the story of what inspired him to advocate for the crisis care centers his office is currently working toward.
“Some of you might know Tanya Nguyễn, who works at ChuMinh Tofu. We were there in Little Saigon speaking to people on the street and the restaurant owners who have authentic relationships and are working with and feeding their neighbors who are in crisis. I was talking to Tanya, the owner of this restaurant, and she looked out the window and pointed her finger at a man who was obviously in crisis and said, ‘Girmay, I want us to treat that man out there as if he were my own brother,’” recounted Zahilay as his voice started to break. After a minute of silence, Zahilay fought through tears to continue to explain why these centers are long overdue.
“My friends, we have so many big challenges coming up before us in these next few years,” said Zahilay. “Our planet is burning, the behavioral health crisis is raging, people are less and less able to afford their homes, people are being pushed out onto the streets and pushed out into different cities and neighborhoods through displacement, and just like so many of the generations before us, we’re going to have to make a choice. Are we going to listen to the people who are the most impacted, who have the least access to make their voice heard? Are we going to uplift their voices? Are we going to advance their ideas as the solutions? That is the choice before us.”
Learn more about Councilmember Girmay Zahilay’s reelection campaign by visiting his website.
Lauryn Bray is a writer and reporter for the South Seattle Emerald. She has a degree in English with a concentration in creative writing from CUNY Hunter College. She is from Sacramento, California, and has been living in King County since June 2022.
📸 Featured Image: King County Councilmember Girmay Zahilay speaks at a Skyway ceremony with elected officials and community leaders to mark the launch of the expansion of the Via to Transit on-demand ride service. (Photo: Thomas Hawthorne, courtesy of King County Metro)
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