REDMOND — While Varisha Khan and her team were canvassing to tell residents about her candidacy for the Redmond City Council, someone called the police on one of her team members, who is black. The caller called him “suspicious.”
“It’s unfortunate that he faced that bias and someone was fearful, even though he was doing all the right things,” Khan said. “That goes to a much deeper level of the tough conversations we need to have in Redmond.”
She plans to have those tough conversations in her new role as a Redmond City Council member. After a month of flip-flopping results and a machine recount, Friday delivered the official results: Khan beat three-term incumbent Hank Myers.
She is one of the first Muslim women to ever be elected to local office in Washington, according to the state’s Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-Washington). In Franklin County, Zahra Roach won a seat on the Pasco City Council.
“Everyone we talked to and all research pointed to them being the first Muslim women, which is kind of shocking to hear in 2019,” CAIR-Washington spokeswoman Jessica Schreindl said. “It shows Washington is a great state, but in a lot of ways we have a lot of work to do in terms of representation.”
Khan, a former political-action-committee director for OneAmerica Votes, will represent a city of 67,600 residents that’s seen rapid growth and demographic shifts: about half are people of color and 40% are immigrants. At 24, she’ll be the youngest member of the City Council. She’s a renter in a city where the median lease for a one-bedroom apartment is $1,800 and the median price for a house is $840,000.
“To have a representative government in the city means so much for our entire community right now,” Khan said. “Redmond is a growing city, and it’s finally time that we have those voices in the room and at the table and be included in policymaking.”
Khan grew up on the Eastside. Her father worked as a Microsoft software engineer and her mother was active in her schools’ PTA. She graduated from the University of Washington with a degree in journalism and political science in 2017.
She started her political involvement while attending UW. She was a founding director of the Middle Eastern Student Commission, which was created in response to the murders of three University of North Carolina students who were Middle Eastern. She was a Washington delegate at the 2016 Democratic National Convention, where she voted for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, and a Democratic presidential elector for the 1st Congressional District, casting a vote for Hillary Clinton.
She met with local leaders during the time she considered running, including Councilmember Angela Birney, who will start her term as mayor next month. Birney said came away impressed with Khan’s visions for the city.
“She’s smart, thoughtful, and understands Redmond from living in the area growing up, and also from having a younger perspective on what people entering the workforce need to thrive in our region,” Birney said. “I think she’s going to do an amazing job.”
Khan felt the City Council would benefit from someone with her perspective, a young professional who lived in Redmond, left and returned.
On the campaign trail, residents would sometimes ask her ignorant questions — “Will you bring Sharia law to Redmond?” — that she would correct, but she felt welcomed at nearly every door. And some discouraged her from entering the race. She was too young, she was told, she wouldn’t be received well because she wears a hijab, she couldn’t win against a longtime incumbent.
The results on Election Night weren’t exactly reassuring, with Myers leading with 55%. But Khan started gaining a lead a few days later.
When results were certified Nov. 26, Khan was leading by 66 votes, triggering an automatic machine recount. If she had received one additional vote, she would have been declared the winner at that point.
“This really reiterates that every vote counts,” she said. “The community is learning a lesson, that one vote does make the difference.”
Myers conceded the race before the recount, saying that he thought the results wouldn’t change, based on his experience as a poll director.
“I look at campaigns as job interviews, and more people wanted to hire her than people who wanted to hire me,” he said.
Khan will be one of three new faces on the City Council. Jessica Forsythe beat incumbent Hank Margeson, and Vanessa Kritzer will take the seat vacated by Birney. Incumbent David Carson also won reelection. They’ll join Councilmembers Jeralee Anderson, Steve Fields and Tanika Padhye. There will be five women on the council, the highest representation in recent memory, according to Birney, who said she’s confident in Khan’s ability to serve.
“It’s a lot of weight on her,” Birney said. “But I do have faith that she will represent all of Redmond well. She’s going to be a wonderful addition to our council.”