Larry Gossett, a local civil-rights icon who’s served on the Metropolitan King County Council for more than half of its existence, was looking at the end of his quarter-century in elected office Tuesday night, while the other three council incumbents easily defeated their challengers Tuesday night.
Girmay Zahilay, the first serious challenger Gossett has faced in decades, led the longtime council member 57% to 43% in the District 2 race.
In the other highly contested council race, Councilmember Jeanne Kohl-Welles defeated challenger Abigail Doerr, 73% to 26% in Tuesday’s vote tally.
After results posted, Zahilay took the stage to huge cheers at a Columbia City lounge. He needed a moment to collect his emotions. “Oh my gosh,” he said.
“You can’t buy this city,” he said, noting that he’d received no money from corporate PACs.
An immigrant who bounced around public housing, he talked about growing up in poverty, when his mom sneaked him peanut butter and jelly sandwiches because he didn’t like the food at the shelter where they were staying.
“We had so little, yet we had the whole world in that room,” he said as his mom, Abebe Anagaw, came up on stage, hugged him and caressed his face. “This is her victory, y’all know that.”
Gossett, at his own subdued, candlelit event, didn’t quite concede, but wasn’t hopeful. He’d brought remnants from his activist past: his FBI file from when he was a founder of the Seattle Black Panther party and his mug shot from when he was arrested at a civil rights sit-in.
“There’s nothing for me to be ashamed of,” he said, adding that he may teach and work on his memoirs. “You’ll never see me doing consultant work for Amazon.”
The two contests were both intergenerational battles, with young challengers taking on veteran legislators and arguing not so much for radical policy shifts as for changes in emphasis.
Gossett, a longtime Central District community leader, was first elected to the County Council in 1993. Since then, he’s been reelected seven times, never getting less than 80% of the general-election vote in a district that includes the University District, Capitol Hill, Central District and Southeast Seattle.
Zahilay, 32, is less than half as old as Gossett, who is 74. Zahilay’s parents left Ethiopia as refugees in the 1980s for Sudan, where he was born before immigrating to South Seattle at age 4. An Ivy League-educated lawyer and education advocate, he raised more money than any candidate for the County Council, and about $17,000 more than Gossett.
Despite Gossett’s long tenure, Tuesday’s result was not unexpected. Zahilay won the primary election by more than 19 percentage points.
The most significant policy difference between the two concerned the county’s nearly complete youth jail and justice facility. Zahilay would like to repurpose it, preferring smaller community-based facilities, while Gossett said the new building was necessary to replace an aging, decrepit one.
In County Council District 4, Doerr, 30, a campaign professional and transit advocate, pushed for a more activist County Council, calling for ambitious legislation to cut local carbon emissions and expand transit service. Kohl-Welles, 76, countered by stressing her experience — she’s been an elected official since 1992 — and arguing that she knows how to get things done.
Both contests began nearly a year ago, with the younger candidates — Zahilay and Doerr — feeling out the older incumbents to see if they were running again. Gossett and Kohl-Welles, of course, did run for reelection.
Kohl-Welles said Tuesday that she was thrilled and shocked by the size of her victory.
“My opponent is going to go places,” she said. “She’s got incredible skills, but she didn’t know the community and I don’t think the community really knew her.”
Both council races were marked by differences in age and approach more than policy. All four candidates are progressive Democrats who pushed for more transit an affordable housing. The younger challengers were generally hesitant when asked how they’d vote differently than the incumbents, stressing instead the need for new energy and ideas to advance progressive policy.
Doerr said she was proud of her run for County Council, which generally gets less attention than City Council races, and of the issues she stressed: housing, transit and the environment.
“I also want to make sure that we are having competitive elections at every level of government,” she said.
In District 8, covering West Seattle, Burien and Vashon Island, Councilmember Joe McDermott defeated challenger Michael Robert Neher with 82% of Tuesday’s vote. Neher, who said he was motivated to run by his outrage over proposed safe-injection sites and violent street crime, did not report spending any money on his campaign.
In District 6, covering Eastside cities including Bellevue, Kirkland and Mercer Island, Councilmember Claudia Balducci defeated challenger Bill Hirt with 77% of Tuesday’s count. Hirt, a perennial candidate, said he had “no desire to win” but just wanted to bring attention to his anti-Sound Transit blog.
Staff reporters Nina Shapiro and Sydney Brownstone contributed to this report.