When Girmay Zahilay launched his campaign for Metropolitan King County Council earlier this year, he ended his speech by saying he didn’t want to start a movement, he just wanted to build on the legacy of those who came before.

He praised nursing assistants and taxi drivers who work the night shift, and community leaders who’ve built affordable housing for seniors.

“I’ve been inspired by the civil-rights heroes who, in 1968, marched into Franklin High School to protest discrimination and did a sit-in, so that 40 years later someone like me could graduate from Franklin,” said Zahilay, 32, an immigrant who grew up in public housing. “We stand on the shoulders of giants.”

Zahilay didn’t name any of those civil-rights heroes, and the young crowd at the Ethiopian Community Center in Seattle didn’t seem to react.

But one of the men who was arrested at that sit-in, one of the “giants” who led a pivotal moment in Seattle’s civil-rights history, was Larry Gossett — the same Larry Gossett whose civil-rights activism led him to a spot on the King County Council for a quarter-century and who Zahilay hopes to unseat this year.

Zahilay leads Gossett 55% to 38% in a primary election foreshadowing what will be the toughest campaign of Gossett’s long career. In eight general elections, Gossett has never received less than 80% of the vote, representing a district that includes the University District, Capitol Hill, the Central District and Southeast Seattle.

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It’s an unusual move: Announcing a run for office while in the same breath lauding your opponent as an inspiration.

In an interview this week, Zahilay, an attorney, said that when he announced his campaign in February, he was anticipating that Gossett, 74, wouldn’t run for reelection.

King County Councilmember Larry Gossett gives closing remarks at the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Day rally at Garfield High School in 2016. Gossett points to his legislative achievements in arguing for another term on the council. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)
King County Councilmember Larry Gossett gives closing remarks at the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Day rally at Garfield High School in 2016. Gossett points to his legislative achievements in arguing for another term on the council. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)

Gossett, who was jailed for the Franklin High protest and co-founded the University of Washington’s Black Student Union, “paved the way for somebody like me to run for office,” Zahilay said.

“I completely dispute the notion that if you run for the same seat as someone, you disparage their record or think they’re doing a bad job,” he said. “But one thing myself and all the voters are saying is that the status quo is not going to get the job done moving forward.”

“The failure and force of public policy”

Zahilay (whose first name is pronounced gir-my, with a hard g) says his life experience led him to run for public office. His parents left Ethiopia as refugees in the 1980s for Sudan, where Zahilay was born. They immigrated to South Seattle, his mom working double shifts as a nursing assistant.

While Gossett was transitioning from a Central District community leader to a progressive mainstay on the County Council, Zahilay’s family was moving, a lot.

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“From Rainier to Holly Park to the International District, back to Holly Park, then to Rainier again, and finally we moved to this beautiful, special place called Skyway,” Zahilay said.

The moment I realized that public policy could be used to create failures, I also realized that it could be used to create hope.”Girmay Zahilay

He left for college at Stanford, where he would major in biology and serve as president of the Black Student Union, 40-some years after Gossett co-founded the same organization at the UW.

He thought his family had settled in Skyway. But when he returned for winter break, he found they were moving again. His basketball posters had been taken off the wall, Pokémon cards packed up.

“I remember feeling overwhelmed to the point where I stepped back against the wall and I like slid back and slid to the ground and I remember thinking, we keep moving, we keep moving,” he said. “And I didn’t really understand why we were moving.”

He wouldn’t understand for a few more years, he said, until he spent his first year after college working on an anti-poverty fellowship that tried to increase access to healthy food in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn.

Part of the job was going door to door, talking with people about what they eat and where they get their food.

One day, Zahilay introduced himself to an older woman sitting on her stoop. She asked him to get her a soda, and then they struck up a conversation.

“It was the most moving conversation that I’ve ever had in my life,” he said. Like him, the woman had moved, a lot. But, unlike him, “she knew the reasons why she had moved.”

She described unfair evictions. Skyrocketing rents. Unsanitary apartments. She moved to be closer to better schools.

“In that moment, I realized that, oh my goodness, public policy had been the reason. The failure and force of public policy had played a major part in why people move around so much,” he said. “I saw the moment that my family had come from Ethiopia to Sudan and the policies that led them to become refugees.

“I saw us living in Skyway, far away from public transportation,” he continued. “And so the moment I realized that public policy could be used to create failures, I also realized that it could be used to create hope.”

Aileen Carr, now the director of economic security at Georgetown Law School’s Center on Poverty and Inequality, was Zahilay’s supervisor during his yearlong fellowship. She calls him “incredibly brilliant” but also humble, the kind of person who “would never stand up from the table without making sure the coffee cups were cleared.”

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“He listened to people and saw his job as helping to get the solutions that people actually wanted,” Carr said. “He understands that problems in families and communities need policy solutions, and policymakers need to come from those communities.”

“A new era”

Zahilay next worked for a Washington, D.C.,-based anti-poverty organization before going to the University of Pennsylvania Law School, and he interned at the Office of White House Counsel during the Obama administration.

After law school, Zahilay worked at two large corporate-law firms, first Skadden Arps, in New York, and then Perkins Coie, in Seattle, focusing on mergers and helping startups get off the ground. Along the way, he co-founded a nonprofit, Rising Leaders, that tries to connect underserved middle school kids with mentors. It currently works in two Seattle middle schools and one school each in New York and D.C.

As Gossett has pointed out, he and Zahilay agree on a lot.

“I think it’s youthfulness and amount of time in office” that distinguishes the two men, Gossett said. “Because public transportation, affordable housing, incarceration rates of people of color and poor people are all issues that he and I have talked about the most.”

Gossett points to his past legislative achievements, such as helping create ORCA Lift, which provides lower-priced transit fares to people with low incomes, and reducing the number of youth held in detention.

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Zahilay says he would have opposed the new youth jail and justice center, which Gossett supported. He says he’d bring more focus to unincorporated communities, like Skyway, that he says have been dismissed. And he says the county should create a public bank, which it could use to raise revenue for social good such as rent subsidies and low-interest loans to small businesses.

There is also, undoubtedly, a generational divide between the two candidates.

When the initial primary election returns came in Tuesday night, Gossett pointed to age discrimination as a reason for his poor showing. At the same time, Zahilay was joyously dancing and singing along to the Backstreet Boys at his own election-night party.

And during that campaign kickoff speech, when he praised Gossett without naming him, Zahilay paused during a section about the influence of money in politics. He smiled, started to laugh and briefly lost his train of thought. “I can’t look at my mom,” he said, cracking up. “Don’t make eye contact with me.”

But Zahilay’s youth, his energy, his perspective, is part of his pitch.

“We’ve entered a new era of challenges and opportunities and I think we need a fresh approach,” Zahilay said. “I don’t believe that doing things the same way we have is enough.”

Staff reporter Sydney Brownstone contributed to this report.