In 2015, after 22 years on the Metropolitan King County Council, Larry Gossett thought about retiring. He approached two former aides and asked if they’d like to run for his seat. Both declined. So Gossett ran again and won 98% of the vote.
This year, Gossett, 74, again thought about calling it quits. He approached another younger person he admired about running. As before, the answer was “no.”
But when a younger challenger presented himself, someone who agrees with Gossett on a lot of issues and looked like a possible successor, Gossett decided he wasn’t done yet.
Now, as he seeks what he calls a “final term” on the County Council representing District 2 — which includes the University District, Capitol Hill, the Central District and Southeast Seattle — Gossett is in the toughest election of his long career.
He faces Girmay Zahilay, 32, an immigrant, product of South Seattle public housing and an Ivy League-educated lawyer.
Gossett, who’s never gotten less than 80% of the vote in a general election, got only 37% in the primary. He stresses his decades of experience on the council, and the progress the county has made on issues like youth incarceration, while Zahilay says the county needs bold leadership and a new approach to combat issues like affordability and gentrification.
Both men are graduates of Franklin High School. Both led their college’s Black Student Union. Both led nonprofits. Both hold progressive views, pushing for criminal justice reform, affordable housing and greater access to public transit.
Gossett said Zahilay approached him earlier this year, to ask for his support if he decided against running for reelection.
“I told him I couldn’t vet him quick enough to consider him,” Gossett said. The others Gossett had approached about running, a University of Washington sociologist and a civil rights lawyer, had “a wealth of experience” and were expert in local issues, he said.
“I don’t know anything related to the community that he’s an expert in,” Gossett said of his opponent.
A local civil rights icon, who co-founded the University of Washington’s Black Student Union and the local Black Panther party, Gossett says his long experience in activism and politics make him the best candidate to mobilize public support and organize diverse communities in support of policies that benefit working people.
“If you went to a doctor and you had serious health problems would you go with a person that just got out of residency, or would you go for the proven, experienced and successful doctor,” he said. “That’s a proper analogy for Girmay and I.”
Zahilay is loath to criticize Gossett. When he launched his campaign, he referenced Gossett — without naming him — saying “we stand on the shoulders of giants.”
“For me, it’s looking forward and saying, ‘these things haven’t been done yet and we have to do them,’ it’s not ‘what votes has Larry gotten wrong in the past,’ ” he said.
Zahilay says unincorporated areas of the county, Skyway in particular, have been underserved — by public transit, by government investments — and they represent a chance to better address the creeping gentrification that has engulfed most of Seattle’s historically black neighborhoods.
“Skyway needs to be treated as a last great opportunity to get right what we didn’t get right in the Central District and Columbia City, where people have been decimated and pushed out of their homes,” Zahilay said. “There’s no person in this county who owns a seat and every time a seat is open, it’s one or two or three people running on their ideas.”
First-timer vs. veteran member
Zahilay was born in Sudan, where his Ethiopian parents had fled as refugees, and moved to South Seattle when he was a toddler. He went to college at Stanford, law school at the University of Pennsylvania, and interned at the Office of White House Counsel during the Obama administration before stints at two corporate law firms where he focused on mergers and startups.
He co-founded a youth-mentoring nonprofit, currently working in four middle schools, and wants the county to establish a framework for recruiting and supervising volunteer mentors.
Amid a nearly unprecedented economic boom for the Seattle region, he says too many have been left behind.
“Many people in South Seattle, working class, black and brown people, have the same experience where you work endless hours and still don’t get anywhere,” he said. “People are losing their homes.”
He wants countywide policies to try to forestall gentrification and displacement, especially around future light-rail lines. He wants inclusionary zoning policies — where height limits get raised but a percentage of new units must be reserved for low-income tenants — as well as “no net loss” policies that require developers to replace any affordable housing units that get destroyed by new construction.
He wants King County to create a public bank, pointing to a just-passed California law that lets cities and counties set up public banks to lend money at lower interest rates for things like affordable housing and infrastructure projects.
Gossett, who’s served on the County Council for more than half of its existence, has been a civil rights fixture in the community for even longer. When he was at the UW, he helped lead a 1968 sit-in at Franklin High School, to protest disparate treatment of black students. He was jailed, but undeterred.
He later led a sit-in at the UW president’s office to push the university to recruit more poor and minority students. In one year, it led to a threefold increase in black students at the UW, a fourfold increase in Native American students and a ninefold increase in Mexican American students.
He was the executive director of the Central Area Motivation Program, a community-based anti-poverty organization, for 14 years before being elected to the County Council.
Gossett readily admits that he didn’t pay “proper attention” to gentrification in the Central District, where the black population has declined from nearly 75% in 1970 to about 15% today. But he pointed to the county’s stated goal of building or preserving 44,000 units of affordable housing in the next five years and said he was integral in adopting that goal and his experience will be crucial in achieving it.
He touted his work in helping pass ORCA Lift, offering reduced-price bus and rail fares for low-income riders, and in reducing the number of incarcerated youth in the county.
Both men want a more progressive tax system, but acknowledge that might require help from the state Legislature. Zahilay would support a head tax on large employers, although he’s uncertain if the county has the authority to levy one, while Gossett would not.
Zahilay has raised more money than anyone running for County Council this year — about $148,000 to about $121,000 for Gossett — although more than half has come from out-of-state donors, which he attributes to support from college and law school friends.
Zahilay touts endorsements from several local Democratic groups and King County state Sens. Mona Das, Joe Nguyen and Bob Hasegawa. Gossett has the endorsement of all eight of his colleagues on the County Council, County Executive Dow Constantine, Sen. Maria Cantwell and Rep. Pramila Jayapal.
Opposing views on youth jail
Both Gossett and Zahilay stress the importance of criminal justice reform and reducing youth incarceration, but they have different approaches to the issue.
One of Gossett’s few past votes that Zahilay says he disagrees with was the 2014 decision to move forward with the county’s new youth jail and justice center. Voters approved the facility in 2012 and Gossett says he merely voted to ratify voters’ decision because the current center is dilapidated and “not fit for the shelter of kids.”
Zahilay proposes repurposing the new $200 million jail and justice center, before it even opens, perhaps as a services center for homeless youth. He wants more investment in diversion programs and, for violent situations where detention is required, smaller, community facilities spread throughout the county.
“When you have a big facility it promotes all kinds of abuse,” he said. “You wouldn’t see solitary confinement in a smaller facility, you wouldn’t see open beds being filled with kids who are committing status offenses.”
Gossett points to progress the county has made in its quest for zero youth detention, dropping from a daily average of more than 100 youth incarcerated 15 years ago, to about 40 now.
“All those programs weren’t funded by anybody until King County started funding them,” Gossett said.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly described recent zoning changes made by the City of Seattle. In exchange for higher height limits in certain places, developers either must reserve a certain percentage of new units for low-income tenants or pay a fee toward affordable housing development.