The usually genteel Metropolitan King County Council, where members are loath to criticize each other, erupted on Wednesday over a political mailer from Councilmember Kathy Lambert that a majority of her colleagues denounced as racist.
Lambert, a 20-year incumbent, faces a difficult reelection challenge this year in District 3 representing northeast King County, after rarely drawing serious opponents over the last two decades.
Lambert won the August primary, but with only 40% of the vote. In the general election, she faces Sarah Perry, a former executive at Seattle University and other local nonprofits, who got 36% of the August vote.
County Council races are technically nonpartisan, but Perry and the third-place finisher, Joe Cohen, are Democrats, while Lambert has previously held office as a Republican. Combined, the two Democrats got nearly 60% of the primary vote, pointing to a clear path forward for Perry.
Lambert’s new mailer portrays Perry as a marionette and calls her a “socialist puppet.” Holding the puppet strings are Councilmember Girmay Zahilay, who’s joined by Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant, Vice President Kamala Harris and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. Zahilay, Sawant and Harris are all people of color; Sanders is white and Jewish. Lambert is white.
Zahilay has endorsed Perry, as have at least three other members of the County Council. But Zahilay, the only person of color on the County Council, is the only one pictured or mentioned on the mailer.
Zahilay said he first saw the mailer Tuesday night and assumed it was the work of an outside group. He said he texted Lambert and asked her to condemn it. Later, when he learned it was directly from Lambert’s campaign, he said he was “livid” and told her it was offensive and inappropriate.
“I wonder why she singled out and used her only Black colleague’s face for fear mongering on the East Side,” Zahilay wrote, in response to the mailer.
Zahilay wrote that he was just one of six council members who have endorsed Perry, yet “it’s only my face in a big red bow tie and my name in red boogie man letters.”
He said the pinstriped suit and red bow tie he’s shown wearing in the mailer were both edited onto a photo of him.
He added that he is not, as the mailer alleges, a socialist.
“Painting the Black elected official with a foreign-sounding name as an enemy to suburban and rural values is nothing new,” Zahilay wrote. “In my 2 years on the Council the number of racist and xenophobic messages, and even threats, I get weekly has been alarming. It’s sad that my own colleague would fuel these attacks for cheap political points in a race that I’m not even in.”
Lambert declined an interview request.
In an emailed statement she said: “Girmay is the only socialist on the county council and Sarah has chosen to campaign with him. They share policies that will bring more homelessness and crime to the Eastside. Sarah is the person campaigning with a socialist. They know the voters don’t want socialism on the eastside which is why they are making these outrageous statements.”
Statewide and Eastside Republicans have long tried to tie Democrats to Seattle politics, warning of radical policies and chaos in the streets. But the imagery in Lambert’s mailer, referencing an antisemitic “puppet master” trope about secret control of wealth and power that goes back centuries, struck many as egregious.
Perry called the mailer “horrifying.”
“This racist, antisemitic sexism, it has no place here,” she said. “That hyperpartisan tone is not in keeping with our Eastside values, it is a national Trump kind of thing.”
All six Democratic members of the County Council issued a joint statement calling on Lambert to apologize.
“Put simply, this is a racist piece of political mail. It has no place in any public or private discourse here in King County. Planning, authorizing and mailing a communication like this betrays ignorance at best, deep seated racism at worst,” Councilmembers Claudia Balducci, Rod Dembowski, Jeanne Kohl-Welles, Joe McDermott, Dave Upthegrove and Zahilay wrote in the statement.
“It demonstrates disrespect for the fundamental duty that the residents of King County give to all of their elected representatives – the duty to respect and serve everyone who resides in King County, regardless of race or ethnicity,” they wrote.
County Executive Dow Constantine wrote, “This type of hyper partisan, dog whistle attack has no place in a County that is welcoming to all.”