Problems with homelessness, housing affordability and transportation plaguing the Seattle region drew a record 55 candidates to run for seven seats on the Seattle City Council. The same problems drew only 10 candidates for the four seats on the Metropolitan King County Council.
Only two of the County Council seats even drew enough candidates — three — to necessitate an August primary.
Councilmember Joe McDermott — who represents West Seattle, Burien and Tukwila in District 8 — has also drawn two challengers: Michael Robert Neher, an engineering administrator, and Goodspaceguy (“Let’s raise the living standard in King County on Spaceship Earth,” he says in his candidate statement).
Lippman, Neher and Goodspaceguy have not reported raising or spending any money for their campaigns.
If raising money — not lots of money, but any money, even just a dollar — is an indication of running an actual campaign, only two of the four races in November look like they have the chance to be competitive: The likely matchup between Zahilay and Gossett and the matchup between Councilmember Jeanne Kohl-Welles, seeking a second term in Northwest Seattle’s District 4 after many years in the state Senate, and transit advocate and campaign veteran Abigail Doerr.
King County has a budget about twice the size of Seattle’s. A spot on the County Council pays about $151,000 a year, about $30,000 more than a spot on the City Council. So how come everyone wants to be in charge of the city and so few want to be in charge of the county?
“County government is often overlooked, it has a lower profile,” said Christian Sinderman, a longtime Seattle-area political consultant, who’s working with Doerr’s campaign and has worked on other county campaigns in the past. “The city is the attention this year, because of some of the higher profile issues about homelessness and the way the politics of City Council have played out.”
And it’s not just this year. Three of the five incumbent council members who ran in 2017 drew no opponents, and the other two won easily. In 2015, the two incumbents both won more than 98% of the vote, and two other candidates won easily. You have to go back to 2011 to find a County Council race that was even modestly close (decided by less than 10 percentage points).
This year, while the August primaries may be perfunctory affairs, Zahilay and Doerr both hope to knock off council members who are all-but institutions in the region. Kohl-Welles has served in public office since 1992 and Gossett has served on the County Council since 1993, representing District 2, which includes the University District, Capitol Hill, Central District and Southeast Seattle.
Zahilay, 32, emigrated with his parents from Sudan at age 4 and grew up in South Seattle. He went to Stanford and the University of Pennsylvania Law School, and co-founded Rising Leaders, a national mentoring nonprofit.
He said he wants to better represent unincorporated parts of his district, like Skyway, and bring new voices and new ideas to the council.
“We have this big government that has its hands on some of the most important things — criminal justice reform, affordable housing, public transportation — and yet it just doesn’t attract the same attention,” Zahilay said. “It is honestly a big motivator for me to run at the county level.”
He’s raised more than $110,000, more than any other candidate in the primaries, with about two-thirds of it coming from out-of-state. He attributes the out-of-state money to friends from college and law school and said he’s not taking money from corporate PACs or private developers.
Gossett, 74, was a civil rights activist in the ’60s and ’70s, active in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and a co-founder of the University of Washington’s Black Student Union. He ran a Central District community program before being elected to the council.
Gossett, who has raised nearly $80,000, cited his lengthy experience as a legislator, working for “the basic rights of working people, poor people, people of color.”
Zahilay cites Gossett’s vote to move forward with a new youth jail and services center as an area of disagreement.
But, Gossett said, they don’t disagree on much.
“My opponent raises many of the same issues I have, he just has no experience working on them,” Gossett said. “He may or may not be able to do it, I don’t know.”