In the minutes before he would discover if his quarter-century political career on the King County Council would come to an end, Larry Gossett spread his campaign literature out on a plastic table in the church basement hosting his election-night party and chose to look at the past.
“Does this scare you?” he asked a reporter, pointing to four grainy photographs on a piece of paper.
Four police mug shots. Including his own.
Gossett, a fixture on the King County Council and a longtime area civil-rights leader, had brought clippings from his own FBI file, which he said he received in 1977. The mug shots showed a fresh-faced, 23-year-old Gossett, arrested after a sit-in at Franklin High School after the school’s decision to send two black students home for wearing their hair natural, according to Gossett, now 74.
That protest helped usher in a new era in Seattle politics. The early part of Gossett’s history — the years he was jailed for protesting, his roles with the Seattle Black Panther Party, the Black Student Union and his work with Asian, Native American and Latino leaders — was foundational to Seattle’s civil-rights movement.
But Gossett’s legendary past doesn’t seem to have moved today’s voters to reelect him. After Tuesday’s and Wednesday’s ballot counts, Gossett is trailing his opponent, 32-year-old Girmay Zahilay, by nearly 14 percentage points. Gossett would need to capture about 62% of the estimated 22,000 remaining votes to catch up to his opponent.
For Gossett’s supporters, it would be an acutely felt loss.
“He’s fought a lot against authorities that would try to keep us down,” said Vanetta Molson, a longtime friend of Gossett’s. “I don’t think (Zahilay will) do a bad job, but it’s really hard to lose Larry.”
South Seattle, once a reliable hub of political power for elected leaders of color, has seen a steady migration of black residents moving farther south due to rising housing costs and other reasons. Since 2010, the population of black residents dropped by more than a percentage point in South Seattle neighborhoods, while white people became the area’s largest racial group.
In 2011, Gossett won 98% of the vote. Two years later, he suffered a stroke, but in 2015 he won reelection handily, again with 98%.
On the eve of his reelection bid this year, Gossett said the changing makeup of the neighborhood and all that time running unchallenged may have hurt him.
“I don’t like self-criticism, but I should have been out meeting these people the last four, five years,” Gossett said. “But you’re assuming they know who you are.”
Who he is, Gossett said, is the son of sharecroppers who moved to the Seattle area from Nigton, a rural East Texas community with a racist nickname. When they got to Seattle, Gossett’s family was told they weren’t allowed to live in West Seattle neighborhoods, Gossett recalled. They were redlined in the Central Area.
As a young man, Gossett joined the Black Panthers and helped found the Black Student Union at the University of Washington. He first ran for King County Council in 1993 and held the seat, basically unopposed, for the next two decades.
Officials lauded Gossett’s contributions following Tuesday’s initial returns, even as it became clearer he might not overcome the gap.
King County Councilmember Rod Dembowski said Gossett’s work on criminal-justice reform laid the groundwork for the county’s recently adopted goal to get to zero youth detention.
“My nickname for Larry is the conscience of the council,” Dembowski said. “And I really think he is the conscience of our council and he is admired and beloved for that.”
That conscience remained constant over the years, according to his colleagues. U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Seattle, said Gossett was one of the few politicians to stand up for Muslims and Arab Americans who were being discriminated against in the aftermath of 9/11.
“He never questioned whether to do something because it was popular,” Jayapal said, “just whether it was right.”
Jayapal added that a lot of people probably didn’t know Gossett helped change the county’s namesake to Martin Luther King Jr.
Despite Gossett’s lack of campaigning in recent years, he retained the support of black community members who cited him as a mentor and local icon.
Alexes Harris, a celebrated sociologist at the University of Washington, said Gossett’s advocacy for racial justice in Seattle public schools and her time spent working on Gossett’s early campaigns in college helped shape her scholarship.
“I’ve been side by side with him for so many years and I never can think of a moment where I feel like Larry violated the principles and values that he set and advocates for,” Harris said.
Gossett, however, faced criticism for his support to replace the county’s old juvenile jail with the new Children and Family Justice Center through a voter-approved measure in 2012. Gossett has repeatedly pointed to his work on criminal-justice reform — and specifically lowering the average number of teens booked into the county’s juvenile justice facility — as a highlight of his career.
“I think that was very, very hurtful to him to have particularly young people and people of color calling him really negative names,” Harris said. “Had they known the history and had they known what he did through his career, they would be ashamed of how they disrespected him and how they treated him.”
Gossett was also critical to forming the Four Amigos, a group of civil-rights leaders that included Bob Santos, Bernie Whitebear and Roberto Maestas, who worked together for racial justice starting in the 1960s.
After Maestas, the founder of El Centro de la Raza, died in 2010, his widow, Estela Ortega, the organization’s current executive director, turned to Gossett for mentorship, she said. Ortega agreed that voters’ lack of knowledge about Gossett’s roots may have played a role in the early results.
“I’m disappointed that Larry doesn’t look like he’s going to win, but who knows,” Ortega said. “I think Larry as a civil-rights leader has much to offer, especially around unity and his experience working with people from all different walks of life. And that will be missed in the role of government.”
However it ends, Gossett is proud of his career. He’s pledged to keep working for social change, maybe teach if he ends up losing. Going forward, he may have more time to devote to his memoirs, which he started writing four years ago.
He’s on page 107.
“The life of Larry Gossett,” he mused. “People are going to say, ‘Oh, that brother was crazy.’”