I’ve rented in King County’s 2nd District for the majority of my 12 years in Seattle, but it took me nearly a decade to learn who represented me on the King County Council. It’s not that I went searching for this information and couldn’t find it, more that I didn’t realize there was a King County Council. I remembered it every four years, during election season, and swiftly forgot.
This changed during the pandemic, when I began receiving informative, aesthetically sound mailers – both physical and digital – from Girmay Zahilay, newly elected (in 2019) District 2 Councilmember. It’s not that I’m politically indifferent. I knew all about my city councilmembers, as well as my state- and national-level representatives. The KCC simply wasn’t on my radar.
These new campaign appeals caught my eye, probably because Zahilay is only 35 – about my age – and boasts a sort of powerhouse resume (Stanford, UPenn Law, Obama White House, Manhattan legal firms) rarely seen in Northwest governance. The son of Ethiopian refugees, Zahilay was raised largely in South Seattle’s public housing system. When he appeared as a candidate, he seemed a refreshing irregularity.
I was initially interested in Zahilay’s decision to jump into politics at the unripe age of 31. Despite an upswelling of Millennial political energy, much of my generation’s enthusiasm can feel squandered or misdirected. In Zahilay, I saw someone who’d focused his willpower into something concrete. Below is my interview with this rising political star, edited for brevity and clarity.
Olson: So you’re at Stanford, then UPenn, and finally in Manhattan. Were you envisioning a return to Seattle that whole time? Was a political career on your mind at all?
Zahilay: It was, in terms of selecting a career in public service. The internal driving force has been there my whole life because of how I grew up. The thing that gives me purpose is seeing how people in my community continue to work and work and work — graveyard shifts, 16-hour days and in some cases seven-day weeks — yet they can’t afford to exist. I see so many people, including my family, getting displaced and pushed out, pushed into homelessness, self-medication, our criminal legal system. That’s the thing I’ve been carrying with me all my life.
My senior year in college I made a pivot away from being a pre-med student. I said, what do I actually want to do? I ended up applying to this anti-poverty fellowship program and spent a year in Washington, DC, and that was my first time thinking about policy and law. I got a chance to intern in the Obama White House, translating grassroots energy into concrete federal legislation. By the time I started at a law firm, after graduation, I was set on doing public service of some sort. I didn’t know exactly what it would look like.
Olson: So then you moved back to Seattle in 2017 and got a job at legal firm Perkins Coie. Did that serve as a foothold to help you get reestablished here?
Zahilay: When I was in New York I’d started this nonprofit called Rising Leaders for underserved youth that grew up like I did – I was first-generation, low-income. In New York, I saw things in Seattle that kept pulling me back. People I grew up with being shot. My mom getting injured at her minimum wage and labor-intensive work. So that was another thing, needing to take care of my family.
There was also this idea that if I wanted to do public service in an elected capacity one day, I wanted to do it in a place where I had community. I came back to Seattle with the intention of expanding my nonprofit. When I got back I spent probably four months without a job, just focusing on Rising Leaders and also going to different political events — King County Young Democrats, Seventh District Democrat Organizations — just to get my foot in the door. But I found that very, very difficult.
Olson: As a young person in Seattle – I won’t presume to speak for all of us – I personally intuit so many barriers to affecting governance. Our representation seems old and established. When you tried to get your foot in the door, how did your age affect you? How did you get past that hurdle?
Zahilay: Because I’m a Millennial, I have this false expectation that progress happens really fast. Politics works through relationship building, and at first I didn’t have a relationship with the political machinery. In terms of precinct-committee officers, local elected officials, endorsements, I didn’t have that kind of connection. I got to these meetings and nobody knew who I was. So they’re like, who are you? What are you trying to do?
Olson: You said you were four months here before starting that new job. Did you keep going to political meetings even after starting at Perkins Coie?
I was super discouraged. I actually paused for about a year and focused on my nonprofit. I went back to a law firm that I knew was very good on public service issues. They have lots of alumni who are elected officials, so I thought it would be a good place for me to continue my legal education and maybe build relationships.
Olson: Did the work there end up helping you make connections?
Zahilay: Indirectly, yes. I was doing startup companies and mergers and acquisitions. But while I was at Perkins, they pay for you to do this program that brings together young professionals from around the region. And when I was doing that, I walked up to a presenter after her talk and said, Hey, I have this nonprofit mentoring program that I’ve started, I would love to talk to you about it. So we start talking about that, and how I could serve people in a more scalable way, and she said, my son works at a political consulting firm, you should have coffee with him. And whereas it took a year and a half to do all this work myself, and I got nowhere, one 30-minute coffee gave me more information than I could have ever hoped for. That consultant, Michael Fertakis, wound up representing me in my county council race.
Olson: Was he the one who had his eye on this race, and on [incumbent] Larry Gossett’s seat in particular?
Zahilay: I told Michael that the issue I care about most is displacement, the idea that all of these communities are being pushed out of Seattle. And he said, well, that means you wouldn’t want to be a Seattle City Council member because their jurisdiction is at the boundary lines of Seattle. You should probably think about King County because they focus on regional issues. He also said, everybody believes that Councilmember Gossett will be retiring at the end of this year. And everyone I talked to confirmed. They thought he was looking for his successor. That’s when I started thinking about that race.
Olson: But you wound up running against him. Right?
Zahilay: Yea. Based on talking to Larry, he never specifically told me he was leaving. He hinted at it. And I knew through the grapevine that he was talking to at least two candidates that he was trying to tap to run that year. So I thought, okay, he doesn’t know me very well so he’s not going to tap me to be his replacement. But I’m not going to stay out of a race just because I’m not the handpicked successor. So I announced my candidacy started raising money, thinking he was going to retire. And then a month into my race, I read in the newspaper that he was running again. That was devastating.
If I knew that Larry was going to stay in the race, there’s zero chance that I would have initiated my campaign. It would have been foolish for me, as a political newcomer with no name recognition, to think that I could win that race. So it’s not a matter of oh, I was so confident. It was a series of misunderstandings.
Olson: But it must have been a huge step, regardless, getting into the race.
Zahilay: It was, yeah. I had to move into my mom’s apartment, sleep on the couch for a year because I was making no income. Student loan debt and all that. It was a difficult year, financially, socially. And then just personally, going from a private resident of Seattle to a public figure is a jarring experience. It’s not some gradual process where you become a public person. It’s a one day, one moment transition. You’re not a candidate, and then you file and announce your campaign, and suddenly you’re a public figure. That opens up another set of challenges.
Olson: Did you find yourself, I don’t want to say acting differently, because that would be too simple, but what sort of internal shift occurred? Did you feel a lot of pressure? Were you thinking about how you interacted with people in a new way?
Zahilay: You really have to ground yourself in the things that you believe, the people who know you best. Suddenly people are looking at you not as a human being but as a politician. And that means they’re taking your name and likeness and dragging you all over the internet. People are now empowered to be rude and condescending to you, because you’re not a person, you’re a politician. So that took a lot of adjusting and self-reflection. It was an exercise every single week, writing down the reasons why I’m running, hanging out with my friends who are not in politics, getting affirmation from my family members and loved ones.
Olson: And do you still keep that on your calendar? Has it gotten easier over time?
Zahilay: I still do those things. But I’m a seasoned vet. So now I have way more tools for separating those parts of my life.
Olson: You’ve built your whole career on public service. But for the everyday Seattleite, young people living in the city and seeing all the issues we’re dealing with — behavioral health problems, lack of affordable housing — do you have any recommendations for folks looking to lend a hand?
Zahilay: I would recommend asking yourself, what truly brings you joy and excitement to do on a day to day basis? Because I think a lot of unhappiness comes from when we do things based on third-party expectations. You know, this is what my peers expect me to do. This is what will give me social status. This is what my parents or family members expect me to do. And then we end up doing things that don’t bring us joy and purpose.
So instead of saying, the main way that I should help is to get involved in politics, ask yourself what is my gift, what is the thing that brings me joy, excitement, purpose, and then use that thing to do good. Because you can do good as a journalist, you can do good as an artist, a doctor, lawyer, engineer, anything you can think of. But you will be your most effective if you’re doing the thing that brings you joy, purpose, and excitement.
Olson: Great answer. Now I want to ask about being the youngest voice and the only black voice on the King County Council. I’m sure that hasn’t been easy. Do you think coming from Stanford, UPenn, and top law firms prepared you for it?
Zahilay: No, not at all. [Laughter.] I don’t think there’s anything that can prepare you for this job until you actually do it. The scope of work is so broad, the pressure is so great. I don’t know if something like a top school or top law firm is going to prepare you for that. The things that have prepared me best are not what I thought. I was involved in a lot of student groups on campus, and that helps because a lot of my job is organizing, getting the right people to the right place at the right time. That’s definitely not something any of my degrees taught me to do. Something else is just an innate ability to talk to people and show compassion. If you’re not able to have that kind of calmness to you, this job will be very hard.
Olson: Has it become easier as you become more accustomed to it?
Zahilay: The longer you stay in government, the more you understand the constraints. Whereas when you first started you kind of just come in and want to break everything and run with bold ideas. So I definitely see myself becoming slower, more methodical, checking a bunch of boxes. I think that’s a good thing. But to an outside observer, it can feel like you’re kind of melting into the machine rather than being an outside agitator.
Olson: Right. Having worked in civil engineering, I know that when you’re around legislation, things can move slowly. And that’s got to be totally different from what you were seeing at private law practices. How have you been able to wrap your mind around the speed at which your job is able to happen?
Zahilay: I’ve actually been very pleasantly surprised, because my team and I have been able to make some big things happen in a relatively short amount of time. When I think about the transformation of a neighborhood like Skyway, our ability to get tens of millions of dollars invested in them in such a short period, when I think about this Behavioral Health Crisis Levy that my team and I were able to collaborate with Executive Dow Constantine on, when I go through the list I’m actually surprised by how much we’ve been able to get done. And I think that’s because we’ve been able to tie the political momentum of our society to the specific legislation that we’re working on.
One distinction I would like to make for your readers is that a lot of people look at the pace of change at the federal government and feel discouraged. They think that’s the pace of all levels of government. But that’s not true. So if people are trying to make change, I would tell them, it’s much more possible at the local level to create change than dealing with Congress, which has all these barriers. At the local level, you know, if you get five council members to agree on something, then things can happen pretty quickly.
Olson: A last question. In 2019 you made the decision to run, and as you said, it was maybe a lucky accident. Compare that to the Hometown Heroes Luncheon you put on the other day. There were almost a thousand attendees, Macklemore’s giving the keynote address, and you’re awarding some really deserving members of your district for their own public service. Do you turn around and say, wow, that happened incredibly fast? And does that make it harder or easier to look to the future?
Zahilay: I want to pinch myself because it’s absolutely a dream come true. To go from feeling in 2019 like an isolated outsider, to seeing that room full of 900 supporters coming together, it feels like a new way of doing things, centered around community rather than being a politician. That makes me hopeful.
Thanks for this — I’ve been very impressed with his time in the council.
Thanks for this, Mr. Olson. As an elderly central Seattle native, it has been delightful for me to have encountered Mr. Zahilay informally several times in recent years.
As he has done, it now seems essential for prepared young people to take up public service in our cities and region.
Back in the 1950s, the Seattle area was mired in corruption, led by elderly electeds and, sadly, served by elderly journalists. A vicious police corruption system was then “tolerated” by King County prosecutor Charles O. Carroll, with the complicity of the Seattle Times. Many in the media saw this as merely a source of snickers and jokes.
But in 1956, Seattle voters tossed out the “tolerance (of crime and police extortion) policy” mayor, Alan Pomeroy, electing instead a 35-year-old reforming lawyer named Gordon Clinton.
On his watch, Clinton made a difference on many fronts beyond fighting corruption, including civil rights outreach, regional cooperation (METRO) and professional urban planning and development (including the City-State-Federal Century 21 World’s Fair and its legacy, the Seattle Center). Alas, in 1964, entrenched forces pressured Clinton to bow out, when the tolerance gang in the police department, media and King County government decided to support 63-year-old Dorm Braman, Seattle City Council finance committee chair, who also defended racial segregation by opposing the Open Housing Ordinance backed by Wing Luke, et al. Seattle’s population and economic decline followed, not to recover for more than two decades.
As was true seven decades ago, well-prepared young people willing to take risks to assume public leadership and work for civic betterment are sorely needed in our world and region.
Great piece. Nice exposure for local government. “Five votes makes policy” is what Councilmember Sam Smith and all the others used to say.