skip to main content
caption: FILE: Fendalene Hegg, 28, signs her ballot on Tuesday, November 6, 2018, at the ballot drop box outside of the Seattle Public Library Beacon Hill Branch in Seattle.
Enlarge Icon
FILE: Fendalene Hegg, 28, signs her ballot on Tuesday, November 6, 2018, at the ballot drop box outside of the Seattle Public Library Beacon Hill Branch in Seattle.
Credit: KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

Seattle voters contend between political newcomer or civil rights legend

Civil rights icon versus political newcomer: That’s the choice in a King County Council race, for a seat long held by incumbent Larry Gossett.

In the August primary, his opponent Girmay Zahilay shot out ahead, with nearly 20 percent more votes.

At a voting party in Beacon Hill, a dozen friends got together with caramel popcorn, red wine and their ballots. Sam Smith has hosted this party in his home the last four years. Self described "elder millennials" bring their ballots; Smith brings the hospitality and voter guides. Together they go through each item.

Smith announced the contenders for District 2, which stretches from the U District to Rainier Valley: “We've got the incumbent Larry Gossett against the newcomer Girmay — how do you pronounce his last name?”

(It’s GRR-my ZAH-hill-eye, by the way).

Even though Zahilay doesn’t quite have the name recognition, the group here is eager for someone new.

“I would be perfectly content if either of them wins,” Smith said. “But I am excited for fresh blood in that office."

About a week before the election, Zahilay knocked on doors with a last minute campaign push in the Mount Baker neighborhood — home turf for Zahilay and Gossett. They both went to school down the street at Franklin High.

Zahilay’s parents moved here as refugees from Ethiopia. He’s now a lawyer and said he’s running for office because he wants to bring fresh ideas to the community.

“People don't run for King County Council like they do for City Council,” he said. "So many positions go uncontested for a long time. And I don't think that's healthy for a democracy.”

But the challenge is big: He’s up against a civil rights legend.

At his own event at the Garfield Community Center in the Central District, Gossett introduced himself with a quick verse: “Larry Gossett. That's my name. Serving the people is my claim to fame.”

That fame started when Gossett was a student activist with the Black Panthers. He later became part of the so called "Gang of Four" —activists of color who pushed for civil rights in the Seattle area — and very much set the stage for progressive politicians in the Northwest.

He’s served on the King County Council for a quarter century now.

He explained that he wants to stay on the council to keep working on youth and criminal justice issues.

“I want to get the youth detention population to less than 10, which to me is zero youth detention," he said.

Policy wise, these two Democratic candidates take pretty similar positions. They each want to build more low income housing and transit.

But the one key difference is they’re a generation apart. It shows in their campaign style.

Zahilay’s campaign has casual Instagram videos. Zahilay also takes a more active approach on Facebook, Twitter, Tik Tok and other online platforms.

If you look at their campaign spending via the Public Disclosure Committee, records show Gossett spends more on newspaper ads and direct mailings. Zahilay spends more in digital advertising and consulting.

Gossett concedes that his opponent had a stronger social media game in the primary.

“I'm an older cat. I didn't have a lot of experience, nor did I put very much emphasis on social media in the primary,” he said. “We changed. I don't know if that's enough to compete for votes in the younger generation but we shall see.”

Back at the voting party, host Smith said he feels like Gossett’s campaign just didn’t reach him.

“I'm not complaining that I'm not getting like a million mailers a day because we're going to get half of those. But like c'mon [Gossett]… Fight for my vote!”

But another voter pointed out that what Gossett lacks in new-ness, he makes up in endorsements: fellow councilmembers, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, the Seattle Times and even rapper Common. Gossett is a classic favorite.

He’s been fighting for a long time. She likes that he knows the ropes and has clout to get things done. For that, he’s got her vote.