For King County Councilmember Girmay Zahilay, the last four years have been a whirlwind. Having been elected in November 2019, most of his first term was dominated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Many residents of King County District 2, which includes Southeast Seattle, Capitol Hill and Skyway, were hit particularly badly. During this time, the ambitious Zahilay stepped up his presence in his new role, engaging with constituents on social media platforms like TikTok and Instagram while also channeling the social justice principles of his predecessor, civil rights legend Larry Gossett.
Although Zahilay is running unopposed — ensuring that his reelection is virtually guaranteed — Real Change interviewed all the candidates for King County Council to inform our readers about where their elected officials stand on key issues.
Zahilay has spearheaded several crucial progressive policy priorities like proposing legislation to raise the minimum wage in unincorporated King County, introducing a guaranteed basic income pilot in Skyway and advancing the Crisis Care Levy that added new funding for behavioral health care. His presence on the King County Council has brought new attention to the county and many of the policy areas it administers, including public health and transportation.
Some of Seattle’s political class have begun to speculate whether Zahilay is eyeing higher office in the future. However, being ever the diplomat, Zahilay has remained mum about the future of his political career for now. Instead, Zahilay says that he is focused on delivering for his constituents. In a video call, Zahilay shared with Real Change his priorities if reelected.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Real Change: What motivated you to run for King County Council?
Girmay Zahilay: I think [it’s] the way that I grew up in South Seattle and Skyway, being low income, growing up with a single parent. And how all the forces around us pushed us to be housing unstable [and] pushed my mom to have to work two or three jobs at a time. Seeing how many young people were not being engaged, felt disconnected, didn’t have community centers [or] after-school activities and how that led them to go down a not-so-great path. So I just wanted to be part of the solution for my hometown [to] develop regional solutions to all of the regional problems that we’re seeing.
If Dow Constantine were to vacate his seat, would you have any interest in the King County Executive role?
It’s something, along with many other options, that I’ve considered. But I don’t have any concrete plans right now because you never know when seats are going to open up, whether that’s at the federal, state or county level.
In your opinion, what are the biggest issues that the county is facing right now?
Affordability. Whether that’s affordable housing, groceries or gas. Those are the types of things that I hear about the most from people. And then interconnected to affordability, of course, is homelessness. The big one that I’ve been focusing on most for the past year is the behavioral health crisis for people who are experiencing substance use disorders and mental health issues. We’re seeing record overdoses every year from the opioid crisis. We’re also seeing rising levels of mental illness, whether that’s depression, anxiety, psychiatric disorders. We’re even seeing rates of youth feeling depressed, anxious, disconnected — those rates have almost doubled in the past decade. So, I’ve been focused a lot on those issues.
If elected, are you willing to take on the rich and powerful to accomplish your policy goals? And would you consider taxing the rich more?
Yeah, I would absolutely love to do that. The problem is we don’t have those tools at the county. So I can’t over-promise on that. I probably can’t promise on any level. So the answer is, I desire to but I’m unable to outside of just simple advocacy.
Over the last decade, we’ve been seeing more and more cities like Bellevue, Mercer Island and now Burien pass or consider anti-homeless ordinances and camping bans. How would you push back against this type of discriminatory policy making?
My pushback would just be on my advocacy and leading by example, since I can’t tell those cities what to do and I can’t do any legislative measures to prevent them. But I could do sticks and carrots, you know, sending resources, housing and any funds that are coming our way to cities that comply with humane and evidence-based practices for ending homelessness. Like supportive housing, thoughtful and intentional outreach efforts, investing more in homes, investing more in our recovery infrastructure and making sure that we’re partnering with those cities to advance the types of solutions that we know work.
Last year, the King County Auditor found that the Sheriff’s Office arrests people and uses force in a racially discriminatory manner. How would you address this disproportionality?
One thing that we’ve done is really bolster our Office of Law Enforcement Oversight in this past year. That office has almost doubled in size over the past year, and they have many more investigators who can investigate those claims and bring about accountability. And then I also think that we need to have the Sheriff herself be a more vocal and consistent partner with the rest of our county agencies that work on addressing these issues; like the Office of Equity and Social Justice, DCHS, Public Health, which track a lot of the types of issues that we’re trying to solve for, and have them work together.
Lastly, I do think this new body camera measure will be good for at least having transparency if there are claims of discrimination in excess use of force. I know that it doesn’t always lead to accountability when you have something on video, but at least it won’t be contested.
The auditor also explored a number of different models for non-police crisis response. Would you be open to implementing a non-police alternative similar to the ones the auditor researched?
Yes. I was one of the primary champions of the King County charter amendments in 2020. The notable [one] being the amendment that would shift our sheriff from an elected position to an appointed position and also the amendment, which removed the constitutional prohibition of the council to be able to dictate the functions of the Sheriff’s Office so that we could actually transfer certain public safety functions to alternatives.
[But] the economics [are] more complicated. We needed new sources of revenue to be able to build out the infrastructure for alternative systems. And that’s why I spent the past year working on things like the crisis care centers initiative, which would be a new source of funding to build out a new form of alternative crisis response. And slowly, we can have a system where we have more of a list of public health options that we can deploy rather than a one-size-fits-all response system.
King Metro workers recently won a 17% pay increase. However, many still report worsening labor conditions, limited breaks, less downtime between routes and what they feel is a general lack of support from the transit agency. They say these conditions have contributed to attrition. How would you address those conditions and understaffing at King County Metro?
I think the contract that we just passed last week is a good first step. It’s going to be a very significant pay increase, as well as certain hiring and retention bonuses. So I’m hoping that creates a nice boost and incentive system for bringing new people on. But another thing that I’m hearing is an obstacle is not necessarily the resources or the pay that’s available but a bottleneck in training. Because now [that] the Metro pays so well, we’re getting a huge boost in demand and interest, but we can’t train people quickly enough. So we’ve been working with Metro to increase the training systems, hiring more trainers, getting new facilities where the training can happen in bigger spaces and just doing it at a quicker pace so that we can onboard people as soon as possible.
I personally think the nature of work has changed, and we’re gonna have to do things differently. I don’t see a world where staffing levels come back fully to where they were pre-pandemic. I think we’re all going to have to put our heads together and get creative about what a future looks like where we don’t have those types of staffing levels.
What is your long-term plan for King County Metro and the regional transportation system? Would you ever consider a fare-free model?
The fare-free model is something that has to be studied, only because there are trade-offs. If we’re in a scenario where it actually does cost money to keep Metro operating, to pay bus drivers, for maintenance, the question is: Where’s that money going to come from? There’s a certain gap right now between what our funding models pay for and what the farebox recovery pays for. So, we’d have to find a funding stream to cover whatever we eliminate out of the farebox recovery, if transit is going to be free. My only interest is what’s going to make public transit better and most accessible to vulnerable people.
There is a lack of public restrooms in Seattle and King County. Do you think that county agencies like Public Health have a role to play in fixing this issue?
Yeah, absolutely. I actually consider it to be a humanitarian crisis in King County, and then we wonder why people are using the restroom outside. That’s just what happens if you don’t invest in the infrastructure at the county level. The question is always gonna go back to how do we fund it? How do we fund something when we’re already cutting millions of dollars out of our general fund in these next couple of budgets? Because our tax system here is so inequitable, and so extreme. Do we put out a property tax measure to fund this? Do we increase a tenth of a penny sales tax to fund this? We go back to the trade-off question. I need to know whether the benefit of public restrooms outweighs the tax burden on low- and middle-income people.
Our region is facing an escalating fentanyl and opioid crisis. If elected, how would you address this issue?
I think there’s a difference between how we respond to it and how we stop new cases from flooding in. How we respond to it — I think is what I’ve been doing this past year, which is having our region dramatically increase its recovery infrastructure. Right now, if somebody is on the verge of overdose or has extreme substance use disorders, their options for getting treatment and care are super limited because our entire state has not put the investments into recovery infrastructure that it needs. I think the opioid crisis [and] fentanyl overdoses are hitting a level where it’s butting up against our housing crisis as the biggest crisis in our state and region. So we need injection of capital, meaning a huge injection of resources to build out our infrastructure and our response systems.
But how do we stop it from happening in the first place? I think people are resorting to drugs for a lot of reasons — depression, anxiety, loneliness are things that are elevating very quickly in our society. Then I think, of course, in a more immediate sense, there are drugs just flooding into our community. I am always told by airport workers how they have seized tens of millions of pills in just the past year. And so how do we better track, monitor and stop the flooding of drugs into our community? That’s a policy question that we need to address.
There’s a big budget deficit facing Public Health. How would you plan to fill that hole?
We need to continue to advocate to help change our structures that continue to put a hole in King County’s budget. If we don’t change the 1% cap, if we don’t change a prohibition on progressive taxes, this is gonna keep happening. So, I don’t have a solution to get 100 million more dollars into our general fund, which tends to be the primary fund that funds Public Health.
The King County jail has been deemed unsafe. We’ve seen a number of people die in the jail — one expert even labeled the suicide rate as “astronomical.” How would you address this crisis?
One of the things I want us to do more is put pressure on the state to achieve its court-mandated duty to provide restoration services to people who are deemed not fit to stand trial. We have hundreds of people languishing in the jails who should not be there. And a bunch of counties have come together and sued the state for that. But for a long time, I don’t think enough action was taken to spotlight this issue. So I want to see more of that. Number two, I want to make sure that the public is aware of the types of overlapping crises that our criminal legal systems are experiencing. I think that helps develop the political will for the public and our elected officials to take action to support things like diversion programs and more investments in behavioral health infrastructure so we can keep people who should not be in jail in another setting where they can heal and recover.
Tobias Coughlin-Bogue acted in his then-position as associate editor in his work on this article. Dominique Morales contributed to the reporting.
Read more of the Nov. 1-7, 2023 issue.