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LISTEN: Girmay Zahilay reflects on an intense first year on the King County Council

King County Council Member Girmay Zahilay speaks at Franklin High School in Seattle in February 2020.
Courtesy of King County
King County Council Member Girmay Zahilay speaks at Franklin High School in Seattle in February 2020.

It has been an intense first year in office for King County Council Member Girmay Zahilay.

"I think I would describe it the same way everyone would describe their year," Zahilay told KNKX in an interview. "And that is: madness."

The 33-year-old represents District 2, which encompasses some of Seattle’s most racially and economically diverse neighborhoods. It also includes the unincorporated community of Skyway, which has been a focal pointduring Zahilay's first year in office.

He talked with KNKX Morning Edition host Kirsten Kendrick about his experience moving to Skyway from South Seattle as a kid, how his ideas of leadership have changed in 2020, and about his favorite meeting so far as an elected official.

You can hear their conversation by clicking the play icon above. Read on for highlights and for additional information about some of the policies Zahilay has championed this year.

On moving to Skyway: "We had no community centers. We had nowhere to hang out after school. We had one bus line near my house that came super infrequently. And when I reflect back on my childhood, that was probably the most damaging time of my life in terms of just the emotional impact that it had on my siblings and I. And now that I'm an elected official, I see the true story about what's going on there and how these arbitrary legal lines really impact people's lives."

On being a young, Black leader: "I'm the only Black county council member in the state of Washington. And up until just last month, I was the only person of color on any county council in the whole state of Washington. And that comes with a lot of responsibilities, namely that people in the state don't see me as being restricted just to my district. If you ask my team, we get emails from people outside of our King County district, to outside of King County, even outside of Washington state. People reach out and say, 'We need help with this. We need help with that.' "

On his favorite meeting: "I had a meeting with a fifth-grade class at Bailey Gazert Elementary, which also happens to be the elementary school that I graduated from. And I got to speak to them and ask them questions like, what do you wish were better in 2020? What would make your life better in 2020? And of course, in true fifth-grader fashion, their answers were, 'Can you bring back Toys "R" Us?' And, 'Hey, when my parents buy me an iPhone, why do I still have to pay for apps? All apps should be free. Can you, as a council member, make that change?'"

"And so after I finished dying of laughter, I asked them to tell me some some other stuff, maybe stuff that's more in line with things that I can do. And then the brilliance, of course, just radiated out. They talked about public safety. They talked about affordable housing, police violence. And I was shocked. They even talked about our tax structure."


Skyway has the highest proportion of Black people of any community in the state. Zahilay points out its area median income is less than half of that of neighboring Seattle, and its childhood poverty rate is three times the countywide median.

In the past, Zahilay says, King County resisted investing in the area in an attempt to incentivize annexation into a neighboring city like Renton.

"That is the textbook definition of systemic racism," Zahilay said.

KNKX Morning Edition Host Kirsten Kendrick asks King County Councilmember Girmay Zahilay about gains for Skyway in this fall's budget negotiations.

But Zahilay says the area won several victories during this fall's budget process. Those include:

  • $10 million in seed money for a  community center;
  • $10 million for participatory budgeting in Skyway in White Center;
  • $6 million for extra Metro Transit service;
  • $4.6 million for community-based justice programs; and
  • $5 million for affordable housing.

"So a lot of exciting work is coming in 2021," Zahilay said.

As chair of the council's law and justice committee, Zahilay also championed amendments to the King County charter that made significant changes to the sheriff's office and expanded the county's power to investigate police brutality cases.

Voters approved all seven of the charter amendments on the November ballot with big margins. Amendments 5 and 6 make the sheriff an appointed, rather than elected, position and give the county council more operational control of the office. Amendment 1 strengthens the inquest process, and Amendment 4 gives subpoena power to the Office of Law Enforcement Oversight. The other three amendements were not related to law enforcement.

Although some of these amendments were in the works before Zahilay took office, he thinks this summer's protests set the stage for victories on the ballot.

"Organizers on the ground, marchers, created the political will for elected officials to actually pass real, bold change," he said.

Listen below to hear how Zahilay thinks these amendments set up the county for future public safety reform.

KNKX Morning Edition Host Kirsten Kendrick asks King County Council Member Girmay Zahilay about charter amendments recently approved by voters.

A Seattle native and former KNKX intern, Simone Alicea spent four years as a producer and reporter at KNKX. She earned her Bachelor's of Journalism from Northwestern University and covered breaking news for the Chicago Sun-Times. During her undergraduate career, she spent time in Cape Town, South Africa, covering metro news for the Cape Times.