Girmay Zahilay was born in Sudan, the child of Ethiopian refugees.

He grew up poor in South Seattle, his parents having no high school or college education. He’s experienced life in public housing and in a Union Gospel Mission homeless shelter.

Despite those challenges, Zahilay went on to attend Stanford University, and then earned a law degree from the University of Pennsylvania Law School. He interned at the White House during the Obama administration and started his law career in New York.

Following a brief stint at a firm after returning to Seattle, Zahilay turned his focus back to the youth mentorship nonprofit he started in Harlem. Rising Leaders now operates in three states, including two schools in Seattle.

His next venture is politics, having declared his campaign for King County Council in District 2. He is focusing on making systemic changes that provide improved access to housing, transportation, government and education, as well as criminal justice reform and environmental justice.

“We can’t use me as an example and say the system doesn’t need to be fixed,” Zahilay said. “It definitely needs to be fixed.”

Zahilay was the first challenger to announce his campaign for the county council seat long held by Larry Gossett, who hasn’t faced a contested race in the last 14 years.

“I have nothing negative to say about Larry Gossett,” Zahilay said. “I think he’s been a faithful servant of the public.”

The District 2 candidate said he sees the need for a new generation of leadership, and wants to build on Gossett’s legacy of advocating civil rights and social justice.

Zahilay said running at the county level was a decision based on what he sees as a needed regional response to the issues and major challenges that continue to push longtime residents out of South Seattle.

“I think King County needs to step up and be the leader in the response to homelessness and affordable housing,” he said.

The District 2 candidate wants to see the formation of a central authority that includes all King County municipalities.

He also wants to boost landlord education programs and better address source-of-funds discrimination, such as against households using Section 8 vouchers.

Zahilay said there’s no time to wait when it comes to improving and increasing infrastructure and housing stock, and the county needs to focus its long-range planning farther into the future. While upfront costs may be high, he said, the emergency response due to inaction will be even more expensive.

“These problems are by design and predictable,” he said, “and we need to have an adequate amount of investment to address these problems.”

Washington has one of the most regressive tax systems in the country, and cities and counties continue to rely on sales and property taxes to deliver needed infrastructure and services.

Zahilay said he wants to create a county bank where revenue can be saved and collect interest, providing infrastructure loans and returns on investments. The county already invests public pension funds, he said, and data shows the return on local investments would be slightly better than the more risky stock market. New York and Dallas already use their employee pension funds to invest in public housing, he said.

Zahilay said he also wants the county to provide more lobbying in Olympia to push the Legislature to pass a progressive income tax to reduce the burden of sales and property taxes.

There is a lack of open and green space in South Seattle, which has had negative health impacts on youth, Zahilay said. He supports the 2020-2025 Parks, Trails, and Open Space Replacement Levy, which is expected to generate $810 million over six years.

Zahilay is also a proponent of King County Executive Dow Constantine’s Best Starts for Kids initiative and how it’s allowed communities to invest funds into programs for early childhood development.

“I’m a big fan of Best Starts for Kids,” he said, “and I like how holistic it is.”

While he sees the county moving in the right direction in addressing criminal justice reform, he finds it hard to believe a zero youth detention model is a real goal when a new facility is being created to continue jailing children. The Children and Family Justice Center is being funded through a 2012 levy to the tune of $232 million, up from an original estimate of $210 million. Zahilay said the argument has been framed as either the new facility is built or children continue being jailed in an aging, dilapidated jail.

“I think that’s a false choices,” he said. “I don’t think there are just two choices.”

Zahilay believes all youth offenders are capable of being rehabilitated, and that there are a number of diversion programs that can be implemented.

He sees an imbalance in investment in areas of the county, particularly communities of color, which he said has also had negative environmental impacts on children in places like Holly Park or Rainier Vista, where he grew up.

While in law school Zahilay interned for the White House Counsel during the creation of the Affordable Care Act, and said he was able to watch how laws and policies are drafted, as well as the impacts they have on people’s lives.

“That was just amazing to watch,” he said.

Zahilay wants to address inequities in the county’s transit system, especially transit deserts in areas where low-income and marginalized populations are being pushed, he said. He also wants more income-based fare programs for transit, and to make it free for those who otherwise couldn’t afford it.

The District 2 candidate wants to make it so people who do have to travel downtown to participate in county council or commissions business can recover those costs, and would try to have more council meetings in other communities, especially when addressing issues or policies that directly impact those areas.

Part of his campaign focus will be on political access, and he said he will not be accepting contributions from large corporations or political action committees.

“The question is, who are you going to answer to once you’re elected?” he said.

Zahilay said he’d like to see King County duplicate the Democracy Voucher program used by the City of Seattle to attract more candidates that otherwise might not be able to run and allow voters who normally don’t have the means to be able to support those candidates.

The District 2 candidate does want to engage large companies in the county to help address the housing and homelessness crisis, he said, as they have a vested interest. There are many Amazon employees that don’t work on the tech side of the company, he said, and it is interested in keeping them from being displaced too.

“In terms of taxation, absolutely you need to be paying your fair share,” Zahilay said.

Follow the campaign and learn more about where Zahilay stands on the issues at