Eyes on the Prize in 2020: Don’t Forget About Local Elections

Varisha Khan ran for Redmond City Council in the fall of 2019. It was a tight race – after a recount and several days of ballot-chasing, Khan won her position on Redmond City Council by 66 votes, and was sworn into office on December 17th, 2019. In so doing, she made history as one of the first two Muslim women to hold city council positions in Washington state (along with Zahra Roach in Pasco), and was the first hijab-wearing woman to do so.

While the spotlight is undoubtedly going to be on the 2020 Presidential Election throughout the summer leading into the fall, Councilwoman Khan is a reminder that we cannot afford to forget about smaller, local races. She serves on Council in the City of Redmond, home to both a diverse immigrant community and many small businesses. In the beginning of March, many community members started reaching out to their city council with concerns – what was the city going to do in terms of housing protections? People became anxious they would be thrown out of their homes by their landlords, or that their utilities would be shut off. For small commercial tenants, the fear was doubled; even if they deferred their payments, they were worried about being sent to debt collection, further putting their livelihoods at stake, losing both their homes and their income.

After receiving hundreds of emails, calls, letters, and inquiries as to what the City of Redmond was going to do for its residents, the Council passed a holistic policy to protect Redmond’s community from housing and rental instability. The legislation included a ban on residential evictions, utility shut-offs, late fees and charges, rent assistance, and six months of rent relief for tenants. It also included a call for Governor Jay Inslee to work with banks and other mortgage services to provide mortgage relief, and a call for the state legislature to expand the Governor’s moratorium to include commercial and mobile home tenants.

“I want to thank all the community members who wrote, called and demanded tenant protections like these be passed. You were heard. We’ll continue to listen to you.” Redmond City Councilmember Varisha Khan

Councilwoman Varisha Khan worked with advocates from WA CAN, Xochitl Maykovich, and Ed Witter from the Housing Justice Project early on in the drafting process to introduce the legislation and help make it as comprehensive and progressive as possible. Once on the floor, it was a unanimous decision. In her view, this is just the beginning of a spate of legislative movements to come to protect and support Redmond residents during this time.

It is for this very reason that we cannot forget about local elections this November. We need people in office looking out for people at all times, and especially in times of need. People from our movements, accountable to us in office. These elections are the ones that often decide how residents will weather the storms of the current political climate, city by city, county by county. Lawmakers in these positions have the ability to affect people on a granular level, in ways that are immediately tangible to them. This has always been the case, but has become increasingly more so in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis.

“I think it’s important for people to remember that no matter what, your voice, your experiences, your stories weigh a ton in a democracy, no matter how dark it seems. Even in times of uncertainty, your impact in affecting your neighborhood, your community, your city, your state, your region – starts and ends with you,” Khan said.

 “I believe that I was elected by the people, to serve the people, and ultimately my actions or inactions will be held accountable by the people and the community that I serve. If I were to choose not to legislate in a time of crisis, it would be a disservice to the people who elected me.” Redmond City Councilmember Varisha Khan

“It might not be possible for everyone to vote or go and campaign right now, but however you can help, do, to elect the people who will represent you. Those who will bring us out of the crisis we’re in, and help them be successful even after they’re elected, so that they remember they represent you and are held accountable to you. Vote, register to vote, make phone calls, make calls for candidates you believe in, represent in your area, and call or email your lawmakers often and tell them what you need.”

“[Your representatives] will listen based on what they hear is important in community. Even if you don’t get what you need, and you might feel unheard, someone else may feel heard where maybe they weren’t before – be the voice that you need to be heard.”

“Oh, and fill out the census!”

You can find the Emergency Proclamation from Redmond City Council here.

This blog post was written by Mennah El-Gammal, Former Program Associate for the Washington New Americans Program.