Council Member Mike O’Brien doesn’t think of himself as a divisive figure. The three-term council member won his
District 6 seat in 2015 by a nearly 23-point margin, and his brand of affable, bike-riding, fossil-fuel-protesting progressive politics is almost stereotypically Seattle.
Four years later, weighing another run for office, O’Brien feels the landscape has shifted. The website Crosscut dubbed him “the most divisive man in Seattle.” Critics put his sunny visage on placards that said, “Recall Mike O’Brien.” Public meetings in his district became shouting matches over perceptions about his policies.
On Feb. 13, O’Brien announced that he would not seek reelection, joining colleagues Sally Bagshaw, Bruce Harrell and Rob Johnson.
The move is a gamble on what the voters of District 6 want. Do they want a progressive candidate who will push forward O’Brien’s priorities under a different name? Do they want someone more conservative?
“There is a risk there,” O’Brien acknowledged.
During his time on the dais, O’Brien oversaw a rapidly changing Seattle. When he was elected, the city and country were stuck in the Great Recession. By the time he chose to step down, Seattle’s economy had boomed, bringing with it rising
inequality and a homelessness crisis.
O’Brien is an environmental champion. He worked to expand public transit, break the dependence on fossil fuel vehicles and took to the waves with fellow “kayaktivists” in protest of the Shell Oil drilling rig. He fought to implement campaign finance reform in local elections, helping create the publicly funded Democracy Voucher program.
Despite that work, he faced fierce opposition from some in his own district. Local community members organized against his policies around the homelessness crisis and his efforts to tax large, profitable businesses to pay for affordable housing.
O’Brien sat down with Real Change to discuss his time on City Council, and how he plans to use the nine months left before he leaves office.
Ashley Archibald: How are you feeling about the decision not to run for reelection?
Mike O'Brien: It was a hard decision for me to make. Depending on the day I would wake up feeling very strongly about the campaign versus stepping back. There were tradeoffs both ways.
I think it is the right decision for what’s happening in the city and what’s happening in my personal life.
The part that’s hard is, despite doing what I would call really good work over nine years, the city is in a really tough spot. And the fact that we’re winning the race for the most tower cranes in the city and we have the most homelessness in the United States. Wow, we are a really progressive city that cares about income inequality. And we are the poster child for making it worse. It sucks.
AA: What were the factors that caused you to go back and forth those mornings?
MO: For whatever reason I don’t fully understand, I’ve become a fairly divisive figure, certainly in my district. I have a self-image of myself and divisiveness is not one of the things that comes to the top of my list.
Whatever it is, it exists. And then there’s a question of, “Will the district elect someone who cares about all the things I do as long as their name isn’t Mike O’Brien?”
AA: They could swing and elect someone who is completely antithetical to your values or has a different approach to these kinds of issues.
MO: There is a risk there. The uncertainty makes me nervous, for sure. There are nine council members and a mayor, and I look to council members Lorena González and Teresa Mosqueda, and they’re amazing and they’re going to be here. I know Council Member Lisa Herbold is running and she will have a tough race for sure. Kshama Sawant’s race is going to be interesting, and in Bruce Harrell’s district there’s some great people running.
It would be really disappointing if there was someone whose values are very different to mine who represented me personally in my district, but if we have five or six good people [on the council], then that would be great.
Sometimes, maybe you need to get someone in there that’s the opposite, and everyone’s like, “OK, well I wasn’t very happy with Mike O’Brien, but this is awful.” And then we go back and hopefully they do not do too much damage in the process and we all learn something about ourselves.
AA: Are people who disagree with you part of the reason you want to step down?
MO: There are lots of reasons, but that certainly plays into it. The folks that have a few Facebook pages and organizing tools who put posters of me up around the city, you know, when it first happened, it was like, that’s funny. Who are these people and what kind of values do they espouse?
They have found a way to temper their message and speak to a typical, progressive leaning household and say things that, frankly, I say. Like, “We have massive amounts of wealth in this city, how come everyone can’t be housed?”
Then they pivot and say, "Because Mike O’Brien is inviting homeless people in to Ballard Commons Park and trying to destroy our neighborhood so your property values come down and developers can buy it for cheap and raze it all and make millions of dollars.” The logic starts to fall apart there.
They throw all of this in there and then people who may be frustrated at all of those things — developers, property values going down, and their property values are too high at the same time, homeless people in the park, needles and I’m not making enough money to even live here anymore.” And it’s all Mike O’Brien’s fault.
AA: When did the attitudes turn?
MO: We’ve talked a little bit about the Safe Seattle faction, I don’t know how organized they are, it feels like a cabal over there. They’re a piece of it. There’s a bunch of other pieces too. That’s the thing. When we passed the Employee Hours Tax and there was a feeling of revolt.
AA: Do you think the city can actually solve the homelessness problem?
MO: The tools the city has are largely dealing with the symptoms. We could continue to ramp up but we’re going to always be playing catch up.
We’re building a lot of housing. Nine hundred units this year compared to 300 last year. The work we did two, three, four years ago is going to start showing up on the street and so that is going to help. But I don’t think the city can solve it by itself.
AA: You’re known as a champion for people who live in their vehicles. Are you concerned that no other council members will take up that mantle?
MO: Council Member González has been a vocal supporter of vehicle residents.
With four of us leaving, I think about my body of work. Who’s going to do transportation? Well, it could have been Rob Johnson, but it’s not going to be Rob. Who’s going to do the sustainability work, who’s going to be the climate fighter, who’s going to work on bike lanes? We’re going to have four new council members, so some of those people are going to have to do some things. If the five existing ones get reelected, folks are going to have to step up in ways.
There’s also the reality that when I’m taking up that space, other council members are like, “Well I’ll do something else,” and so it will be interesting to see who does step up.
AA: How would you characterize your legacy on council?
MO:I’m proud of my climate work.
It’s kind of hard to spend a lot of energy or get a lot of publicity around climate when you have people dying of hypothermia in the richest city in the country.
Early on, [we committed] the city to be carbon neutral by 2050. To be clear, it is a commitment, and we’re not on target for it, but I do think we’ve established an expectation. Similarly, we are committed to be a part of the Paris climate accord.
The biggest shift that I think we made around climate is around our transportation system. The investments we made in buses through the transportation benefit district. We’ve gone from 25 percent of Seattle living within walking distance of high-frequency transit service 18 hours a day, 7 days a week to 72 percent now. We’ve also added frequent transit service Sunday night between 8 p.m. and midnight. For people who are transit-dependent and work different shifts, they don’t have to wait an hour for the bus anymore, they wait 15 minutes. That’s pretty awesome.
That means I really don’t need to own a car anymore. Imagine when all of our urban centers and hub urban villages are connected on the light rail system. We could have a snowstorm and it’s like, “Yeah, whatever. I can sled down the hill and get on light rail and then I’ll be at work.”
AA: In 20 years.
MO: Yeah in 20 years. But I’ve been here 10 years, so shoot, it’ll go by in a flash.
I think the next big fight is around natural gas. I bought a house 25 years ago and that was the era of, “Get off oil,” We now have natural gas. That was a good, cleaner step to take. It’s gas, not a big black puddle when it spills, and it looks clean.
But its carbon impact is pretty bad and it’s worse than we thought it was 20 years ago. We said it was a transition fuel and that transition needs to be over now.
The electoral stuff too. It was interesting. When I came in, I think five incumbents had over $75,000 in their campaign war chest and it wasn’t even their election cycle. I think one had $150,000 to $200,000. I had spent $120,000 total on my [previous] campaign.
People said, “Mike do you know what you need to do on day one? Start fundraising.”
That’s a stupid system. To the chagrin of some people at the time, we changed the rules.
Here’s one of my biggest disappointments about not running. I don’t get to run under the Democracy Voucher system... The last time I ran I said, “Here’s the deal — this is the last time I’m going to ask you for money. I’m going to be asking you for those little pieces of paper you get in the mail on Feb. 13 next time.” And I don’t get to do that.
I’m not closing the door on never running again, so who knows, maybe I’ll do something in the future.
AA: What will you do with the rest of your time in office?
MO: There’s a couple of things that are coming down the pipeline that I’ve been working on for a number of years. One is backyard cottages. There are pilot programs to help low-income homeowners with some financing to do some updates to the house to allow inlaw spaces in the house or extra bedrooms and create more housing opportunities that way.
There is work around Sound Transit to finalize station location and alignment for the Sound Transit 3 extension to West Seattle and Ballard.
The hope is that will be concluded by the spring. Then there is a less defined body of work, around the city’s investment in affordable housing and response to the homeless crisis.
I don’t have specific legislation, but I continue to feel that the city and especially the mayor need to move more aggressively to create more opportunity.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Ashley on Twitter @AshleyA_RC
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