mike o'brien seattle city council
Image: Alex Fine

City council member Mike O’Brien is late for a haircut.

O’Brien—who looks, at 46, like a cross between a ’70s tennis star and a student at Lakeside, the exclusive North Seattle prep school he attended—is sitting at a long repurposed wood table in the “conference room” of his city council office. His aide Esther Handy is reminding him that he needs to get on his bike, a yellow beater he parks at the bike rack in front of city hall, to head for his appointment in Fremont. Characteristically, he’s both slightly disheveled and totally calm.

A quintessential Seattle native son, O’Brien looks and acts the part: He lives in a refurbished Craftsman in Fremont and owned chickens until recently (a raccoon got all six of them). His wife, Julie, co-owns Firefly Kitchens, a Ballard kimchi factory.

The conference room is a tangible symbol of O’Brien’s egalitarian approach to running a city council office. Instead of the traditional arrangement, where the council member has a large inner office with a locking door while staffers sit outside in a shared front room, O’Brien sits out front with his staffers, a setup he adopted to be closer to his staff and constituents.

If that sounds hippieish, it is, and so, in his khaki-clad, cowlick-haired Seattle way, is O’Brien: a hippie with an MBA. O’Brien has long been associated with, and looked up to, former mayor Mike McGinn, who was a litigator at the Stokes Lawrence law firm (where O’Brien was chief financial officer) and at the Sierra Club, where McGinn was head of the Seattle branch of the group and O’Brien was head of the state chapter. O’Brien, who is about nine years younger than McGinn, has spent his four years on the council championing issues like transit, housing, and better infrastructure for cyclists and pedestrians.

At a time when new residents are clamoring for affordable housing in the city’s largely single-family neighborhoods, residents and tourists are concerned about a perceived increase in downtown crime, and mass transit faces major potential cuts, O’Brien is poised to emerge as a leader on both traditional social-justice issues and environmental concerns.

In his first term he pushed for, and won, a ban on plastic grocery shopping bags, a resolution that Seattle will be carbon-neutral by 2050, a law allowing residents to opt out of receiving Yellow Pages phone books, new rules requiring developers to provide more affordable housing or other amenities in exchange for greater density in South Lake Union, and legislation that provides safe parking places for people living in their cars.

Less successfully, and more controversially, along with his Sierra Club mentor McGinn, O’Brien was a staunch opponent of the downtown deep-bore tunnel, supporting a “no” vote on a nonbinding 2011 referendum on the tunnel and voting against agreements with the state to allow the tunnel to move forward. Unlike McGinn, O’Brien knew when to concede defeat, acknowledging that, right or wrong, Seattle voters said they wanted the tunnel to go forward.

O’Brien took his tunnel loss with equanimity, although he still says he’s disappointed that the state is spending $2 billion on a car-only highway. “At a time when we should be investing billions of dollars in public transit…it’s unfortunate that that’s where our resources are going.” But, he adds, “I’m proud of what I stood for, and yet I don’t get to go back and redo those decisions.”

In addition to his newly influential role as chair of the council’s land use committee, O’Brien replaced Conlin on the Sound Transit board. Like McGinn, O’Brien plans to use his seat to promote light rail—“a package that can go to voters in 2016,” which could include rail to Ballard and West Seattle.

But O’Brien has struggled at times to escape McGinn’s long shadow. That’s one reason the loss of his onetime ally could paradoxically be a political boon for him, freeing him up to push his own agenda without the constant worry that he’s perceived as the mayor’s minion on the second floor of city hall. As head of the council’s land use committee and the council representative on the board of Sound Transit—two highly influential roles—he’s well positioned to do so.

In 2010, O’Brien was criticized for flip-flopping on an aggressive panhandling ordinance proposed by his colleague Tim Burgess, after McGinn heavily lobbied him the weekend before the vote. The bill, which would have expanded the definition of aggressive solicitation, passed with a 5-4 majority on the council but ultimately, thanks to O’Brien’s defection, didn’t win the six votes it needed to override a mayoral veto. O’Brien was also an early and tenacious supporter of McGinn’s proposal to build a new stadium, which has stalled.

However, O’Brien has also forged his own path, defying McGinn on a few key issues. When McGinn proposed delaying construction of the 520 bridge to study the possibility of building light rail across the bridge, O’Brien (who, like McGinn, supported transit on the bridge) signed off on a council letter in 2010 opposing the delay.

And in early 2013, O’Brien sided with his council colleagues Tom Rasmussen and Nick Licata in supporting legislation that required developers in South Lake Union to pay higher fees into a city affordable-housing fund in exchange for increases in housing density. McGinn had supported significantly lower fees, on the theory that larger fees would create a disincentive for development.

O’Brien agrees, in principle, with density proponents who say, “The more [people] we can fit in, the better.” But he parts ways with those who say the only way to provide more affordable housing is to increase supply. “As you add supply, as we build more housing, all of a sudden they build more restaurants. We have better transit. We have Car2go. And all of a sudden more people want to live here.” As a result, he says, increased supply can actually increase the desirability of a neighborhood, and thus the cost of living there. See: New York City.

“We have never demonstrated an ability to get ahead of the market other than in a recession, so we have to have specific programs” to promote affordable housing, he says.

The bigger difference between McGinn and O’Brien, both men’s supporters have never hesitated to point out, is stylistic. While McGinn was bombastic and often uncompromising—he proposed a massive seawall-funding measure without consulting the council, threatened a veto when then–council president Richard Conlin signed an agreement allowing the tunnel to move forward, effectively fired city attorney Pete Holmes from representing the city in the recent Department of Justice lawsuit against the Seattle Police Department—O’Brien is calm, measured, and unfailingly agreeable. People like him. People didn’t like McGinn.

O’Brien didn’t want to get into specifics about why McGinn lost his reelection battle with 47 percent of the vote, while he won his handily, with 67 percent. (In two years, along with the rest of the council, he’ll have to do it all over again, running in the newly created sixth district). While he acknowledged that “our personalities are certainly different,” O’Brien added diplomatically that “being a city council member is certainly lower profile than being mayor.… I get to choose the issues I engage on because I’m one of nine.”

McGinn says O’Brien won because “he ran a strong race and he was clearly better than his opponent,” civil engineering consultant Albert Shen; the ex-mayor also points to O’Brien’s work on the plastic bag ban, the Yellow Pages legislation, and climate change.

Perhaps more importantly, O’Brien works well with others, adopting a measured, “yes-and” approach to political disputes, a trait that has won him fans on a council that is generally (within the limited, liberal spectrum of Seattle politics) more conservative than he is.

“It’s more than just being easygoing,” says O’Brien’s council colleague Nick Licata. “I thought Mike McGinn was easygoing. I just don’t think he was very strategic. Mike [O’Brien] understands that to get things done in a legislative arena, you need to keep the door open.”

During his first term, O’Brien forged a somewhat unlikely alliance with lefty stalwart Licata, a former commune resident who’s more likely to argue for preserving existing housing than increasing density in the name of affordability and environmental sustainability. Nonetheless the two allied in arguing for higher fees for density in South Lake Union.

Similarly, O’Brien joined with Licata to push for legislation that would have significantly expanded the parts of the city in which homeless encampments were allowed, arguing that tent cities, while not ideal, were better than leaving people to simply sleep on the street. “When I came on to the council…to work on social justice issues—that whole realm of the world was really new to me,” O’Brien says. “Nick was very willing to share advice with me. He never told me what I should or should not do. He became a mentor of sorts.”

One new potential ally (or adversary), of course, is Kshama Sawant—the socialist city council member who defeated 16-year council veteran (and O’Brien ally) Richard Conlin. Although O’Brien says he was sad to see Conlin lose—“I miss having a strong ally like Richard and I really respected a lot of his thinking about how land use fits into climate work and transportation,” he says—he’s already appeared alongside Sawant at a public rally, introducing his new colleague at a December city hall demonstration for the $15 minimum wage. He is the only council member, as of the end of January, to do so.

“I’m publicly saying that I think $15 is a great place to start. I do believe that living in this city for less than $15 an hour is a near-impossible challenge,” O’Brien says. “The place where I may end more flexible is, how do we calculate that, where do health care and retirement and tips and things like that figure into the calculation of $15?”

In addition to his newly influential role as chair of the council’s land use committee, O’Brien replaced Conlin on the Sound Transit board. (Mayor Murray is the other Seattle representative.) Like McGinn, O’Brien plans to use his seat to promote light rail—“a package that can go to voters in 2016,” which could include rail to Ballard and West Seattle, another McGinn priority.

Unlike McGinn, it’s possible to see O’Brien convincing recalcitrant suburban board members to support urban transit. “I think there’s a clear path to make the case both to elected officials in the region and the citizens of Seattle and the region that this is where we need to make investments,” he says.

As for life in the post-McGinn era: O’Brien says, “McGinn was certainly an ally of mine and a friend of mine. But I’m very optimistic that I can build a good relationship with Mayor Murray. He may not have kids that come over to my house for sleepovers,” like McGinn’s kids did, “but my hope is that we’ll have a really strong relationship.”

McGinn’s fraught relationship with the city council led to the demise or delay of many of his most treasured initiatives (including a proposal to veto the tunnel and a proposal to fund the seawall, which flailed for two years). Conversely, a strong bond between Murray and O’Brien could help the congenial council member achieve his agenda. For his part, McGinn says he hopes to see O’Brien focus on opposing a proposal to run coal trains through Seattle and on divesting from city investments in fossil fuels.

O’Brien says he’d consider running for higher office in the future, but adds, “I’m really happy with my place here; I’ve been able to get a lot done.”

For now, he needs to ride his bike, in the dark, to Fremont. After rolling up his jeans so they don’t get caught in the chain on his rusty Cannondale, O’Brien rushes off.