It’s official: City council member Mike O’Brien—whose district encompasses Ballard, Green Lake, and Greenwood—will not be seeking re-election as rumored. The announcement, made Wednesday at his office, wasn’t exactly a surprise. Neighborhood activists have wanted his head for months. And a recent poll conducted by his campaign suggested that he would face an uphill battle for re-election.
O’Brien has been behind some of the most ambitious and controversial moves by the city council—the head tax, the plastic bag ban, safe injection sites—but vocal “neighborhood safety” groups cast him as disinterested in his district. That's been a recurring theme of his tenure: Lofty goals that progressive Seattle likes in theory, and massive blowback when he tries to put them into practice. “They all say no one’s against the homeless," he said in a 2015 interview. "There’s just no one willing to host them next to their houses.”
To say goodbye, we look back at how O’Brien’s shaped the city and how it's responded.
As soon as he was elected to Seattle City Council in 2009, O'Brien pushed to cut down on waste in the city. First up: unwanted phonebook deliveries. In 2010, we reported that 555,000 phone books were delivered each year, generating 30 million pounds of waste. When he called for fed-up Seattleites to bring their phonebooks to City Hall, they did “by the vanload.” He then sent those phonebooks back to the distributors and later implemented an opt-out system to cut down unwanted deliveries.
In 2011, O’Brien sponsored one of the city’s early efforts to reduce pressure on the homeless population. That first move, called the “Seattle Safe Parking Program,” allowed receptive churches to open their parking lots to those living out of cars. At the time, he saw the program as a temporary solution, but argued that “at the end of the day, we are providing a safer place for people who are living outside until they can live inside.”
In 2013, O'Brien got behind an ordinance that required developers in South Lake Union to pay into the city’s affordable housing fund. He also supported incremental upzones across the city, in the form of mother-in-law cottages and basement apartments. This year, those ideas are starting to bear fruit in the form of neighborhood “urban village” upzones and accompanying affordable-housing requirements.
Our Last Bike Guy
From day one, O’Brien cemented himself as a friend of bikes, pushing for the bike lane network downtown that's to be completed this year. But even as ridership skyrocketed during the Seattle Squeeze, public opinion has soured on bike infrastructure, according to a recent Seattle Times poll. He's also pushed for closing up the Burke-Gilman “missing link,” the last gap in the trail, but has faced stiff opposition from local businesses, to the point that O’Brien was physically forced from a celebration of the new Nordic Museum by angry shipyard owners.
Campaign Finance Reform
After the Citizens United decision opened the floodgates on the U.S. campaign finance system, Seattle activists looked for ways to level the playing field at a local level. In 2015, O’Brien supported a ballot initiative on the democracy voucher system. The goal, he said at the time, was to “lower barriers to entry for grassroots candidates who may have strong community support but lack connection to big donors.” And it might have worked. In 2017, Seattle voters disbursed $1.14 million, and in this year’s crowded election, 25 candidates plan to use the vouchers.