[Editor's Note: We originally published Erica's mini-feature on Seattle City Council member-elect Mike O'Brien yesterday afternoon. Even though we know you blog readers like the bite size stuff, we're moving it on up because it's an excellent read.]
For all the talk of Mayor-Elect Mike McGinn's grassroots-driven victory over Joe Mallahan this year, the real story of this year's local elections is that Seattle voters put not one but two grassroots environmentalists in power. When he takes the oath of office next January, McGinn will be joined at City Hall by City Council Member-Elect Mike O'Brien, an ideological ally, fellow roads and transit crusader, fellow bicylist, and close family friend (their kids often sleep over at each other's houses).
Together, the two Mikes have the potential to push a strong environmental agenda—light rail expansion, transit-oriented development, density, and green waterfront development—in tandem from within the executive and legislative branches. How well they succeed will be determined not just by each man's own political prowess, but by their ability to work together and with the council. In some cases—when they disagree, for example, or when O'Brien allies with McGinn against others on the council—their close relationship could actually prove a hurdle.
Although O'Brien is best known locally for his activism in the Sierra Club and his advocacy, with McGinn, against the 2007 roads and transit ballot measure (which would have tied light rail expansion to 182 new miles of highways), nothing in his early biography suggested he would eventually run for a job like city council member.
Apart from a run for school treasurer in the eighth grade (he lost), O'Brien—a Seattle native with the windblown good looks of a ‘70s tennis star—took almost no interest in politics. "I never worked on a campaign. I voted"—for Ross Perot in 1992 and Bill Clinton in 1996—"but I just wasn't involved or engaged."
O'Brien recalls that he had one friend in particular who would try to engage him in political arguments, but that he would mostly "repeat my dad's [Republican] talking points, whereas [my friend] would actually have intelligent, progressive things to say." That high-school friend, Nick Straley, is still a friend, and actually helped O'Brien with his campaign this year.
Although he cared about the environment—at grad school (UW), he earned a certificate in environmental management along with his MBA, and worked for years as a river guide—O’Brien says his political activity was limited to reading articles about politicians and saying, “I could do better than that.”
All that changed, however, when he took a job as chief financial officer at the Seattle law firm Stokes Lawrence, where Mike McGinn was working his way toward becoming partner, in 1998.
At the time, O’Brien recalls, he was serving as volunteer treasurer on the board of the Pat Graney Dance Company, a well-known local modern dance troupe. When McGinn told him the Sierra Club needed a treasurer, “I thought, ‘The Sierra Club—that would be a lot more interesting than modern dance,” he says. “I told him, ‘I don’t know anything about politics, but I’m happy to sit around the table and make sure the checkbook balances.”
Pretty soon, O’Brien was inviting himself along to candidate endorsement interviews—“I was one of the guys who just sat there and pretended like I was taking notes,” he recalls. Over time, he worked up the confidence to start asking questions, and eventually he was elected to a series of Sierra Club offices, including political chair of the local group and chair of the state chapter.
Around the same time, McGinn pulled out of the Sierra Club to start his green-urbanist group, Great City. In the subsequent roads and transit battle, Great City didn't take a position, forcing McGinn out of the spotlight. "He was busy doing Great City stuff, and he was like, ‘OK, I need to take a back seat on this,'” O'Brien says. The Sierra Club emerged as the staunchest opponent of the measure, and O’Brien suddenly became the face of the anti-roads and transit campaign.
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“For me, just getting up before the cameras—that was pretty weird at first. [McGinn] would give me advice, tell me what worked and what didn’t.”
O’Brien viewed McGinn as a “mentor,” he says—and, as the Mikes’ wives, Julie and Peggy, became personal friends, so did they. “My oldest is a year younger than McGinn’s youngest, so they go to each other’s birthday parties and have sleepovers at each other’s houses,” O’Brien says. “It’s a little scary” to think what will happen to the friendship if the two become political adversaries in the future, he adds. “That’s something that may change.”
McGinn wasn’t available to comment on his relationship with O’Brien, but Transportation Choices Coalition director Rob Johnson says O’Brien developed, both politically and as a public speaker, over the course of the 2007 roads and transit campaign, where Johnson—in a thorny split in the environmental community—was O'Brien's (and McGinn's) most frequent public adversary. Johnson (who would teasingly make fun of O'Brien's ability to get audiences "all misty-eyed" during the campaign) says O'Brien “found his voice, particularly on why he cared so much about the issue, along with the statistics and the confidence to back that sentiment up.
“One of the great things about having Mike on the other side of that campaign,” Johnson adds, “was that we also knew that while we disagreed with each other, it was a purely professional disagreement, not a personal one. I can think of some other folks on the other side of the roads and transit campaign who took our position personally and are still holding on to those grudges.”
After roads and transit was defeated, many, including McGinn, encouraged O’Brien to run for office. “I thought, you know, this was kind of fun, and maybe I’m kind of good at this, and most importantly, I think I made a difference,” O’Brien says. At the time, he had no idea that his campaign mentor would run for mayor—and if he had, he says, he wouldn’t have put much stock in it. “I would have thought, at least I’m viable, and you’re just, you know, good luck,” O’Brien says of McGinn’s chances early on.
Of course, things didn’t turn out that way. Within a few weeks of announcing his run for mayor, O’Brien jokes, “McGinn steals all my volunteers! I was like, ‘You’re the one who talked me into running, now you’re going to jump into the mayor’s seat? I was going to get all this Sierra Club support, and they’re all hanging out with him because mayor is way more interesting.”
Did O’Brien feel overshadowed by his more prominent mentor?
“There was definitely some overshadowing,” he says. “There were days when I’m like, ‘This sucks,’ but I’m also rational. … The rational Mike would say this is a good thing. If I had to pick between me winning and McGinn winning, I would pick McGinn winning.”
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In the early days of the campaign, it was far from clear that O’Brien—who, like McGinn, made his opposition to the waterfront tunnel a key issue in the primary—would make it to the general, much less win election to the council. With five opponents, including much-improved three-time candidate Robert Rosencrantz, son-of-Charley Jordan Royer, and Bobby Forch, the only black candidate in the race to succeed the council’s longest-serving black council member, O’Brien’s chances seemed slim at times.
On more than one occasion before the primary, O’Brien remarked that McGinn’s emergence was “sucking all the air out of the room,” making it hard to get media play and contributions. However, by primary night, August 18, O’Brien had pulled far ahead of all the other contenders, with 35 percent to second-place finisher Robert Rosencrantz’s 20 percent. Christian Sinderman, a local consultant who worked for O'Brien opponent David Miller before the primary, attributes O'Brien's impressive showing in the primary to his association with McGinn; his "ground game," particularly get-out-the-vote calls from the Sierra Club; and the fact that he was campaigning on a "single compelling issue."
O'Brien went on to win the general election by a similarly impressive margin—58 to 42—despite (like McGinn) being outspent nearly three to one by Rosencrantz, who piled on with deceptive attack mailers (like the one above) accusing O'Brien of wanting to put 240-foot residential towers in every neighborhood; proposing tolls on neighborhood streets; and wanting to double electric rates.
“One day I was at the farmer’s market, and this woman asked me, ‘Are you Mike O’Brien?’ And I said, ‘Yes.’ And she said, ‘I don’t know anything about you, but I’m voting for you because I got this mail piece, and it was just disgusting,” O’Brien says. “I think supporters and random people were more disturbed by it than I was.” Sinderman's theory about why O'Brien won so big, in fact, is that people saw O'Brien's face all over Rosencrantz's mailers, thought he looked like a nice guy, and felt sorry for him.
The dirty tactics did cause a rift between Rosencrantz and O’Brien, who had (somewhat famously) made friends during the campaign, frequently carpooling to campaign events and expressing admiration for each other at forums even as they disagreed.
In the end, Rosencrantz's attack ads didn't work. He was also widely perceived as more conservative than O'Brien (true: Rosencrantz supports conscience clauses, favors law-and-order tactics, and isn't a fan of light rail).
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Perhaps most important for O'Brien, though, he benefited from his association with McGinn. In addition to their long history, the pair shared a campaign consultant (the Mercury Group). Mercury polled and pushed a similar message (pro-transit, against the waterfront tunnel), while the Mikes had a joint get-out-the-vote effort that energized young and infrequent voters and linked the two as the progressive candidates in their races.
Council freshmen are always at a disadvantage compared to their more seasoned colleagues. O’Brien, like many freshmen who came before him, will head up the public-utilities committee, which isn’t as sexy, powerful, or high-profile as committees like transportation and public safety. However, he does come into office with a distinct (and apparently unprecedented) advantage: His close relationship with the incoming mayor, an office whose relationship with the council has historically ranged from cool to outright hostile.
O’Brien acknowledges that he’ll have a unique in with the mayor’s office. “We’re pretty tightly aligned,” he says. Although that could be an advantage to the council as a whole, which has frequently clashed with McGinn's predecessor Greg Nickels, “There’s certainly potential that the other eight council members could see me as part of the executive branch and shun me," O'Brien acknowledges.
However, none of the council members we spoke to said they were worried that the mayor would have a representative in the legislative branch. “Mike is a very thoughtful, reasonable guy, so I don’t think that’s going to be an issue,” council member Tim Burgess says. “I’m hoping we’re all going to have a closer relationship” with the mayor, he adds.
One area where O'Brien's close relationship with McGinn could help him on the council is a proposal by Burgess to outlaw certain kinds of aggressive panhandling, an idea both Mikes oppose.
“I would like to see fewer panhandlers, for sure, so the question is, what approach do we take? I don’t believe, from an economic perspective, that the law and order thing works.”
O'Brien will join the council with a clear to-do list and a game plan.
The priorities: Expanding access to affordable housing (through density and other land use changes, not new subsidies); redirecting police resources away from petty-crime crackdowns like Burgess’ anti-panhandling proposal; and putting a proposal to expand transit service on the ballot in Seattle.
The game plan: Enlist support from the community before proposing legislation to the council. It’s a strategy O’Brien shares with McGinn, whose campaign relied on volunteer support to spread the word widely about their candidate.
“The thing I do believe in is the kind of grassroots organizing that both our campaigns did and that the Sierra Club did during the [roads and transit] fight,” O’Brien says. “That’s going to be a big component of what I want to do on the council. It’s not going to be trying to get four votes—it’s going to be trying to get 4,000 people in the community to rally around what I want to do.”