The Evolution of Mike O'Brien

Green Mike O'Brien and Blue Ed Murray, supposed political rivals, are meeting in the turquoise middle.

By Josh Feit October 8, 2014

City Council member Mike O'Brien is Mayor Ed Murray's Ted Kennedy. If you're too young to know what the hell I'm talking about: The famously paranoid Richard Nixon, at the height of his popularity before Watergate hit, was obsessed with the young liberal senator from Massachusetts, identifying him as his main threat in the upcoming '72 election.

The analogy doesn't exactly work—Murray isn't a Republican with a CREEP squad to O'Brien's liberal—but Murray certainly seems concerned that the charming, popular council member (a protege of Murray's former bitter rival Mike McGinn) is going to run for mayor in 2017.

O'Brien, for his part, says he's currently focusing on his upcoming 2015 race in the newly districted Seattle city council elections. O'Brien, who has run and won twice citywide now (getting 67 percent last time against a serious challenger), is looking at a new type of constituency—a more neighborhood-y crowd (he's in the new 6th District west of I-5 which includes Ballard, Fremont, Crown Hill and Whittier Heights). It's a single-family zone crowd and it's causing O'Brien to alter his politics.

"I want that dense urban vision. That's kinda in my roots. And I really believe in it. But I also want that to work for everybody.'And if all that new construction is only affordable to people that are working on the higher floors at Amazon. Than we've failed."—Mike O'Brien

And all that brings me to the most intriguing political plot line at city hall right now: The intersecting trajectories of 2017's potential mayoral rivals.

O'Brien, the Sierra Club bike-riding urbanist who passed a plastic bag ban and once campaigned against a light rail initiative because it also came with ... roads for cars! ... is suddenly becoming more of a neighborhoods guy (his latest legislation cracks down on aPodments).

More important, with his latest affordable housing proposal, he's simultaneously transforming into a social justice liberal—more Elizabeth Warren, less Elizabeth Kolbert.

Meanwhile, Mayor Murray, who comes from a bleeding-heart Catholic social justice bent—he once cited Dorothy Day's Catholic Workers' movement as an inspiration, fought for budgets in Olympia that prioritized social programs, and had a 90 percent lifetime labor voting record after 20 years in the legislature before leading off his mayoral administration with a fight for $15 an hour—has suddenly discovered urbanism (he threatened to veto O'Brien's aPodment bill.) 

The two aren't bumping into each other on the left to right scale; they're both lefties. But on the green to blue spectrum—with O'Brien moving from green to blue and Murray moving from blue to green—they're starting to meet in the turquoise middle. O'Brien is currently pushing taxes on developers (typical allies of green urbanists) to help fund housing for the working class. And Murray recently negated council legislation to cap ridesharing, hammering out an agreement of his own instead to free up urbanist share economy companies like Uber and Lyft 

For Murray, the move from Bruce Springsteen politics to Bill McKibben politics comes with his job as mayor of a booming major American city. Cities—bastions of mass transit, innovation districts, smart growth, and efficient networks—are at the forefront of economic and environmental change. In addition to Murray's ride-sharing save, he's currently pushing a Mike McGinn-style measure for Seattle-only bus funding

For O'Brien, you could write the change off as simple pandering to the provincialism that comes with the new district system, where single family zones, traditionally anathema to urbanism, are sacrosanct. 

But I don't think that's it.

I recently interviewed O'Brien about his "Linkage Fee" proposal, the aforementioned tax on developers to pay for affordable housing. The tax wouldn't touch single-family development nor find any way to charge people to protect their suburban-ish property (which is certainly part of the affordability crisis). The tax targets development hubs in multi-family zones, and along light rail, and downtown. Isn't that the exact kind of smart green development O'Brien wants to incentivize, not disincentivize? 

An earnest O'Brien told me: "That is a question that I spend many hours on my bike ride or lying in bed thinking about. So, here's a little bit of the evolution of Mike O'Brien. I absolutely want to see these dense urban environments. Especially concentrating the density and investing in transit and other infrastructure. The thing I struggle with is when I start looking at displacement. [Or] gentrification. But really displacement. And when you look around the country, at where we do dense urban infill really well, you almost always find massive amounts of displacement."

"So, here's a little bit of the evolution of Mike O'Brien."—Mike O'Brien

O'Brien went on to  reference Portland and its success at building light rail and smart, dense neighborhoods and how the head of the Portland Development Commission once "half joked" to him  that Portland was a "gentrifying machine." 

He went on: "I want that dense urban vision. That's kinda in my roots. And I really believe in it. But I also want that to work for everybody. And if all that new construction is only affordable to people that are working on the higher floors at Amazon, and working the day shifts at Amazon, and the people that are in that neighborhood that made it unique and interesting can no longer afford to stay there, if the only one left is the Vietnamese guy that owns the restaurant that lives in South King County but commutes back to Seattle to cook food for the people that now live in his neighborhood, then we've failed."  


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