Seattle City Council member Rob Johnson will not run for re-election, The Seattle Times reported Thursday, leaving his District 4 seat open after just one term.
Despite being a freshman on the council, the former Transportation Choices Coalition director took on some of the city's most contentious policies. He was the lead on zoning and, most notably, the Mandatory Housing Affordability program—allowing developers to build higher, in exchange for a fee paid into an affordable housing fund.
Here Johnson talks about his short stint on the council, his accomplishments, and regrets. (This interview has been shortened for clarity.)
You look kind of relieved, like a weight has been lifted off your shoulders.
"It's nice to sort of bask in the glow of accomplishments and the really nice sentiments that people have shared over the last 24 hours since the news has been public. It's a nice reminder that there are people out there that think my office has been doing a good job."
Did you really plan to only have one term?
"I did. And your PubliCola predecessor, who was the one who broke the news that I was running in late 2014, [Josh Feit] and I had a lot of conversations about that and what an aggressive policy agenda would look like and what it would take to try to achieve that agenda.
Frankly, I always wanted to make sure that I could get the things done that I wanted to, but also wanted to keep the commitment I made to Katie that I would really only do this one time...while we're in this period of unprecedented growth.
So you purposefully took on zoning. Do you have any regrets about having that be your central focus and such a big part of your time here?
"Not at all. I ran as somebody with a lot of technical experience in land-use and transportation planning. I wanted to take on that set of responsibilities because I thought it was so critical to the city's future.
Having that framework of knowing that you're not focused on the votes that are required to win a re-election frees you up to be a little more focused on what you think is the right set of policies for this city, as opposed to constantly doing the math about what would be the votes you need to get re-elected."
I know you've had a couple tough deaths in your family in the past year. Did that affect your decision at all?
We lost my dad in August 2017, and that was about six months after my wife's mother was diagnosed with glioblastoma. And then she passed away in January. In the middle of all that, I've got a father [with] a really aggressive atypical Parkinson's.
So it has been a hard year for us as a family....but those issues did not factor into this decision.
It certainly is part of the reason why I feel like I've had a less capacity to work on non-core issues for me as a council member. I'd loved to have been able to engage a little bit more with Councilmember Gonzalez on the head tax issues and a couple of other regrets that I've had.
What do you regret about the head tax and your involvement, or lack of involvement there?
"[Gonzalez] and I have a really good working relationship, and that's one of the few times where we've been on opposite sides of an issue. I really respect the leadership and the work she did on that topic.
I've got a lot of good relationships with the business community, as does she. I think that a tag-team approach between the two of us may have helped to bring more folks along earlier in the head tax conversations.
I wonder sometimes...if I had had a little more time and energy to be able to help—I don't know that it would've changed any outcomes. But as I think back about the last year, that's a place where I wish I would've had a little more time and energy to spend and help.
I think the 2019 elections are going to be a lot about the city's response to homelessness...and wonder if my engagement more proactively on that topic might've helped us to get to a better place."
To the place where you wouldn't have had to repeal it?
"Right. Or would've come up with the same sort of creative solutions that I think many folks are looking at now, at the regional level. Maybe we could've done a lot more engagement early on to identify what some of those regional funding strategies would be.
I wish that I had more time and energy to spend on that topic because it feels like we're going to be spinning on that issue for a little while."
Were you expecting the sheer amount of vitriol that you'd be getting when you became city council member? You mentioned your house had been teepeed recently?
"This job is strange for just that reason, right? So four years ago, my house gets teepeed, and the response that everybody has is, 'Oh you know neighborhood kids.' It was just my turn. In this job now you're like, 'Is it neighborhood kids? Is this somebody who's mad about something? Is it neighborhood kids whose parents are mad about something?'
The job messes with your head in that way and it'll be nice to be out of that mental space and you can just go back to being like, 'Oh my house getting egged and teepeed was just neighborhood kids.'"
What's the next step for you?
"I don't know. I wanted to make the announcement early for a couple reasons—one, so that the folks interested in running in 2019 have some time over the holidays with their families to contemplate what a 2019 election pathway for them might look like.
Secondly, I wanted to be able to have some space for me to be able to think about what I want to do next. With this job as the notable exception, I spent most of my career in one place and I'm a person who wants longevity and wants to make a longterm commitment to my next opportunity."
Why did you want this job?
"I fundamentally believe that the challenges we face as a growing city have a lot to do with restrictive land-use policies and really want to be able to unlock both the opportunity for us to build more market-rate housing and, through the Mandatory Housing Affordability program, be able to raise more revenue for more affordable housing.
That is a complicated and hard set of actions to try to get across the finish line, and I'm really proud of the fact that all of the MHA upzones that we have passed so far as a city have been unanimously adopted.
That's meant a lot of nights and weekends for me, for my office mates. It's been a lot of really hard work with community members and with my colleagues to craft proposals to really achieve community vision while also making sure that we raise revenue for affordable housing.
There's a lot of different ways to be a leader. Some folks are really good at being in front of a microphone, and leading rallies, and getting people to believe in a cause.
I tend to be more of a quiet leader who spends a lot of time and energy doing community building and more grassroots organizing work. A little less comfortable in front of the camera and with media, a lot more comfortable talking about super nerdy things like land-use policy and transportation issues."
So you felt like you had a ticking clock in this job. What are your biggest accomplishments?
I'm really proud of the levies that we've adopted that I've been a part of. It starts with the Sound Transit 3 levy and housing levy in 2016, and then the recent Families and Education Levy.
I'm also really proud of the work that I've done to build safe streets for people. ...That has been controversial, like the light rail and land-use changes."
Your biggest regrets?
"One of my biggest regrets is just the complicated nature of land use and how long it's taken for us to implement these Mandatory Housing Affordability programs. We're getting really close to year four since the idea first became public in June 2015. We're getting close to the end of a construction and development cycle.
Implementation of those citywide rezones earlier I think would've resulted in a lot more money for affordable housing... I regret that we didn't push harder on several different mayors who have worked on that topic to be able to get us through that legislation more quickly."
Do you think you would've won?
"I do. I think the wonderful thing about announcing early is that you get folks come out of the woodwork to say, 'I'm really proud of the work that you've done and I'm sorry you're not running again.'
It would've certainly been hard. I would've had to spend as much time, if not more time, knocking on doors than I did the last time around.
It's always a little easier running in an open seat as somebody who hasn't been elected because you can talk about a vision. When you're running as an incumbent, you have to defend a track record; that is sometimes an advantage, and sometimes it can be a challenge because people have a vote they can point to.
But this is a much better decision for my family and like I said, one that I made a long time ago. I'm excited to see who ends up jumping in the race."