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Councilmember O’Brien passes on a run for mayor

Mike O'Brien, right, at a 2015 event with Mayor Ed Murray. Credit: Seattle City Council/Flickr

Last September, Councilmember Mike O’Brien asked if Mayor Ed Murray would meet him for a beer at Poquito’s, off Pike Street. The mayor, according to one City Hall source, wasn’t sure why, exactly, but he agreed.

Sound Transit supporters were holding a kickoff party for the Sound Transit 3 ballot initiative at Nuemo’s across the street, and the two met at the bar just beforehand. When Murray arrived, O’Brien — the perpetually smiling progressive representative of the Ballard neighborhood — shook the mayor’s hand and promised him he would not run against him in 2017.

O’Brien’s name has consistently made the list of prospective challengers to Murray for mayor. On Wednesday, though, he said that he will pass on this year’s contest.

Although all politics in Seattle are different shades of blue, O’Brien is consistently to the left of the mayor. He’s been far more willing to endorse more flexible laws on homeless encampments; he was among the first to pull his support for the construction of a new North Precinct police station amid public outcry; and recently urged the county to reconsider the construction of a new youth detention facility in the Central District. Those are all issues on which Murray’s been more conservative.

The two also clashed to great publicity after KING 5 news released a map, which it obtained from the Mayor’s Office, that apparently showed vast swaths of public space that would be open to the homeless under a plan O’Brien supported. O’Brien accused the mayor’s staff of intentionally leaking what he saw as a misleading map in order to derail the City Council’s efforts to shape rules around encampments.

O’Brien said now’s not the time. “I had certainly thought about it a lot,” he told Crosscut on Wednesday. “I care a lot about the city. I am interested in running for mayor someday, but, for me 2017 is just not the right year.”

O’Brien gave a number of reasons for why. For one, he’s run two council campaigns in the past four years, which he says has been tiring. He has one son in high school and another in college and his “window to spend time with them is shrinking.”

And, simply, the urgency isn’t there just yet. “I don’t always agree with him,” he says of the mayor, “but he’s also doing a lot of good things, too.”

There’s also a practical political consideration that can’t be ignored. Murray has already raised well over $200,000 for his re-election campaign and has secured a huge number of important endorsements. Just Wednesday, Murray’s campaign manager Sandeep Kaushik announced nine labor organizations were throwing their support behind the mayor.

When asked whether the decision was more personal or practical, O’Brien said, “It’s hard for me to separate these things out. You look at the style of campaigns I’ve run in the past and I haven’t raised massive amounts of money” — an acknowledgement that he’s behind Murray.

“That said, if I felt a burning desire to put myself in the race and felt that it was a top priority to replace this mayor, I still believe these races aren’t just about money,” he added.

With O’Brien’s definitive exit, the prospect of high-profile candidates to challenge Murray is dwindling. So far no one with a serious chance has announced a run and, from top to bottom in the city, even rumors are scarce.

Several sources close to the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce have said some of its members have been dissatisfied with Murray and City Hall in general and have been headhunting for challengers, but they haven’t yet found any plausible alternatives. At least publicly, the Chamber itself is still very much behind Murray. Chamber head Maud Daudon attended Murray’s kickoff fundraiser.

In a statement, Markham McIntyre, chief of staff of the Chamber and executive director of its political action committee, said, “We have a strong working relationship with Mayor Murray…. Our political arm, CASE, has been focused on finding viable candidates who understand and respect the business community to run for the open Seattle City Council seat.” 

O’Brien says he’s received emails from several people interested in a run. He declined to name them, but said he had not heard of them before.

None of that’s to say a strong challenge couldn’t still occur. Former Mayor Greg Nickels was seen as a lock for a third term in 2009 before Mike McGinn jumped into the race in February as a relatively unknown neighborhood activist, urbanist and state Sierra Club leader. Nickels didn’t even survive the primary, and McGinn won the November final.

But several people Crosscut spoke with said, even if a candidate has not declared, now would be the time to start gathering support. And very little of that has happened. Barring a disaster — like Nickels’ snowgate — Murray is in an excellent position to win re-election.

“I hope it will be a competitive race,” O’Brien said, “because I think all races should be competitive.”

January 25, 2017, 5:45 PM: The story has been updated to include the statement from Markham McIntyre.

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