“Based on what I’ve accomplished to date and the work in front of us, I think this is an appropriate time for me to step back and allow new leadership to emerge and come forward,” he told reporters in his city hall office Wednesday.
O’Brien, who represents District 6 in northwest Seattle, joins Councilmembers Sally Bagshaw, Bruce Harrell and Rob Johnson in deciding not to seek re-election. Three incumbents — Debora Juarez, Kshama Sawant and Lisa Herbold — are defending their seats this year, while the two citywide council members — Teresa Mosqueda and Lorena González — are not up for re-election until 2021
Elected in 2009, before the council switched to district-based representation, O’Brien is one of the council’s three longest-serving members, along with Bagshaw and Harrell.
Before winning his seat on the council, O’Brien was the chief financial officer of a local law firm and a longtime volunteer with the Sierra Club, rising to power in tandem with his environmental buddy, former Mayor Mike McGinn.
O’Brien quickly came to be viewed as one of the council’s most liberal members, first as an environmental advocate, then for his interest in matters related to race, social justice and homelessness.
He was an early opponent of the SR 99 tunnel, arguing it promoted driving in a way that was anathema to Seattle’s goals of reducing its carbon footprint. He spoke out against oil and coal trains running through Seattle. And when a Shell oil rig docked at the Port of Seattle in 2015, he joined the hordes of water-based protesters dubbed the “kayaktivists.”
Later in his tenure, O’Brien grew to become equally outspoken on issues of housing, homelessness, social justice and those struggling to live in an increasingly expensive city.
“Without addressing the crisis that those folks face on a daily basis it became apparent to me that we’re never going to win on climate,” he said Wednesday.
Perhaps more than any other council member, his ideological shifts could be witnessed in real time. O’Brien initially supported measures that would clear the path to building a new north precinct police station and a new youth detention facility, but reversed course on both as he listened to, in particular, communities of color who opposed the project.
O’Brien was also out front on some of the city’s most controversial initiatives, turning him into one of the city’s most divisive elected officials.
He spearheaded the country’s first attempt to allow Uber and Lyft drivers to unionize, a battle that continues to play out in court.
On housing, O’Brien pushed for requiring private developers to contribute to affordable housing.
He also advocated for deprioritizing homeless encampment evictions in certain parts of the city, a move that was met with stiff backlash from opponents who interpreted his position as legalizing camping in the city.
Most recently, O’Brien was one of the most proactive proponents of a tax on large businesses to fund housing and homelessness services. The upheaval around the ultimately doomed tax seemed to drag O’Brien down with it, as his district constituents revolted against him in public forums.
But his backers were fiercely loyal to him.
In O’Brien’s office, “there’s an understanding that our communities do not live single issue lives,” said Jill Mangaliman, executive director of environmental justice organization Got Green. Climate, housing, food: “All of those connections were valued and honored whenever we partnered with Councilmember O’Brien’s office,” Mangaliman said.
In a statement, Mayor Jenny Durkan said, “Mike has been a tireless voice and progressive advocate for a better, more compassionate, and more climate-friendly Seattle. Mike cares deeply about our City and has been a champion for a more connected, just city of the future."
Unlike Bagshaw, Harrell and Johnson, O’Brien has genuinely struggled with whether or not to seek re-election. He commissioned polling to test his numbers, independent journalist Erica Barnett reported, and has delayed in making a final decision. On Wednesday, he said he’d wake up some mornings with a campaign strategy and others feeling ready to call it quits.
But O’Brien was also facing a stiff re-election campaign. His polling numbers have looked consistently poor, according to people who have seen the results. The powerful Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce has targeted his district as a seat to claim for one of their candidates.
And the number of challengers against him grows. Former council member Heidi Wills is considering a run and this week, Dr. Jay Fathi declared his candidacy with the backing of a high-profile consultant and a list of well-known endorsers. District 6 native and legislative aide to Bagshaw, Dan Strauss, is also going to run.
Still, O’Brien said he thinks he had a shot, even if it would have been a hard campaign. “That’s not necessarily why I’m making this decision today,” he said. “I still have a lot of fight left in me.”
With seven seats up for re-election and four of them open, the election will be a gold-rush. So far, nearly 40 people have tossed their hats into the ring. The filing deadline is not until May.