Mike O'Brien was elected to the Seattle City Council in 2009 and represents District 6, which includes Fremont, Ballard and Phinney Ridge.

Share story

More Seattle City Council members are bowing out than seeking re-election.

Councilmember Mike O’Brien won’t run again, he announced Wednesday, choosing to leave City Hall of his own accord rather than attempt to retain his seat in District 6, which covers Fremont, Ballard, Green Lake and Phinney Ridge.

O’Brien is the fourth incumbent to opt out of the 2019 council elections, after Rob Johnson, Sally Bagshaw and Bruce Harrell, setting Seattle politics on course for enormous upheaval. All seven of the nine-member council’s district seats are up for grabs.

The other three incumbents — Lisa Herbold, Kshama Sawant and Debora Juarez — have launched campaigns. Citywide seats held by M. Lorena González and Teresa Mosqueda aren’t next up for election until 2021.

Speaking to reporters Wednesday in his council office, O’Brien, elected three times, said he could have won another contest and agonized about whether to try. But his polling showed the District 6 race would be tough, with the 51-year-old’s stances on issues such as homeless camping and housing density having made him, at times, a polarizing figure.

“Any elected official position is not a lifetime appointment,” O’Brien said Wednesday, adding that he hopes his absence will lend the race and Seattle politics more broadly a less divisive tenor. “This is the time to step back and allow new leadership to come to the fore.”

First elected in 2009, when all council members represented the entire city, O’Brien was a Sierra Club activist who worked for a decade as the chief financial officer for a local law firm. Early in his tenure, the bike-riding politician teamed up with a like-minded mayor, Mike McGinn, to oppose the Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement tunnel that opened this month.

The council member has counted environmental, housing, safe-streets, labor and social-justice activists among his supporters, often aligning with other members on the left wing of the council, such as Sawant and now-retired Councilmember Nick Licata.

O’Brien paddled across Elliott Bay with other so-called kayaktivists in 2015 to protest the arrival of a Shell Oil drilling rig, and he backed Seattle’s groundbreaking $15-per-hour minimum-wage law.

Flanked Wednesday by admirers from social-service organizations, the Fremont resident spoke proudly about pushing developers to pay fees for affordable housing and passing a law, since blocked in court, to help Uber and Lyft drivers unionize.

The council member said a desire to address climate change led over time to work against the city’s growing economic inequality, and Jill Mangaliman, executive director at the environmental-justice organization Got Green, said O’Brien has gone to bat for people of color facing displacement.

“We’re going to lose a champion,” Mangaliman said.

But O’Brien also has caught flak from constituents unhappy with his priorities and unsatisfied with his response to nuts-and-bolts problems in his district. In recent years, the once-chipper council member’s trademark grin has regularly been replaced by a worried frown.

Critics have objected to O’Brien pressing to ease restrictions on homeless camping and backyard cottages in single-family neighborhoods and to adopt an employee head tax on high-grossing businesses to combat homelessness. They’ve also complained about his advocacy for the construction of a missing link between sections of the Burke-Gilman Trail in Ballard’s industrial area.

Tempers flared against the council member last year as he defended the head tax at a neighborhood meeting, and he was shoved out of a party celebrating Ballard’s new Nordic Museum by the event’s shipyard hosts.

O’Brien acknowledged those sentiments, then added, “I don’t know what I could have done differently.”

“There are a lot of people that are scared and sort of frustrated, and that shows up as fear and hate sometimes in a way that’s kind of ugly,” he said. “I wish we weren’t so divided right now as a community.”

O’Brien’s news came the day after Dr. Jay Fathi launched a District 6 campaign with an endorsement from Tim Burgess, a former council member and interim mayor.

Kate Martin and Jon Lisbin also are running in District 6, with more candidates likely to announce, given OBrien’s decision. Dan Strauss, an aide to Bagshaw, announced a bid Wednesday, with Bagshaw’s support.

The council member said stepping away from the race makes him nervous because District 6 needs someone who shares his values.

O’Brien’s decision marks the end of an era. His announcement, combined with those by the other incumbents, guarantees the council next year will include no one elected earlier than 2013.