Mike O'Brien, who was elected to the Seattle City Council in 2009, was sure to be a lapdog for Mayor Mike McGinn. Or so the thinking went. Having both served as president of the local Sierra Club, the two Mikes shared extended social and advocacy networks, and even the same campaign consultant (to say nothing of sharing Irish names).
But while Mayor McGinn has been in a three-year tailspin—failing to fulfill campaign promises and employing a brash style that has alienated city officials—O'Brien has charted an opposite course. He's passing progressive legislation, sometimes overcoming intense controversy, while still winning over his opponents.
"He's very engaged and he's done a great job," says Council Member Tim Burgess, who many city hall watchers agree represents the council's conservative counterpoint to liberal O'Brien. "He is obviously a close friend of the mayor," Burgess adds, "but I have not seen that cause problems."
O'Brien has successfully passed ordinances banning single-use plastic shopping bags, establishing a registry that lets Seattle residents opt out of phone-book delivery, and creating a program that lets homeless people camp in their cars as they transition to permanent housing. Those are three big wins for a freshman council member.
Ironically, many of O'Brien's colleagues have been bogged down with bills handed down to them by the mayor, including the proposed basketball arena in Sodo, reforms to construction regulations, and now a proposal to allow taller buildings in South Lake Union.
This is all to say that O'Brien, who has stood with the mayor sometimes, has been uncommonly successful, while the mayor has visibly flopped on several signature issues (e.g., failing to get light rail on the ballot, failing to stop the deep-bore tunnel, failing to reform the police department on his own).
But now O'Brien faces the biggest political test of his first term: persuading a majority of fellow council members to vote for an ordinance that could make it harder for them to keep their jobs.
O'Brien's bill would make two reforms for anyone running for mayor, city attorney, or city council—the most significant being a ban on rolling over unspent money from previous campaigns into future campaigns. This would nip a trend in which incumbents have been building huge war chests over time, scaring off otherwise qualified challengers. The most dramatic example, according to a February report from the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission, is Council Member Tom Rasmussen, whose $144,000 ending balance from his 2011 campaign sets him up with an intimidating head start for 2015.
The second provision in O'Brien's reform proposals would limit candidates to raising money only in the year they are running for office. This would curb the practice employed by Council Member Burgess, for example, who raised tens of thousands of dollars from donors maxing out their contribution limits in the year before his last reelection bid. Some say this creates the appearance of conflict when big donors contribute to campaigns while also lobbying council members on legislation.
"I don't think we want to live in a city where only people who can write large checks and only people who can attract large donors are going to be successful," O'Brien says. People believe that "any citizen can play that role in public life, and the city council is a great starting spot." The city's election commission unanimously endorsed O'Brien's bill in June.
But not everyone supports the measure. Rasmussen has protested, not surprisingly. And the Municipal League of King County issued a statement on July 17 opposing the bill. Confusingly, the Muni League said the bill "may further advantage the incumbent," ostensibly by preventing challengers from raising money in the year before elections.
But the Muni League provided no data to back up its claim, O'Brien counters. According to city records, in the year before January 1 of the 2011 election cycle, incumbents raised $375,312, while challengers collectively raised a mere $175. This pattern has played out, although somewhat less dramatically, for the last decade.
O'Brien has already secured four cosponsors (Sally Bagshaw, Tim Burgess, Bruce Harrell, and Nick Licata), which likely sets him up to get the five votes needed to pass the measure. The bill will be referred to Burgess's Government Performance and Finance Committee.
And Burgess seems to think the bill will pass sometime this fall. "By and large, I am very supportive of what Mike is doing, and he and I have worked very closely on this legislation." As for O'Brien's relationship with the mayor? "I don't think [O'Brien] is beholden to anybody," Burgess says.
Passing this next bill could amount to a fourth victory, creating a legislative record that makes O'Brien hard to beat when he runs for reelection next year. Meanwhile, politicians are circling the mayor's office like buzzards.