Now that the primary-election field of 47 has been narrowed to a comparatively manageable 18, I’m sitting down with all the council candidates to talk about what they’ve learned so far, their campaign plans going forward, and their views on the issues that will shape the election, including density, “neighborhood character,” crime, parking, police accountability, and diversity. I’ll be rolling out all 17 of my interviews (Kshama Sawant was the only candidate who declined to sit down with me) over the next few weeks.
Today’s interview: City council incumbent Mike O’Brien, who’s running for Northwest Seattle’s newly created District 6. I sat down with O’Brien at his house in Fremont.
The C Is for Crank [ECB]: At the first general-election candidate forum the other day, you used the time allotted for you to introduce yourself to talk up Initiative 122, the public campaign-finance initiative. Why did you choose to do that?
Mike O’Brien [MO]: Public financing, and campaign finance reform, is something I’ve been working on since I started on the council [in 2010]. The influence of money on policy decisions is real. It’s not as bad [in Seattle] as it is in some places, but it still has an impact. Money in politics gives people who don’t have money a huge disadvantage compared to people who do have money. It skews the decisions we make, it skews access to decision makers.
As a candidate raising money, you might have a few friends and your parents who can hand you [maximum] $700 check. Then [in contrast], there’s the people who get to hold court with all the candidates because they donate $700 to all of them.
I raised $10,000 in $10 donations a couple years ago. You can do that, or you can have people writing you $700 checks. You can get 100 people to write you $50 checks and feel pretty good about it, and then [Ballard Oil owner and Burke-Gilman Trail adversary] Warren Aakervick writes your opponent a $700 check. All I have to do is flip on the Burke-Gilman Trail and I’ll have access to all that money. The people filing lawsuits to stop the trail have all maxed out to my opponent [Catherine Weatbrook].
The flip side of the $700 checks is, if you know 300 people who have $100 in democracy vouchers, you talk to them, you hold a fundraiser, and they say, “Okay, sounds great—I’ll give you my vouchers.” To raise $700 that way is going to be so much easier. If your values align and they trust you, they give you their vouchers. Then it becomes about that instead of what big business interests support you.
ECB: How do you see 122 diluting the impact of those big business interests?
MO: The way you raise money now is, you have a fundraiser for Council Member X and say, “Everyone should come because this is the candidate you should support.” Who can do that more than the Chamber? The Chamber already does this. It’s so transparent that they’re now saying, “We don’t want everyone else to have that.”
The Sierra Club, in contrast, can hold a fundraiser and raise $400. When NARAL gets behind you now, you get a $700 mailing list. If those organizations that already have campaign events can say to their members that they should bring their vouchers and give to the candidates you like, organizations will get behind people.
At some point, all the money in the world isn’t going to override a lead. You can throw $10 million at [District 3 candidate] Pam Banks, but everyone knows who is going to win. Kshama [Sawant] is, like her or don’t like her. In a race like that, Pam is going to have enough money to get her message out, but at a certain point that isn’t going to matter.
ECB: You were the sponsor of legislation that allowed temporary homeless encampments on city-owned land. In Ballard, which is in your district, you’ve been the target of a huge outpouring of anger about a proposed encampment near the Market Street business district. What do you make of the response, and has it made you question your commitment to putting an encampment there? And how do you respond to homeowners’ complaint that the city just announced the location without consulting them?
MO: I feel very strongly that we need more solutions for folks living on the streets. I helped start the road to having a program for people living in their vehicles. It’s crazy how many people are living out on the street. I totally agree with anyone who says any time we try to site a shelter, we’re going to have pushback.
Unfortunately, when you push a proposal through and have no plan for engaging the community on some level, even if it’s difficult, then you have a problem. [Mayor Ed Murray’s office responded to complaints with] silence. Just nothing. They basically said, we’ll send a resolution to the council and let them deal with it. That’s been frustrating. The community’s been frustrated. The mayor is going to decide what’s best for him, but I’m more concerned about, does the city have a good engagement process, and in this case, we did not.
That doesn’t mean we’re not going to have an encampment. If I can find a site that’s a better site, why would I put it on Market? [If I was the mayor’s office], I would send out an explanation of why they decided on this site. The mayor’s office and the departments have not shared with the public a spreadsheet of the issues with each of the sites and how they can be addressed. They didn’t do that. They said, “We just sat down and talked it through.”
Looking at the other sites [in comparison], the Market site’s not perfect, but it’s not perfect that people have to live in tents. I don’t think the perfect site exists. The concern that it’s next to a bar and a liquor store, and the concerns that’s it’s going to house people who are wandering around drunk and on drugs—we build all kinds of housing next to liquor stores and bars. If you are an alcoholic, you’re going to walk three blocks to the liquor store. The fact that it’s next to the Locks and tourists are going to have to see homeless people, well, we have a lot of homeless people in Seattle. I don’t think it’s going to diminish tourism in Ballard or make it so that no one rents out the VFW hall. Tent City is probably not the vision for Market Street but we’re not talking about a permanent encampment. I think people will be fine renting out the VFW hall next to the tent encampment. Churches have events even when they are hosts to homeless encampments.[The first community meeting was] a pretty one-sided bunch of people. They’re spreading fear around because they’re pissed. I get that. People feel that they were not part of the process. People need to have a better process so that they can’t point to the process and then say, “I’m just opposed to this because we weren’t informed.”
They all say no one’s against the homeless. There’s just no one willing to host them next to their houses. Absolutely, we need housing, and we’re building housing. We’ve built thousands of units of affordable housing in the last ten years. But we’ve got 3,000 people living on the streets. We’re now in a booming economy and we have more people on the streets and more and more people losing housing. It used to be cyclical. Now it’s not. Our economy is producing conditions where people cannot survive.
ECB: In the recent HALA discussions, you were one of the first council members to question whether homeowners had enough of a say in one of the recommendations, which would have allowed a broader diversity of housing forms, including duplexes and townhouses, in single-family areas. Have your views on density shifted?
MO: I have not changed my position on single-family. I have always been in favor of backyard cottages and mother-in-laws. There was some discussion about whether we should rename [single-family]. I supported that idea. I supported the idea that single-family homes could have three units—a house, a detached accessory dwelling unit, and a rental unit in the basement.
I’m not open at all to the notion of tearing down single-family homes and building duplexes and triplexes in their place. It’s not central to [creating] 20,000 affordable units or 40,000 market-rate units.
We’re not ready to have a conversation in this city around converting all single-family zones to multifamily. I think people are very open to backyard cottages and mother-in-laws. That’s a shift. Five years ago or ten years ago, they were very threatening. Not only do I hear people saying they’re okay with it, but I think there is room for us to change some of the regulations about zoning and density. Folks do have some concerns [about allowing other types of density], and they deserve to have a say, especially on bulkiness. People have a right to have a say in the process, because it’s a democracy, and the city is not run by 11 elected officials who just do what we think is best. We have a feedback loop called elections, and the pendulum does swing.[HALA] can still be something that really brings the community together in a powerful way. The rollout of HALA was not great. The discussion has been about what we are going to do in single-family neighborhoods. But that’s not what is going to contribute most to affordability. Mandatory inclusionary zoning is supposed to produce 6,000 affordable units. That’s what we’re working on.
Previously: Jon Grant, Position 8