LEADERSHIP INTERVIEW WITH SEATTLE CITY COUNCILMEMBER MIKE O'BRIEN
Nov 13, 2019 / 10 min read
He’s been called the most divisive man in Seattle. After taking principled, but loudly criticized, positions on everything from homeless sweeps to natural gas furnace conversions, Mike O’Brien decided not to run for re-election to Seattle City Council this year.
As a middle-class white man representing the wealthiest, whitest council district in the city, I wanted to ask O’Brien his advocacy for the most vulnerable, what “leadership” means as an elected official, and how all the public criticism has impacted him.
Do you consider yourself a privileged person, and what have you done with that privilege?
I absolutely consider myself a privileged person. But I will say that that concept is —you know I’m 51 years old — and I don’t know that I really appreciated or understood until just the last 10 years since I’ve been on the council.
I grew up in a middle class family. The biggest struggle I’d point to was that there were a lot of people at the schools that I went to who had lots of money, and I wasn’t them. I rode the ratty old station wagon and they had nice fancy cars from Europe. But to call that a struggle is a stretch.
I worked hard and achieved well in school, and got good grades, and went to a good college. And it was always just kind of embedded in me, “You work hard, you keep your nose clean, good things will happen, and life will just work out.”
And sure enough it did.
So a bit of my narrative was someone just laid out the rules, I just followed those rules, and that’s it. And other people didn’t.
And then in the last decade plus, I start to have a better understanding of those rules are designed by people that look like me with similar backgrounds to me, and they’re designed to make people like me successful. But they don’t work for everyone.
How did you it end up in leadership?
I always had fairly high self-esteem because everyone around me said, ‘You’re going to be successful”
Part of that is the economics of being from a middle class family, being a white guy in society, frankly. It’s not just your mom and dad saying you can be anything you want.
It’s all the messages that are being sent in subtle ways. It’s like, “Oh look, guys like me sit at the head of the table in the board room. Guys like me are the ones that win. We’re always coming out ahead. We’re the star of every movie. Yes of course I’m going to be successful.”
But my personal style is...well, the idea of speaking publicly is something that was terrifying for me. Not in any way that’s different from most people, but I’m nervous about it.
When I would join a board, I would show up at meetings and just like not talk for months — really fearful of making a mistake, frankly, but I kind of couched that in terms of, “I really want to understand what’s going on before I decide how I’m gonna contribute.”
I think most of those things tended to be appreciated. You know, “Mike, you know you said something interesting the other day, will you share it with the group?” People would pull me out a little bit.
I think I’m fairly thoughtful, and I can add to a group. I tend to start as, “I’m not sure who that guys is, he’s seems fine.” But over a period of time my stock would go up.
So how do you decide, as an elected official, when to stick to a position that you either always knew would be unpopular, or found out is unpopular, and fight for it because you think it's actually the right thing to do? And when do you listen to that public opinion and say “I’m going to back off?”
I think there's like a series of tests that I loosely go through.
There are some values that I’d hold deep. Climate change is something that I care deeply about. But, you know, we should ban internal combustion engine in a city like Seattle, and we should probably have done it years ago, And yet I know that's a step too far.
So you know how far can I push my constituents, and still support them?
Sometimes leadership is taking a bold position that majority of constituents may not think they agree with, to prove that they will agree with it.
But that means taking takes a chance, and it depends on where you are in the election cycle, and sometimes you have to say, “I know you're not ready for this and so I’m not going to do it.”
So is that political cowardice to make compromises? Or is that realistic?
It's also really hard to separate my personal ego, and the fact that this is a job for me that’s providing income for my family, health care for my kids — to separate that from the other decisions.
I try to surround myself with people who are loyal to a cause, but aren’t necessarily loyal to me, Who will say “Mike you know you're no longer helping the cause at this point.”
And at the same time having people say, “You know Mike, if you get more than 51% of the vote, you’re not trying hard enough.”
There are some easy formulas to get reelected with 75% of the vote, and not have anyone run against you. Because your main job is to not piss anyone off — as opposed to actually doing things.
Then there’s another test of, like, “whose voices should I lift up?”
The chamber of commerce, Amazon, they don’t need my voice at City Hall. They’ e got their own voice and they have access.
But the folks at Nicklesville who are trying to find a place for an encampment, they don’t have paid lobbyists, they don’t have resources.
So trying to lift up those voices is something that that I decided “this what I want to do.”
I have power. How am I going to spend that power?