Panhandling vote puts old friends in tough spot
Seattle City Councilmember Mike O'Brien was having second thoughts. After weeks of debate, he announced last Friday afternoon that he would vote for a controversial new Seattle law making aggressive panhandling a civil offense.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Seattle City Councilmember Mike O'Brien was having second thoughts.
After weeks of debate, he announced last Friday afternoon that he would vote for a controversial new Seattle law making aggressive panhandling a civil offense.
But Friday night, he had a feeling in the pit of his stomach that he had made the wrong decision.
Normally in such a political crisis, O'Brien would turn to his old friend and Sierra Club ally, Mike McGinn. But McGinn was now the mayor and had vowed to veto the legislation O'Brien had just promised to support.
O'Brien needed someone to talk to, so he called the mayor. "I told him, 'This is the first time I'd rather be in your shoes than mine,' " O'Brien said in an interview this week.
The council approved the bill 5-4 Monday, and the mayor intends to veto it Friday. O'Brien's last-minute flip from a yes to a no means the council likely doesn't have the six votes it needs to override McGinn's veto.
O'Brien had been conflicted over the panhandling bill for months. But as support for the legislation crumbled last week, the rookie council member became the swing vote and the object of furious lobbying on both sides.
O'Brien's decision to vote against the law came after a weekend of soul-searching and talking to people who understood his political foundation. That group included the mayor.
"Mike gave me a call just to talk through with me what he was thinking," McGinn said. "My relationship with Mike and the way in which I talked about it with him was as a friend."
McGinn didn't lobby him Friday night, O'Brien said. Instead, the two commiserated about the tough spot O'Brien was in.
By Saturday morning when O'Brien met with his staff, it was clear he hadn't really made up his mind, despite his emphatic statement to the media Friday afternoon.
For a few hours Saturday morning, O'Brien and his advisers mapped out on a white board the consequences, political and practical, of his decision.
He changed his mind three times that day, he said. "Talk about king flip-flop, he said."
Sunday, he started calling political advisers for help. He thought irrationally about calling in sick. Riding his bike, he thought to himself that a benefit of getting hit would be that he might miss Monday's vote.
On a run Sunday, O'Brien thought he might take a break from thinking about the bill. But his running partner wanted to talk about it.
The mayor had a lot riding on O'Brien's decision.
On Saturday and Sunday, he sent O'Brien numerous text messages, O'Brien said, urging him to consider voting against the bill.
O'Brien said he knew the mayor meant it as a friend, but O'Brien said he had trouble navigating the mayor's motives. Sometime Sunday, he stopped reading McGinn's texts.
Until Friday, O'Brien said, he had been approaching the legislation from a technical viewpoint. Tim Burgess — the bill's sponsor and the council member O'Brien feels he is closest to — had laid out a good argument. The city's lawyers had countered bill opponents' claims that the legislation threatened solicitors' rights to due process and free speech.
But McGinn and others who spoke to O'Brien over the weekend appealed to his gut. His ideology. They convinced him that even if the legislation didn't technically harm the disadvantaged or people of color, it could have consequences for those groups if it weren't evenly enforced.
After the time O'Brien had put in working with Burgess, he dreaded telling him that he was going to change his vote. At the same time, he worried the voters who elected him would question his integrity — and many would see him as too loyal to McGinn.
Monday morning, O'Brien told Burgess.
"I will say that I wished he hadn't switched, but I wasn't surprised, because of just the dialogue that we'd had over the last several months," Burgess said. "I know that he honestly struggled with this issue, and it doesn't change my viewpoint of his abilities or his integrity or anything."
By the time of the vote, O'Brien was feeling angry at his friend on the seventh floor of City Hall. McGinn had been on KUOW's "Weekday" hours earlier and urged people to call O'Brien and tell him to oppose the bill.
"I didn't really appreciate that," O'Brien said.
He checked his unread text messages after the meeting and found the last one McGinn had sent. It said something like, "I hope you know I was trying to be a friend. I think you might be mad at me."
O'Brien replied that he was angry, but that he appreciated the push back. "We should have a beer sometime," he says he wrote.
Emily Heffter: 206-464-8246 or email@example.com
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