Jesse Arreguin. Photo: Courtesy of Jesse Arreguin
Jesse Arreguín. Photo: Courtesy of Jesse Arreguín Credit: Jesse Arreguin

On a recent rainy day, City Councilman Jesse Arreguín took time from his campaign for mayor to visit a homeless encampment in South Berkeley. As water poured down on the tents and lean-tos set up in the Adeline Street median, Arreguín spoke to those camping out about their needs and wants.

The fact that Arreguín, 32, took the time to visit the encampment, which was later moved by city workers, is no surprise to his supporters. Arreguín has long been a voice for the poor and the marginalized, a reflection, he said, of his upbringing.

Arreguín is the son and grandson of farm workers. His grandfather came from Mexico in the 1940s and spent most of his life toiling in the fields of the Central Valley. Arreguín’s father, after picking crops as a child, enlisted in the Army at 18 and went on to drive a truck and work in a warehouse before starting a long career as an electrician at San Francisco State University.

The family’s poverty and struggles and tales of friends who had to live in cars made a deep impression on Arreguín, who grew up in San Francisco. From a young age he had a preternaturally strong instinct to fight against forces of prejudice, he said.

See the profile on challenger Laurie Capitelli on Berkeleyside.

“I would get so upset about injustice, whether it happened 200 years ago or now,” Arreguín said in a recent interview.

In 1990, when he was 6, Arreguín asked his parents if he could stay home from school so he could watch Nelson Mandela’s release from a South African prison. When he turned 8, he got involved in naming a street in San Francisco after César Chávez, a battle that had so many ups and downs that it took a number of years before Army Street was finally renamed after the founder of the United Farm Workers. Arreguín said he was a major player in the fight, even talking to groups around San Francisco about the issue as a youngster.

A television crew interviews a young Jesse Arreguín at the unveiling of César Chávez Street in San Francisco. Photo: Jesse Arreguín
A television crew interviews a young Jesse Arreguín at the unveiling of César Chávez Street in San Francisco. Photo: Jesse Arreguín

“Young” and “first” seem to be themes for Arreguín. He is the first in his family to go to college. He served on the San Francisco Youth Commission, interned for Mayor Gavin Newsom, Supervisor Aaron Peskin and two other supervisors when he was in high school, became the city affairs director for the Associated Students of the University of California – which had him communicating with city officials while still a teenager – and then worked as a legislative aide for City Councilman Kriss Worthington. When Arreguín was elected to the Berkeley City Council representing the downtown area in 2008, he was the youngest person ever elected.

Going from protesting government activities to making legislation is not the path Arreguín originally saw for himself, but now he says it fits him well.

“If you asked me 20 years ago what I wanted to be when I grew up I would have said ‘activist,’ never ‘politician,’” said Arreguín.

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Some say he is a master politician who has run a masterful campaign. Arreguín is facing seven other candidates who want to replace Mayor Tom Bates, who is stepping down after 14 years. Bates’ pick to succeed him is Berkeley Councilman Laurie Capitelli, a former public school teacher, business owner and realtor, and Arreguín’s strongest opponent. A year ago, many political insiders would have predicted that Capitelli would easily glide to victory given his backing by Bates, the majority of the City Council, and other influential politicians like State Senator and former Berkeley Mayor Loni Hancock and former Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner. (Berkeleyside will publish a profile of Capitelli, too.)

Yet the race is tighter than even Arreguín had predicted, and without formal polling, no one interviewed by Berkeleyside had confidence in predicting the winner.

“It’s been so long since there has been a contested election without an incumbent mayor that it’s hard to know where voters are at,” said Rob Wrenn, an Arreguín supporter and former Berkeley planning commissioner.

Jesse Arreguín and Bernie Sanders. Photo: Jesse Arreguín
Jesse Arreguín and Bernie Sanders. Photo: Jesse Arreguín

Arreguín has captured the endorsements of not only former Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, but of the Democratic Party, the East Bay Express, the Sierra Club, and numerous Democratic clubs, among many other endorsers. (Former Labor Secretary – and prominent Sanders supporter – Robert Reich has endorsed Capitelli, setting off a lot of sniping between the two camps over who gets to wear the mantle of “progressive.”) He has also raised $102,434, just $11,121 less than Capitelli’s $115,555.

Arreguín is running on a platform of change. If elected, he tells his supporters, he will be Berkeley’s first Latino mayor, its youngest and the only one truly dedicated to pushing for progressive causes.

This message seems to have transformed Arreguín. Buried is the staid, considered councilman known for his probing questions from the dais, penchant to do deep research, and to start committees on numerous issues (which often makes Berkeley city staff secretly groan).

Instead, the 32-year-old has turned into a fiery orator who inspires his supporters. His passion about Berkeley, his quest to help those who are struggling to pay rent or find a decent paying job comes through clearly. Arreguín has cast his mayoral campaign as a fight between developers that control City Hall versus him, who represents “people power.”

“We are facing huge corporate interests who are trying to stop us from bringing progressive leadership to City Hall,” Arreguín said at a forum for “progressive” candidates in September, in a venue in which he appeared comfortable emphasizing what he characterizes as a David and Goliath battle. In other forums, he has not spoken as candidly. “It’s people power, it’s grassroots power, that win elections. I am no longer sitting back and seeing more people being pushed out and priced of Berkeley… Let’s take back City Hall for the people. Let’s move Berkeley forward with a progressive future.”

In a recent interview with Berkeleyside, Arreguín noted that independent real estate interests had spent $92,486 in this election cycle, with around $60,382 of that going for mailers in support of Capitelli. (The groups spent another $10,825 in recent days). Arreguín said he was expecting a number of hit pieces against him.

“I have a thick skin, and I’m ready for whatever they are going to throw at me,” he said.

Ironically, those hit pieces haven’t materialized yet. In fact, it was Arreguín who went negative first. In early October, his campaign put up an attack website called “Laurie Facts.” In it, Arreguín focuses on certain City Council votes that Capitelli took and uses them to declare that his rival is “standing in the way of more affordable housing,” or is “opposing the minimum wage,” and “out of touch with the rest of us.” He also says Capitelli is ethically challenged. Arreguín’s campaign has bought search terms on Google to make sure the negative website is at the top of any Google search for “Laurie Capitelli.”

“Our campaign launched and several associated digital ads,” Noah Finneburgh of Rally Campaigns told Berkeleyside in an email. Finneburgh is coordinating Arreguín’s media strategy

Arreguín has only sent out two citywide mailers (Capitelli has mailed out three) and the back of the second one is devoted to attacking Capitelli. It has at least one factual error, too: It attributes a quote from the East Bay Express dinging Capitelli to the more moderate East Bay Times. (And the campaign used a photo from Berkeleyside for the first mailer without authorization. Arreguín promptly apologized for this when it was pointed out.)

The negative campaigning prompted Capitelli to write an op-ed for Berkeleyside on Wednesday stating that the “divisiveness” promoted by Arreguín is not a Berkeley value.

Yet Arreguín also told Berkeleyside recently that he and Capitelli had co-sponsored a number of proposals together. And even though Arreguín often votes with City Councilmen Kriss Worthington and Max Anderson, he said: “I don’t think it’s us versus them. We are just different people with different life experiences and different ways of reaching the same conclusion.”

In other words, during a political race, the gloves are off.

Arreguín campaigng at Sunday Streets. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel
Arreguín campaigning at Sunday Streets. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

If Arreguín and Capitelli were airlifted out of Berkeley and set down in Nevada or Iowa, they would both be regarded as ultra-liberal candidates. And their views and goals would be regarded as similar. Housing has become a central issue in Berkeley and in the campaign and both candidates profess a desire to help solve the problem. Capitelli has been more supportive than Arreguín of building market-rate housing along transit corridors as a vehicle to increase the housing stock and drive money into the city’s Housing Trust Fund. Arreguín’s critics say he is anti-development, a charge he denies. Arreguín says he is just not a pushover and wants to extract more benefits from developers. His detractors point out that Arreguín voted against the single biggest driver of money in years to the Housing Trust Fund: the 18-story, 302-unit complex at 2211 Harold Way. That project will put $10.5 million into the fund. Arreguín has said he thought Berkeley could have extracted another $2.4 million from the developer, which is why he didn’t vote for the complex. His critics also say that Measure R 2012, which Arreguín pushed, would have essentially stopped most of the downtown development and killing the process in which the city gets money for affordable housing.

While both candidates want to build more affordable housing, the issue seems to be a stronger theme in Arreguín’s campaign than Capitelli’s. Arreguín has suggested many ways to raise funds (although Capitelli is usually just a few beats behind). And Arreguín has been in the forefront of fighting displacement of existing tenants in rent-controlled units and preventing the demolition of rent-controlled buildings, he said.

“We really have two Berkeleys,” Arreguín said at a recent forum. “I want a more equitable future for Berkeley with housing for many income levels. We need a Berkeley where everyone has a fair shot, where the prosperity is shared with everyone.”

The men differ the most on questions about how to deal with homeless individuals. There are an estimated 820 to 1,200 homeless people in Berkeley and a sizable number sleep outdoors. Capitelli has been forthright about saying Berkeley needs to set behavioral standards with which everyone should comply. That means being explicit about not permitting defecation on the sidewalks, taking up too much space with belongings, or camping out. He says problematic behavior exhibited by some who are homeless is hurting business downtown. Capitelli was in favor of Measure S in 2012, the ordinance that would have enacted penalties for sitting on the sidewalk in commercial districts from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. He also recently voted for a measure that restricts the amount of space someone can use on the sidewalk, a law that is in limbo until Berkeley can figure out how to provide storage lockers for the homeless to use.

Arreguín has called Capitelli’s approach “criminalizing” the homeless. He has long characterized homelessness as a regional problem, not just an issue in Berkeley, a view Capitelli shares, and has called for regional solutions. In 2013, Arreguín created a community Homeless Task Force to examine what could be done and to solicit input from various stakeholders. The task force produced a long set of recommendations. The City Council held a special session on the Homeless Task Force in June 2015 and continued discussions about its findings throughout the year. One of the ideas presented , which Arreguín supported, was for UC Berkeley to keep its buildings open later and publicize that its restrooms were open to the public. He has also called on BART to make its restrooms more available and for Berkeley to offer incentives to downtown business to open up bathrooms to the public, according to the Daily Cal.

Supporters of Arreguín point to this ability to be inclusive as one reason he will be a good mayor. Kate Harrison, a consultant who has not always agreed with Arreguín (she voted against his unsuccessful Measure R 2014, which would have gutted components of the Downtown Area Plan, for instance), said she has watched Arreguín respond to viewpoints that are different than his own. As he chaired meetings of the Homeless Task Force, for instance, he was willing to consider the viewpoints of homeowners distressed by those camping out in the parks.

“I find him to be an incredibly good listener,” said Harrison.

Wrenn believes Arreguín’s temperament is well-suited to being a politician in volatile Berkeley.

“One thing I like about him and would make him a good mayor is that I find him to be a calm, collected kind of guy,” said Wrenn, who first encountered Arreguín when he sat on the Planning Commission and Arreguín was lobbying for more student housing. “He doesn’t lose his cool. That’s a strength. You have to be unflappable and be able to absorb a certain amount of abuse and hear different perspectives.”

Arreguín accelerates fundraising but Capitelli maintains monetary lead
Top contenders for Berkeley mayor have sharp differences towards development
Berkeley mayoral candidates square off about budget, homelessness and more
Berkeley candidates outline their positions on the arts
Berkeley candidates share their vision for downtown

Mayoral race

Eight candidates will be on the ballot: Kriss Worthington (Berkeley City Council member), Bernt Rainer Wahl (scientist/entrepreneur/professor), Zachary RunningWolf (indigenous elder), Jesse Arreguín (Berkeley City Council member), Naomi D. Pete (no designation requested), Laurie Capitelli (Berkeley City Council member, District 5), Ben Gould (graduate student), and Guy “Mike” Lee (community volunteer). 

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Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California, published in November...