After a fire ripped through a stretch of buildings on College Avenue in December 1988, the scorched Elmwood Theater sat empty, its screen idle, its seats unoccupied. The Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989 further damaged the unreinforced brick building and for a time there was a threat that United Artists Realty was going to sell the structure to developers.

Laurie Capitelli didn’t want to see that happen. His wife, Marilyn, owned Avenue Books down the street and the couple grew increasingly worried that the loss of the movie theater would tear a hole in the fabric of the small shopping district.

So Capitelli, a public high school teacher turned real estate agent, got together with some local merchants and other engaged citizens to form the Elmwood Theater Foundation. In just a few Saturdays of fundraising, the nonprofit group raised $400,000 – enough to purchase the building and start repairs. In 1992, five years after the fire, the Elmwood reopened with a larger lobby, more screens, and new seating. Twenty-four years later, the theater is still going strong.

Capitelli, who was elected to represent District 5 on the Berkeley City Council in 2004, said that kind of consensus building – bringing disparate groups together to solve a community problem – is the way he likes to operate. And Capitelli believes that he can bring that approach to the office of mayor and Berkeley will be better for it.

See the profile on challenger Jesse Arreguín on Berkeleyside.

“That’s emblematic of the kinds of things I like to do,” Capitelli told a group that had gathered to meet him at a house party in the Elmwood in July. “I like to get in, do my research, and make things happen.”

Capitelli said he used that approach to bring together the coalition that got Measure D, the tax on sugary drinks, passed in 2014. It was so successful that San Francisco and Oakland are emulating its structure this election. And even though his opponents have a different narrative, Capitelli said he used his consensus-building skills to get the City Council to adopt a minimum wage that will go to $15 by 2018. Prior to his involvement, Capitelli said, unions were going to support one November ballot measure and businesses were going to support a different one. Now the various factions have united and are encouraging voters to vote no on Measure BB and CC.

“Having observed Laurie on the Zoning Adjustments Board, having observed Laurie on City Council, having worked with him on the restoration of the Elmwood Theater with both city officials and community leaders, I believe Laurie to be a constructive, open-minded leader and a kind person,” said David Salk, the owner of Focal Point on Ashby Avenue. “He is very well-suited to lead a city like Berkeley where many in the community hold strong points of view that are often divergent.”

Don’t miss Berkeleyside’s 2016 Election Hub for complete coverage.

First Capitelli has to win the mayor’s race. A year ago, many political observers thought that he was the favored candidate to succeed Mayor Tom Bates, who is stepping down after 14 years. Bates has endorsed him as have Loni Hancock, the former mayor of Berkeley and current state senator, former Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner, and four members of the Berkeley City Council: Linda Maio, Darryl Moore, Susan Wengraf, and Lori Droste. Former Labor Secretary and UC Berkeley Professor Robert Reich endorsed him, as did Oakland Mayor Libby Schaff, four of the five members of the BUSD school board, the author Michael Lewis, Susie Medak, the managing director of Berkeley Repertory Theater, Malcolm Margolin, the founder of Heyday Books and others. The police and fire unions and League of Conservation Voters also back him. (Berkeleyside will publish a profile of Arreguín, too.)

Laurie Capitelli talks to prospective voters at a house party in July. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel
Laurie Capitelli talks to prospective voters at a house party in July. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

Capitelli is running a strong campaign. He has raised $115,000, has lawn signs in front of many houses, has held dozens of house parties throughout the city, and has rented a prominent space on Shattuck Avenue for his campaign headquarters.

The race seems tight, though, tighter than most political observers would have predicted (there is no polling to get a data-supported view of where the race stands). His strongest opponent, City Councilman Jesse Arreguín, has raised only $11,000 less than Capitelli’s $115,000 and has earned the endorsement of the Democratic Party, Sierra Club, and many newspapers. Arreguín is casting the race as an opportunity for “generational change,” since he is 32 and Capitelli is 70.

City Councilman Kriss Worthington was a late entry into the mayor’s race and he has been telling supporters to vote for him and Arreguín as numbers one and two in ranked choice voting as a way to knock off Capitelli.

One criticism Capitelli has had to address was his involvement in a series of transactions involving former Police Chief Michael Meehan. In 2009, the City Council voted to lend Meehan $500,000 so he could buy a house in Berkeley, one of the requirements of his employment. In 2010, Meehan hired a real estate agent at Red Oak Realty, the company where Capitelli worked for more than 30 years, to help him find a home. After Meehan purchased a house in the Thousand Oaks neighborhood, the agent gave Capitelli a referral fee.

The East Bay Times broke the news in October 2015 in an investigative piece with the headline: “Berkeley councilman profited from police chief’s public home loan.” The article said Capitelli had split a $30,000 commission and called into question the ethics of the transaction. The situation later led the East Bay Times not to endorse Capitelli for mayor and said his “ethical transgressions eliminated him from our list.”

Capitelli told Berkeleyside at the time of the article that the figure was incorrect and that the agent had given him an unsolicited “$5,925 consultant’s fee” for “helping to review creek and sewer lateral issues.” Capitelli then said he had just donated that fee to various charities. He denied intending to act unethically. He also told Berkeleyside that he had stepped back from active involvement in Red Oak in 2010 and sold all his ownership interest, although he was listed as the office’s broker until recently.

Arreguín has trumpeted this transaction on a negative website his campaign set up called “Laurie Facts.” Arreguín is buying search terms on Google that bump the website to the top of results when anyone types in “Laurie Capitelli.” He also used one side of a mailer to attack Capitelli. (An independent committee largely funded by SEIU Local 1021 paid for another attack flyer against Capitelli).

The negative campaigning prompted Capitelli to criticize Arreguín (but not by name) on a section of his website called “Laurie True Facts.”

“Negative campaigning is an attack on the very heart of civic engagement,” Capitelli wrote. “It is easy—and dishonest—to create a distorted account of a record by taking statements and actions out of context to weave a tapestry of nasty sound bites.”

“I am deeply disappointed on behalf of our whole community that this campaign has taken such a dark turn,” he wrote in an op-ed for Berkeleyside. “Let’s compare our records. Let’s compare our accomplishments. Let’s compare our visions. These are the criteria on which voters should base their decision. After Nov. 8, we will all have to work together to make Berkeley a better place.”

Capitelli has been mostly focusing on his accomplishments. He has deep roots in Berkeley. He was born here, the son of an Italian immigrant and American mother, and attended John Muir Elementary School. His family moved away, but Capitelli returned to attend UC Berkeley, where he met his future wife, Marilyn. After they married in 1968 they moved to Sonoma Avenue where they raised their two children and sent them to Berkeley public schools. One of their granddaughters now attends Jefferson Elementary School.

After working as a high school teacher and real estate agent, Capitelli entered Berkeley’s political arena with an appointment in the late 1990s to the Planning Commission. Four years later he moved to the Zoning Adjustments Board. He was elected to City Council in 2004.

Capitelli positions himself as working for all ages and all incomes. He regularly cites his 25 years of service on the Berkeley Public Schools Fund board, where he said he helped raise millions of dollars for public schools. He has long served as the emcee of the annual fundraising lunch where he dons silly hats and pokes fun of himself.

Photo: Saul's Restaurant & Delicatessen. Photo: Colleen Neff
One of the city’s new parklets, in front of Saul’s Restaurant & Delicatessen. Capitelli pushed to legalize their construction. Photo: Colleen Neff

Some of the other initiatives he has spearheaded to make life more pleasant in Berkeley include pushing for legislation to allow parklets throughout the commercial districts of Berkeley, speeding up the permitting process for sidewalk seating outside restaurants, and planting trees along the commercial stretch of Solano Avenue. He also said he helped bring in funds to redo the Downtown Berkeley BART plaza.

Capitelli believes one of the biggest fights he has led to protect Berkeley’s youth was the 18-month battle to levy a one-cent per ounce tax on sugary beverages. Before Berkeley took on the cause, no city in the country had successfully passed a soda tax. (Richmond had tried and failed.) Capitelli helped forge a broad coalition of health groups, historically black churches, Latino groups, environmental groups, and students to craft a measure that would only require a majority, not a two-thirds vote, to pass. Instead of specifying ahead of time how the tax revenue would be used (which would trigger the 2/3 vote) Measure D said the money would go into a general fund and a special committee would decide what to do with it.

The soda industry spent about $2.4 million — or $30 per registered voter — in 2014 to defeat Measure D. Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg contributed $657,000 to help pass the soda tax, which won with 75% of the vote.

By October, Berkeley had collected $2 million in revenue from the sugar-sweetened beverage tax, according to city reports. The funds have been distributed to school cooking and gardening programs, diabetes prevention programs, and obesity reduction programs.

Capitelli said at a recent forum that he has more ideas about how to improve the quality of life in Berkeley. When asked what the city should look like, Capitelli said in 2024 (which would be after two terms as mayor) there will be parklets throughout the city, universal preschool, soda taxes around the world, and lots of housing, including homes for teachers and service workers.

Capitelli is also proud of the changes in Berkeley’s downtown.

“If you think back 20 years ago the only reason to go downtown was to go to the library or Berkeley Rep,” said Capitelli. “It was pretty moribund. Downtown is an opportunity we have been working on and we have made great progress.”

Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich endorsed Laurie Capitelli for mayor today, a week after Senator Bernie Sanders endorsed Jesse Arrreguín for the same spot. Photo: Capitelli campaign
Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich has endorsed Laurie Capitelli for mayor. Photo: Capitelli campaign

Of course, the direction of the downtown is one of the major philosophical differences between Capitelli and Arreguín. Capitelli has been a proponent of increasing density along transit corridors as a way to reduce greenhouse gasses. He also believes adding density is an effective mechanism to produce funds for the Housing Trust Fund. He points to his “yes” vote for the 18-story, 302-unit project at 2211 Harold Way which will add $10.5 million to the Housing Trust Fund. Arreguín and Worthington both voted against the project because they wanted the developer to pay an additional $2.4 million in community benefits.

Capitelli said for 40 years, from the early 1970s to the late 1990s, Berkeley built almost no new housing. There is now a housing crisis and the question before the city is who will be living here in the future?

“Market rate housing is going to pay for a lot of that affordable housing,” he said.

Building more housing downtown and along transit routes does not mean that the essential character of Berkeley will change, he said.

“You can be pro-preservation and be pro-growth at the same time,” said Capitelli. “You can respect the architecture of our community and still build housing. They are not mutually exclusive.”

Adam Berman, the founder of Urban Adamah, an urban farm in west Berkeley, believes Capitelli has the most realistic view of how to bring housing to the city.

One of my priorities is “creating enough residences in downtown Berkeley so downtown Berkeley becomes a thriving center for residential and commercial life and allows people to rely less on cars to get around,” said Berman. “I am a believer in dense urban cores. There is still a massive housing shortage in Berkeley and the place we should be building housing is along transit corridors.”

While Berkeley may be able to extract more concessions from developers, “I trust Laurie more to strike that balance than Jesse,” said Berman. “If Jesse is running the show then development would halt… Many of the people supporting Jesse don’t want development.”

Other Capitelli supporters think he has the best temperament to be mayor.

“I don’t think (Arreguín) is a consensus builder,” said Mark Humbert, an attorney who sits on the board of the Claremont-Elmwood Neighborhood Association. “He’s kind of divisive and pugilistic. What I understand is that Capitelli is a consensus builder in contrast to Kriss and Jesse.”

If elected, Capitelli has pledged to bring the council together and end some of the rancor that exists between the council majority (currently Bates, Capitelli, Maio, Moore, Wengraf, and Droste) and the minority (Arreguín, Worthington, and Max Anderson).

“Compromise is not a four-letter word,” he said at a recent forum. “Consensus is not a four-letter word. These two words are not used very often at City Hall.”

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...