Three candidates are running for the District 7 seat on the City Council. They are, from left: Rigel Robinson, Aidan Hill and Ces Rosales. Photos: Courtesy

For 22 years, Berkeley City Council District 7 has been Kriss Worthington territory.

But the 64-year-old councilman — known for his progressive politics, the steady stream of interns in his office, and his public clashes with former Berkeley mayors — has long said he would step down from the dais if a qualified student decided to run. The district, which includes UC Berkeley and the Southside neighborhood, is mostly comprised of students, the product of a controversial redistricting in 2014.

Technically nobody currently attending Cal is running for the seat, but there are recent students in the race. There is Worthington’s pick Rigel Robinson, 22, a 2018 graduate who was a leader in student government and active at City Hall while at UC Berkeley, too. There’s Aidan Hill, 25, an activist who says they are a radical candidate for the underrepresented. Hill, who uses the pronoun “they,” said they were enrolled at Cal but are no longer. And there’s Ces Rosales, a longtime Berkeley resident, activist and former business owner who says she is best positioned to represent the whole district, not only students.

At the last District 7 election in 2014, a negligible number of voters — less than 10% of residents in the district — turned out. This year, some candidates are hoping the enthusiasm around the national midterm races and the wide open District 7 seat will bring more people out to the polls. The three candidates vying to serve Southside all say their fresh energy and ideas should drum up excitement.

Berkeleyside recently sat down with each candidate at District 7 cafes to hear about those ideas and why each person believes they are the best for the job.

Housing, streets, police make the priority list

UC Berkeley has announced plans to build homeless and student housing on the historic People’s Park. Photo: Courtesy of UC Berkeley

All candidates name housing and homelessness as the most urgent issues for the district and Berkeley.

Robinson said District 7 includes the Berkeley residents most likely to embrace new development. The district is already more dense than surrounding areas, and home to a number of high-rises, which often house students who won’t stay in the neighborhood for long.

“On Southside we can get away with a lot, and I hope we can set a precedent,” Robinson said. “Height increases, density bonuses, car-free overlays. Ideas like that are going to have to start gaining ground around the city.”

Robinson said he arrived at UC Berkeley four years ago expecting to find “an idyllic liberal paradise.” But learning about the level of housing insecurity experienced by his peers was a reality check.

“We need to really shake up a lot of people’s preconceptions of what the city looks like now and what it can look like in the future,” Robinson said. For him, that means welcoming controversial development at People’s Park. He called the university’s plan to build both supportive housing and student dorms at the historic site an “elegant” solution.

Hill, instead, opposes the park development, saying on their website that they want to “make it a safe and welcoming open space connected to, but independent from the university.” Instead, they support public housing, tiny houses and turning the old Berkeley Art Museum and chancellor’s mansion — “a symbol of elitism” — into student housing. At a recent Telegraph Business Improvement District meeting, Hill challenged their opponents to name five homeless people in the district, then rattled off some names themselves. They say solutions to these issues are within reach — and have some creative suggestions.

“I want solar-powered fridges on street corners — is that hard?” they told Berkeleyside.

A resident gets “high” at the Telegraph Avenue “Summer of Love” celebration in 2017. Photo: Stuart Baker/TBID

Rosales, like Robinson, believes historic neglect of a need for housing put Berkeley in an insecure situation.

“I think there is something about progressives in this city, that in their zeal for being progressive, they forget there are people impacted by their decisions. Is the greater good really for preserving the view or creating the houses?” Rosales said.

Beyond housing, “the priority in my district is just fixing the roads and sidewalks,” she said, noting that seniors and cyclists can’t move about safely. “Once I have the job I will make sure to find out what’s holding it up.”

She said she likes the idea of creating a pedestrian-only stretch of Telegraph “but we can’t do it because there’s no alley behind the business where they can make their deliveries.” Merchant wellbeing is something Rosales said she is sensitive to, as a former longtime owner of a graphic design business in San Francisco.

Her other goal is free wifi citywide, to help students who live outside the district.

In her interview with Berkeleyside, Rosales often noted that she would have to learn a lot about how the city operates, and how to carry out her plans, if elected. But she said she’s eager to dive in.

Rosales got her start as an activist in the 1970s in her native Philippines, where she fought against and ultimately fled the Marcos dictatorship. More recently, she launched and chaired the East Bay No on Prop 8 campaign in 2008, against the marriage equality restriction. If elected, Rosales would become the second ever openly lesbian member of the City Council. She has also served on the boards of several political and social justice organizations.

Over the summer, Kriss Worthington playfully announced he would not seek re-election to the Berkeley City Council. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Rosales also ran for the District 7 seat in 2010 and hasn’t shied away from criticizing Worthington.

“I was running on issues of safety, Telegraph Avenue and People’s Park. I believe the issues are still very much the same. The representation of students is very inadequate,” she said.

Although Robinson has Worthington’s support and says he has long admired his representative, the candidate is also clear that he is not a clone of the outgoing councilman.

“Kriss has said for a long time that he would make room for someone who understands the campus community if someone wanted to step up,” Robinson said. “I think no one had been quite sure how literally he meant that.”

The candidate said he has “done my homework and due diligence” learning about the issues off campus, too.

“I have a lot of alarming conversations with longtime residents who feel they’ve been requesting the same basic city services for years. A lot of them have felt that their council member hasn’t had open ears to them. There is a lot of tension between town and gown.”

Robinson not only has Worthington’s endorsement, but that of every other sitting City Council member, as well as a number of student leaders and state officials. He’s also supported by a generous range of organizations, some of which typically clash with one another, from service worker and building trades unions, to Our Revolution, East Bay for Everyone, the Berkeley Tenants Union and several Democratic clubs and groups.

Rigel Robinson said he represents a third faction in Berkeley — students who want both police reform and housing development. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Robinson said the unusual bedfellows are not “under any delusion” that he would always vote the way they want him to, but he thinks the broad support is a testament to his willingness to cooperate and the connections he’s built. He also sees himself as representing a student constituency whose politics don’t always fall along typical partisan lines.

“This city has such bizarre warring factions that don’t always seem entirely linear,” Robinson said. “I don’t think it’s inconsistent, for example, to be excited about meaningful reform around police oversight — a beacon issue of our progressive majority on the council — but students at the same time are deeply concerned about some of the NIMBY impulses… and really want to see a city that is definitively pro-housing.”

Robinson grew up in St. Louis, Missouri and boarded his plane for his freshman year at Cal right after a police officer shot and killed unarmed black 18-year-old Michael Brown. He remembers watching the Ferguson protests unfold from his dorm room. The strong feelings that brought out in Robinson inspired him to email council members to see if he could help out in their offices — now-Mayor Jesse Arreguín took him on — and to campaign for Proposition 47 to change criminal records and sentences. More recently, he, like Hill, supported the proposed police oversight measure that didn’t make it to the ballot.

“BPD and the city do things a lot better than the rest of the country, that’s obvious, but I don’t think that’s a good enough reason for us to tell ourselves we shouldn’t try to have the best models,” he said.

Hill, however, wants more radical change.

“Stop talking about measures P and O,” they said, referring to the affordable housing bond and transfer tax. “Why does that cop have the right to be on our streets?” 

Rosales said she would work to establish a 24-hour mobile team comprised of a safety officer, a social service provider and a mental health worker, which could be called up as a 911 alternative. (Last year, Berkeley established an outreach and treatment team focused exclusively on homelessness and mental illness.)

Rosales also has support from some council members and other prominent officials, including State Sen. Nancy Skinner and Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf. (Update: Skinner dual-endorsed Robinson on Thursday, his campaign said.)

Ces Rosales said she’s the candidate who will serve not only students, but homeowners and merchants as well. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Robinson has raised the most money in the race so far, $7,257 to Rosales’s $4,874 and Hill’s $948. Rosales and Robinson are participating in public financing, only allowing them to accept only donations of $50 or less, but qualifying them for matching funds from the city.

Candidates say they’ll change the face of D7

For Hill, their own identity and life experience as a non-binary person of color is what qualifies them for City Council, they’ve said. They want to become the first legally non-binary person elected to public office, so they can raise awareness and take the issue “to the Supreme Court,” expanding legal gender options nationally. California is among a handful of states that allows the gender marker “X” on ID cards. (Last week it was revealed that President Donald Trump wants federal gender definitions to be based on genitalia.)

Hill came to their Berkeleyside interview prepared with a presentation linking many of their beliefs and ideas. They gave a passionate and fast-paced delivery of the presentation, which connected their belief in the power of art to their support for rent control and their experience on Model UN as a community college student in Riverside. They teared up talking about the murder of Nia Wilson at MacArthur BART over the summer.

“I have a lot to say — we need to have more debates,” Hill said. “I’m going to tell my story. That’s all I have, my history.”

After the interview, Hill joined UC employees, who were striking, on a picket line at the entrance to the campus. That evening, Hill was arrested on suspicion of disrupting a class and obstructing a police officer, the Daily Cal reported.

Hill’s opponents say their own backgrounds qualify them for the job, too.

Aidan Hill wants to be the first legally non-binary person elected to public office. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

“Experience working with and working against university administrators needs to be a prerequisite” for the position, said Robinson, who has served as a student government senator and external affairs vice president.

The candidate seems to have grown a little frustrated with frequent comments about his age — he’s been alive for just as long as Worthington has been in office, and would be the youngest Berkeley City Council member ever. But he said his proximity to student networks puts him in a position to navigate town-and-gown issues. Some of his ideas, like installing more “Instagrammable” features along Telegraph to attract visitors from around the Bay Area, are not ones the older politicians are likely to have thought up.

Rosales said it’s her tenure in the district that should encourage people to elect her.

The “student supermajority” district lines were drawn to “have a student representative on council. Well and good, but what about all the longtime residents — homeowners, tenants, renters?” Rosales said. “Some of them are 30, 40, 50 years in the district — how  are their voices going to be heard? They are the taxpayers, the ones who vote.”

The small turnout for District 7 in 2014 made Rosales feel “disenfranchised.”

“I want our district to be active,” she said. “That’s what’s going to propel me to win this. I’m not just going to sit back and be happy with this, I want to do something.” 

So will voters who’ve felt drowned out in District 7 turn out for their longtime neighbor? Or for the recent graduate who says he’s the student the district has been waiting for? Or the young candidate who wants the system radically changed?

The candidates have only a few days left to try to influence the answer.

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Natalie Orenstein

Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...