The Making of a Mayor
The story of how Jesse Arreguin got the key endorsements needed to win the Berkeley mayor's race.
Bernie Sanders changed the course of the Berkeley election on Sept. 8 when he endorsed Jesse Arreguin for mayor.
Photo courtesy of Jesse Arreguin
About a month after his friend and mentor, Councilmember Kriss Worthington, lost the November 2012 mayor’s race to Tom Bates, Jesse Arreguin made a little-noticed decision that would prove to be pivotal in his own run for mayor four years later. In December 2012, then-Councilmember Arreguin appointed Igor Tregub, a fellow progressive and high-ranking member of the Sierra Club’s Bay Area chapter, to the Berkeley Zoning Adjustments Board. Three and half years hence, Tregub played a key role in an episode that would launch Arreguin into the Berkeley mayor’s office: securing the endorsement of U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders.
Months before the Nov. 8 election, Tregub was tracking down signatures for his own campaign for the Berkeley Rent Board when he knocked on the door of Gus Newport, the last true leftist mayor of Berkeley. As Newport was signing Tregub’s rent board campaign form, Tregub decided to request another favor: Could Newport ask Bernie Sanders to endorse Arreguin for mayor of Berkeley?
“I didn’t expect Gus would actually do it,” Tregub recalled in a recent interview. “It was definitely a day I’ll never forget.”
Newport had long admired Arreguin, realizing years before that the whip-smart young Latino, a progressive son of farmworkers, represented the future of leftist politics in Berkeley. Newport also knew that his old friend Sanders had committed to endorsing progressive candidates throughout the nation in an effort to strengthen the liberal-wing of the Democratic Party.
Newport and Sanders have been friends since the early 1980s, when Sanders was mayor of Burlington, Vermont, and Newport was mayor of Berkeley (1979-1986). At mayoral conferences, the two used to hang out with fellow progressive Dennis Kucinich, then the mayor of Cleveland, and plot liberal solutions to urban problems. Then in early 2016, during Sanders’ run for president, Newport hit the campaign trail, stumping for his old friend alongside actor Danny Glover.
So when Tregub asked Newport about Sanders endorsing Arreguin, Newport didn’t hesitate. “I picked up my cellphone and dialed,” Newport recalled in an interview. “Bernie picked up the phone. I told him what I wanted, and he said, ‘OK, send me some information.’ ”
Newport assembled a packet on Arreguin’s career and his progressive bona fides and sent it to Sanders. At the time, many observers thought the Berkeley mayor’s race would turn out to be a close contest between Arreguin and Bates’ handpicked successor, Councilmember Laurie Capitelli. But on Sept. 8, the Democratic senator of Vermont changed the course of the 2016 Berkeley election, endorsing Arreguin in a glowing tribute in which he called the councilmember a “tireless and effective champion for workers’ rights, civil rights, and for social justice.”
It’s hard to overestimate the impact of having Bernie Sanders’ endorsement in the liberal East Bay. In the June California primary, when it was already clear that Hillary Clinton would be the Democratic Party presidential nominee and many progressive voters had decided to stay home, Sanders defeated Clinton in Berkeley, 53.8 percent to 45.3 percent, according to an Oakland Magazine analysis of final precinct data from the Alameda County Registrar of Voters. “Obviously, the Bernie Sanders endorsement was very strong,” said Noah Finneburgh, who was Arreguin’s campaign manager. “He did very well in Berkeley.”
Gus Newport and Danny Glover campaigned for Bernie Sanders and endorsed Jesse Arreguin.
But Sanders wasn’t the only game-changing endorsement Arreguin obtained. Through a series of deft political moves, he followed up the Sanders’ shocker with major endorsements from the Democratic Party and the Sierra Club—the latter of which is considered the gold standard of endorsements in Berkeley, where most residents consider themselves to be environmentalists. Arreguin scored other big endorsements too, but he and Finneburgh made the big three the cornerstone of the campaign, prominently highlighting Sanders, the Sierra Club, and the Democratic Party on Arreguin’s mailers, ads, and fliers. “It was the trifecta,” said Finneburgh of the San Francisco consulting firm, Rally Campaigns. “Having Bernie, having the Democratic Party, having the Sierra Club, it was huge.”
It was especially huge for Arreguin on Election Day. He trounced Capitelli, 50.39 percent to 33.14 percent in ranked-choice tabulations. Bates, who won four Berkeley mayoral elections and 10 state Assembly races during his political career, believes the Sanders endorsement was the difference maker. Many Sanders supporters in Berkeley, he theorized, voted reluctantly for Clinton on Nov. 8 in order to defeat Donald Trump. And they showed up big on Election Day. Berkeley turnout was 78.3 percent, and Trump only got 3.17 percent of that vote, according to the magazine’s analysis. “All those Berkeley voters got to vote for Bernie—in the name of Jesse,” Bates said.
On the local level, a successful campaign also involves extensive networking and forging key relationships, and Arreguin’s 2016 mayoral run offers a textbook example. For instance, he had several friends and backers who were prominent members of the Sierra Club’s Alameda County chapter, including Tregub, political ally Sophie Hahn (who won Capitelli’s old council seat on Nov. 8), and Luis Amezcua, the chapter’s political co-chair.
Arreguin also made alliances when he decided to take the unusual step of running for and winning a seat on the Alameda County Democratic Central Committee. East Bay councilmembers and mayors rarely run for seats on the central committee; it’s typically viewed as the domain for grassroots party activists. But the committee makes local endorsements, and at least seven members of the committee ended up endorsing Arreguin’s 2016 mayoral campaign. “I think the race hinged on Jesse’s relationships that he built though the years at the central committee,” said committee Vice Chair Mario Juarez. “People know him well. And it’s hard to vote against a person you know.”
Arreguin also capitalized on the odd alliance that has bloomed in Berkeley between progressives who want the city to build more affordable housing and often oppose market-rate housing because they believe it spurs gentrification—and anti-growth activists who want no new housing at all because they say it creates traffic and parking nightmares. This alliance has become a powerful political force in Berkeley as market-rate housing development surged under Bates.
And Arreguin has seized the progressive forefront of this alliance, gaining backing from popular veteran leftists like Newport, as well as from anti-growthers like former Mayor Shirley Dean and ex-mayoral candidate Jacquelyn McCormick. In fact, Newport and the conservative Dean, who were once fierce political enemies, co-hosted a major fundraiser for Arreguin during the campaign, along with movie star Glover. And McCormick went from volunteering as Arreguin’s campaign treasurer to a paid gig in the new mayor’s office.
“Jesse did his homework; he’s really a skilled politician, and I don’t mean that in a derogatory way,” Capitelli said. “My unwillingness to do what he did was the difference.”
Arreguin also converted his diverse political support into a formidable fundraising machine. Overall, he raised at least $111,500 in the campaign, nearly matching Capitelli, who was expected to far outpace Arreguin because of Capitelli’s support from the business community. Capitelli received about $140,000 in campaign donations.
Outside spending in the race also appeared to help Arreguin and hurt Capitelli, even though the expenditures favored Capitelli by a large margin. The National Association of Realtors spent the most of any group by far—$71,207—in support of Capitelli. But its mailers and ads were clumsy and amateurish, and all that spending allowed Arreguin and his supporters to portray Capitelli as being in the pocket of developers, real estate interests, and landlords—which amounted to the kiss of death in Berkeley. Arreguin pounded home this negative messaging by creating an anti-Capitelli website.
Arreguin also benefitted from Worthington’s presence in the race. Throughout the campaign, Worthington acted more like a surrogate for Arreguin than a mayoral candidate, repeatedly praising his friend and former aide and telling his supporters that it would be OK with him if they put Arreguin first on their ranked choice ballots.
And, finally, the East Bay Times gave fiscal conservatives in Berkeley a reason to vote for Arreguin by endorsing him over the more moderate Capitelli. According to Capitelli, during their joint endorsement interview, Arreguin and Worthington both vowed to 100-percent fund employee pension liabilities—the one issue that the Times editorial board cares more about than any other. Capitelli refused to make such a promise, however, because he said setting aside that much money for pension debt each year would force the city to slash about $13 million annually from its general fund budget, thereby requiring deep salary cuts for city employees and numerous layoffs.
Capitelli said he doesn’t think Arreguin will fulfill his vow to the Times because widespread salary cuts and layoffs would destroy the new mayor’s relationship with organized labor. As for Arreguin, his staffers said he was too busy assembling his mayoral team and agenda to be interviewed for this story. And Times editorial board member Dan Borenstein declined to comment.
So only time will tell if Arreguin will live up his promise to the Times. But either way, it seems clear that he was willing to do what it takes to be mayor. And it’s a lesson that other East Bay politicians are sure to follow.
Published online on Jan. 11, 2017 at 8:00 a.m.