The Team Vs. Mr. Housing

The Team Vs. Mr. Housing


Kriss Worthington and Jesse Arreguín are telling their supporters to pick the other second on their ballots.

Jesse Arreguín and Kriss Worthington are teaming up in Berkeley’s mayor’s race in a fight with fellow councilmember Laurie Capitelli over housing and growth.

In the last two Berkeley mayoral elections, the primary issue has been smart growth—whether to build dense housing in downtown and along the city’s major transit corridors. And in both 2008 and 2012, Mayor Tom Bates, an early and ardent supporter of smart growth as the most effective way to curb sprawl and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, won in a landslide.

In the past few years, urban growth has taken on a heightened urgency—not just in Berkeley, but throughout the inner East Bay—as the extreme lack of housing has sent prices to record levels while displacing many low- and middle-income residents from the region.

But as the months went by this year, the most pressing issue in Berkeley shifted: By mid-August, it looked as if this year’s mayor’s race would center instead on a fight over raising the city’s minimum wage. At the time, there were two competing ballot measures: Organized labor and mayoral candidates Jesse Arreguín and Kriss Worthington backed one that would have raised the minimum wage to $15 an hour next year, while the council majority and mayoral candidate Laurie Capitelli—Bates’ choice to succeed him—supported a measure that would have waited until 2019 to reach $15.

But then Councilmember Capitelli hammered out a compromise with organized labor that effectively took the minimum wage issue off the table: They agreed to raise the wage to $15 an hour in 2018. The Berkeley City Council, including Arreguín and Worthington, quickly approved the compromise plan. The two other minimum wage measures are still on the ballot, but all sides are now campaigning against them.

And so the top issue in the 2016 mayor’s race is once again housing—but with a twist. In recent months, Arreguín and Worthington have started running as a sort of team in ranked-choice voting. The two longtime allies and friends are telling their supporters to pick the other second on their ballots. “We are encouraging voters to rank both of us,” Arreguín said. They hope the strategy will propel one of them to victory.

Laurie Capitelli.

Either way, the return of housing as the top issue is exactly what Capitelli wanted—considering the outcome of the last two mayoral races. Like Bates, Capitelli is a strong backer of smart growth, also known as transit-oriented development. “The fact of the matter is: We need to build more transit-oriented development,” he said in a recent interview. “That’s where it’s at.”

Although Capitelli’s two main competitors, Arreguín and Worthington, are not members of Berkeley’s passionate anti-growth contingent, anti-growth activists are nonetheless supporting one or both of them for mayor this year. That’s because Arreguín and Worthington have sometimes voted against growth proposals in the city, usually because they contend that the project in question doesn’t include enough affordable housing or is missing some other attribute they believe is essential.

Pro-growth advocates, like Bates, have argued that Arreguín and Worthington too often make the perfect the enemy of the good: that requiring too much affordable housing or placing too many restrictions on growth makes housing projects financially infeasible—which means that no housing gets built at all. That’s exactly what anti-growth activists want, and it’s why they back Arreguín and Worthington.

For his part, Arreguín said his position on growth has changed as the housing crisis has deepened and that he’s less willing now to side with those opposed to more growth. “I think my perspective has evolved over the years,” he said.

As for what he thinks of Capitelli, that has hasn’t changed. “His main interest is representing the interests of the real estate lobby,” Arreguín charged. Worthington made much the same argument, saying Capitelli represents “big landlords and the chamber of commerce.”

For his part, Capitelli doesn’t believe Arreguín has evolved on housing. He noted that ex-Mayor Shirley Dean, a leader among Berkeley’s anti-growth activists who was trounced by Bates by 25 points in the 2008 mayoral election, is now one of Arreguín’s top supporters. And Jacquelyn McCormick, who fought against Berkeley’s plan for a dense downtown (and lost by more than 40 points to Bates in 2012), is Arreguín’s campaign manager. “That’s not progressive,” said Capitelli. McCormick also was a driving force behind an unsuccessful ballot measure in 2012 that sought to rein in public employee salaries and benefits.

Arreguín responded that he’d take support wherever he can get it and that McCormick is volunteering on his campaign. And it’s true that he is more progressive than Capitelli on some issues, like tenants’ rights and advocating for the needs of homeless people. He also has widespread support from the East Bay labor community and picked up a major progressive endorsement in early September when former Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders announced that he is backing Arreguín for mayor. He also has been endorsed by the Alameda County Democratic Party and the Sierra Club.

But Capitelli’s list of endorsers is also impressive: In addition to Bates, Skinner, and a majority of the council, he’s backed by state Sen. Loni Hancock, former U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich, and Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf.

Worthington, meanwhile, has been a running a low-key campaign. By mid-September, he had launched a no-frills website that included no listings of endorsements. In an interview, he said he plans to operate on a low budget—much like he did when he ran for mayor against Bates in 2012. In that race, he finished a distant second, ahead of McCormick.

Worthington said one of the issues he plans to highlight this fall is his commitment to fiscal responsibility. “I’ve pushed for more fiscal restraint—for raising the city’s reserves,” he said. In 2014, the then-Oakland Tribune endorsed Worthington because of his call for more transparency concerning city employee pension liabilities.

Ben Gould.

In all, there are eight people running for mayor, but besides the top three, the only other candidate who seems to be gaining traction is Ben Gould, a pro-housing, pro-smart growth graduate student at UC Berkeley. In an interview, Gould said he shares many of Capitelli’s values on housing affordability and sustainability, but argues that he doesn’t think Capitelli “would be aggressive enough” in attracting dense housing projects to Berkeley if he were to become mayor. Gould noted the extreme housing shortage for Cal students in the city and pointed out that much of North Berkeley, which is in Capitelli’s council district, is still mostly zoned for single-family homes, rather than for multi-unit housing. “It’s time to stop imagining that Berkeley will always be a haven for single-family houses,” he said.

But Gould saves his strongest criticism for Arreguín, arguing that the councilmember too often opposes new dense housing and student housing projects in the city. “He uses environmental policy to obstruct housing,” Gould said. In 2014, Arreguín and McCormick backed a controversial ballot initiative—Measure R—that sought to place strict environmental requirements on new dense housing in downtown, near campus. Many environmentalists noted that Measure R’s mandates were unnecessary, because smart growth is, by definition, green since it discourages long commutes and helps reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Berkeley voters overwhelmingly rejected Measure R, 74 percent to 26 percent.

As for Bates, he thinks the race will come down to Capitelli vs. Arreguín and believes the outcome will determine whether Berkeley will continue his legacy of housing growth or become more like Palo Alto—a place that only the wealthy can afford. The mayor also scoffs at Arreguín’s assertion that he has “evolved” on housing and contends that if Arreguín is elected, the city’s progress on housing will halt. “When Arreguín was on the planning commission,” Bates said, “he voted against everything.”

Published online on Sept. 28, 2016 at 9:00 a.m.