Despite shifts in Berkeley’s demographics, council still mostly white and male

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Derek Remsburg/File

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In 2008, Councilmember Jesse Arreguin was elected to serve on Berkeley City Council, making him both the youngest and the first Latino council member among his predominantly white peers.

“It’s really frustrating and disheartening that it took this long to get someone, a Latino, on the City Council,” Arreguin, a 2007 UC Berkeley alumnus, said.

Despite the appointment of Arreguin four years ago, the council may not change drastically in terms of its demographics with the Nov. 6 election, now less than two weeks away. Still, the council could see new female faces if council candidates Sophie Hahn and Denisha DeLane and mayoral candidate Jacquelyn McCormick are elected.

The demographics of the City Council — which is made up of one mayor and eight council members representing their respective districts — have rarely varied over the years, despite periodic fluctuations in Berkeley’s ethnic identity. Currently, there are two African Americans and one Latino serving on the predominantly white council this year.

Over the last 30 years, the population of Latinos in Berkeley has increased from 5,117 to 12,209, and the population of Asians and Pacific Islanders has increased from 10,311 to 21,876, according to Bay Area Census data from 1980 to 2010. The total population in Berkeley, according to the 2010 census, is 112,580.

Despite the increasing Asian American population, Councilmember Ying Lee Kelley was the last Asian American to sit on the council, doing so in 1973.

“(We need to) elect new leaders,” McCormick said. “That’s the only way we are going to get a demographic change to the council … this is a dynasty. It’s been going on too long — that’s the reason we’re stuck.”

Failure to diversify?
According to mayoral candidate and Councilmember Kriss Worthington, a large part of the lack of council diversity lies in the “failure” to appoint a diverse range of people to commissions. Working on a commission provides a greater likelihood of gaining the experience and exposure needed to run for City Council, he said.

“Theoretically, any district can elect anyone of any race,” Worthington said. “I think it’s always good to have a diversity of experience, ethnic diversity, gender diversity and income diversity. Having people who have different life experiences really enriches the conversation.”

Since the current council district lines were drawn in 1986, the seats for Districts 2 and 3 — which encompass most of West and South Berkeley — have always been held by African American councilmembers. Yet data from 1980 to 2010 show that the African American population in the city has decreased by almost half, from 20,671 to 11,241, according to the Bay Area census.

District 2 Councilmember Darryl Moore said a large majority of the African American population lives in these districts due to historical events, such as labor migrations during World War I and policies of segregation.

“As an African American, I feel I can represent the diversity of people who live in District 2, whether they are African American, white, Latino (or other ethnicities),” Moore said.

The gender issue
Having been on the council for two decades, Councilmember Linda Maio said that while she believes the council has become quite diverse in terms of ethnicity at this time, the council is not diverse in terms of gender.

Berkeley’s population is 48.9 percent male and 51.1 percent female, according to 2010 census data. As of now, however, only two females sit on the council with six male council members.

Back in 1994, the council was composed of nine females — including the mayor — which was the first and only time this has occurred in Berkeley.

“It was wonderful because nobody had talked about it or planned for it or even thought about it,” said former mayor Shirley Dean, who sat on that council. “I thought that the council got along very well.”

But Maio said even with an all-female council, members were much more divisive at the time, with some “blatantly attacking” other council members rather than focusing on the issues at hand.

“There was little effort to bring people together as it was a highly polarized environment — toxic, in fact,” she said in an email. “The nasty divisiveness is reduced significantly (now).”

How this election could impact diversity
UC Berkeley enrollment data for 2012 state that 35,899 undergraduate and graduate students attend the campus, suggesting students make up a significant presence in the city.

Yet the last time a UC Berkeley student served on the council was in 1984, when current state Assemblymember Nancy Skinner was elected as an undergraduate.

If passed in the upcoming election, Measure R will amend the existing city charter to eliminate the 1986 boundary lines so that a student may have a higher likelihood of being elected to the council. The current boundaries divide the city in such a way that it has not been possible to create a supermajority district district of UC Berkeley students since the redistricting rules were established in 1986.

“If you increase the number of students in a district, then there’s a better chance that a student would win,” Worthington said. “It doesn’t mandate it, but it possibly increases the chances. We already have a sizable student majority.”

But given the current situation, Arreguin insists the city still needs to work harder toward greater diversity in elected offices.

“(Diversity) really matters because it’s making sure the people in our community have their voices heard,” he said. “I think with district elections, with changes that are happening, hopefully we’ll start seeing more diversity.”

Daphne Chen covers city government. Contact her at [email protected].