‘Old bum for mayor’: An interview with Guy ‘Mike’ Lee

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Mitzi Perez/Staff

After almost 14 years in office, Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates has decided not to run for re-election, opening up an already exciting election playing field. Three candidates have formally declared their intention to run, including council members Jesse Arreguin and Laurie Capitelli, as well as political newbie but longtime community activist and Berkeley resident Guy “Mike” Lee.

Lee is running as an anti-establishment candidate on the side of UC Berkeley students, whom he sees as neglected by the mayor and City Council. In an open letter to UC Berkeley students, he writes that the city government is “determined to strip Berkeley of the values which make this a unique place to live” and that he is the candidate who best represents student issues in Berkeley. While Lee does not have the resume of his fellow candidates, he hopes to make up for his lack of political experience with a willingness to put his “marching boots on and come running up the hill” when duty calls.

DC: In the press release you sent to The Daily Californian, you remarked, “It’s kind of bizarre to even consider putting an old bum in the mayor’s chair.” Why should Berkeley voters consider your candidacy?

Guy Lee: I think students have to seriously consider developing an outside ally — not just anyone, but someone that’s willing to get their marching boots on and come down there and stand shoulder to shoulder with them. Cal students should take my candidacy very seriously because I value Cal students. The campus population represents 30,000 people in this city, and that’s a third. More importantly, y’all bring diversity and make this city fun. You bring diversity, you bring new ideas, you bring energy, and you make, generally, Berkeley a place to live in. You make this community so much better, and so as a community activist, I have to value that and say, “Your issues are my issues.” If you’re having problems with the regents, or housing or anything at all, then we have to come up here.

What I’m telling Cal students is: You need an ally. The professional politicians don’t give a shit about y’all. They really don’t.

DC: Without the resume or political experience of your two opponents, you’ve said that voters should instead focus on your clear vision “based on kitchen table common sense and a commitment to what is fair and just.” What does kitchen table common sense look like in this election?

GL: Kitchen table common sense is when you’re watching TV at your kitchen table over breakfast and you see something on the news, and you pause it because you ask, “Why are they doing that?”

When I look at the situation on campus, to me that violates my kitchen table common sense. I look at that and go, “Excuse me, you guys are collecting hundreds of thousands of dollars in your personal pockets and the chancellor has a very nice house.” My kitchen table common sense says (the student body) should be represented on the Board of Regents.

DC: You’ve also talked a lot about getting your hands dirty and putting boots on the ground. You’ve talked about fixing sidewalks yourself and bringing your own broom.

GL: One of the things that happens here in representative democracy is that people expect the government to do everything — fix the sidewalks, stop the bad guys, cure homelessness, whatever. I’m about the community: We the community can build houses, we the community can build the sidewalks. Right now, Cal students are faced with a housing crisis. It’s going to get worse next year — not five years from now, but in the next eight to nine months. Why is it that we as a community can’t build houses?

What makes representative democracy work is when the representatives actually get out there, put boots on the ground, not sit on the fifth floor behind your little desk and behind your little closed doors, but actually get out into the community. One of the things that I’ve put out there very early on is that I intend to maintain an open door policy. When you come to City Hall, and you come to the fifth floor, someone is going to talk to you. I may not be able to talk to you right then and there, but I at least am going to get your name and your phone number and we will talk. And if that means if I have to come out to your house and sit at your kitchen table and find out what your concerns are, then that’s what I’m going to do. None of these other guys will do that.

DC: Do you worry that such a strategy might be an unproductive approach, given the city’s existing bureaucratic structure, with departments that usually handle jobs like fixing roads and building sidewalks?

GL: We don’t have the money to fix the sidewalks; the city does not have the money to fix the sidewalks. So we have one of two choices: We can either let the sidewalks continue in disrepair, or we can fix them ourselves. We have situations in South Berkeley where people in wheelchairs can’t go down the sidewalks. That’s got to be fixed. No matter what happens, whether the city department does it or the neighborhood does it, it’s gotta get fixed.

DC: As mayor, how do you plan to bring more money into the city?

GL: I don’t care what it takes — if I have to go out here and sell cookies, if I have to go door to door and ask everybody for a dollar a month, contributed into a fund to fix the sidewalks, then that’s what’s going to have to happen. I don’t care what it takes, but we gotta have this money. And we’re not going to get it from the developers. We’re not going to get it from the federal government. We’re going to get it out of this community.

DC: What’s your response to the affordable housing crisis in the East Bay and in Berkeley?

GL: I am the only candidate that has defined what affordable housing means in a dollar amount from a business standpoint. I’ve defined affordable housing as starting out as $500 for a studio, $750 for a one-bedroom and $1000 for a two-bedroom. I’m thinking of someone on a fixed income, who has an income of only $1000 a month. They can only afford to pay half of their rent, because of utilities and other associated costs that go along with that. That’s the first thing that has to happen. We have to truly understand what affordable housing means. Once we understand what it is in a dollar amount, my next step is — and I’m going to fight like hell — that any new development within Berkeley has to have 50 percent affordable units. And again, we’ll go back to the definition of affordable units, the dollar amount. And if you don’t want to do that, you’re going to pay us 50 percent of the value of the project.

Now there’s people that tell me, “You can’t do that because no one will build.” I said, “that’s crap.” I have 30,000 UC students. You mean you’re going to tell me I can’t go onto campus and say, “I need some help. Can you give me a couple hours of your time to build housing for senior citizens? Pound a few nails? Put this little old lady in a house?” I can go door to door. “Excuse me, I’m trying to build an affordable apartment complex and we don’t got enough money. Can you give us some help? You see this little old homeless lady here? If you, me and this community here do it together we can have her off the streets in a month.”

DC: You’ve outlined a plan in stark opposition to your opponents on the issue of homelessness, a plan that includes the creation of an “urban village” with semi-permanent structures as an alternative to urban housing. Can you walk our readers through your proposed solution to Berkeley’s homelessness crisis?

GL: The thing of it is, there are proven solutions for creating semi-permanent, what are called tiny houses. Seattle just opened up one. This is a creative solution, because (right now) people are either in shelters or living on the streets. But there is no in-between; there is no transition. You have to understand that the way we deal with homelessness now is a broken system — there is no exit strategy. There is basically someone handing you a sandwich, a mat on the floor and a little pat on the head.

We have to start thinking about setting up urban campgrounds. Homeless people left to their own devices, quite frankly, have proven that they do very well by themselves. They don’t need shelters. They don’t need the soup lines. What they need is a hand up and not a hand-out. We should not be in the business of handing out sandwiches — that’s crazy.  What we should be doing is creating opportunities where people can escape the whole thing of homelessness.

Right now there is about 25 to 30 percent of the homeless population is senior citizens. Each one of them has an income from Social Security or the Veterans Administration. The problem is they can’t find a place to rent. What I want to do is take unused city space and turn it into a senior shelter where they actually pay a couple hundred dollars a month for rent, until we can get them into more permanent housing. That immediately reduces the homeless population by 25 to 30 percent. And it reduces expenses, because we don’t have senior citizens out here, getting sick and going to the emergency room. And it costs the city nothing. They’re already paying for the space and for the water and electricity. The space sits there unused. Let’s convert it into a space for homeless senior citizens.

My biggest thing right now is homeless youth. That is another very vulnerable population, from 18 to 24. I find it especially disturbing when people tell me that there are people going to (Berkeley) and sleeping in the doorway at night. Those people that attend that school are our future; they are our future doctors and scientists.

I was just thinking to myself the other day, on Dr. King’s birthday, that if the future Dr. King is going to be sleeping in a doorway tonight and reading a textbook by a flashlight, I can’t have that. I need every single one of y’all to be on your A-game. I can’t have y’all worrying about where you’re going to sleep or where you’re going to eat. That’s unacceptable. That’s going to stop. The future of this society is centered at Cal Berkeley. Those are our future leaders, and this City Council is tearing that future up.

I’m going to put the regents on notice right now. If I get into that mayor’s chair, you better start building some damn housing. Because if not, we’re coming up on campus and we’re going to camp, and we’re going to jail, and we’re going to march until we get this housing. I cannot have my future in danger and neither can this community.

For more information on Lee’s campaign, visit oldbumformayor.org.

Adam Iscoe is a writer for the Weekender. Contact him at [email protected]

Correction(s):
The headline attached to a previous version of this article misspelled Guy “Mike” Lee’s name.