One hours-long visit to the White House changed my perspective on what is possible for us to achieve today. I hope it might affect yours too.
Last month I was honored to receive an invitation from the White House asking me if I wished to meet with President Obama and his senior advisers to discuss policies affecting the people I serve. Organized by the White House’s Office of Intergovernmental Affairs and the Young Elected Officials Network — which represents state and local elected officials under age 36 — the briefing and visit promised me a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to ask questions of those who craft federal policies that trickle down to the Bay Area. I was joined by my colleague on the Berkeley Rent Stabilization Board, Asa Dodsworth, along with Berkeley City Councilmember Jesse Arreguin, East Bay Municipal Utilities Director Andy Katz, Alameda County Board of Education Trustee Marlon McWilson, AC Transit Board Member Mark Williams and about 200 other elected officials from across the country.
In some ways, this was a trip down memory lane for me. My personal biography is more intertwined with the president than he might realize. He was born of a Kenyan father and a Kansan mother; I had lived in three other countries before having the opportunity to call the Bay Area my home. Despite his young age, a relative lack of experience in an elected capacity and a funny name, he saw a distinct need to generate change from the stale politics of the past and took the plunge. Sharing each of those three attributes myself, I was inspired enough by this bodacious move that I, too, chose to run for elected office three years ago.
But since then, he on the national front, and I on a much smaller geographic plane, discovered just how difficult it was to push for fresh policies that depart so greatly from what we had been accustomed to — this, too, in the context of dramatic economic and partisan headwinds. When I read the submissions my constituents sent me in response to my solicitation for questions to ask of the president, it was palpable to me that disappointment and moroseness had supplanted the once-strong spirit of hope.
However, the words I heard from the president’s senior staff — public servants like Council of Economic Advisers Chair Austan Goolsbee, Office of Energy and Climate Change representative Heather Zichal and Chief Technology Officer Aneesh Chopra — imbued me with a newfound sense of optimism. I do not believe that such mantras of the administration as expanding development of new forms of clean energy, rebuilding the middle class and providing access to health care for all — each of which were discussed at length — are mere talking points; they underscore a genuine commitment of this president to, in the face of vicious resistance from all sides, achieve many of the policies he had promised.
The economy, while slow to restart, is being fueled by rapid expansion in the critical sectors of manufacturing and agriculture — a much different form of recovery than the previous one which indirectly led to the housing crisis that still affects our region. The latest in a long line of environmental grants, the Rooftop Solar Challenge encourages consortia of municipalities and the private sector to propose strategies that would lower the administrative cost of permitting in rooftop solar installation.
The administration’s technology platform, driven by the goals of democratizing government data and bringing together entrepreneurs, has fostered a climate in which a starving art student who moonlighted as a waiter recently won, much less could enter, a design competition for a major federal contract. The Bay Area, a national leader in areas such as renewable energy generation, green economics and academia, stands to deeply benefit from these initiatives.
Of most importance, President Obama reasserted to us his interest in continuing to hear from you, our constituents. I return to the Bay Area refreshed, rejuvenated and ready to fight the crises that we are slowly but surely overcoming. I am now audacious enough to be optimistic once again, and I hope the people I serve might too see a glimmer of sun above the clouds.
Igor Tregub is a Berkeley Rent Stabilization Board commissioner.