After push for student district, no student files to run for Berkeley City Council

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With less than 24 hours remaining, no UC Berkeley student has filed candidacy for City Council after years of lobbying to create a student supermajority district that would enable students to sit on the council and bolster their political power.

With the 5 p.m. Friday deadline fast approaching, three of the four council seats up for grabs this election cycle are contested. Sean Barry, who graduated UC Berkeley in 2009, will go head to head with incumbent Kriss Worthington for the seat in District 7 — 86 percent of which now consists of student-aged voters.

Assemblymember Nancy Skinner continues to be the only person who served on the council while simultaneously studying at UC Berkeley. In 1984, she was elected while pursuing a master’s degree in education, although back then candidates were elected at-large, usually on political slates, rather than within the current district system.

“I’m very disappointed that a student hasn’t decided to run,” said Councilmember Gordon Wozniak, who is retiring after serving on the council for 12 years. “They bring ideals. They bring energy. They’re selected from all over the state and all over the world … They should have a seat at the table.”

In April, a court ruling established a student-dominated District 7, promoted by many as a chance to unify the student vote toward electing one of their own to City Council. It followed, though, a contentious redistricting battle that split students and city officials alike.

“Definitely part of the reason no student filed is because conversations and debates got so toxic and so draining,” said ASUC External Affairs Vice President Caitlin Quinn, referring to the redistricting process.

Every 10 years, City Council members must decide on new council lines to account for population changes. They did so in December by passing the Berkeley Student District Campaign map, which created a district of 86 percent 18- to 29-year-old residents. Before, about 70 percent of the district consisted of such residents.

But some, such as Councilmembers Worthington, Jesse Arreguin and Max Anderson — who many consider to be the progressive minority — criticized the new student district for excluding student cooperatives and residence halls on Northside. Instead, they advocated the United Student District Amendment map, a plan that included these Northside residences.

USDA proponents then gathered signatures for what was ultimately a successful referendum to suspend implementation of the BSDC map. Those who spearheaded the referendum called for a third map to be created as compromise. The majority of council members chose not to do so and instead voted to put the BSDC map to a vote on the November ballot.

The questioned remained, though, of what district lines ought to be used in the November election itself. City officials went to court to make the decision, and ultimately a judge allowed the BSDC map to be temporarily implemented until after the upcoming election.

Safeena Mecklai, former ASUC external affairs vice president, and Noah Efron, former ASUC redistricting director, are confident the map they advocated will endure the election.

When district lines were first created several decades ago, Efron said students were intentionally divided among districts to weaken their voting power.

“Students haven’t been able to see the full extent that their voices can impact the city,” Mecklai said. “Now the City Council member in this district can’t ignore student voices any longer.”

Many pointed to hurdles involved with serving on City Council while enrolled as a student to explain why none have filed candidacy. The term lasts four years, during which council members must reside in their respective districts. Campaigning as a student also poses its own obstacles.

Both Mecklai and Efron endorsed Barry but said they hoped a student would eventually run for District 7 in future elections.

“It’s a very personal decision, whether to run for office,” Barry said. “I’ve thought about it a lot … It depends on kind of what state of your life you’re in and what you’re planning to do next.”

Mayor Tom Bates attributed the absence of a student candidate to students “stepping aside” for Barry, whom he endorsed.

Stefan Elgstrand, who graduated UC Berkeley this year and authored the USDA map, agreed that students may have stepped aside for Barry — not to support him, he said, but because they were intimidated by the number of early endorsements he received. Elgstrand suggested that student-district advocates should have given time for an actual student to file before backing Barry.

Barry sees his alumnus status as an advantage, saying that the time he has spent on and off campus would allow him to bring a “dual perspective” to the council.

Worthington has served on the council since 1996. Elgstrand, who interned for Worthington and now serves on the city’s Public Works Commission, emphasized the council member’s record of appointing students to city commissions and hiring them as interns. But those who support Barry have said they are ready for a change.

“It’s going to be an interesting race,” Bates said about District 7. “It really represents the old and the new.”

Contact Kimberly Veklerov and Melissa Wen at [email protected].