Kriss Worthington aims to lead city to progressivism as Berkeley mayor

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Editor’s note: This is one installment in a eight-part series on this year’s candidates for Berkeley mayor. Read about the other candidates here.

Kriss Worthington didn’t move to Berkeley. He was dragged there.

Now, he’s running to be the city’s mayor.

At the time, Worthington was running a home for intellectually disabled adults in Hawaii and didn’t want to leave; it was his then-boyfriend who convinced him to relocate. Though Worthington was originally reluctant to live in Berkeley, when the two broke up a few months later, it was his boyfriend who left the city and Worthington — then the manager of the Rochdale Village student cooperative — who stayed.

“I got so immersed in so many things. … I had all these nonprofit groups and political groups that I was a part of,” Worthington said. “It just sort of took on a life of its own.”

Worthington’s involvement in the Berkeley activism scene wouldn’t stop here. Since being elected to the District 7 City Council seat in 1996, he’s led efforts to increase affordable and student housing in the city, standardize tax rates for internet-based software start-up companies and fight Berkeley’s Sit-Lie Ordinance, which he said would have criminalized homelessness.

He said what he’s most proud of, however, is his appointment of almost 200 student commissioners and hundreds more student interns, who have drafted hundreds of the agenda items considered by City Council.

“He’s been a mentor to me,” said Brianna Rogers, a UC Berkeley junior that he appointed to the city planning commission. “Kriss Worthington goes above and beyond his duty to make sure that he engages students and underrepresented communities.”

Worthington said his commitment to diversity and social activism has roots in his early years. He lived in foster homes until he was adopted at the age of 11, but, even then, his difficult family life prompted him to seek a community outside his home.

“Mr. Worthington, my adoptive father, used to whip and beat us all of the time,” Worthington said. “And so I was always trying to escape and get away.”

He’d often end up spending time with his guidance counselor, one of his teachers and a librarian — three mentors who first supported him and encouraged his involvement in social activism.

His career in social justice began with his going door-to-door collecting money for the National Cystic Fibrosis Society and the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. By 1968, when Worthington was 14, he was protesting for the Civil Rights Movement.

“I sort of developed a social conscience from them exposing me to their lives,” Worthington said. “When I was forming my identity of ‘Who am I distinct from the Worthingtons and who they want me to be,’ it was fundamental to my identity that I believed in (the Civil Rights Movement).”

These experiences, he said, helped form the core values that still drive his political career today. Worthington said he first ran for City Council 20 years ago, in part because he felt that the council member in his district wasn’t appointing enough people of color or students to be commissioners.

Since he first became a council member, Worthington has been reelected four times. But some, such as Councilmember Susan Wengraf, believe his latest campaign for mayor may not be a serious effort.

In July, Worthington was the last candidate to file for mayoral candidacy. Now, with about $9,000 in donations, Worthington has raised the least money of any council member running for mayor and is in a distant third overall in terms of contributions, having raised $94,000 less than fellow candidate and Councilmember Jesse Arreguin.

Wengraf said she thinks Worthington is running solely to promote Arreguin’s mayoral campaign. Worthington has frequently advocated throughout his campaign that voters utilize Berkeley’s ranked choice voting system to vote both for him and Arreguin, in the order of their preference.

“He doesn’t have a campaign, he’s raised no money,” Wengraf said. “This is different than the past elections he’s run.”

Fellow mayoral candidate Ben Gould also noted that Worthington has distributed very little campaign literature and made few efforts at fundraising.

Nonetheless, Worthington said he thinks he would be the most effective choice for mayor, adding that he’s the candidate people come to when they want something done. But, he acknowledged that his late start has hurt his campaign and stressed that he supported Berkeley’s election of a “progressive mayor,” whether it be him or Arreguin.

“The fact that he’s using that kind of teamwork strategy in this race speaks volumes to the character,” Rogers said. “He knows that the city’s needs are bigger than his own ego.”

Worthington emphasized that, either way, he’ll continue working in the coming years to make Berkeley a more progressive city, whether as a council member or as mayor.

Jessica Lynn is an assistant news editor. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @jessicailynn.