Mayoral candidate Jesse Arreguin seeks new outlook in Berkeley leadership

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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.

Jesse Arreguin hustled from house to house in the dark, following two students on a Sunday night round of the Southside cooperatives.

Residents at their second stop were still lining up for dinner as he addressed the room of chattering students. Wearing jeans and a tucked-in shirt with his campaign button fixed to its front, Arreguin leaned forward and lifted one heel off the ground as he launched into his pitch, like a runner taking off at the track.

“My name is Jesse Arreguin and I am running to be your mayor,” he said.

Elected in 2008 as the youngest person and first Latino to win a seat on Berkeley City Council, Arreguin, 32, positions himself as a leader for the next generation.

In his eight years representing the Downtown Berkeley district, he’s often voted with the more “progressive” council minority on hot-button issues. Arreguin calls himself a lifelong tenant: He lives in an apartment he says he wouldn’t be able to afford without rent control, along with two roommates, a yorkie called Del the Funky Canine and a gray tabby named Che.

Solving Berkeley’s affordable housing crisis is at the forefront of his vision.

“I cannot sit back and see what makes Berkeley so special — the people, the businesses — being displaced,” Arreguin said. “We must change, we must grow, but we need to grow in a way that’s equitable.”

Arreguin grew up in San Francisco, where he took an early interest in politics. When he was 7, he urged his parents to vote. At about age 9, he became involved in a successful effort to name a San Francisco street after Cesar Chavez, speaking out at public meetings that his mom brought him to.

“He was always interested in different kinds of things than other kids,” said Jade Arreguin, his twin sister. “It was such a big thing for a young person to take on. He really felt like he could change the world at that point.”

Arreguin became the first in his family to attend college and got his start in Berkeley politics as a UC Berkeley undergraduate. He served as director of the ASUC City Affairs Lobby and Housing Commission in 2004, and as a 20-year-old student he was elected to the Rent Stabilization Board.

Liz Hall, who worked with Arreguin in student government, described him as “relentless.”

“If there was a community meeting, whether it was at the Berkeley senior center or a Zoning Adjustments Board meeting, Jesse knew what was on the agenda,” Hall said. “He was there or he had somebody there taking notes.”

Arreguin’s advocacy as a student prefigures his current views. As a council member, he’s known to apply strict standards to developers — too strict, according to critics, who accuse him of shooting down projects that would provide the city with much-needed housing.

But Arreguin says Berkeley needs more than just housing: It needs to insist on affordable units.

“I am not going to capitulate for corporate interests,” Arreguin said. “I do not believe that just building a ton of luxury housing is going to address our housing crisis.”

Arreguin’s priorities also include tackling homelessness and further raising the minimum wage. He initiated the city’s Homeless Task Force in 2013 and previously backed a union-supported ballot measure to raise the city minimum wage to $15 by 2017, while a competing ballot measure intended to raise it by 2019. Arreguin, however, later joined a unanimous City Council compromise that would raise it to $15 in 2018.

Throughout the campaign, Arreguin supporters have contrasted his record to that of mayoral challenger Laurie Capitelli. He and Capitelli, who represents District 5 and is endorsed by current Mayor Tom Bates, are considered by many to be the frontrunners in the eight-person mayoral race.

Arreguin sees himself as more progressive than Capitelli and a departure from the current council’s leadership.

Both have pulled in big-name endorsements, with Arreguin’s including Bernie Sanders and the Sierra Club. But Arreguin trails Capitelli in fundraising.

Anthony Sanchez, Arreguin’s former chief-of-staff, points to a contentious 2012 ballot measure on homelessness as evidence of the council member’s progressivism. The unsuccessful measure would have banned sitting on commercial district sidewalks during certain hours. Critics decried it for criminalizing homelessness, whereas supporters said it would make public spaces more hospitable and help local businesses.

Though Capitelli and Bates supported the item, Arreguin opposed it.

“He would talk about it with pounded dais and let out some very heartfelt expletives about ‘This is what’s ‘effing right,’ ” Sanchez said. “That’s where you saw Jesse’s passion.”

Contact Melissa Wen at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @melissalwen.