Kate Harrison hopes to bring global experience to Berkeley local government

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Kate Harrison has worked in 14 countries, including Serbia, Kyrgyzstan, Nigeria and Indonesia but she’s always come back to Berkeley.

Harrison, a self-described “Berkeley person,” comes from a family of campus alumni and is a 40-year resident of the city. Now, after traveling the world for the past 10 years, she’s come home for good and is running for the District 4 seat on Berkeley City Council.

“I just come from a family of people who believe in the public sector, who believe in making government work better,” Harrison said.

Harrison said that ever since she was an undergraduate student at UC Berkeley, she knew she wanted to run for office. In fact, her boyfriend in college made her a button that read “KH for President 2004.

Harrison received her bachelor’s degree in political science from UC Berkeley in 1981 and her master’s from the Goldman School of Public Policy three years later. Since graduation, she’s been involved in the justice sector both locally and internationally — working with court systems, budgeting and labor negotiations.

After winning the mayoral election, Jesse Arreguin encouraged Harrison to run for the District 4 council seat he previously held.

“I’m very strongly committed to her candidacy,” Arreguin said. “She will be a very amazing council member, who literally on day one will hit the ground running, and we need her leadership on the Berkeley City Council.”

But Harrison’s opponent Ben Gould challenged whether her experience will help her to address certain local issues, such as the city’s affordable housing crisis — a major focus of her campaign.

“A lot of (Harrison’s) experience has been working on advising governments in Eastern Europe around forming their judicial systems,” Gould said. “I just don’t see how that applies to addressing housing challenges in Berkeley.”

As an undergraduate student at UC Berkeley, however, Harrison worked on improving affordable housing in the city.

Harrison, along with her classmates, started the campus’s Municipal Lobby to represent students at City Council.

“We’ve always had problems with affordable housing. Supposedly UC guaranteed all freshmen housing, but I didn’t get into the dorms,” Harrison said. “So I had to live in a rooming house. I was 17 years old, and I was living in this house (and I) tried to cook for myself — it was a very strange experience.”

As a part of City Council, Harrison said she wants to push for equitable and balanced development, with a focus on increasing both market-rate and affordable housing.

“There’s been a lot of emphasis on market-rate housing,” Harrison said. “(But) regular people — we have not built enough housing for them.”

Along with her focus on housing, Harrison wants to preserve the diversity of the city, adding that she doesn’t want to lose the city’s artists and theater spaces.

Her appreciation for art is visible on the walls of her Victorian home, which are covered with art she’s found during her travels abroad. Harrison’s house, which was built back in 1889, also serves as her campaign office.

The volunteers come into Harrison’s basement in the afternoon to phone bank or enter data. Despite the mess downstairs, she said she likes having everyone over to work on her campaign.

“Nobody ever comes over for a cup of tea, you know. We don’t live in a culture where there’s a lot of that,” Harrison said. “So I’ve actually really enjoyed this, to tell you the truth. It’s going to be pretty quiet at the end.”

On Feb. 11, Harrison and about 20 supporters kicked off her campaign at Victory Point Cafe with a march to the post office to turn in their ballots together.

“The staff that does the majority of all (of Harrison’s campaign) work are unpaid,” said Rent Stabilization Board Commissioner James Chang, an active volunteer in Harrison’s campaign. “We do it because we believe in Kate. … We all really need to stand together and fight together to help Kate win.”

If she is elected, in this new year, Harrison said she wants to take a strong stance against the federal administration  she wants Berkeley to remain a sanctuary city and to push for a sanctuary state in California.

With the Trump administration, Harrison added, there will be a new layer of complexity to the job, but she hopes the council doesn’t forget the “nuts and bolts” of local government, such as trash in someone’s yard, a broken traffic light or an unpaved road.

“It’s a hard job because you have to deal with those problems, which, for that person — that day — that is the most important problem for them. It’s not small,” Harrison said. “The campaign itself is the start of the education of how to be a council person because you learn all this stuff. It’s amazing. And I’ve lived here a long time, and I’m still learning every day.”

Malini Ramaiyer is the lead city government reporter. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @malinisramaiyer.