‘Lead the resistance’: After 1 year as Berkeley mayor, Jesse Arreguín says his work is far from over

Aren Saunders-Gonzalez/Staff

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A year after his election, Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín still has not had time to unpack all his boxes.

This week marks the one-year anniversary of Arreguín’s election, and a lot has happened since then. In the year since Arreguín’s victory, Berkeley has struggled with multiple — and occasionally violent — political protests, a growing homelessness problem and a statewide affordable housing crisis that was worsened by the recent Northern California wildfires.

“I am working every single day … to try to make Berkeley better,” Arreguín said. “It’s been an incredibly exciting, challenging year.”

One of the most surprising and challenging issues Arreguín said he has faced as mayor is the recent influx of protests and rallies in the city. When Milo Yiannopoulos visited UC Berkeley in February, violent protests erupted on campus, resulting in large fires, several injuries, destruction of campus property and vandalism of local businesses. In the months after Yiannopoulos’ visit, several “free speech” and pro-Trump rallies took place in the city, leading to multiple arrests and injuries.

According to Arreguín, these protests have cost the city roughly $700,000 so far. UC Berkeley also spent nearly $900,000 on protest management in fiscal year 2016-17.

Berkeley City Councilmember Ben Bartlett said an increase in right-wing protests in Berkeley has been the most difficult problem he has worked on with Arreguín. He added, however, that it has been fascinating to watch Arreguín handle these controversies.

“In his first year, he’s been faced with so many dramatic challenges, from homelessness to the Trump riots,” Bartlett said. “Getting through those numerous incidents, watching his leadership style evolve … yet being resolute in our values and who we are as Berkeley people … that’s been the greatest challenge.”

Arreguín said that on a personal level, the provocations of right-wing extremists have been very upsetting. He has received death threats via Twitter, in addition to hateful calls to his office from all over the country, which are almost weekly occurrences.

But Arreguín said criticism from the political right has given the city of Berkeley the responsibility to “lead the resistance,” especially against national policy changes in the era of President Donald Trump. Cities can be “the laboratories of social change,” according to Arreguín.

When Trump cuts funding for clean energy, we need to double down on our commitment to fighting climate change,” Arreguín said. “When he makes deep cuts on housing and homeless services, we need to continue to invest in the human needs of people in our community. So we have a responsibility as a city, now more than ever, to really lead.”

Homelessness and affordable housing were two of the major platforms Arreguín campaigned on prior to his election. According to Councilmembers Sophie Hahn and Kate Harrison, these are issues that the mayor and the council have made progress on over the last year.

For many, Arreguín’s appointment marked a shift in Berkeley’s political establishment to a more left-wing ideology, and it was accompanied by the election of several progressive candidates to City Council. Arreguín said the council has been given an “enormous opportunity” to change city policy and programs.

Many council members also noted the differences in council meeting decorum under the new mayor. Harrison said meeting agendas have been clearer, while Bartlett emphasized Arreguín’s belief in consensus voting as one of his greatest strengths. Many of the council’s major decisions, including the Pathways and Berkeley Way projects, have been passed unanimously under the new council.

“Arreguín has injected a really good balance (in meetings),” Hahn said. “He’s very deferential to the public, and I think he’s doing a great job.”

The Pathways Project, co-authored by Hahn and Arreguín, is an initiative geared toward addressing homeless issues in Berkeley. The hybrid option will fund a combined 24/7 shelter and focus on connecting people in the facility to permanent housing.

According to Hahn, the program has been one of the most challenging items she’s worked on with Arreguín. She said that although the program was initially met with some internal resistance, Arreguín has met with staff on a weekly basis to move the project forward.

But for Guy “Mike” Lee, a well-known local homeless activist and member of First They Came For The Homeless, Arreguín has been a disappointment. Lee called the Pathways Project a “nice idea,” but he said it is one the city does not have the money to fund. He added that the mayor has failed to acknowledge the city’s budget deficit or put forward a plan to pay for the city’s proposed programs.

“Everything that they’ve proposed, they have absolutely no money to pay for. They’re crossing their fingers and hoping they find the money,” Lee said. “They’re hoping they’ll get lucky.”

Arreguín said he has also faced criticism from progressive activists over decisions regarding policing. City Council voted in June to continue participating in controversial police training program Urban Shield — a decision that resulted in protesters storming the council platform. Protesters chanted, “Stop, stop, stop Urban Shield,” as they unfurled a banner calling to stop “militarization of our communities.”

Mohamed Shehk — spokesperson for the organization Critical Resistance, which is part of the Stop Urban Shield Coalition — called the council’s decision to continue the program “disappointing and shameful.”

“The Stop Urban Shield Coalition trusts that after the mayor actually (goes) and observes Urban Shield … he’ll make good on his original promise to pull the city out by the end of the year,” Shehk said.

Although Arreguín originally introduced a motion to suspend Urban Shield involvement until a subcommittee could deliberate on the decision, he voted for an amendment proposed by Councilmember Susan Wengraf to not consider suspension until after training took place in the fall.

Shehk alleged that the vote for the program was undemocratically pushed through after hundreds of community members showed up to speak against it at the council’s June meeting. He further alleged that the mayor used labels of “black bloc” and “Antifa” to criminalize the gathering of people who protested the vote.

Arreguín said that when making decisions on policing, he takes into account criticisms, but that he has been trying to build consensus around issues and is working toward reforms.

“As a mayor, I represent the entire city, and I have to make decisions that I think are in the best interest of the whole community,” Arreguín said. “At the same time, we also need to support our police department, and we also need to work to make our police department better.”

Urban Shield is not the only issue on which Arreguín has received criticism. Lee said he believes that Arreguín has fallen short in his commitment to solving Berkeley’s housing affordability crisis, which Arreguín ranked his No. 1 concern when running for mayor. Lee added that he thinks the most significant progress made on the issue has been through a community benefits package sponsored by Bartlett.

Lee said he hopes that the mayor and council will begin to address unpopular topics, including ending construction of market-rate housing.

Cal Berkeley Democrats President Caiden Nason also emphasized the importance of better, safer and more affordable housing for students, adding that he believes events of the past year have overshadowed the city’s pressing issues.

“Truthfully, (there are) still a lot of things that haven’t been accomplished yet,” Nason said. “(But) we have someone that’s willing to work with a more progressive side of City Council, (and it) really gives students hope that they’ll see more affordable housing.”

Nason said he believed students were generally pleased with Arreguín as mayor of Berkeley. He added that he thinks Arreguín has balanced the free speech controversies well but that he hoped Arreguín would start to prioritize housing again.

Harrison said that when she and Arreguín were elected, she expected to be working with him on housing issues. She added that although these have been some of the most difficult challenges she has worked on with Arreguín this year, they have made significant progress.

“My expectations have been met for what we can do,” Harrison said. “This economy is really tough. … Creating housing is really hard, but we (are) using every tool and lever we can.”

One of Arreguín’s strengths, according to Harrison, is his ability to include people who feel forgotten. Prior to his election, Arreguín took a grassroots approach to campaigning, often visiting student cooperatives around campus to encourage students to vote for him. Arreguín said community involvement is what he enjoys the most in his job.

In addition to already holding office hours around the city and attending city events, Arreguín said some of his goals for the upcoming year are to host a series of town hall meetings and conduct Facebook Live interviews before City Council meetings to debrief the week’s agenda.

“We need to engage the community more on what’s happening — not just on a national level, but on a local level,” Arreguín said. “We’ve done a lot, (but) there’s more to do … and we will continue to fight to make Berkeley a progressive leader.”

Elena Aguirre covers city government. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @eaguirreDC.