Berkeley's first Latino council member ready to serve
Jesse Arreguin inside the Berkeley City Council chambers building on Thursday Nov. 13, 2008.
He is the first Hispanic to be elected to the Council and one of the youngest. (Doug Oakley, Contra Costa Times)
By Kristin Bender
November 13, 2008
BERKELEY — Jesse Arreguin's interest in politics and social justice began when he begged his mother to let him stay home from first grade to see anti-apartheid activist Nelson Mandela on television after his release from prison.
Arreguin was 6.
Then he burst through the doors of his private school classroom proclaiming, "Today is a good day. Nelson Mandela is free," his mother, Cindy Arreguin, 50, recalled.
At 7, Arreguin convinced his mother to vote — something she'd never done before — and then sat down and read the voter pamphlets with her.
As a youngster, he read Alex Haley's "Roots" to understand more about slavery.
By his teens, he was working in then-San Francisco Supervisor Gavin Newsom's office.
Even before Arreguin was 20, he was sitting on Berkeley's government-appointed boards and commissions that deal with tenants' rights, affordable housing and development issues.
"He always got so involved in injustices," his mother said. "It didn't matter if it happened 200 years ago. He just took it all to heart. He was definitely a challenge, but he showed me what to do."
When Arreguin, 24, was elected to the Berkeley City Council earlier this month by an 11 percent margin, he became the first Latino and the youngest person elected to that board, city officials said. He beat out former school board member Terry Doran and two other candidates for the seat.
He takes over the two remaining years of the Central Berkeley (District 4) seat long held by the late Dona Spring, who died in July.
Arreguin will be sworn in Dec. 8.
For Berkeley Latino leaders concerned about issues affecting their community, his win was also a victory for them. Berkeley, with a population of about 106,000 by 2006 government estimates, includes more than 13,000 Latinos.
"It's definitely a tremendous win for the whole city and for the Latino community," said Lupe Gallegos-Diaz, director of Chicano/Latino student development at the Multicultural Student Development Center at UC Berkeley.
Gallegos-Diaz knew Arreguin when he was a political science undergraduate at UC Berkeley and worked with him on the Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee, a task force that drew up a blueprint for the future of downtown.
She said his presence on the council is important as the city, community and school district work on a project called the 2020 Vision for Berkeley's Children and Youth, which aims to address educational inequities for African-American and Latino youngsters by the year 2020.
"He serves as a great role model for our youth and our children and to show that (Latinos) can be in positions of power," Gallegos-Diaz said.
Arreguin said he wants to increase diversity on Berkeley advisory commissions, at City Hall and among companies with which the city does business. He also wants to bring more students into the political process and establish "neighborhood councils" in District 4.
Paul Chin isn't Latino, but as executive director of La Pena Cultural Center in Berkeley for the past 20 years, he sees the importance of having a council that is representative of the city it serves.
"It's always great when people can open doors and open opportunities for other people," Chin said. "La Pena has been working to break down barriers for people for more than 34 years, and obviously when a Latino is elected, it's an important step because it not only signals a growth of a political power, but it also signals to young people that (they) have arrived at a point where people of color, when organized, can become a potent for positive change."
Arreguin, who was raised in San Francisco and moved to Berkeley in 2003 for college, comes to the council with plenty of experience in civic and government affairs. He has been on the city's rent board for the past four years and served as its chairman.
He is a member of the Zoning Adjustments Board, chairman of the Housing Advisory Commission and has worked as an aid for Councilmember Kriss Worthington, a progressive, for the past 18 months.
Arreguin, who will earn about $28,000 yearly on the council, said he is taking a 50 percent pay cut to take the elected position. But he said the decrease in pay is worth it because he will work on the issues close to his heart: affordable housing, increased public transportation and the environment.
To that end, Arreguin is personally involved in the issues he supports. He does not drive (or even have a driver's license), he is a member of the Sierra Club Northern Alameda County Group Executive Committee, and he tries to live affordably by bunking with a group of friends.
Arreguin said that while building consensus on the council is important to him, "serving on the ZAB and on other commissions and being in the minority (on some issues) has taught me how to effectively lobby my colleagues."
Rent board Commissioner Pam Webster has seen that skill in action.
"When it gets down to the nitty-gritty of how an issue is going to impact the local residents of Berkeley, Jesse is not afraid to raise the minority opinion. It's a very important voice to have on our council," she said.
Arreguin was in the minority on the ZAB two years ago when he voted against Trader Joe's coming to the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Way and University Avenue. He said he voted against it because the project did not include enough affordable housing. He may also find himself in the minority on the council when it comes to building height limits in downtown. He said he'd like to bring an additional 3,000 residents to downtown over the next 20 years but wants to limit the size of buildings to 10 stories.
And while his age hasn't seemed to hinder him, not everyone on the boards he has served on seems to be a fan. One ZAB member flatly refused comment on Arreguin, and another did not return calls for comment. He also did not have the endorsement of Mayor Tom Bates or big money donations from developers during his campaign.
He said he is not deterred by any of that.
"There are going to be many times when (council members) will disagree, but I will do my very best to try and persuade people about the issues that are important to me."
Kristin Bender covers Berkeley. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at www.ibabuzz.com/outtakes.