Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 3 / 18 January 2018

Berkeley council race draws gay challenger


Councilman Jesse Arreguin
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A Berkeley city councilman with a long track record of supporting LGBT issues finds himself running for re-election this year against an openly gay candidate who has teamed up with a local architect and beekeeper in the race.

Councilman Jesse Arreguin, one of the council's more progressive members, won a special election for the open District 4 seat in 2008 after the death of Councilwoman Dona Spring. He is the first Latino to serve on the council, and at age 26, the youngest member.

He faces a challenge this fall from Eric Panzer, 25, an openly gay man who is a cartographer for an environmental consulting firm, and Jim Novosel, 65, a local architect who tends to chickens and 30,000 bees among nine hives he has in his backyard.

With the city switching to ranked choice voting this year, Panzer and Novosel have endorsed each other as their number two choice in the race. A fourth candidate, engineer and UC Berkeley adjunct professor Bernt Rainer Wahl, is also on the ballot.

Development issues in the East Bay city's downtown core and transit infrastructure are the top concerns in the campaign and have dominated much of the debate in the race. Another undercurrent is Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates and his moderate allies on the council wanting to replace Arreguin.

"My opponents have been saying I am not a team player. It begs the question what team are they playing on?" asked Arreguin. "I play on the team for District 4. I have worked collaboratively with my fellow council members on both sides of the political divide on the council and try to build consensus on issues like passing a strong climate action plan and building a downtown plaza on Center Street."

Arreguin is an opponent of Measure R, a development plan for downtown that Bates and seven council members approved earlier this year. He contends the plan doesn't represent the interests of his district, which includes the downtown, and will only benefit developers and the university, which intends to expand in the area.

"It is controversial because it will allow out of scale development downtown while not ensuring real community benefits like affordable housing and open space," said Arreguin. "I support green development and real enforceable policy to make sure construction jobs and hotel jobs are good paying union jobs. We have an opportunity to include those things but the council chose to only benefit the university and developers. Let's go back to the drawing board and make the plan better."

Panzer and Novosel both back the plan and say it will benefit the city's residents. They say the plan's allowance of the construction downtown of three additional buildings no taller than the two tallest buildings in the city is a good compromise.

"I think that this plan gives great opportunities to get both housing and jobs and the sort of public benefits we want in the downtown," said Panzer. "I think the majority of people, when they know about it and once they read the details of it, are very supportive of it."

Novosel criticized Arreguin for voting against the plan and delaying needed improvements to the city's downtown area.

"Downtown needs a champion. It needs someone who champions the urban environment, the people, the cultural life, the educational life, all the things that make it what it is. To make divisions seems antithetical to making a better downtown," said Novosel, who grew up in San Francisco and has lived in Berkeley for 46 years, where he and his wife raised three sons.

Arreguin contends because he is willing to stand

Candidate Eric Panzer
up to the mayor and downtown business interests he is being targeted at the ballot box along with his former boss, openly gay Berkeley City Councilman Kriss Worthington, who is also up for re-election.

"We believe in standing up for what is best for our constituents and what is best for Berkeley as a whole," he said. "Because we have been outspoken progressive voices on the council, we are being targeted for removal by real estate interests, landlords and the mayor."

Bates and a majority of council members have dual endorsed Panzer and Novosel. Yet both dismiss suggestions they won't be independent on the council.

"He has accused me of being in the pocket of the mayor or something like that," said Novosel. "I don't think the mayor is going to like me when I start talking about preservation."

Panzer said he is running for council to do what is best for the city.

Candidate Jim Novosel.
Photo: Jane Philomen Cleland

"I am going to base my votes on that and not on how anyone else is voting or how anyone else wants me to vote," he said.

Panzer entered the race to advocate for more housing and jobs in Berkeley, where he has lived for the last seven years. He moved to the city to attend UC Berkeley where he majored in environmental science and city planning.

"Those issues of sustainability and Berkeley's environmental goals really motivated me to get into the race and take a stand for those things," said Panzer. "I don't think the incumbent has done the best. Unfortunately he has voted against a lot of things I think Berkeley needs."

Born in San Francisco, Arreguin interned as an aide for a number of San Francisco supervisors at City Hall and served on the city's youth commission, on which he advocated for a controversial LGBT homeless youth shelter in the Castro.

After graduating in 2007 from UC Berkeley with a degree in political science, he went to work as an aide for Worthington. Mistaken by some as being gay, Arreguin is straight. He serves on the board of the East Bay Stonewall Democratic Club and won the group's endorsement.

"Because I have worked on LGBT issues, some people have assumed that" he is gay, said Arreguin. "For years I have been a strong supporter of LGBT issues, even when I was on the San Francisco Youth Commission."

Panzer, however, is hopeful of drawing LGBT support to his candidacy.

"I would hope LGBT voters would choose to vote for the LGBT candidate in this race," said Panzer. "At the same time, I am not running as a gay candidate but as a candidate who has good ideas for Berkeley. I want that to be the reason why people vote for me."

With LGBT issues not a focal point of the race, Novosel hopes LGBT voters will support him as he has the most experience of any candidate in the race.

"I am a more mature citizen of Berkeley, that is a big difference," he said. "I hope people vote for someone who has been an integral part of the city's life, knows it well, and wants to keep improving it."

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