Political Notes: Queer UC Berkeley student activist Lunaparra wins City Council seat

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Friday April 19, 2024
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Cecilia Lunaparra has won a special election to the Berkeley City Council. Photo: Courtesy the candidate
Cecilia Lunaparra has won a special election to the Berkeley City Council. Photo: Courtesy the candidate

UC Berkeley senior Cecilia Lunaparra won the special April 16 election for the vacant District 7 seat on the Berkeley City Council. The queer Mexican American student activist will double out representation on the governing body when she takes her oath of office.

She will also become the first Latina and first openly queer woman of color to serve on the council. Lunaparra, 22, who is seeking degrees in urban studies and history, also will be the first undergraduate student councilmember.

Lunaparra declared victory after the vote count was updated April 18. She is believed to be the youngest out female and second youngest LGBTQ person elected to a council seat in the Bay Area. (Bisexual South San Francisco City Councilmember James Coleman, now serving as mayor, won election four years ago to his seat.)

"District 7, being your Councilmember will be the honor of my lifetime and I hope to continue to earn the immense trust you have placed in me," Lunaparra stated in her victory announcement, which she shared via her account on X. "I look forward to working alongside you to grow this movement, having you hold me accountable to the platform I ran on, and organizing with you build even more people power in District 7."

Among the issues she ran on were giving stronger voice to the needs of UC Berkeley students, tenants rights, affordable housing, police reform, and Palestinian liberation. She has also been a vocal advocate against the university's building housing within the confines of People's Park.

"We ran an openly socialist and abolitionist campaign, and those values resonated with a huge portion of our community," stated Lunaparra.

According to the unofficial returns as of Friday, Lunaparra received 284 votes in the race for the seat that former councilmember Rigel Robinson had first won election to in 2018 and was reelected to in 2022. But he abruptly resigned in January, which led to last week's election to serve out the remainder of his term through 2026, when Lunaparra will be up for reelection to a full four-year term.

Only one other person had sought the seat that was redistricted years ago to include the state university's campus. James Chang, 33, who is graduating this spring with an MBA from UC Berkeley's Haas School of Business, landed in second place with 191 votes.

A gay man who formerly had been an elected member of the city's rent board, Chang cycled off the oversight body in 2022. He has served the past six years as chief of staff to District 3 Berkeley City Councilmember Ben Bartlett, whose current term expires this November. (In the March 5 primary Bartlett fell short in his bid for an Alameda County supervisor seat.)

The day of the election campus newspaper the Daily Cal posted a story that accused Chang of allegedly sexually assaulting an undergraduate student after taking the drug MDMA at a rave the two had attended together in San Francisco in March. The article quoted the male student anonymously and described him as a former volunteer on Chang's campaign.

Chang had provided the paper a statement calling the accusation "untrue and defamatory" and meant to "derail" his candidacy for the council seat. He also posted a lengthy rebuttal to the article on his Facebook page, calling it "blatantly false" and riddled with "a number of lies."

He also denied "categorically" that he had "ever touched" the genitals of the student, whom he said was nearly 25 years old and his date to the event. Chang also posted a video online last Tuesday with an hour left before the polls were to close to again refute the article.

"This is a hit piece," said Chang, who reiterated in the 55-second Reels clip, "I did not assault anyone."

Other 2024 Berkeley council races

The council's only current LGBTQ member, gay District 3 City Councilmember Terry Taplin, had endorsed Chang in the race. Taplin is seeking a second term this November and is, so far, the only candidate raising money for a campaign for the seat representing West and Southwest Berkeley.

Taplin's chief of staff, Rubén Hernández Story, is among the four straight candidates running in the special May 28 election for the vacant District 4 council seat. Also seeking to serve in it through 2026 are Berkeley Times columnist Elana Auerbach, Alameda County Democratic Party Chair Igor Tregub, and rent board vice chair Soli Alpert, the son of lesbian mothers who identified as a "queerspawn" on his candidate questionnaire for the East Bay Stonewall Democratic Club.

Former councilmember Kate Harrison abruptly resigned from the seat that covers the city's downtown area during a council meeting in late January. Nonetheless, she is continuing with her campaign to be Berkeley mayor, which will be decided on the November 5 ballot.

Robinson had also been seeking the mayoral race but dropped out when he resigned from the council. Mayor Jesse Arreguín is departing, as he is running for the East Bay's open 7th Senate District seat that spans western Contra Costa and Alameda counties from Rodeo south to the San Leandro border.

He placed first in the March 5 primary for the seat being vacated by termed out Senator Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley). Coming in second was lesbian former Richmond city councilmember Jovanka Beckles, now an elected member of the board that oversees the AC Transit public transportation agency.

A third out Berkeley city councilmember could win election come November 5. Brent Blackaby, a member of the Berkeley Police Accountability Board, is seeking the open District 6 council seat, as the incumbent, Councilmember Susan Wengraf, announced last year she would not seek a fifth term representing North Berkeley.

Blackaby and his partner, Larry Huynh, moved to that area of the East Bay city in 2005 and have two children enrolled in their local public elementary school. To date, Blackaby is the only candidate to file the necessary paperwork to raise money for their campaign.

Keep abreast of the latest LGBTQ political news by following the Political Notebook on Threads @ https://www.threads.net/@matthewbajko.

Got a tip on LGBTQ politics? Call Matthew S. Bajko at (415) 829-8836 or e-mail [email protected]

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