Two Jewish students join Berkeley City Council race

It's one thing to vote for a 40-year-old candidate — but quite another to vote for two candidates whose combined age is just 40. Berkeley voters will have a chance to do just that in November's elections, as a pair of Jewish U.C. Berkeley students vie for spots on the city council.

In a race that has raised some eyebrows — and tempers — on Berkeley's student-laden South Side, 18-year-old campus Israel activist Micki Weinberg is hoping to wrest three-term Councilmember Kriss Worthington from his District 7 seat.

"Participatory democracy is the way to go," said Weinberg, a member of the Peace and Justice Commission, explaining his decision to run. "Precisely because of my age, I have not been corrupted."

Weinberg accuses his opponent of talking a good game when it comes to affordable housing but consistently voting against housing measures. Worthington responds that this is a tired allegation that was unsuccessfully used against him in his last campaign.

Berkeley Mayor "Shirley Dean said that about me in the last election and put out a flier accusing me of voting against housing in certain votes. What I'm actually voting against is taking low-income housing money, giving it to middle-income projects and not having a low-income component in the project," said Worthington.

The mutual disdain between Worthington and Dean is well known and overtly expressed. The council member said Weinberg has distorted Worthington's record on hate crime legislation, and he sees Weinberg's candidacy as a political maneuver on the part of Dean to strip student votes from him.

"I don't think students will be so short-sighted that they'll vote for somebody just because they're a student," he said. "I think it's clever of Shirley to try to trick people, but I just don't think students are that dumb."

Responding to charges that he was Dean's pawn, Weinberg replied, "I am my own man. Those accusations are all nonsense." He characterized Worthington as a divisive presence on the council, and he felt he could help unify city government as "the voice of reason."

Worthington's strong support for the 79 pro-Palestinian demonstrators arrested for occupying a campus building on Yom HaShoah also angered Weinberg.

Disagreeing with Worthington's assessment, Dean felt Weinberg would be an independent voice, "and that's fine with me. I do not think Micki and I will agree on everything. And that's good. I have absolutely no feeling whatsoever that he will be in lockstep with me or anyone else."

Observers are uncertain of Weinberg's chances to unseat the incumbent.

"That remains to be seen," said Councilmember Mim Hawley, a Weinberg suppoter. "In part, some of the vote will be in reaction to Kriss. There are some people who really do regard him as undesirable on the council. He is the kind of person who gets great, loyal supporters and totally loyal detractors."

While he has not yet received the critical endorsements of U.C. Berkeley's student government, The Daily Californian or any South Side neighborhood associations, Weinberg has picked up the backing of several Telegraph Avenue merchants; Shirley Issel, Berkeley's school board president; Councilmembers Hawley and Betty Olds and, of course, the mayor.

When asked who she wouldn't support in a race against Worthington, a laughing Dean replied " I know there are people out there I wouldn't support, but I can't name them. I think that's a funny question."

Operating without the publicity — or animosity — of the District 7 race, 22-year-old Andy Katz is one of four candidates vying for the vacant District 8 seat.

Katz, who grew up in Milbrae, graduated from U.C. Berkeley in 2002 and is currently pursuing a master's in city and regional planning, is already an old hand at Berkeley city government.

The former Peninsula Temple Sholom congregant is currently the city's zoning commissioner, and previously led the Housing Advice Committee. He points to his crowning achievements as the rental housing safety program, which improved fire safety and housing code endorsement, and helping negotiate the Class Pass, a program in which U.C. Berkeley students pay a small fee in exchange for unlimited rides on A.C. Transit buses.

"I have the most experience on local neighborhood issues," said Katz, who is bolstered by the demographics of District 8, which is more than half students. "I'm very concerned about protecting the neighborhood from unreasonable developments. I'm also very concerned about privacy, traffic and shadowing issues."

Katz is endorsed by Assembly member Dion Aroner, four city council members and six members of the rent board.

The young Jewish candidates know each other only peripherally, and Katz, who has been appointed to several commissions by Worthington, supports the incumbent.

"He works very hard. He's one of the most hard-working council members," said Katz of Worthington. "I think he makes sure students are at the table. He fought hard with me to create the rental housing safety program and appointed a lot of students to commissions — important commissions."

While Weinberg is a vocal pro-Israel voice on campus and Katz was an active Hillel participant who taught a class on "postmodern interpretations of Judaism" and attended the Birthright Israel trip in January, both candidates hope their backgrounds will remain in the background.

"I don't think it's relevant to the election to be honest," said Weinberg. "When it comes to people concerned about their safety when walking down Telegraph or trying to find an affordable house, I don't think Israel-Palestine is really relevant to it at all. I'm not going to run on that issue."

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.