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Activist-turned-moderate is 8th District front-runner

By David Scharfenberg
Monday October 14, 2002

He’s the heir apparent. But he’s got a race on his hands. 

Planning commissioner Gordon Wozniak, one of four candidates vying for the 8th District City Council seat, has enjoyed the support of retiring Councilmember Polly Armstrong since the day she announced she would not seek re-election. 

“He’s very focused,” said Armstrong, one of four moderates pitted against the five progressives on City Council. “I’m more of an outgoing, press-the-flesh kind of person. He’s more of a get-the-facts, see-where-we-can-go-with-it kind of guy.” 

Wozniak, 58, a former senior scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, portrays himself in a similar light. 

“I’m a problem solver,” he said. “You’ve got to get into the nuts and bolts of things sometimes.” 

But, if Wozniak is focused on the mechanics of basic community matters like traffic and public safety, his position on the hot-button issue of rent control has raised some eyebrows among progressives and emboldened opponents. 

“It’s clear that Wozniak would roll back rent control,” said Andy Katz, a UC Berkeley graduate student and member of the Zoning Adjustments Board who is running for the 8th District seat and has the backing of leading progressive politicians in Berkeley. 

“I think rent control has not served the city well,” Wozniak said, arguing that small landlords have borne the brunt of locked-in low rents. 

Wozniak said he would not seek to revoke rent control for current tenants. But he has floated the idea of an income test for new renters. Low-income people would qualify for rent control, but wealthier renters would not. 


“Should we really be subsidizing all renters, or renters who really need it?,” he asked. 

Human rights consultant Anne Wagley, another candidate for the 8th District, said she opposes the proposal. 

“I’m wary of measures that threaten the limited affordable housing we have,” she said. 

Activist Carlos Estrada, the fourth candidate in the race, could not be reached for comment on the issue. 

Wozniak’s views on rent control are part of his appeal in a district, extending south of the UC Berkeley campus into the hills, that has traditionally voted on the moderate side of Berkeley’s political factions. 

With the backing of Armstrong and other leading moderates, some think Wozniak is the prohibitive favorite. 

“It really is like running against an incumbent,” said Wagley. 

But Wozniak has a history that belies the “moderate” label. Born in South Carolina to an alcoholic father, he grew up in Dubuque, Iowa in a family that struggled economically. 

One of nine children, Wozniak worked his way through Loras College in Dubuque before moving to Berkeley in 1966 as a graduate student and becoming involved in the anti-war movement. 

He met his future wife Evie Vetterlein in 1970 registering voters for Congressional candidate Ron Dellums, and in 1974, Wozniak got his Ph.D. in chemistry from UC Berkeley. 

At Lawrence Berkeley Lab, where he started as a graduate student and eventually accepted a job as a full-time scientist, Wozniak tangled with administrators over bringing local political candidates to the facility to speak to employees. In 1971 he won a law suit on the matter, filed in conjunction with a colleague and the ACLU, allowing candidates to speak to employees. 

Over the years, as he moved up the ranks, Wozniak said, he grew more moderate. But the Berkeley left, he said, moved at least as much as he did. 

“Berkeley’s left has become fragmented and gone in crazy directions,” he said. “They’ve changed as much as I’ve changed.” 

In recent years, Wozniak found himself facing off against some of the most strident activists in Berkeley over tritium emissions from Lawrence Berkeley Lab.  

Tritium is a radioactive isotope. Lab officials, backed by federal studies, said the emissions were minimal, but activists pressed to eliminate the use of tritium, arguing that caution was the best course. 

At a March 2001 meeting of the city’s Environmental Sampling Project Task Force, Wozniak kicked a chair after asking activist Barbara George to quiet down during a presentation on the issue. 

George filed suit earlier this year claiming that the chair struck her seat and caused injury, but lost in court. Wozniak says the suit was politically-motivated. 

Gene Bernardi of Citizens to Minimize Toxic Waste, which has battled the lab on the tritium issue, said the incident should disqualify Wozniak for office. 

“This is a man who gets out of control,” she said. 

But Wozniak dismissed the charge and said he does not believe the case will have a significant impact on his campaign. 

“This is a local district and one of the virtues of the district is it’s small enough that you can talk to most people in the district and they can vote for you and your program,” he said. 

So, Wozniak is walking the district every day, and talking about those bread-and-butter issues that, he hopes, will take him to victory Nov. 5.