It seems like a simple story line: upstart UC Berkeley student Micki Weinberg takes on progressive powerhouse Kriss Worthington in a long-shot bid for the District 7 City Council seat.
But the race, in the southeast Berkeley district, has become a fiery contest over affordable housing, the moderate-progressive divide in city politics and a controversial fundraising letter that claims Worthington “has a history of siding with anti-Jewish and anti-Israel forces.” (See sidebar.)
Worthington, elected to City Council in 1996, is a staunch progressive who battles with Mayor Shirley Dean and the moderate minority on the City Council on a weekly basis.
Weinberg, like several challengers in this campaign season, has been critical of the “petty factionalism” on the council and lays much of the blame with Worthington.
“I could be a more unifying character,” said Weinberg, an 18 year-old sophomore.
But some pro-Palestinian students, who have clashed with Weinberg on campus over the conflict in the Middle East, paint a different picture.
“I don’t think he’s a unifying student leader,” said Hoang Phan of Students for Justice in Palestine. “He would be at the front (of demonstrations) yelling at students merely for holding ‘peace in the Middle East’ signs.”
Weinberg counters that he has worked well with other members of Students for Justice in Palestine and said he is currently helping put together a film festival that will showcase both Israeli and Arab films.
Worthington, for his part, said Weinberg’s criticisms over City Council factionalism are misguided. He acknowledges the obvious – the bitter quality of his feud with Dean – but says that issues are at the root of the battle.
“Although there’s an unnecessary level of personal acrimony and activism, primarily there are serious policy differences between us,” he said.
Only by doing battle with the moderates, Worthington argues, has he been able to win transit passes for city employees and an annual deposit of $1 million in city funds, reduced to $600,000 in the midst of the recent recession, to the city’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund.
But, despite Worthington’s work on the trust fund, Weinberg argues that the incumbent has not done enough on affordable housing, citing a list of housing projects including low-income units that Worthington voted down.
Worthington calls Weinberg’s charges absurd, arguing that he voted against only a handful of projects because they did not include proper environmental review or misused public funds. The incumbent said he has voted for many projects that provide affordable units.
Weinberg insists that he would remain outside the moderate-progressive divide on City Council if elected, but he has received the backing of Dean and council moderates Betty Olds and Miriam Hawley.
Dean said Weinberg will not march in “lockstep” with the moderates if elected and said she expects to disagree with Weinberg on several issues. But, she said she is backing the student because “he’s a bright young man” and, if elected, could create a council that works better than the current panel.
But Councilmember Dona Spring, a progressive and Worthington ally, said the election is a “no-brainer.”
“Kriss Worthington is by far the most qualified person to serve,” Spring said, arguing that Worthington is a tireless worker who has become one of the most-respected progressive leaders in the East Bay.
“Micki Weinberg is wet behind the ears,” she said. “He has been barely involved in Berkeley politics.”
But Weinberg said he would bring a valuable, missing perspective to the council – that of a student.
Weinberg said students make up 30 percent of Berkeley’s population but have zero representatives on City Council.
“I want to put an end to that statistic,” he said.
Worthington, though, counts dozens of student appointments to city commissions among his primary accomplishments and said he has helped to register thousands of student voters.
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