Here’s how one city councilmember described her fellow Green Party member running in the District 5 council race.
“He’s so much more than a punk rocker. He’s kind of like a John Kennedy.”
Now Councilmember Dona Spring never knew Jack Kennedy. She never served with Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy wasn’t her friend. So how can she talk about Jesse Blackman Townley, 33, in the same breath as JFK?
“He’s kind of got that hope of the future,” she said. “He’s energetic and very civic minded. It’s wonderful that Berkeley is getting a new generation of leaders to emerge.”
A visit to Townley’s home on Sunday, where the candidate hosted Green Party supporters, conjured up instead images of the only man younger than JFK to preside at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the bi g game hunter Teddy Roosevelt.
Mounted on the walls and sprawled on shelves are the heads of deer, moose and even a jackalope, all courtesy of Townley’s wife, Jane, an aspiring taxidermist. Townley, a vegetarian and punk rock singer, takes responsibility only for the collection of over a thousand records in their living room.
Rhetorically Townley evokes a more contemporary commander-in-chief. He says he’s a “pragmatic progressive” and a uniter, not a divider.
“I’m interested in working with people to find realistic solutions to the city’s problems,” he said.
While he remains true to the Green Party’s support of ecological innovation and rent control, many of the positions Townley laid out in an interview Sunday were decidedly middle of the road.
H e favored new housing development on transit corridors, but he ridiculed some buildings for towering over adjacent neighborhoods and chastised the city for backroom planning that keeps neighbors in the dark on new projects.
“A lot of people would be fine with many of these developments if they knew about it at a reasonable time,” he said.
Although he favors installing bike lanes on Shattuck and University avenues, he opposes the further loss of downtown parking spaces. “We can’t ignore the people who ca n’t ride bicycles and we can’t keep building assuming that public transportation is going to fill the gaps,” he said.
On an issue of particular concern to District 5 voters, Townley wants a grand coalition to review the city’s creek ordinance and he call ed on the council to suspend one section which he says would prohibit home owners living beside a culverted creek from rebuilding their homes after a natural disaster.
And even though he hasn’t taken a position on the city’s four tax hike measures on the November ballot, Townley, a renter, said the city can’t look just to homeowners to raise needed revenue.
How his carefully calibrated positions play in homeowner-heavy District 5 remains to be seen. The district, which covers the lower section of the North Berkeley hills from Vine Street to the Upper Solano Avenue shopping district, has traditionally voted for mainstream Democratic candidates.
Endorsements from Councilmember Spring and other Greens, including School Board President John Selawsky and former San Francisco mayoral candidate Matt Gonzalez might not prove persuasive in a district that sent former mayor Shirley Dean to the City Council four times and in 2000 backed Miriam Hawley, who isn’t seeking reelection.
Conventional wisdom has Townley placing third behind his older and more established competitors, Laurie Capitelli, a Zoning Adjustment Board Commissioner and Barbara Gilbert, a former aide to Shirley Dean. Capitelli has already netted $13,000 in contributions, roughly double Townley’s tally.
Capitelli, endorsed by Mayor Tom Bates, councilmembers Linda Maio, Gordon Wozniak and Hawley, Planning Commissioners Harry Pollack, David Stoloff and Tim Perry and Landmark Preservation Commission member Carrie Olson, has secured the backing of a substantial part of Berkeley’s political establishment, both “moderates” and “progressives.” Gilbert expects to draw support from neighborhood groups. So who comprises Townley’s base?
“Everybody else,” he answered.
After 15 years of service to the local indie music scene, he hopes to attract younger residents into Berkeley politics while still appealing to the rank-and-file voter. His landlord was among his supporters at a Sunday gathering.
“I’m very much in touch with different parts of society n ot being represented,” he said.
Although Townley might be the alternative choice in District 5, his story is quintessentially Berkeley, with a punk twist.
Raised in Philadelphia, Townley moved to Berkeley at age 18 to join its activist and emerging punk rock scenes. If elected, he may well be the only councilmember who has performed at the Warfield in San Francisco, where last year his band, The Frisk, opened for punk rock icons Rancid.
A trained emergency medical technician, Townley drove a paratransit vehicle for years and worked his way up to executive director of Easy Does It, a paratransit nonprofit that employs 30 people.
Townley now works for Alternative Tentacles, a progressive record label and still sits on the executive boards of Easy Does It and 924 Gilman, a punk club that caters to teenagers and doesn’t serve alcohol.
It was in his capacity as secretary of the punk club that Townley determined the City Council needed someone of his ilk.
In 1999 police inexplicably started cracking down on the club. For six months, Townley said he and other club leaders weren’t told why they were suddenly being policed so rigidly, until finally they learned a neighboring company, DiCon Fiberoptics, had complained to the city’s Office of Eco nomic Development.
The club contacted DiCon and settled the matter, but the experience left its mark on Townley.
“It was clear that some people in the city had no conception of who we were or the services we provided. Someone had to step up and fill tha t gap,” he said.
Townley promised to quit his other pursuits if elected to the City Council, but if the vote doesn’t break his way, he will remain actively involved for years to come.
“My goal in life isn’t to be on the City Council,” he said. “My goal is to serve my community.”