1. Where were you born and where did you grow up, and how does that affect how you regard the issues in Berkeley and in your district?
I was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., at the tail end of the World War II in a largely Italian American community. My father was a factory worker and in all of the families we knew well, there was never enough money for everything. A lot of people didn’t have cars. What I remember is we didn’t have enough money for regular medical care and my family, particularly my mother, was always scrambling to figure out where the money was going to come from. So that left me with a deep impression: that it’s critical to have a family supported in the basic ways, basic ways having food, clothing, housing and medical care. So that’s what a lot of my focus since I’ve been on the council and have actually done, political work has been in affordable housing and basic services to keep the family healthy and the community healthy. And really that goes back to my Italian-Catholic background.
2. What is your educational background, and how did that help prepare you for being a councilmember?
I sort of came to my formal education later. I graduated from high school back in New York and came out here and started junior college at what was Grove Street College. Way back when, where the Black Panther Party actually, I think, came out of Grove Street College. When I started at Grove Street College, it was sort of at the tail end of all of that political activity. But the college district was about to close that campus down and move it to the hills. It really needed to stay rooted in the community where education was something that was definitely needed and people were not going to travel up into the hills. It was a really important resource in the community. So I kind of cut my teeth then on getting involved with the students at Grove Street College to try and save the school. And I worked with Maudelle Shirek back then on that as well. So I came through that period really getting an education in two things: getting my AA degree but also at the same time understanding what local politics is all about. So I transferred out from Grove Street College to UC Berkeley where I got my bachelor’s degree in 1979. And then I went on to get a teaching credential the following year.
3. What are the top three most pressing issues facing your district (District 1)?
Right now one of the biggest issues in my district is environmental health. There are two sources that are a concern to me. One is the large amount of diesel particulate that comes from largely truck traffic from the freeway which flows because the winds come from west to east largely, pushes a lot of the particulate to well into West Berkeley and that has definite links to cancer and asthma. So we know that we’ve seen high incidents of asthma hospitalizations paralleling the freeway. We now know that a lot of the diesel particulation is not only linked to asthma but also linked to cancer. And then we have the second source of emissions that are quite foul in odor from Pacific Steel Casting industry there. So that’s one issue.
The second is affordable housing for families that can’t afford to get into this market. You cannot buy a house in Berkeley for less than a half a million dollars but largely it’s on the other end. So it’s important for me. And I’ve been working on this for years to make sure there are affordable housing options for families. So that’s number two.
The third issue is really kind of a nexus of two issues which is preservation of the arts in Berkeley and the arts and crafts. There are a lot of places in West Berkeley where artists have found little affordable niches in order to live and work. With more and more gentrification happening in West Berkeley that’s a lot less possible now. There are a couple of arts magnets in west Berkeley that are really kind of hanging on by their fingernails through the good graces of whoever owns the building. And so we need permanently affordable arts space which is actually a very good neighbor with industrial uses. And making sure we have good incubator space for green businesses to start up in Berkeley because we have the intellectual resources in Berkeley. We have to help develop that and create places for new startups to happen, particularly green business and biotech. That will take some real muscle on the part of the city through zoning and its mitigation programs to make sure that we get the kinds of businesses we want and we have permanent affordable spaces for the arts to flourish because it’s a very big part of what Berkeley is all about.
4. Do you agree with the direction the city is heading in. Why or why not?
There’s been a lot of effort in environmental issues. In education as well. We’ve made a lot of headway. We are quite prominent, particularly in the environmental area.
Development is the big issue in Berkeley--what happens to Berkeley’s future? So where does development go? What does it look like? How does it interface with the neighbors? We’re still shaping that. We’ve had some experiences which have helped us realize that we have to have better interface between neighbors and new development. We also have to make sure that when new development comes down the pipe it gives us something we really need and want. And the arts is one of the areas that I talked about. Affordable housing is another. So personally I feel that we’ve charted out a good course. Now we just have to make sure that we realize it properly.
5. What is your opinion of the proposal to develop a new downtown plan and the settlement with the University of California over its LRDP?
You have to realize at the get-go that the university is tantamount to a state agency; it doesn’t have to follow the city of Berkeley’s rules. Now, we would like to change that, but right now we can’t change that. So they can act autonomously if they choose to do that. And the downtown plan and getting the university to come to the table to work on a downtown plan together, which was part of the settlement agreement, gives us the ability to actually work with them to steer their development in the right direction and not just basically be the victim and say, “Oh my God, they’re doing it to us again.”
So, I know there’s a lot of concern and misrepresentation that we sold out to the university, but in fact the reverse is true in that the university has agreed to work with us in developing the downtown and steering future development in the downtown through this planning process. So I support the DAPAC process. It’s a big community process. Very public. And I think it’s going to be a good plan.
6. How do you think the mayor is doing at his position? Are you considering running for mayor, and if so, what changes would you try to make?
I think the mayor’s doing an excellent job. He’s got his hands full. He’s on a number of commissions. He’s steering the city in terms of the environment and education and green business. I myself have been asked to run for mayor a number of times, but it’s not on my horizon at this time.
7. Has Berkeley’s recent development boom been beneficial for the city? What new direction, if any, should the city’s development take over the next decade?
A lot of the new development has been quite handsomely done. There have been a couple of developments that are problematic. And I point particularly to the one at Acton and University that is not an attractive building in my opinion. It doesn’t respect the neighborhood as it should have when it went up. It really kind of points to all of the things that people can look at and say, hey, we don’t want anymore of that. And I agree, we don’t want anymore of that. But there are other developments in and around the downtown that have come out quite nicely. So that’s the direction we need to go.
Steering development downtown is something that really makes sense. The Brower Center should be coming on line in four or five years. Kittredge and Oxford will be housing and a landmark environmental building. We know what we really like and we have to make sure we steer development that’s attractive and that provides good amenities to the city, such as affordable housing and places for the arts.
8. How would you characterize the political climate in Berkeley these days?
Well, I’ve been on the council for 14 years now. And I will say that it’s much more congenial on the council now. Ever since I’ve been on the council there have been tensions in the City of Berkeley between people who want different things and see the city’s future differently. But we work them out over time and we really try and do our best to remain candid while we do that.
9. What is your favorite thing about Berkeley?
The variety of wealth and treasures embodied in the people in this town. They make things happen in their own way. They’re creative. They’re smart. They’re humane. And it’s really about the people. The environment is wonderful to live in. It’s got a great historic fabric. I appreciate all of those things. When it comes right down to it, it’s the people I’m glad to be among.
10. What is your least favorite thing about Berkeley?
I think the sniping is my least favorite thing. When you’re on the council, people can insult you, they can attack you verbally, they just get very angry and worked up, and they forget about just civil discourse. It’s not that frequent, but when it does happen, it doesn’t feel great. People who think about running for political office worry about the fact that this happens, but really they shouldn’t because it doesn’t at all outweigh all of the positive aspects of serving your city.