Obama Leads the Way for Young Candidates

By Becky O’Malley
Thursday July 24, 2008 - 10:03:00 AM

Buyer’s Remorse is hitting the presidential sweepstakes long about now. Left-leaners are discovering that Barack Obama just might not be the messiah incarnate, might even have at least one clay foot, or perhaps a clay toe or two. They cringe when he compromises on Senate votes, even on votes where the good guys had not a prayer of winning. I’m as guilty as the next aging lefty—I unsubscribed from his web page in a fit of pique after the FISA vote. But really, does that make sense? No. 

When Obama first started to gain ground in this horse race, a younger friend, a contemporary of my daughters, expressed a bit of chagrin because he’d been in the same class with Barack at Columbia, another one of the small number of African-Americans there, and he hadn’t even known the future candidate. And not only that, here was this guy already a serious presidential candidate, though only in his forties. Had he missed the boat himself somehow? 

His feelings quickly changed to pride and enthusiasm, of course. It’s clear now that one of the main benefits of the Obama candidacy is semiotic: He represents the first real opportunity for the post-Boomer generations to take their rightful place in public life. For those of us who remember casting their first vote for the young Jack Kennedy (I was just a few months too young) 47 doesn’t seem prohibitively young to be president—Kennedy was just 43 when he died.  

Our children, though, grew up in a boomer-dominated world, where the enormous number of Americans born between 1946 and the Kennedy administration absorbed all the oxygen in the room. They had the answers to all the questions that confronted the world, just ask them. A lot of good ideas came out of this heady stew, more than a few bad ones as well. 

My own participation in all the intellectual and civic ferment was hedged by my slightly older age and my early entry into parenthood. When my peers and I joined picketing and peace marches, we had children in backpacks and strollers to think about. We pursued change largely through the electoral process, less inclined than boomers to plant bombs or riot in the streets to make political points. 

For those whose formative years were the Nixon-Reagan-G.H.W. Bush drought, the electoral process didn’t appeal any more than street theater did. Clintonian cynicism followed by more and worse Bush wasn’t any more attractive. But when Barack Obama appeared like a comet on the political horizon, many of the children who were raised in the shadow of their leftish parents’ disappointment brightened right up.  

The first discussion of the Obama phenomenon in this space featured an enthusiastic letter from the son of a Free Speech Movement stalwart. Since then I’ve checked in on the offspring of several ’60s radicals and seen a similar response. One friend who was once indicted for (I dimly remember) trying to blow up Tucson (he didn’t do it, and he got off) has four sons by assorted wives, all of whom (sons, not wives) are passionate Obama fans.  

Another Berkeley-raised son of a radical, this one a founder of SDS, shows up on the Internet with a spiffy web page promoting himself as an Obama-pledged delegate to the Democratic National Convention. “I believe that for the Democratic Party to truly thrive it must return to its roots as a year-round, year-in/year-out community party harnessing the energy exhibited in the primaries into building better neighborhoods through local civic action, not just national policies,” he says on his page. I chuckle as I read this, remembering how his father used to chide me in the sixties for my stubborn insistence on trying to fix the poor old Democrats on the local level.  

And as the younger generation takes its rightful place on the national stage, it’s time for a little of that energy to be put to work in Berkeley. Since we don’t have term limits, boomers and even pre-boomers have dominated the Berkeley City Council for a full generation or more.  

Loni Hancock and Ron Dellums were in their late twenties or early thirties when they first served on the council. Nancy Skinner was even younger, a student, when she was first elected. All three are still active, but no young’uns have taken their places on the council.  

It’s not that I have anything against old folks—how could I, being dangerously close to being one myself? But it would be great to have a mix of ages on the council again, and not just for ideological reasons.  

We’ve lately had a spate of letters complaining about the anti-social behavior of a few young people, probably students, who live in the area south of the University of California campus. Part of that area is represented by the relatively youthful Kriss Worthington, practically the baby of the bunch at about 50, but another part is represented by retiree Gordon Wozniak, who has no opposition in sight. If anyone is going to tackle the sorely-needed community-building tasks which my young Obama-delegate friend outlined so well on his web page, it would be someone close in age to the badly-behaved young folk who live in the area. 

And the main struggle for Berkeley, now and in the future, will be reconciling the competing needs and desires of residents and the university establishment. 

That’s why I’m delighted to see that not one but two active young candidates have volunteered to try to fill the void left by the untimely death of Dona Spring. She herself was one of the younger councilmembers, and she maintained a youthfully open attitude until the end. It seems soon to be thinking about replacing her, but vacancies on the Berkeley City Council are so infrequent that several candidates have jumped right in to circulate petitions in time for the November election. 

The older candidates already in the race are estimable in their own right, of course. One of them, another retiree, taught my (now over-forty) daughters at Berkeley High. Another ran against Dona a few years ago and lost, but he’s busied himself with all kinds of community service since, including documenting the tree-sitters’ efforts. A third, a recent arrival in Berkeley, is one of their most active supporters.  

Any of the three could make a perfectly fine councilmember, but it would be better if District 4 voters seized the opportunity to contribute a young person with fresh ideas to the somewhat stale mix on the current council.  

We’ll see more of the younger candidates as the campaign develops. Asa Dodsworth serves on the Zero Waste Commission, and has been the backbone of the tree-sitter support network (which could be a plus or a minus electorally).  

Jesse Arreguin is a recent graduate of UC Berkeley, where he was active in student government. As a resident of the city of Berkeley he’s jumped eagerly into civic action. He’s been a member of the key Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee and is now on the Zoning Adjustment Board, where he regularly deals with neighborhood disputes, and he also chairs two other commissions. He’s the staff aide for District Six Councilmember Worthington, where his job is handling problems very similar to those in District 4 where he lives.  

Again, either might do an excellent job on council—but both also have the edge of adding a much-needed youthful perspective to the mix. In a year when the presidential candidate and likely winner on the November ballot is in his forties, isn’t it time to have someone under 40 on the Berkeley City Council again?