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Berkeley Being Berkeley: Twisted Saga to Design Nation’s 1st City Council Seat for Students

May 15, 2014
by Ben Christopher

Say what you will about the melodrama of The West Wing, the boorishness of Veep, or the unabashed venality on display in House of Cards, at least the politics of TV fiction are entertaining.

Such is usually not the case in real life. When last we tuned into Berkeley, it was to report that the city was on the verge of becoming the first in the nation to purposefully create a student-centric district. The result was certain to give some (lucky?) Cal student a seat on the city council in the next election.

Since then, alas, the plot has unfolded with all the complexity of origami.  

What began as a straightforward quest by UC Berkeley students has taken many a dramatic (or rather bureaucratic) twist and turn, complete with dueling maps. The students still believe that Berkeley will ultimately make history as the first municipality to construct a student super-majority—but not before giving them more of an education than they bargained for about how politics really works.

If the city’s three-year redistricting battle were the subject of its own primetime political potboiler (and let’s all be grateful that it isn’t), the recent ruling by an Alameda County Superior Court judge would mark, if not a merciful end to the series, then the end of an episode that, depending on your outlook, has been either particularly tedious or especially farcical.

What else to make of a maneuver that prompted the headline “Berkeley Sues Itself…”?

In the ruling, Judge Evelio M. Grillo sided with the mayor, and his allies on council and on campus, in their bid to use the Berkeley Student District Campaign (BSDC) electoral map for next November’s election. Even if you haven’t a clue why the BSDC map is or isn’t preferable to say, the competing “USDA” map (or to the 2002 map, or to the MAPMINDS map, or any one of the other cartographic alternatives that has been proposed and viciously argued about over the last few months), the ruling may be worth applauding—if only because it lends some legal finality to the ongoing saga.

Or, more accurately, it lends some legal finality to the lawsuit that the city filed against itself, which pertained to the choice of electoral map for the fall election when, among other things, the voters of Berkeley will decide on which electoral map to use in subsequent elections, which could in turn (possibly) resolve the ongoing redistricting question.

HBO material this isn’t. 

And yet, all bombast and bureaucracy aside, it’s certainly been a learning experience for Safeena Mecklai, the external affairs vice president of UC Berkeley’s student government, the Associated Students of the University of California (ASUC). She’s also one of the chief student organizers behind the court-approved BSDC map. Despite the last three years of student and council infighting, cacophonous town hall quarreling, and most recently, legal combat, Mecklai is, mysteriously, not yet completely disenchanted with the American political process.

“It’s had the opposite effect!” she insists. “It’s been my biggest extracurricular activity and I’ve loved every second of it.”

When she came to Cal as a freshman in 2010, Mecklai says she wanted to pursue a career in sports journalism. But whereas the staged brutality of football games is over in mere hours, local politics is a blood sport that never ends. Now she says she wants to stay involved with local government, preferably in a place the size of Berkeley, where she says policy-making comes down to the question, “How can I make life easier for my friends?”

That may seem like an awfully optimistic take on municipal governance from someone who has spent the bulk of her undergraduate career slugging it out over the electoral fate of a few square blocks—but she’s not alone. Noah Efron, the student government’s Redistricting Director and a fellow advocate of the BSDC map, says he’s “still excited” about the process.

“It’s easy to get caught up in each little fight, but the arc of the whole campaign is that we’re most likely going to have a student district,” he says. “Reminding myself of that makes me less frustrated.”

Even a student advocating the rival map, Cal senior Stefan Elgstrand, stops short of expressing the total disillusionment one might expect from an idealistic undergrad who has just weathered the political vicissitudes. As an intern for Berkeley Councilmember Kriss Worthington, Elgstrand crafted an electoral map considered to be the progressive alternative to the BSDC’s—and therefore was dealt a crushing defeat by the court decision. As he prepares to graduate with a degree in political science, he allows that he was disappointed in the judge’s ruling: “Nobody wanted to listen to the people of Berkeley.”

For those who may have missed some or all of the episodes along the way, a quick recap is in order:

In 2012, Berkeley voters passed Measure R, which changed the way that Berkeley divides up its electoral map. Rather than adhere closely to the old district lines, the city instead decided to prioritize making districts as equally populated as possible while also trying to clump together “communities of interest.” Communities of interest like, say, Cal students, various generations of whom have been pushing for a “student district” for decades.

“Student district” is, of course, a relative term. Under the previously used map, District 7—which sits in the center of the city, a north-to-south ice cream cone with the Berkeley campus on top—was already thick with the textbook-toting set. Some 70 percent of the district’s voters fell within the “student-aged” range of 18-29.

In early 2013, the Cal student representatives of the ASUC submitted their BSDC map for consideration, with the goal of making District 7 an even studentier District 7. Under their plan, 86 percent of the district’s residents would fall within that target age group.

It was, says Safeena Mecklai, no simple process. “Our map went through eight iterations. We had conversations with all the stakeholders—the students, the university administrators, the neighbors, the city. It takes a lot of buy-in to get a map like that,” she says. “Map making isn’t one of the skills that I really didn’t expect to learn over the last three years…

“It started off a really unifying issue for the students. Obviously, we have political parties, but every single senator was behind this.”

So the effort paid off, she says. At least at first.

But according to her fellow BSDC -backing ally Noah Efron, the technical, abstract process of designing a new electoral map was just as appealing to the vast majority of undergrads as one might expect.

“For the first year, it was a struggle to even get most students interested in redistricting. We’d hold a meeting and get 10 people to show up. It’s been interesting to see so many students get involved later on,” says Efron.

Interesting, indeed.

In the months that followed, certain circles, both on campus and on council, began to grumble about BSDC map’s shortcomings. Namely, the map has shorn off the northern tip of the previous district—and with it, the majority of the school’s co-ops along with a few dorms—while leaving in sorority and fraternity houses. Compare the stereotypes you hold about co-op residents and frat kids, and the resulting partisan fracas may become a bit easier to understand.

By July, Stefan Elgstrand, intern for District 7’s current representative Kriss Worthington, set about tweaking the original map—while the councilman was insisting his own opposition to the BCDC map was not based on any fear that it would render him districtless. Elgstrand came up with an alternative—the United Student District Amendment (USDA) map. It upped the quotient of student-aged voters to 90 percent, in part by roping the co-ops back into District 7.

Worthington introduced the USDA map that month—contending that the new map was in fact an amendment, and was therefore exempt from the proposal deadline, which had passed four months earlier.

On campus, the political factions were still just starting to congeal.

“The BSDC was supported by many of the fraternities and sororities, which tend to side with the council majority,” says Elgstrand. “Then you have the USDA, which included Northside, which is home to the more progressive students,” he says. “There is a divide in the student community.”

But Safeena Mecklai says that even now she doesn’t quite understand the politicization of the maps.

“Look, I live in a sorority, but I am very politically progressive,” she says. And anyway, she says, the relative progressivity of the district isn’t the point. A student district is supposed to represent the needs and demands of all students evenly. Given that there are roughly 30,000 students in the city and each district only has enough room for 14,000 residents, even a 100 percent “Millennial” district would leave more students out than in.

“The USDA map cuts out apartments on the south side to include coops. Greek houses already have a government that assures that they get what they need,” she says. “Co-ops already have a system that assures that they get what they need. Students in apartments are the ones most likely to be lost.”

“I would ask you what your definition of progressive is,” adds Eric Panzer. A 2007 graduate of UC Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design, Panzer designed two alternate electoral maps that the council considered early in 2013. He is now a vocal supporter of the BSDC map.

“The vast majority of students are Berkeley are progressive,” he says. “What you are seeing here are certain political loyalties playing out.”

And play out they have, with USDA backers denouncing the decapitation of the co-ops from the rest of the district, and BSDC backers claiming the naysayers are coming too late to the game and in doing so jeopardize torpedoing the whole effort.

After the council voted to move forward with the BSDC map at summer’s end, dissenting progressive blocs from both the city council and the student government’s ASUC began collecting signatures for a city-wide referendum on whether or not to reject the map. Councilmember Jesse Arreguín went so far as to declare Berkeley the victim of “Texas-style Gerrymandering.”

Hang on, because the next plot development was less a twist than a pretzel: When the city council took up the progressive bloc-endorsed referendum in mid-March, the progressive bloc voted against it. Putting the district map question to the voters would be an unnecessary waste of time and resources, they argued, when they could simply compromise then-and-there.

“The USDA plan includes nine dorms along with 16 co-ops. But we’ve suggested compromises that have had seven or eight dorms and 14 co-ops instead of 16,” says Worthington. “So, sure we could keep voting for the nine-dorm plan and keep losing, or we could drop one or two and get a whole lot more.”

Regardless, the council voted to go ahead with the referendum. That left Berkeley with a legal quandary convoluted enough to be a philosophical exercise: Which map shall the voters use when the voters are voting upon which map to use? Hence, the city petitioning its own city clerk to make use of the BSDC map (legal and existential implications aside) for the November ballot. Hence “City of Berkeley Sues Itself.”

Poor Judge Grillo faced three terrible choices.

First, he could opt to use the BSDC map. But according to the City Charter, any law that is subject to a referendum must be suspended until the voters have had their say on the matter, making the use of BSDC map self-evidently illegal.

Second, the judge could instruct the city and county to use the USDA map, or any of the handful of progressive alternatives offered. But none of those maps had been approved by council and most had not been subject to any official review process, making their use in the November election arbitrary at best, and at worst, also self-evidently illegal.

Third, he could opt to use the previous map, created in 2002 from 2000 census data. But this would violate the new redistricting rules, to say nothing of the equal protection clause of the federal and state constitutions—making the use of the 2002 map also self-evidently illegal.

Grillo went with what he called the “least disruptive” choice, deferring to the city council. So far it looks like Berkeley is going with the BSDC map.

At least until November 4.

Assuming there isn’t another legal challenge.

You may want to stay tuned. Or not.

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