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Build Berkeley Build

Ellen Cushing | October 27, 2014 | Story Politics

As the 2014 political circus nears its grand finale, San Francisco magazine peers under the big top. Here, a series of insider stories about issues, candidates, and races both important and absurd. Check back between now and November 4, as more stories go online.

Monday, Oct. 20: Consultants for Chaos
Tuesday, Oct. 21: Yes We Ken
Wednesday, Oct. 22: Soda Makes You Fat & I'm Ok With That
Thursday, Oct. 23: Republicans for Ro
Friday, Oct. 24: Cars Are People Too
Monday, Oct. 27: Build, Berkeley, Build
Tuesday, Oct. 28: I'm With David. No, I'm With David
Wednesday, Oct. 29: Pissed & Proud

The dining room of the Acacia House fraternity looks like what you’d expect: big, growing-boy jugs of milk sit on the tables; a towering hookah rests in one corner; Monday Night Football flashes silently on the TV. But tonight’s dinner is a bit unusual, at least insofar as its guest is Sean Barry, the 27-year-old challenger in the city’s District 7 council race, who is here to make his election pitch. Clad in a J.Crew–preppy sweater, with a distinct most-likely-to-succeed air about him (not just an air, in fact—when he graduated from Berkeley High School in 2005, he was indeed bestowed that superlative), Barry fits the role of the charismatic millennial spokesman. When he talks, these bros will listen.

Barry first tells the students about his background (born and raised in Berkeley); his Cal pedigree (graduated with a political science degree in 2009—here he drops a “Go Bears” and dutifully pauses for whoops and cheers); his residency in District 7, which was redrawn last year into a de facto “student district”; and his priorities if elected. “We have a housing shortage,” he tells the room. “We have a public safety issue. We have a Telegraph Avenue that is not meeting its potential. And we have one councilmember in Berkeley under the age of 59, while a quarter of the city is student age.” One young man nods emphatically as he sips Yoo-hoo from a massive, ornate goblet.

Though Barry is quick to point out that “it’s not just a young-versus-old thing,” Berkeley politics have long been dominated by debates over housing policy, which have in turn created a wedge between two general groups—old-guard homeowners who’d like the city to stay roughly the size and shape that it is, and younger advocates of smart growth who’ve seen rental prices steadily increase in the face of stagnant supply and growing demand. For years, that first group—represented by Barry’s opponent, Kriss Worthington, 60, who has served on the council for 18 years—held the upper hand in policy disputes. But recently, voters have begun ushering in taller buildings and denser development. The momentum toward a more vertical Berkeley, it seems, is itself building.

This is exactly the change that activists hoped to see when they pushed last year to redraw District 7, which now runs along the south side of campus and is overwhelmingly populated by people under 30. Seating a councilmember more representative of the district—that is, a renter with an appetite for up-zoning and an interest in nightlife—could decisively tilt the city’s politics toward the side of development. Though no current student is running, Barry is certainly close to that demographic, and he shares the concerns of young Berkeleyans.

“It’s a quality, affordability, and availability issue,” Barry tells me, describing the city’s housing crisis. “Everybody on the council pays lip service to affordable housing, but where’s the urgency? I’m a tenant, and I’m paying market rate, and I feel a sense of urgency because I don’t know if I can stay in Berkeley.”

Barry (who, full disclosure, was an acquaitance of mine at Berkeley High) is too diplomatic to name his opponent, but it’s clear enough whom he’s talking about. The standard-bearer for the council’s no-growth wing, Worthington has been an ardent opponent of measures such as the city’s downtown plan, which was adopted in 2012 and paved the way for taller, denser, faster development in Berkeley’s inner core. And he enjoys broad name recognition throughout the city, having come in second in the 2012 mayoral race. “He’s an iconic figure of the Berkeley left,” Barry admits, “and it’d be a big deal for him to lose.”

In other words, Barry understands that he’s a long shot. In order to prevail, he will not only need to win over a group of people who have little incentive to consider the long-term policies of a city they may not even be in next semester—he’ll also need to get them to put down the hookah and show up at the polls. It won’t be easy.

Back at Acacia, Barry wraps up his speech to polite, if muted, applause, reminds the brothers to register to vote, and steps out into the sunlight to meet his next audience: the men of Chi Psi.

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