Getting around Berkeley without encountering signs of student life is nearly impossible. Students study around the clock in cafes like Au Coquelet and Strada, eat Cheese Board pizza on the Shattuck Avenue median, and party into the wee hours of the night on college football game days. In many ways, student culture is deeply embedded within the city's social fabric. Even Berkeley's global reputation for being a beacon of liberal activism is rooted in the student protest movements of Sixties. But when it comes to city politics, students are almost invisible. "The [City Council] districts have been gerrymandered against the students — that's clear," said UC Berkeley student Senator Shahryar Abbasi. "We feel marginalized and disenfranchised because the system was built against our interests."
Cal students account for almost a quarter of the city's 112,580 residents, but they don't form a majority in any of Berkeley's eight council districts. Instead, the city's estimated 25,000 student residents are split up into four districts that encircle the UC campus. The end result is that a student representative has never been elected to city council since the advent of district elections in 1986. "We're a big part of this city," Abbasi said. "We want our voice to be heard."
Calls for the creation of a student-dominated council district are heard every decade when the city adjusts its boundaries to account for population shifts reported in the Census. And every time students run into the same problem: Their plan to create a student-majority district runs up against the Berkeley city charter, which requires every district to stay as close to its original 1986 boundaries as possible. But this year, student leaders are using a different strategy.
Once classes get going this fall, they plan to move forward on two tracks: Attempt to draw a more student-oriented district that would conform with the city's charter, while whipping up support from a broad coalition of student groups with the goal of putting a measure on the November 2012 ballot that would amend the charter so that they can have a full-fledged district of their own. "This time around we're definitely serious," said Joey Freeman, a former student senator who ran for office on the promise of establishing a student-oriented council district.
The students' case is pretty straightforward: They represent a sizable chunk of the city's population, and they have clear political interests in many city issues, like housing, rent control, transportation, even zoning (the businesses they frequent require permits) — so they should have a seat at the table. "The city council deals with issues that impact us more than any other political body," Freeman said. But instead their voice is diluted, spread out over four districts where they lack the political muscle to be taken seriously.
The meat of the argument is that students form a "community of interest" in Berkeley and thus, under state law should have a right to their own council seat. California law defines a community of interest as, "a contiguous population which shares common social and economic interests that should be included within a single district for purposes of its effective and fair representation."
"They are a community of interest; it cannot be ignored" said former Mayor Shirley Dean, who backed the idea of a student district when she held the city's top post ten years ago.
However, there's no doubt that the students' proposal will impact city politics. If student leaders succeed, then the most likely student-majority district would be that of Councilman Kriss Worthington, who has a long history of being the students' champion. In fact, Worthington has appointed more students to city commissions than any other council member in the city's history. Right now, Worthington's District Seven encompasses everything from the south entrance of campus down to the Oakland border, primarily between Fulton Street and College Avenue. But if it becomes the students district, then Worthington will likely face a student challenger when he's up for reelection in 2014.
Students aren't going to develop a formal plan until summer break is over, but Freeman acknowledged that a student-majority district would likely combine the student populations of District Seven and adjacent District Eight, held by Councilman Gordon Wozniak. "Most of this activity would be involved in Districts Seven and Eight because that's where most of the students are located," Freeman explained.
As it stands, District Eight is a hodgepodge of students, who make up almost 50 percent of the district's residents, and wealthy, moderate homeowners. The district includes the dorms, sororities and frat houses east of College Avenue, some of the co-ops north of campus, and a couple of the city's most affluent neighborhoods, Elmwood and Claremont. So the most feasible student plan would swap the students out of District Eight in exchange for the homeowners who currently reside south of Derby Street in Worthington's district. The end product would be one student-oriented district and one homeowners' district.
As usual, politics makes interesting bedfellows. This time around, Wozniak is taking up the student district cause even though he has garnered a reputation over the years for putting homeowners' needs first. In the first round of what could be a long, drawn-out fight, Wozniak placed a measure on the July 19 council agenda seeking to extend the deadline for submitting redistricting proposals from September 16 to November 1. He said that since school starts only three weeks before the deadline, students won't have enough time to develop a thoughtful proposal with campus-wide input and support. Under the charter, the city has until December 2013 to complete the redistricting process.
Wozniak's extension proposal also would give students a chance to submit a redistricting plan that doesn't run afoul of the city charter and could be in effect for the November 2012 elections. And though removing students from his district would likely help the moderate Wozniak politically, he denies trying to dump the students in order to maintain his seat. "I'm happy to keep the students," he said. "But it makes more sense to have homeowners congregated in one district and to have the students in another district. There isn't a lot of interaction between these communities."
Meanwhile, Worthington opposes Wozniak's proposal for an extension on redistricting plans. "There's no reason why we shouldn't redistrict now," Worthington said. "The students are going to have to amend the charter to get what they're asking for anyway." Worthington said he does not oppose a city charter amendment to create a student-majority district.
Regardless, all of the politicking may become moot if students are unable to rally citywide support for a charter amendment. And considering the history of antagonism between Berkeley homeowners and Cal students, they're facing an uphill climb. "Berkeley has a history of town-and-gown division, so it could be a tough sell," said Jennifer Steen, a political scientist at Arizona State University, who grew up in Berkeley and received her doctorate from Cal.
Some residents are already raising questions: Do students even register to vote in Berkeley? Can students complete four-year terms? What happens if they're accepted into grad school? How do they juggle the responsibilities of serving on the city council while attending one of the most competitive universities in the world?
Abbasi said Cal produces the most politically intelligent young people in the world; they're passionate, competent, and devoted to doing the right thing. A student councilmember would be completely capable of serving the city in the highest manner possible, he argued. The key to winning a referendum, he said, will be gaining support from a council majority while appealing to voters' sense of justice. "After talking to a lot of concerned individuals I've found that when you appeal to their sense of justice, fairness, and morality, they do have a lot more willingness to understand our concerns," Abbasi said.