By Judith Scherr
Dmitri Belser runs a program that makes technology accessible to disabled people, he chaired Berkeley’s Commission on Disability, he renovates dilapidated Victorian homes, and he has raised two sons.
Now he wants to be the District 3 city council member.
“I’ve been frustrated for a long time with how District 3 has been represented,” Belser told Berkeleyside in an interview conducted amid dangling wires, creaking floorboards, ladders and drop cloths at a 62nd Street Victorian he’s refurbishing with his life-partner and campaign manager, Tom White. The couple lives a few blocks south-west on Parker Street near Shattuck Avenue.
“I’ve heard from a lot of my neighbors and a lot of people in this district that they don’t get responses” from Council Member Max Anderson, he said, contending that Anderson, in office since 2004, has been ineffective in solving issues of crime and helping the struggling business district at Adeline and Alcatraz.
“If there’s one skill that I have, it’s customer service,” he said. “I know how to respond to people.”
Belser, executive director at the Center for Accessible Technology (CAT), pointed to his work helping to get the Ed Roberts Campus project built. The campus, above the Ashby BART station, houses nonprofits serving the disabled community, including the CAT. Belser chairs the Ed Roberts Campus board.
Getting the project built and funded “made me realize that working collaboratively, you can really get a lot of stuff done,” said Belser, who is legally blind.
“We worked a lot with the neighbors to get them on board with the project,” he added. “We listened to their feedback. We changed [the project] based on what the neighbors said.”
If he wins the seat, Belser will have council allies. Council members Susan Wengraf and Laurie Capitelli urged him to run. He’s also supported by Mayor Tom Bates, who endorsed Anderson before Belser’s decided to run, but frequently clashes with Anderson.
Belser said some people claim he’s on the side of developers, but “you can either stick your head in the sand and try to stop it from happening, or you can accept the fact that it’s going to happen and try to work within it,” he said.
He points as an example to a 135-unit housing-retail project approved for Shattuck Avenue and Parker Street, which, at first, he said he hated. But after getting neighbors and developers together to discuss concerns, the developers modified the project. “I think it’s a win for everybody,” he said.
Support for Measure T
Belser supports Berkeley’s Measure T, which will allow 75-foot buildings in West Berkeley on six parcels of four acres or more, or one square block, as long as the average height of the buildings on each parcel is 50 feet.
“I’m cautiously optimistic about it,” he said. “I wish I knew more about what the community benefits piece is.” He was referring to benefits, such as job training programs, developers would have to fund in exchange for permits to build the tall structures. The benefits are yet to be defined.
“That’s going to be hashed out, and I’d like to be part of that hashing,” he said.
Belser is not taking a clear-cut stand on Measure S, Berkeley’s anti-sit measure. “I’m very uncomfortable about it,” he said. “I really do not want to criminalize homelessness. I think that’s the wrong direction to go. On the other hand [I think] that the business owners do need a downtown area where people feel it’s safe to walk. I know a lot of people, particularly women, who feel very unsafe downtown.”
But more than the measure itself, he’s “appalled” at Anderson’s response at the city council meeting when the council put the measure on the ballot. “His approach …was so vehement. There was so much vitriol at those meetings,” he said. “I was ashamed of the city.”
In a brief phone interview, Anderson said his strong response was in line with the need to “defend the civil liberties of those who can’t defend themselves.”
Asked about Belser’s charges of his unresponsiveness, Anderson said he had helped neighborhood associations pull together and pointed to a decrease in violent crime in District 3 since he took office in 2004. He also noted that he helped rekindle the Adeline Alcatraz merchants association and was active in the reconfiguring of Derby Street that led to the farmer’s market move to the Adeline corridor.
District lacks parks
Arguing that Anderson was largely absent from supporting the business district, Belser said he’s working to strengthen it. He said the district lacks parks, which he’d support, especially a new dog park.
If Belser wins the seat, he’ll be the first Caucasian council member in District 3 since district elections began in 1986. He said he understands a concern around that issue. However, “I think that there is another African American on the council, so there is representation of African Americans on the council,” he said, adding that, since the death of Councilmember Dona Spring, there has not been a disabled person on the council.
“I feel like having somebody from the disability community is very important,” he said.
Asked whether he would represent the LGBT community, Belser answered in the affirmative, underscoring, however, that having raised two sons in Berkeley, he would be representing all families. “We’re not much different from most families,” he said. “A lot of the issues that we faced was saving money for our kids’ college education, and keeping our kids off drugs and all that kind of stuff that parents deal with.
“There are a lot of things that bind us together. There’s a lot that we have in common.”
Visit Dmitri Belser’s campaign website for more details on the candidate.
Berkeley election activity begins in earnest [09.04.12]
Max Anderson kicks off council re-election campaign [07.02.12]
Berkeley home moves across town, slice of history saved [02.24.11]
Ed Roberts campus is open for business [11.19.10]
Visit Berkeleyside’s Election 2012 section to see all our coverage in the run-up to November 6.