After 22 years on the dais, Berkeley City Councilman Kriss Worthington will not seek re-election in November, he announced Thursday.
At a playful press conference in front of City Hall at noon, Worthington held up a pair of running shoes and a colorful baton, symbols of the two possible decisions he could make. After ruminating for weeks and holding meetings with possible successors, Worthington said, he ultimately decided the baton would represent his fate.
The 64-year-old councilman said he feels he can leave the city in good hands, and praised his council colleagues, the mayor and the city manager, and endorsed a potential successor, recent UC Berkeley graduate Rigel Robinson.
Some of those colleagues and supporters were at the event, and a few cried when Worthington made his announcement. Even a few days ago Worthington still wasn’t sure whether he would run again, he said, and some of his supporters looked surprised to hear his final decision.
Worthington became Berkeley’s first openly gay elected council member in 1996, and has represented District 7, which includes the UC Berkeley campus area, for six terms. He has championed progressive causes and has offered a robust student internship program through his office.
One of Worthington’s first actions on the council in 1996, he recalled to Berkeleyside after the announcement, was proposing that the city support marriage equality.
At the time, even in Berkeley, it was a highly controversial proposition, he said. But after a year of meetings and a split council vote, the city became the first in the United States to declare support for gay marriage.
Under previous Mayor Tom Bates’s leadership, Worthington, with Max Anderson and now-Mayor Jesse Arreguín, was considered part of the council minority that was further on the left. Worthington sparred with Bates so often that in 2012 the mayor ordered the councilman to sit further away from him at meetings. Since the council makeup changed in 2016, Worthington has occasionally been a more moderate voice on the dais.
Worthington said his confidence in the council’s current composition was a factor is his decision not to run.
“It would be a different decision if we were still a minority and most of my energy was spent on stopping bad things,” he told Berkeleyside.
Worthington’s legacy will also live on through the hundreds of young people who have come through his office as interns or served as the councilman’s appointee on city commissions. Many have sought, or been elected to, public office, including Arreguín, who became Berkeley’s youngest council member, as well as former Councilman Darryl Moore.
Arreguín told Berkeleyside he would not have ended up on the City Council and later in the mayor’s seat without Worthington’s mentorship. The two first met when Arreguín was a UC Berkeley freshman working on student housing issues. Before Arreguín was elected to council himself, he served as Worthington’s appointee to the Housing Commission and worked as his legislative aide. He said he was disappointed to hear Worthington would not seek re-election.
“I can’t tell you how many policies, programs and initiatives” Worthington introduced “that made a lasting impact,” Arreguín said. “Whether on the environment, housing or economic development, he’s an incredible leader. He’s a catalyst for innovation and new ideas in the city. He has an incredible institutional memory that really helped the new council.”
Worthington has also become a well-known figure in the community, and is often seen riding his bike, as he doesn’t own a car, and wearing a variation of his standard button-up blue or plaid shirt to public functions.
At the Thursday event, Worthington passed the literal baton — more of a sparkly wand, which the councilman said he’d selected to continue “shattering stereotypes” — to Robinson. The recent graduate has been active in both UC Berkeley and UC system-wide student leadership.
A current student, Aidan Hill, has also taken out papers to run in District 7.
“I passionately want to empower the students,” said Worthington, who said he had considered stepping down in 2014 as well, but the person he’d wanted to succeed him had decided not to run.
In a press release, Mansour Id-deen, president of the Berkeley NAACP branch, said Worthington has “demonstrated a dazzling display of diversity” in his appointees and staff.
“On many commissions, his appointee was the only Asian, only Latino or only African American,” Id-deen said.
Worthington considers his work to diversify those bodies his most important contribution to the city.
“I proved all the politicians wrong when they said, ‘Oh, there’s no Asians, Latinos or African Americans that want to be on a commission,'” he said. “My biggest achievement is proving them wrong. I don’t have enough seats for all the qualified people.”
Worthington is not the only veteran member of the council to retire from the role after decades. In March, Berkeleyside broke the news that Linda Maio, the longest-serving member, with a record 25 years in office, will not run for re-election in November either. If Worthington had served another term, he would have surpassed Maio’s record with 26 years on the City Council.
Five hopefuls have already taken out papers for Maio’s West Berkeley district.
Councilwomen Lori Droste and Kate Harrison, who both came to Worthington’s announcement, are up for re-election in November as well. (See all the Berkeley candidates who are running so far.)
Worthington said he’s not sure what comes next for him. His professional background is in nonprofit management, and he said he might pursue a similar job or another role in politics.
“Much of my activism isn’t because I’m a council member — it’s because I’m an activist,” Worthington said. “I feel a great joy that I’m not going to be doing the same thing for the next four years that I’ve been doing for the last 22 years.”
Ed. note: This story originally said Kriss Worthington was Berkeley’s first openly gay council member. Worthington was the first openly gay person elected to the council, but Jeffrey Shattuck Leiter was previously appointed acting mayor and was openly gay as well.