Opinion: Igor Tregub for City Council District 1: Choose proven grassroots accomplishment

He has spent 15 years as an elected official, environmentalist, housing official and more. He is a tireless progressive activist

In Council District 1 — basically everything north and west of the corner of University Avenue and Sacramento Street — our challenge is how best to replace retiring City Councilwoman Linda Maio, who has ably served the district and the city for more than 20 years. Fortunately, candidate Igor Tregub has the proven experience and history of progressive accomplishment to comfortably pick up her torch.

I first met Linda in 1971, when we both worked on the effort to prevent a plan by the BART board and Berkeley’s last Republican mayor to overbuild out-of-scale apartments on the “Hearst Strip” near the North Berkeley BART station. Thanks to a vigorous grassroots initiative effort that Linda stuck with, Berkeley enacted the Neighborhood Preservation Ordinance, which brought us Ohlone Park — a now-treasured resource. We both learned that good things happen by applying progressive values through grassroots efforts and persistence over months and years. Linda’s long service on the council grew strongly from those roots. Her willingness to be actively involved with her constituents, to seek widespread consensus on tough issues, and not to be afraid of hard work have more recently been a direct inspiration for Igor’s own progressive involvements.

Igor arrived in Berkeley early in the new millennium, after his birth in Ukraine and his family’s emigration to escape government persecution of the Jewish community there, followed by years of wandering before he found the place where he wanted to put down roots. That life journey led directly to his central campaign pledge today: to work to make Berkeley “a place we can all call home.” That’s truly what’s been motivating him ever since.

Igor has now lived here — and been deeply involved — for 15 years. Educated at UC Berkeley as an engineer, even while still in school he learned about organizing in a democratic country. I met him in 2008 while I was managing a campaign against an anti-transit initiative; Igor organized public meetings to inform the university community on that and other issues. We’ve worked together on multiple issues in the years since, not only in Berkeley but also regionally via the Sierra Club.

Igor is a tireless progressive activist. From issue to issue, meeting to meeting, and campaign to campaign, he has been a faithful presence in the center of Berkeley issues. He is as well known at City Hall as he is among local labor unions, democratic committees, city boards and commissions he has served on, and a range of East Bay progressive nonprofits. That involvement is not just talk: as a member of the Zoning Adjustments Board from 2012 to the present, for example, Igor has been in the middle of negotiating the real-world building-permit decisions that have brought our recent new housing projects to life.

Igor’s chief rival is the charming and estimable Rashi Kesarwani, with a different tale to tell voters. Rashi is well educated in public policy matters, and currently holds a responsible budget manager job in San Francisco. Nonetheless, she is not noted for grassroots involvement. If elected, she will need to learn how to work bottom-up as well as top-down to continue Linda’s legacy.

As she learns, her emphasis has been changing. In the two months from her first flyer to the most recent mid-October one, for example, Rashi has moved to a more top-down and management-centric orientation. The early flyer focused on a list of “priorities:” admirable progressive goals such as addressing Berkeley’s housing and homeless crises, standing up against environmental challenges, fixing infrastructure, and several more. These written priorities, however, represented only Rashi’s commitment to START working on those goals as soon as she’s elected since she has had almost no actual Berkeley grassroots community experience working on them so far.

By the release of her October flyer, Rashi had apparently stopped listing her early progressive priorities, which no longer appeared. Instead, as her primary qualification for office, she headlined her “government experience” as a “government finance professional” based on work as budget manager of San Francisco’s Human Services Agency. But the relevance of that for the office she seeks is not clear; in Berkeley’s government the city manager and the auditor are responsible for fiscal management, and council members have different duties. Even on her own list, she stretches for relevance, from calling her masters-degree studies “government experience” to using vague words like “championed,” “fought for”, and “won the right for . . . ” that don’t put her in positions of decisive grassroots political leadership.

In contrast, Igor has several years of grassroots involvement actually dealing with Berkeley’s most salient issues. Serving as an elected official to the Rent Stabilization Board and on the Zoning Adjustment Boards, he has had to make real-world decisions on housing (not just adopting policies); serving as the president of the Bay Area Chapter of the Sierra Club, he has had to coordinate fights such as stopping coal shipments through Berkeley by rail. He led a personal crusade to renovate dangerous “soft story” apartment buildings before the next quake; and much more. His actions, not just his words, prove his progressive accomplishments in the real world.

To me, Rashi’s new language seems oriented to capturing the district’s more conservative and moderate voters, a group that often complains about progressive Berkeley’s “overspending” on social services,  new tax and fee assessments, and concern about unfunded liabilities. Curiously, though, the flyer features endorsement photos of former Mayor Tom Bates and current State Senator Nancy Skinner, both often tagged with fiscal profligacy by those same moderate citizens. Which perspective does she really favor?

So District 1 faces a clear choice between two candidates who differently embody bottom-up progressive community involvement or top-down policy management. While both are qualified, Igor will more ably serve at carrying on the intimate public service that will extend the representation we have gratefully enjoyed from Linda Maio.

Alan Tobey became another progressive immigrant to Berkeley in 1970. After retiring from work in technical development and marketing, he is still involved in local environmental activism.