In Berkeley Hills council race, wildfires, housing and disaster response are the hot topics

Incumbent Susan Wengraf and challenger Richard Illgen both have decades of experience, but differ on the best approaches to address Berkeley’s challenges.

District 6 candidates (from left to right in ballot order): Richard Illgen and Susan Wengraf
District 6 candidates (from left to right in ballot order): Richard Illgen and Susan Wengraf. Photos: Courtesy of the candidates.

Nestled in Berkeley’s Hills, the geography of District 6 defines many of its voters’ key issues. In a Berkeleyside survey, its residents asked for fewer parked cars and faster emergency response times on their crowded, winding streets; shared concerns about evacuation plans as annual fire seasons worsen; and, in one of the most expensive areas of Berkeley, wondered how neighbors and newcomers can afford to live here.

The candidates vying to represent the district, Susan Wengraf and Richard Illgen, have cast the race as a battle of experience, and what kind of action matters at City Hall.

Wengraf, who’s held the seat since 2008 and was an aide to the district’s prior council member, describes herself as “data-driven” and “pragmatic.” Her supporters say her behind-the-scenes work ensures that the council is a functioning governing body. Illgen, the lone challenger, is a former Oakland deputy city attorney and former chair of Berkeley’s Planning Commission and Rent Stabilization Board. He positions himself as more progressive than Wengraf and says he has more extensive experience than his opponent in housing and tenants’ rights work.

Each candidate says their experience is the kind that matters. Wengraf argues that her decades in the district and hammering out solutions by working across Berkeley’s moderate-progressive aisle make her the best choice for District 6. In contrast, Illgen says his activism on behalf of tenants and small businesses will be vital as the city struggles to recover from the pandemic and ensuing recession.


From a bird’s eye view, the candidates take after each other in many ways on the district’s issues. They agree that the infrastructure in District 6 needs fixing, from potholes and crumbling public stairways to lighting and pedestrian safety, and they both list fire safety as a top priority.

Wengraf has tackled fire safety extensively during her time in office. She named her biggest successes as the $1 million in funding she secured for vegetation and fuel reduction on city properties in June 2019; hammering out a “safe passage” program that re-stripes city streets to ensure fire trucks and evacuees can drive safely during emergencies; and her annual neighborhood meetings with panels by experts from around the Bay Area to answer constituents’ questions about fire safety. The 2020 symposium was virtual and drew around 225 attendees, Wengraf told Berkeleyside.

Some diverging views on city policy, affordable housing

Illgen and Wengraf begin to diverge as they approach city-wide policy and affordable housing.

At a virtual Berkeley Neighbors for Housing & Climate Action forum on Sept. 10, Wengraf suggested that building more housing would help solve the city’s affordability problem because generating fees from market-rate housing funds affordable projects. She said that UC Berkeley is “the worst in the entire system in terms of providing housing,” but that she’s been encouraged by the university’s steps toward building more housing during her time on the council, specifically pointing to the move to turn People’s Park into student housing. The city is currently suing UC Berkeley for not studying the impact of its plans to increase enrollment.

“The university has to pay its fair share in terms of the services that we provide to the campus,” Wengraf told Berkeleyside.


In turn, Illgen suggested going over UC Berkeley’s head and dealing directly with University of California Regents or even the state legislature to put pressure on Cal to build more housing for its students and staff. Generating fees from market-rate housing alone won’t fund enough low-income projects, he said at the forum, and plans to allow multi-family housing across Berkeley won’t ensure that developers build more affordable units. Where Wengraf said she supports a mix of market-rate and low-income housing on public sites like BART parking lots, Illgen said he supports exclusively building affordable housing on such land.

“Trickle-down housing has never worked,” Illgen said in an interview with Berkeleyside. “Anything you build that’s new is not going to be affordable.”

Illgen’s experience with housing policy dates back to 1969, when he was a student representative on Berkeley’s Rental Housing Committee. From there, he was instrumental in passing Berkeley’s 1980 rent control ordinance — the first rent control ordinance adopted in the state.  Illgen then went on to chair the city’s first Rent Stabilization Board. More recently, Illgen has worked pro bono for cities and causes around the Bay Area and worked on Berkeley’s Fair Chance ordinance, which restricts landowners from asking prospective tenants about their criminal records and helps formerly incarcerated people reintegrate into society, he told Berkeleyside.

Moderate and progressive divide

The majority of the Berkeley City Council and the moderate Democratic establishment support Wengraf. Mayor Jesse Arreguín and City Councilmembers Rashi Kesarwani, Sophie Hahn, Lori Droste, Ben Bartlett and Rigel Robinson have all endorsed Wengraf. So has State Senator Nancy Skinner, Assemblymember Buffy Wicks, former State Senator Loni Hancock and her husband, former Mayor Tom Bates, as well as three members of the School Board.

Illgen has picked up endorsements from Councilmembers Kate Harrison and Bartlett, former Mayors Shirley Dean and Gus Newport, former City Councilmembers Max Anderson, Carole Kennerly, Ying Lee Kelly, and Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, as well as several members of Berkeley’s Rent Stabilization and Planning Commissions. 


Illgen pointed to his time as an attorney and said his legal activism is what Berkeley needs to overcome its challenges.

“In general I’m more progressive than she is,” Illgen said. “When you think about it, that’s more in tune with this district.”

“The word progressive is bandied about quite a bit in Berkeley, I’m not quite sure what it means,” Wengraf said. She described herself as progressive on issues like equity and housing and more moderate on others, like her interest in fiscal responsibility. “That’s something progressives haven’t traditionally cared about,” she noted.

Pandemic stymies outreach

In spending, the two campaigns are about even: Wengraf has spent $22,246 on her campaign between January and September, and Illgen has spent $17,958. He’s taking advantage of the city’s public election financing and had received $35,850 in matching funds as of Oct. 6. 

But individual donations to Wengraf’s campaign dwarf Illgen’s. She’d raised $53,579 from 1,023 donors, as of the most recent city filing deadline on Sept. 24, compared to Illgen’s $9,779 from 428 donors, election filings show.

District 6 is a difficult place to canvas; the steep hills make for a grueling leg workout. Wengraf has spent decades in Berkeley city politics, and name recognition matters during a pandemic, which makes door-knocking nearly impossible. Illgen acknowledged his lower local profile in relation to Wengraf’s and pointed to her incumbency as a major advantage. 

“I’d hoped to walk the district, and that hasn’t happened,” he said. Instead, his campaign has relied on emails, phone calls and word of mouth, which demonstrate his “creative solutions for dealing with things,” he added. “I think I can bring that creative energy to the Council.”


Wengraf has also found social distancing to be a barrier to traditional campaigning. She’s turned to virtual campaign parties and email outreach, though it’s not a real replacement for face-to-face conversations, she said. 

Has it worked?

“We’ll find out on Nov. 3,” Wengraf said.


Berkeleyside, through its parent organization Cityside, has received sponsorship revenue from many candidates running in the November election. Our editorial policy, outlined in full here, states: Berkeleyside retains full authority over editorial content to protect the best journalistic and business interests of our organization. We maintain a firewall between news coverage decisions and sources of all revenue. Acceptance of financial support does not constitute implied or actual endorsement of contributors or their products, services or opinions.

Eden Teller is a contributing reporter for Berkeleyside. Email: eden@berkeleyside.com.