Politics appears to be a calling for Rigel Robinson, the youngest person ever elected to the Berkeley City Council. The 22-year-old’s supporters describe him as being preternaturally gifted in style, temperament, and abilities when it comes to campaigning, working with constituents, and negotiating the halls of government.
To illustrate, before the November election, Robinson earned the unprecedented endorsement of the entire Berkeley City Council. And he handily beat two challengers on Nov. 6 to take over the District 7 seat that longtime incumbent Kriss Worthington relinquished once Robinson had announced his candidacy.
“Rigel is an incredible individual with wisdom way beyond his years,” said Worthington, who served on the council for 22 years. “I feel very comfortable handing the baton to him. I think he will benefit Berkeley a lot.”
Worthington watched Robinson blossom over the past year. In late 2017, Worthington appointed Robinson to be an alternate member of the Berkeley zoning and police review boards, and he received rave reviews for being prepared, inquisitive, and calm amid controversy.
Yet despite now being the face of the next generation of East Bay politicos, Robinson somewhat sheepishly betrays a sense of being drafted by fate into the political world despite his parents’ hopes that he might be a doctor or engineer.
“They would have loved to see me do some engineering things, but it turns out I’m better at words than numbers, so…” said Robinson, who graduated from UC Berkeley in May with a bachelor’s in political economy and a raft of achievements as a political activist and student government official.
Robinson actually launched his campaign to replace Worthington before Worthington decided to retire, which made for “a window there that was, in a word, awkward,” Robinson said.
Over the next several months, however, Worthington consulted with Robinson and decided that he would be a worthy successor, both because of his stances on issues like labor and the environment, and because he could actually win. “I didn’t want to stand aside and then have somebody run who would be wiped out,” Worthington said.
Robinson grew up in St. Louis, but has long felt a strong connection to Berkeley, where his aunt lives, and to Cal, which both his great-grandmother and grandmother attended.
He said he first got “dragged” deeply into politics as a freshman when was working in the external affairs office of the Associated Students of the University of California (student government), where he helped organize opposition to a proposed systemwide tuition increase, the first of several major tuition hike battles during his undergrad years. “One thing sort of led to another and I got sucked into a lot of this,” he said.
Robinson said he “got roped into City Hall” in his freshman year after someone suggested he would make a good intern for then-councilmember and current Mayor Jesse Arreguín, and he got the position.
Over a sandwich at Au Coquelet in Berkeley, Robinson recounted learning about the way the University of California works from both the city and school sides of the fence. He learned that UC Berkeley provides proportionately less housing for its 42,000 students than all other UC schools, which he came to realize exacerbates housing insecurity and other problems, not just for students, but other residents of the city and East Bay.
Cal, which has grown enrollment in recent years, currently provides just 9,476 student beds. It added 775 beds in fall, but acknowledges that it must build thousands more, and Robinson intends to push for it to be done quickly.
“It’s negligent. It’s absolutely negligent,” he said of the lack of student housing. “That’s why us being elected to this position is so important, because we need people on the [city council] dais who will say that we should be making it easier, not harder, for the campus to build.”
Robinson went on to hold a variety of positions in the ASUC, including chair of the Real Estate Student Board while a senator, vice president for external affairs, and chair of university affairs. He also was also active on a wider political stage, among other things co-founding the local student chapter for then-presidential candidate Bernie Sanders while a sophomore.
This year, he went to Sacramento to testify in support of successful legislation to encourage building more affordable student housing, and requiring all retail electricity sales in California to come from renewable and zero-emissions sources by 2045. State Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, author of the student housing bill, still holds the title of the only Cal student ever to have been elected to the Berkeley City Council while a student, though Robinson is younger than she was when she took office. She endorsed Robinson, as did state Sen. Kevin de León, D-Los Angeles, who carried the electricity bill.
Too many meetings eventually led Robinson to drop out of the Cal fencing club, though he continues to find time to play the ukulele to relax.
In the past few years, Robinson has also learned that relations between the city and the university have consistently been problematic. He came to believe that the needs of students — roughly a third of the city’s population — were not being addressed and that the city as a whole was suffering as a result.
“Even though neighbors point out that students are here only three to five years, the student population is permanent and growing and it has unique needs, and it is the duty of the city to make sure that those perspectives are heard and those needs are met,” Robinson said.
It’s a two-way street, said Robinson, arguing that better accommodating students, notably by encouraging high-rise student housing developments around the campus, will cause less disturbance to neighbors because the student population will be more concentrated. The city, in turn, will be more walkable and easier to serve with transit, which would please Robinson since he doesn’t have a car.
As Robinson’s senior year was heading to a close, he and his activist friends (he talks as though his candidacy was a collective, using the words “us” and “we”) talked about how a student needed to jump into the race, particularly given that the district was redrawn by voter initiative in 2014 to be dominated by students. Robinson insisted there were other students who were eminently qualified to run, but he happened to be a graduating senior with relevant “town-gown” experience who didn’t have concrete plans post-graduation.
“That was a big part of the equation,” he said, “to find someone that is willing to put their life on hold and make this gamble, especially when we thought the mission was running against an incumbent. There was no guarantee that whoever tried was going to come out on the other end of it with a job.”
Had he lost, Robinson likely would have sought a policy job in Sacramento and started studying for the law school admission test. But Robinson ran a vigorous campaign, emphasizing the need for more affordable housing, homeless services, and environmental sustainability, both increased police oversight and more emphasis on public safety, and the revitalization of Telegraph Avenue.
Calling it the “progressive” thing to do, Robinson supported new Cal Chancellor Carol Christ’s plan to build 1,000 units of student housing in People’s Park, along with as many as 125 units of supportive housing for homeless people, in addition to some open and recreational space, and a memorial to the site’s history. Christ herself gave Robinson’s campaign $50, the maximum allowed from individuals because Robinson took public financing.
When Robinson campaigned door-to-door, he did not mention his youth or emphasize a student agenda. “We were spending all of our time at community forums. I knocked on literally every single-family-home door in the entire district personally,” he said.
Robinson pulled no punches on his progressive positions. He favored more rent control and tenant protections, mandates for solar power equipment on new buildings, and increased development around transit corridors.
Frequently facing skepticism, Robinson made inroads as he promised better city services, including delivery of a regular newsletter from him and open office hours, and practical solutions like mobile showers and restrooms that are accessible 24-hours a day for use by homeless people.
He knew that despite the overwhelming number of students in District 7, student turnout has been historically low and he would need to get non-student support to win. His decisive, 56-34 percent victory over second-place finisher Cecilia Rosales suggested he did just that, said campaign manager Varsha Sarveshwar. (Robinson couldn’t help but point out that a 22-year-old won by 22 percent to replace a 22-year incumbent.)
Now it’s time for Robinson to deliver. He will be helped in his quest by Sarveshwar, a junior at Cal who will split the legislative assistant job in Robinson’s office with another campaign staffer, Soli Alpert, a senior who was also elected to the city’s Rent Stabilization Board and will be taking a year off from school. The city council job pays only just over $30,000 and is supposed to be part-time, but he expects to devote far more than 40 hours a week to his new duties.
“It’s an important role, and I think it will demand all of my attention,” he said.
This report was originally published by our sister publication, Oakland Magazine.