Jesse Luscious seems a little wiped out. Sitting in a living room dominated by crates of his LPs and his wife's collection of secondhand deer heads and antlers, the punk singer and KALX DJ is resting up after his Saturday morning game as a street hockey goalie. His voice is soft and hoarse from his band the Frisk's show at the Bottom of the Hill the night before, but he has a lot of talking yet to do today. There's a meeting this afternoon at 924 Gilman Street, the punk collective where he has served as secretary for the last decade, but he has to go out and knock on doors instead, because Jesse Luscious is running for Berkeley City Council.
Or rather, Jesse Townley is. He may be best known by his longtime nom de guerre on college radio and in a string of local bands: Blatz, the Gr'ups, the Criminals, and now the Frisk. But as a dark-horse candidate in the city's fifth district, whose rep Miriam Hawley is stepping down, the challenges he faces have nothing to do with his punk pedigree.
Because Berkeley's biggest political battles are almost always about rent control, development, and property taxes, a 33-year-old renter from the southern tip of the homeowner-heavy North Berkeley district has his work cut out for him. Hawley's anointed successor, Realtor and Zoning Adjustment Board Commissioner Laurie Capitelli, has racked up additional endorsements from Mayor Tom Bates, state Assemblywoman Loni Hancock, and Councilmembers Gordon Wozniak and Linda Maio, and more than $16,000 in contributions. Also running is Barbara Gilbert, a former aide to ex-Mayor Shirley Dean and longtime council gadfly who is appealing directly to overtaxed Berkeley homeowners in her campaign literature.
As an outsider, Townley has done pretty well for himself. While his contributions to date total a modest $7,500, he has been endorsed by the Alameda County Green Party, Councilwoman Dona Spring, Berkeley School Board President John Selawsky, and San Francisco Supervisor Matt Gonzalez. Even while remaining Luscious, Townley has long been involved in civic life as the former executive director of Easy Does It, an emergency services agency for the disabled, and as a member of the city of Berkeley's Disaster Council.
Townley's radio show has had to go on hiatus for the duration of the campaign because of FCC equal-access regulations. "If I do a 6 to 9 a.m. shift on KALX, they have to offer Laurie Capitelli and Barbara Gilbert 6 to 9 a.m. shifts on KALX," he explains with amusement. But he continues to work behind the scenes as a producer. Then there's his day job at Alternative Tentacles, the record label run by former Dead Kennedys frontman Jello Biafra, who ran for mayor of San Francisco back in 1979. Townley insists that, unlike his employer, he isn't running just to make a point. "I'm not running to lose," he says. "I'm running to represent my district."
He also is running as a "pragmatic progressive," resisting attempts to affiliate him with any one political faction, and instead casting himself as the fresh-eyed mediator. "The amount of polarization in this town is ridiculous," Townley says. "Because when it comes down to it, the moderates and the progressives are politically really close."
Councilwoman Spring, for one, would be thrilled to have a fresh perspective on the panel. "I think he's one of the most exciting young people to get involved with Berkeley politics," she says of Townley. "He's not driven by the old factions and business-as-usual-type politics."
Spring says she feels candidate Gilbert is too conservative for District 5. Capitelli is laudable and involved, she says, but mainly on land use, and he comes from the perspective of a real-estate developer. "We have a very pro-development city council, planning commission, zoning board," the councilwoman says. "It'd be nice to have a little of the nuance that Jesse Townley's going to be able to bring from the perspective of neighbors who are concerned about overly big developments."
Concerned neighbors, in fact, were what brought Townley into local politics in the first place. After moving to Berkeley from Philadelphia at age eighteen, he got a crash course in mediation on the numerous occasions the kids of 924 Gilman mobilized to protect their club's existence amid police crackdowns and a 1999 attempt by neighboring DiCon Fiberoptics to shut it down. The collective managed to work with its neighbors and officials to find compromises to keep their club open, a feat venues such as the Berkeley Square have failed to accomplish under similar circumstances.
And like many local politicos, Townley received his education on Berkeley's development process by stepping up to oppose one. In that case, it was 1995, and the Gilman crew was feeling threatened by new neighbor, the Pyramid Brewery. "When Pyramid was proposed, right across the street from 924 Gilman, it was presented to us as a fait accompli," he says. "You'd think that putting a huge bar across the street from the only all-ages, drug- and alcohol-free venue in the city is not the best idea. We organized our patrons, organized our patrons' relatives; we packed city council meetings, we went to the Zoning Adjustment Board, we went to Design Review Committee meetings. And we ended up working together with Pyramid. Now we're steadfast allies."
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