Last Monday (Dec 15) was an important day for both Jesse "Luscious" Townley and the City of Berkeley. It was the date when, immediately before the first Rent Board meeting since the November 4th election in which Townley got elected to office, that the punk rocker-turned-politician got sworn in to his new position as City of Berkeley Rent Board Commissioner. One of five elected to this position, Townley stands out because of his rich and colorful background and unprecedented deep rooted commitment to Berkeley and its citizens.
Townley, who migrated to Berkeley from Philadelphia back in 1989, initially came out West to attend the San Francisco Anarchist Gatheriing -- but he liked it so much in Berkeley that he never left. From 1989 to 1990 he published the punk zine Berkeley Sucks. Over the years he has volunteered countless hours at 924 Gilman Street. He has also played on the stage at Gilman as a member of such East Bay punk bands as Blatz, The Gr'ups, The Criminals, and most recently The Frisk (who appeared on the Amoeba Music Compilation series). Over the years Jesse has also gained invaluable experience putting in time at local punk labels. He has worked at both Lookout Records and Alternative Tentacles (where he still works) and for a time, along with his partner Kamala, ran his own label Zafio Records.
Since 1992 he has been a DJ on KALX Berkeley where he currently does two shows: the Jesse Luscious music program (a great mix of punk, funk, rap, comedy, etc.) every Tuesday morning 6-9AM, and a half hour talk show (Soap Box Derby) on Thursdays @ 9PM that typically tackles local political issues. And on Christmas Eve, Weds December 24th, from noon to 3PM on KALX, Jesse will present his Seventh Annual Tribute To Joe Strummer. A longtime fan of the late Joe Strummer's music, Jesse once recorded a great cover of The Clash's "Know Your Rights" with The Frisk.
Townley's newly elected position is by no means his first entry into the world of city government or politics. In the past, he's negotiated a city contract upwards of $600,000. He also sat on the Disaster Council (the City Commission involved with Disaster Planning), and has served as Executive Director and Board Member of Easy Does It; a non-profit organization that provides specialized emergency services to people with severe physical disabilities in the city of Berkeley. In short, he is that rare sort of giving & sincerely dedicated-to-his-community type of person that you would hope would hold political office.
Four years ago he ran for City Council but didn't get elected. Townley's new position of Commissioner, Rent Stabilization Board (commonly known as Rent Board Commissioner) may call for a limitless amount of time and energy but it is by no means a lucrative position. Officially it is a part-time job with a stipend of a little over a $100 a week. So like much of everything else that Townley has dedicated his talent and time to, it too is a labor of love driven by a genuine desire to help his community. I caught up with Townley this week to ask him about his newly elected position and the correlations between his punk rock/community activist past experiences and the tasks that lie ahead in his new Rent Board Commissioner position.
AMOEBLOG: What was the one driving force that made you run for this office?
JESSE "LUSCIOUS" TOWNLEY (JLT): If people like me and the readers don't step up, then we'll be stuck with the same old faces spouting the same old rhetoric that's divorced from reality.
Obviously at the local, grassroots level of the tenant-controlled Berkeley Rent Board, that's not as much of a problem, but even in a small city like Berkeley there are a lot of people who just can't comprehend things like 924 Gilman Street or people born after 1950. There are a lot of disconnected poly sci students who would fill any vacuum if involved community members like me and others didn't run for local office.
The 2nd driving force (just like a politician-- changing the question!) is that I've been working on the Disaster & Fire Safety Commission since 2003 & now it's time for me to bring my extensive experience (sometimes learned against my will, ha ha ha) on seismic safety & preparation to the landlord/tenant realm. Almost no apartment buildings are organized to survive the next earthquake, and many buildings are structurally unsafe, yet, few tenants and few landlords have an inkling of the danger they're in.
AMOEBLOG: How was the Dec 15th swearing in ceremony at the City of Berkeley offices?
JLT: Being sworn in, holding up my right hand and pledging to defend the US and state constitutions against enemies foreign and domestic, was unreal. I thought back to playing "Berkeley Is My Baby (and I want to kill it)" with Blatz and how I got from there to here. The path from then to now is logical, but on the face of it it's really pretty odd! I'm really proud of my friends and supporters over the years-- we all did it. I'm not just spouting that -- before the meeting I ran into Comic Relief on Shattuck to get a holiday gift and ran into an old buddy from Gilman. He greeted me with "Hi Commissioner!" and then told me how proud he was that he had voted for me and that we [the kids (tm)] had a place at the table. He also asked me if I could help him slap his landlord-- er, how he could get his security deposit back from his landlord. I gave him this number: 510-981-RENT-- which is the first stop for anyone in Berkeley with questions like that. There's also a ton of info online.
Er, anyway-- his reaction and enthusiasm mirrors a lot of others in the music and arts community. We've made it-- we've been able to get a foothold in local elected politics and hopefully I'll just be the first of many.
AMOEBLOG: What was the whole campaigning for office experience like: was it, as I would imagine, a tireless never ending ordeal that could wear one down?
JLT: I love campaigning, but this campaign was a lot less stressful & less intensive than my 2004 campaign for City Council. 5 of us ran as a progressive slate for the 5 open seats, so we were able to divide up the appearances & the work. We also coordinated closely with 2 other progressive (& successful!) candidates: John Selawsky for School Board & Jesse Arreguin for City Council. With these 2 factors, I was actually able to go on a short vacation in late October, something that would've been completely impossible when I was running on my own.
It's never been an ordeal, though like anything sometimes it's been hard to psyche myself up to go knock on doors or make phone calls. Once I've started though, it's always been a hoot. Even fundraising, which many dread, has become something I look forward to. The key is making it fun-- in 2004 my campaign raised $18,000 mostly from music and art events, instead of the traditional political house parties and political donors. Keeping fundraising interesting by bringing in people who are not the same old donors in new & interesting ways was key to a) raising money, b) raising awareness, and c) not falling prey to cynical politics-as-usual.
AMOEBLOG: As a newly elected Rent Board commissioner what will your job exactly entail?
JLT: We have at least one public meeting a month, often more. The main meeting deals with everything from pending legislation locally or statewide to setting fee waivers for property owners to running the Rent Board's programs & budget. (The Rent Board is a self-financed arm of the City, we use no General Fund money.)
I'm looking forward to connecting the city's Office of Emergency Services' emergency cache program with large apartment buildings & putting together a fair & effective enforcement system for the "Soft Story" problem. Soft Story buildings are apartment buildings with an open or unreinforced 1st floor-- there are many in Berkeley that have open parking on the bottom with 1 or more floors of apartments above. Many are one good earthquake away from "pancaking"-- killing occupants & destroying the property.
AMOEBLOG: How different (in terms of political views) are you from the other newly elected Rent Board commissioners or previous ones?
JLT: The Rent Board is made up of tenant advocates and progressives. The "landlord side" stopped running opposition slates a number of years ago and concentrated their money in Sacramento. That resulted in anti-tenant legislation like Costa-Hawkins (a.k.a. vacancy decontrol).
Although we're generally on the same page, I was surprised at how resistant some tenant advocates were to the whole seismic retrofit issue. They're fearful of it because right now seismic retrofitting is considered a cost that a property owner can pass on directly to tenants in the form of rent increases. Obviously this can result in major increases and therefore massive evictions for low & moderate income tenants. What we have to do is figure out a way that's fair to both tenants and property owners to handle this necessary expense. I've got some ideas modeled on Berkeley's Solar First program-- we'll see how it shakes out. Anyway, the initial fear from tenant advocates struck me as understandable but completely suicidal. I guess that's a difference, ha ha ha...
AMOEBLOG: In addition to the whole seismic retrofit issue what will some of your other initial objectives be with this new post?
JLT: Also, I want to push property owners into more recycling, more composting, and more solarization of their properties. Some landlords are resistant (goodness knows why) to even having recycling bins for their buildings. We need to push green practices for all of Berkeley.
AMOEBLOG: Specfically what exactly has your role in 924 Gilman Street been over the years?
JLT: I've done everything except sound at Gilman. I was head booker for a year and a half in 1990-1991, and ran the collective meetings for 14 years. Yes, I'm a masochist.
AMOEBLOG: How do you think the Gilman experience as well as your experience in punk bands you have been a member of parlayed into the Rent Board position?
JLT: Gilman's conflicts with the City, the police, and some neighbors taught me and the rest of the collective how to act in the political arena. John Hart, a veteran of the late 80s/early 90s People's Park efforts, joined Gilman because he loved the idea of it (he is NOT a fan of the music!) and taught us who to talk to in the City to resolve our problems. I cannot overstate his influence on me and on the collective.
Basically, I saw how people in power just could not comprehend what 924 Gilman was, is, and represents, and I became determined that it was up to us to get into positions of power in order to protect Gilman & similar efforts, as well as to inject reality into local politics. I am sure that I will not be the last Gilman alumnus to reach elected office-- a lot of us are spread out throughout the country working on local issues already.
Punk rock, Gilman, and being in bands also gave me an extremely thick hide. You'd be surprised how personally fragile many political figures are. When a political opponent insults me, I don't take it personally. I've been insulted much worse by much better people. I've run collective meetings for 14 years, I've argued with the best minds in punk rock, and I've handled extremely hostile crowds with nothing but a microphone and a big mouth.
AMOEBLOG: Across the USA and, indeed, just outside of the immediate Bay Area, Berkeley is often
viewed as some weird wacky counter-cultural oasis for nutjobs -- something perpetuated by the likes of Bill O Reilly. How unfair is this view?
JLT: Considering that many things that originated in Berkeley have become mainstream, I think it's not only unfair but pretty shortsighted. (Think anti-apartheid, anti-racism, anti-homophobia, anti-sexism, and recycling.) Of course, that's the modus operendi of the media idiocracy (which definitely crosses political lines-- see the San Francisco Chronicle's recurring "only in Berkeley" stories).
AMOEBLOG: WIth Barack Obama as president elect, is America about to undergo a genuine "change" or will the next four years be more of the same old, same old, only with a shittier economy to cope with?
JLT: I think so. I wasn't an Obamaniac during the campaign, but the people he turned onto politics kind of guarantee that it won't be just political junkies who will be pressuring him to live up to his campaign rhetoric. And crap, any administration that's not as contemptuous of the US Constitution as the Bush/Cheney one has been will be an extremely welcome change.
Personally, I'll be paying close attention to how many of the overreaching "unitary executive"-related Bush/Cheney initiatives Obama repudiates or overturns or condemns once he reaches office. That issue and his Supreme Court choices are probably two of the most important and revealing decisions he'll make.
AMOEBLOG: Would you say that your shows on KALX over the past sixteen years, particularly Soap Box Derby, were preparations for your political career?
JLT: Actually, no. I was already being political in terms of being part of a network of musicians, artists, fans, & activists by the time Soap Box Derby (our weekly call-in talk show every Thursday 9-9:30 PM) began in the early 2000s. I've always been outspoken on the air during my regular DJ shifts, but that's just me both on and off the air.
AMOEBLOG: Will you have time to continue with your KALX shows and your music as much as you would like or will your time be very precious now?
JLT: While I've got to cut down on some things, KALX is not one of them. Being a DJ and discovering old and new music in KALX's incredible music library and doing production, and producing the talk show are all really fun and help me keep my sanity.
Also integral to sanity is playing ice and roller hockey, as well as the occasional garage band practice.
AMOEBLOG: Ultimately how far would you like to go in your political future -- beyond City politics to State or perhaps Federal?
JLT: This is the standard response, but I really have no plans above the city level. My City Council seat (which is one of the most logical next positions) is in a comparatively conservative district, which makes it more difficult for me to win as a progressive. Of course, we're talking "conservative" in terms of Berkeley-- that just means a life-long Democrat who doesn't like property taxes as much as the rest of us.
AMOEBLOG: Six months after you have been in office, will you be kind enough to do a follow up report for the Amoeblog and let us know how things are going?
JLT: I'd be honored. It may be too boring to print, depending on how wonky I get. Thanks a ton!