Article Features By Brian Lee-Mounger Hendershot

Hate campaigns are creating a ‘real legitimacy crisis’ says former Berkeley Council Member Rigel Robinson

Brian Lee-Mounger Hendershot is the managing editor for Western City magazine; he can be reached at

At 27 years old, Rigel Robinson’s political future was bright. He was elected to the Berkeley city council five years prior at 22, making him the city’s youngest-ever council member. He and another new elected, Rashi Kesarwani, were also the first Asian American council members in nearly 40 years.

Robinson captured national media attention not just for his barrier-breaking election but his outspoken support for a controversial housing project. Like many California cities, Berkeley residents have struggled for years to reconcile their progressive bona fides with a tendency to say no to housing.

It was unsurprising then that California Attorney General Rob Bonta endorsed Robinson’s bid for mayor in 2023. What was surprising was what happened next.

He resigned.

“It’s undemocratic”

I met Robinson in March after he clocked out of his new workplace: a chai cafe. (The secret to a perfect cup of chai is “love.”) He had left office just a few months prior, citing burnout and a long-running harassment campaign.

Robinson’s political origin story is a familiar one. He became interested in affordable housing as a student. There was a backlog of infrastructure and housing needs in his district, which encompassed UC Berkeley and nearby neighborhoods. For him, it was a clear-cut issue. There was a housing crisis. So, build more housing. There was homelessness. So, build more shelters.

He jokes his friends “bullied him into running for office.” With the help of an entirely student-run campaign, he took office shortly after graduating, rolled up his sleeves, and ran smack dab into a metaphorical brick wall.

“Projects and policies that encourage new growth are often incredibly difficult to get passed due to the objections of a very small minority of residents, but an incredibly vocal minority,” Robinson said. “For years, whenever a new apartment building came before the council for final approval, you could count on there being residents who may or may not have any connection to the project, may or may not be in the neighborhood at all, but were dedicated to speaking up against new housing.”

Cities throughout the nation are struggling to boost housing. Yet, the Golden State’s struggle is in many ways uniquely Californian.

“I have so much difficulty explaining our local politics to friends and family,” Robinson said. “They’ve reached out and said, ‘I read everything. I read every article, and I’m so confused. You’re telling me you’re trying to build permanent supportive housing for the homeless? Identified, allocated, and spent millions of dollars housing the people who live there. And people are still protesting because they don’t want to change?’”  

What was less common — but is becoming routine — is how people responded to his position on housing almost the moment he took office. Death threats. Harassment. Stalking.

“It’s undemocratic — I think that’s actually the word for it,” Robinson said. “It undermines the popular will of the residents of this district. It undermines our elections.”

That conduct, he later concludes, creates a “real legitimacy crisis.”

“I really fear that the toxicity of our politics will drive away good, motivated people who want to help from public service.”

“Most of them probably thought it was kind of weird”

Disputes over new housing are often portrayed — usually for good reason — with older homeowners on one side and a diverse group of young renters on the other. Yet in Berkeley, those divisions were not so clear. Robinson was elected by students but often found himself a victim of his own constituency.

Local and state leaders want to build housing for students, low-income families, and formerly unhoused residents on a site called People’s Park. Some opponents, Robinson said, tried to block the project because they object to multifamily developments in general. But others, including many young activists, wanted to preserve it as a public park given its prominence in the political history of the late 1960s.

“We saw an incredibly organized and mobilized coalition of young people fighting to save the space, many of them motivated I hope by good intentions,” he said. “But fundamentally, I think much of this activism came from a complete misunderstanding of the mechanics of the housing crisis and how to actually get people the help they need. Some of them really seem to care more about symbolism and virtue signaling than actually sheltering people.” 

In fact, Robinson argues, there is a fundamental lack of understanding about the process of government in general. Local zoning laws themselves are complex. Add in other city policies — not to mention county, state, and federal laws — and it’s an almost comical level of responsibility and expectations for any elected official.

“I leave elected office being totally convinced that nobody’s actually qualified for it,” he quipped. “You’re pretending to have a different job every three hours. You go into a closed session meeting and are the final decision-maker settling important litigation, whether you are a lawyer or not. And then later that evening, you’re micromanaging a public works project, even though you’re not an engineer.”  

As such, Robinson argues it is crucial that council members come from diverse personal and professional backgrounds — especially since many local issues are generational, rather than partisan. As one of the only renters on the city council, Robinson was closer to the housing crisis than most of his colleagues. This gave him an important perspective on tenants’ rights and housing.

He made it a habit to reach out to city staff for their input before introducing new legislation or taking a complex vote, recognizing that he couldn’t be an expert on everything.

“I think that because I was so paranoid that I was out of my element and didn’t know what I was doing, that helped me to look for expertise in the right places,” he said.

He also found it was important to disengage from the job, especially when it came to harassment. That’s easier said than done for local officials: Being social is part of the job. For Robinson, that meant escaping to the ocean with people who “didn’t care at all that I was on the city council.”

“Frankly, most of them probably thought it was kind of weird,” Robinson chuckled. “And I am not sure that I would have run for reelection if I hadn’t found a sense of belonging somewhere that wasn’t also tangled up in city hall.”

“I wouldn’t trade it for a thing”

Despite his abrupt departure, Robinson has no regrets. You cannot pour anything if you have nothing left to give. And after five years, his cup was empty.

“It was challenging, no question. But it was an incredibly rich experience,” Robinson said. “I know this city so intimately as a product of my time on the council. And I know my work has made a profound difference in this beautiful place. That’s a rather cool feeling. I wouldn’t trade it for a thing.”

Inevitably, the conversation touches on our shared experiences and role models like Michelle Kwan, Ban Ki-Moon, and Jonny Kim. We’re both Korean Americans who spent many formative years in Missouri before getting involved in California politics. (We were also wearing hexagonal glasses that day.)

Neither of us feels like part of the Asian American community. However, Robinson knows there is a responsibility and power that comes with being seen as a voice for the Asian American community and younger Californians.

“On our city council, you’ve seen so rapidly the ways that representation has real impacts on public policy,” he said. “In the last three or four election cycles, our city council has become dramatically younger and dramatically more diverse. There are more young parents on our council and more people of color on our council than there had ever been before. And lo and behold, this city council became radically more pro-housing.”

There is, we hypothesize, an allure and tragedy to the Golden State for Midwest expats like us. There is an unspoken truth to the California Dream and that is that it is a dream. It is inspiring, tangible, and yet frustratingly out of reach. In Missouri, he jokes, you need to be a fifth-generation Missourian and have a photoshoot next to a tractor to even consider running for office.

“But in California, you see so many of our leaders taking tremendous pride in the fact that they may not be from here, but they found home here,” Robinson said. “I think part of the existential crisis that a lot of cities in the Bay Area are experiencing right now is that our progressive legacy is built around the idea of being a welcoming place. But you can’t be a welcoming place when the cost of living is through the roof.”

As for the people who forced him to decide between bettering his community and protecting his family and health, Robinson had a quintessential Midwestern response. He laughs and then says sweetly.

“I hope they find the happiness that’s missing in their lives.”

Rigel Robinson’s seat was filled by another Berkeley student, Cecilia Lunaparra, in April. She is the first undergraduate student and the first Latina to serve on the city council. She previously worked on Robinson’s re-election campaign and served as his appointee on the city’s Climate and Environment Commission. The state dubbed Berkeley a “pro-housing” city in April, thanks to the work of Robinson and his colleagues.