An attorney at the California Clean Energy Fund by day and a Berkeley City Council member by night, Ben Bartlett ’14 is working hard to encourage positive change and continue his father’s legacy in Berkeley and beyond.
Why do you have such a strong connection to the Bay Area?
My family has called Berkeley home for five generations. They arrived here in the 1850s after fleeing persecution in the South. It’s been a wonderful home and blessed me and my family.
Did your family have any history in local government?
Well, my godmother, Maudelle Shirek, was a very well-known activist and community leader. She was also a City Council member and vice mayor of Berkeley. I remember playing in her office with my father who was her godson/mentee. They were very close and I spent my childhood in these halls of the Berkeley City Council. I remember playing in Gus Newport’s desk, the famous mayor at that time, and feeling really connected to a sense of purpose.
What about your father?
My father, Dayle Bartlett, was a musician who in between his gigs was a very astute activist and powerful political strategist. He ended up writing 353 pieces of legislation for the City of Berkeley. Many of which were adopted by higher levels of government, including Meals on Wheels and sanctions against South Africa. He was an uncompromising, yet very affable person who taught me a lot. I’m trying to embody my father’s characteristics with the work that I do now.
What did your father say to you when you told him you were running for Berkeley City Council?
He called me crazy, but he also told me that only crazy people change the world. It’s kind of a double-edged sword. He also told me to brace myself because in his era, Berkeley politics was known for being a “contact sport.” I know he was proud and said it was my duty to pick up where he left off. He passed away just a few days before the election and it impacted me really deeply. It also motivated me to go all the way and use the power he gave me and whatever power I have naturally to encourage positive change in the City of Berkeley and the world.
My father’s death was very sudden. He had not been feeling well, but we didn’t expect his condition to deteriorate so rapidly. We went from hanging out and providing support for my campaign to dying just a few days before election day. We had his funeral literally two days before the election and it was profound. His friends came from all over the place. They talked about my father’s history, which is shared by many of our people in Berkeley and South Berkeley. His funeral was a celebration of his triumphs and reminder of where the City has to go moving forward.
What was it like on election night?
Election night was something to remember. It felt like we waged a war to win against three other candidates. Some are well known people with significant followings and they ran great campaigns. There was no guarantee how it would turn out. We fought hard for ten months and continued to fight at the polls on election day. There is a 60 foot limit and we stood on the sidelines outside campaigning for twelve hours. I think I picked up 500 votes just on election day. At night during our return party, we waited and waited, until finally they called it for us. Once we won, it was amazing elation. I’ll never forget it, but it was bittersweet because at the same time Donald Trump won the presidency. I think that just made the reason for pursuing office more apparent to me.
What drives you?
I’m driven by the thanks that I receive when I help someone. I see the role of a council person and politician as someone whose job it is to help others activate their dreams. When I succeed in helping someone activate their dreams, it’s the best. There’s no greater feeling than sitting in the office, dreaming up a concept, and making it manifest into reality. It’s the greatest feeling ever to positively impact millions of people.
Now that you’re a City Council member, do you look at things differently?
Now, I notice everything. I see an unsafe building, I see kids playing too close to the road, and I get worried. I wouldn’t say I’m paranoid, but I’ve become a bit more hypervigilant. I’ve walked these streets so many hundreds of times that I just feel strong feelings. On the funny but true side, I also hope no one is seeking me out to yell about any of my prior votes.
What was your experience like at UC Hastings?
UC Hastings was great. So much of what I do now relates directly back to UC Hastings: having to defend my arguments; having to compose arguments; having to find creative solutions; and how to find partnerships. In law school, I also learned what it means to represent a client. This is someone who entrusts their life to you. They really instill that in you at UC Hastings. Now, the City of Berkeley and its people are my clients and their aspirations are my goals.
UC Hastings prepared me to become a councilmember because it taught me the value of service. They drummed it into me since day one, and I acted. I acted in service. UC Hastings also taught me through education how the weakest among us suffer in our society and that it’s the lawyer’s role to bring equity and justice to those people. That’s what I’ve taken with me. I try to do that as a council member the best of my ability.
What does your typical day look like?
First thing I do is thank God for waking me, then I kiss my wife and thank her for putting up with me the day before. I unsuccessfully try not to look at my emails until after I shower, but typically I’m walking to the shower scanning emails and I think about yesterday and where the day is headed. That’s how I stay in the flow.
What’s it like also having a day job?
I have a fulfilling day job as an attorney at the California Clean Energy Fund. I work on issues involving renewable energy and relating that to people in terms of social equity. I like to say we operate the nexus of energy and equity. I’m passionate about environmental justice and helping the same benefits that other parts of the state are experiencing accrue to the weakest among us, and the low income communities and the disadvantaged persons. I want them to see the same benefits of this renewable energy economy. I’m doing it every day and I love it.
How do you tie your day job as an attorney to your night job as a City Council member?
My day job often aligns itself perfectly as a Council member in the City of Berkeley because by day I research issues to advance the people of California and by night I take those lessons and write laws for the people of Berkeley. When I need expertise for one job, I can turn to specialists in the other. So, if I need to learn more about how cities can do more green planning and infrastructure to prevent pollution from settling in low income areas, I can just ask my boss.
Are you working on any exciting legislation for the City of Berkeley?
I’m super excited because we are going to be introducing my Step-Up Housing Initiative. It’s a new innovative form of housing to serve a pressing and dire need – our homeless populations and could unlock a new market. This is why I became a politician. I am going to be about innovation, opportunity and inclusion, and with this legislation we have the chance to put a dent on a massive social disaster and at the same time create new opportunity and wealth in doing so.