Local Youth's Redistricting Plan Pushes Bipartisanship

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In a city governed primarily by elderly women, it may come as a surprise that Berkeley's political future could rest in the hands of a kid who isn't even old enough to vote.

Sixteen-year-old Nick Rizzo, a junior at Berkeley High School, is the author of one the latest redistricting proposals to come on the scene.

"By far the easiest way to decide the course of a city is to vote," says Rizzo, a member of the Berkeley Youth Commission, "If you're under 18 there's not a lot you can do."

Rizzo's plan, which he geared around "grouping together communities of interest," would move UC Berkeley students out of District 5, represented by Councilmember Betty Olds, and into more student-heavy districts 7 and 8.

Unlike traditional Berkeley politicians, Rizzo calls himself bipartisan and does not align himself with the centrist or left-leaning sides of local politics. He says he doesn't want to block people from electing who they want, even if he disagrees with them.

"I really feel people should have the freedom to make bad choices, like electing representatives who I don't necessarily agree with," Rizzo says.

During the 2000 election, Rizzo campaigned for centrist Councilmember Miriam Hawley and leftist rent-board candidates.

Rizzo says he is an advocate of tenants' rights, but has been opposed to the symbolic City Council resolutions passed by the left-leaning majority.

If the City Council takes up Rizzo's plan, his political persuasions will likely come under intense scrutiny because a change of only one seat in the council's current situation could alter the political balance.

After last year's redistricting fiasco that polarized the city, Rizzo is facing a divided and wary City Council, so he said he is trying not to take sides.

"Either way I get crucified," he says.

Rizzo's mother, Wendy Lesser, 49, is tentatively supporting her son's endeavors.

"Both his father and I are really proud-He did all the research and investigated all by himself," Lesser says, "We're nervous he's going to get involved in nation politics which are so distasteful."

At age 8, Rizzo amused himself by creating fake city plans by pulling information from an atlas, Lesser says.

"This is a real life version," she added.

With the new census figures released Monday, Rizzo must revisit the plan that took him 12 hours to complete.

"It's amazing that someone of that age undertook a redistricting plan," says Councilmember Polly Armstrong.

But Armstrong, who represents District 8, said that Rizzo's plan will come under the scrutiny of Citizens for Fair Representation, the group responsible for bringing down last year's adopted council lines.

She added that it would be "less good for the students" if they were put in District 8 instead of District 7, the traditional student district.

Councilmember Kriss Worthington, District 7 representative, is more supportive of Rizzo's plan.

"I was quite amazed and impressed," Worthington says. "Only in Berkeley does somebody sit down and have the enthusiasm and energy to put a proposal on the table."

Regardless of where Rizzo's plan ends up, his efforts may elevate the status of youth in civic life, says Ben Chambers, also on the Youth Commission.

"Most of the young people in Berkeley are uninformed about what is happening in the city," he said, "Maybe the publicity will change that."


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