Local politerati gathered at the Emeryville Holiday Inn on Thursday, contemplating an expansive view of the Bay and a vision of the American political landscape to come.
In the “kickoff” for their November presidential election activities, the League of Women Voters of Berkeley, Albany and Emeryville brought Bruce Cain, Director of the Institute of Governmental Studies at UC Berkeley and self-confessed “political junkie,” to address a room of local politicians and League members, which included Mayor Shirley Dean and Emeryville’s Mayor Richard Kassis.
For the price of the $45 per person League fund-raiser, attendees received not only a nice piece of fish - unless they were vegetarian - but they also got a full-plate discourse on the state of American politics.
“The Republicans are geniuses,” quipped Cain. “They’ve managed to re-position their party without repositioning their issues.” While one liners were rampant, the serious problems of re-districting, campaign finance reform and the questionable utility of the electoral college were also addressed.
“It’s possible that this election could see the Republicans win the 2000 election even though the Democrats receive 51% of the vote,” said Cain, referring to the winner-take-all electoral college.
While Cain elucidated national issues, Anne Henderson, the League’s State Legislative Officer, explained the work that the organization was pursuing in Sacramento.
“Even though the legislature is in its last gasp, bills are still being introduced,” said Henderson, who travels to Sacramento weekly to lobby.
“There are bills trying to repeal most of Proposition 208, and calling themselves ‘finance reform bills.’ It’s phony reform. And there are what some call ‘polluter protection acts’ that we lobby against.”
Henderson is one of 427 members of The League of Women Voters of Berkeley, Albany and Emeryville. A “non-partisan political organization,” the League “encourages the informed and active participation of citizens in government and influences public policy through education and advocacy,” according to its literature.
Front and center is the League’s support for a bill that would establish state funding for a website from which civic minded surfers could download software giving them access to legislative information.
“Otherwise, access to this public information will be a commodity, in the hands of software manufacturers,” Henderson said. “Not many people know about this.”
While the League is hoping for more public participation in the political process, it’s also looking for more public participation in its own ranks. At the Holiday Inn kick-off, the membership appeared largely white, upper-middle class and highly educated. Though there were men and people of color present, they were outnumbered by white women.
“We have growth goals and diversity goals,” said Doris Fine, also on the League’s state board. “We can’t just be stay-at-home mothers. We have to accommodated more working women.”
Ironically, it’s partly due to the League’s success in lobbying for equal rights for women that they now face such new challenges in outreach and recruitment. As more women enter the workforce, the traditional base of the League has dwindled.
After the luncheon, as the crowd disappeared into the massive construction projects of the Emeryville Marina, it was apparent that the kick off was a success. Cain’s speech at the luncheon had ignited some early political fireworks.
“I was fascinated by Cain, I could have listened to him all day,” Dean said. “ But I would have loved to hear him talk about the possibility of a third party.”
While there is only one official member of a third party on the council – Dona Spring, who belongs to the Green Party – Dean was referring to the division on the council that splits the more traditional Democrats from those whose politics are to their left.
Along with the question of political division, Dean raised a specter of a phenomenon she sees as related – the question of re-districting.
Dean said it could happen “sometime after the Census count” estimated for 2001.
“Re-districting will be a very critical issue. There will be huge demographic swings in Berkeley. Particularly, Hispanics will constitute double digits of the population. Because of that, I think the City Council will try to re-configure districts and dump as many moderates as possible.” said Dean.
But Spring disagrees.
“There hasn’t been enough significant change in the city for the census results to have a serious impact on re-districting. All we can do is tweak the boundaries of already existing districts to equalize population in every district, but to dramatically re-write those boundaries, voters would have to agree to it,” said Spring.
Though more than a year away, it appears as if new Berkeley lines are already being drawn.