Members of Berkeley Citizens Action lauded Ralph Nader’s bid for president Sunday, but ended up giving the endorsement to Democrat Vice President Al Gore.
And the organization, made up of Greens and Liberal Democrats for the most part, backed incumbents Maudelle Shirek and Margaret Breland and endorsed AC Transit Board Director Miriam Hawley – also endorsed by moderate Mayor Shirley Dean.
Nader’s Green Party did not leave the BCA endorsement meeting empty handed – its U.S. Senate candidate Medea Benjamin received BCA backing over Democratic incumbent Sen. Dianne Feinstein.
Gore won the endorsement narrowly, eking out the 60 percent majority required to secure the endorsement. His 31-20 victory was won, in effect, by a one-vote margin. Benjamin’s endorsement was even closer – members of the BCA backed her on a 32-21 vote.
The ballots came after a round of good-natured debate.
Urged to speak on behalf of Gore, BCA Steering Committee member Jesse Anthony took the microphone in the auditorium of the North Berkeley Senior Center and joked, “It’s a dirty job, but somebody’s got to do it.” Anthony reasoned that voters must support Gore because, “We can’t afford to have a Bush regime standing in the way of progress in this nation.”
But Green BCA member Michael Parenti urged his colleagues to ignore such lesser-of-two-evils arguments.
“The only way we can get better candidates is to finally vote for alternative parties and pull the campaigns left-of-center,” Parenti said.
Benjamin appealed for support from the BCA in person.
“I’ve always been a big fan of the BCA,” she told the gathering. “I think it’s the kind of thing we are losing with organizations like the World Trade Organization, which want to trump participation at the local level.” The remark was a jab at Feinstein, who has supported the WTO and free trade.
The best-received comments of the evening came from City Council incumbents Margaret Breland and Maudelle Shirek, who received strong BCA endorsements. “You know what I think of the military budget and the big corporations,” said Shirek, who spoke past her time limit with no objections from moderators, “and I’ve tried to bring that perspective home whenever possible.”
Shirek has served on the council since 1984 and enjoyed strong support from the BCA.
“There is no area or issue where we have differences with her,” said Steering Committee Co-Chair Linda Olivenbaum. “She has been a symbol of progressive leadership for a long, long time.”
Support for Hawley, who is challenging four other candidates for the open District 5 City Council seat, was more mixed. Hawley has received the endorsement of liberal groups such as the Sierra Club and National Women’s Political Caucus, but some BCA members questioned her support of the anti-eviction Measure Y, which Olivenbaum said has become the “bellwether” of BCA support for the November ballot.
Hawley responded that she would “fight for Measure Y because we need something that will immediately prevent evictions and protect tenants,” but later she said in an interview that members of BCA are “much more enthusiastic than I about Measure Y.”
BCA voted to endorse Hawley, who said she also plans to seek the endorsement of the Berkeley Democrats Club, BCA’s more moderate counterpart. Hawley already has the support of Mayor Shirley Dean, whom the BDC supports.
“I think the people who live in District 5 approve of the fact that I am supported by many elements of the population,” Hawley said. “The City Council needs to be able to work with all political groups in the city and to bring them together on important issues.”
In the vote for the District 5 endorsement, Hawley got 28 votes, Green Party member Tom Kelly got 12, and Landmarks Commissioner Carrie Olson got five.
The BDC will meet to consider its endorsements tonight at 7 p.m. at Northbrae Church, 941 The Alameda.
BCA-supported candidates have never won in Berkeley’s Districts 5 and 6, where residents are on average wealthier and more moderate than the rest of the city. Hawley said she didn’t know about the BCA’s record in her district and joked, “maybe I better take it all back.”
The BCA did not endorse any candidates in District 6, following the recommendations of its Steering Committee. “We don’t feel any of them represent a progressive agenda,“ Olivenbaum explained.
In addition to endorsing candidates, the BCA considered 25 state and local ballot measures. Support for most Berkeley measures was strong. “If any of these measures get defeated, it will lower the quality of life here in Berkeley,” said City Councilmember Dona Spring. The bond and tax measures getting the BCA nod included those supporting parks, libraries, street lights, schools, and a warm-water pool at Berkeley High School.
The most contentious debate surrounded Special District Bond Measure E. It would authorize the Peralta Unified School District to issue a bond to cover the price of constructing, among other things, a permanent campus for Berkeley’s Vista Community College.
BCA members expressed skepticism over the measure, because a similar bond was issued to the Peralta district ten years ago, but the district’s Board of Supervisors never used the money to build the Vista campus. BCA members have strongly supported a new campus for Vista, arguing that the school is currently sub-par.
Approving the new bond gives “no absolute guarantees that the campus will be built,” said Peralta Community College Board Member Tom Brougham. He added, though, that “the momentum is there.”
Measure E was endorsed by BCA with 90 percent support, but Green Party member Jeff Jordan remained skeptical. “We need a campus,” he said, “but there is no way we will get it this way.”
BCA will back up its endorsements by distributing endorsement cards on the morning of the Nov. 7 election. “It’s sort of like when the Rabbi approves your food is kosher. BCA is the stamp of approval,” said City Councilmember Kriss Worthington.