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A modest proposal for a new mayor

- James Day
Wednesday May 01, 2002

To the Editor: 

Berkeley progressives are having trouble finding a grownup to lead them (and what grownup would want to), thus probably conceding the mayor’s race to Shirley Dean, who swears she’s not chortling with glee. 

This means that the rest of us can enjoy yet another round of local government: an uninspiring, sometimes thuggish progressive council majority pitted against the ruthless and regal Dean, with everyone indulging in their political hatreds and puny ambitions at our expense. 

A dreary past repeats itself. What is to be done? 

Well, doing nothing is a sane choice. You could argue that there is so little money to be spent and so little land to be fiddled with that the mayor and Council don’t have that much effect on our lives anyway and that it’s certainly not worth all the wasted energy and general ugliness. A non-political life can be awfully sweet. But of course there are always some issues that truly do matter – from a neighborhood’s zoning to the height of buildings downtown to the intractable racial tensions that are constantly lurking. Positions take shape, and the debate and the politics begin. 

So, as a second possible answer to the quandary and for those who find Dean’s liberalism stodgy if not pretty threadbare, the establishment left is holding a convention to nominate a candidate for mayor from its second string. 

There will be some serious and caring people who will talk until hoarse about a million different important things. Unfortunately, in the end, there will probably be little new to ignite the imaginations of many voters outside the hall.  

The tent of the establishment left is always too small and airless. Is there just no hope for a progressivism without the mind-numbing rhetoric? Is it really in the nature of progress that the vanguard be so humorless and hectoring? It’s not always the press’s fault that the left seems goofy or elitist. 

History doesn’t bode well for the third choice, either. Now and then, an independent-minded person has leapt into the breech hoping to form governing coalitions for the good of the city, etc. 

These innocents are usually ground down between both sides. Sooner or later they quit and after a medicated rest get a hobby and try to live as quietly as possible.  

Still, an independent candidate (or even better, a loosely aligned, almost serendipitous slate of such candidates) is the only real hope, slim as it is. 

What may have been missing in the past and what might work now is a sharper political strategy with candidates who have the following qualities: 

First, a truly progressive outlook. Anything less and this might as well be Piedmont, as Dean sometimes seems to wish – but who reach out beyond the usual base, choose and manage their issues wisely and don’t divide the city with crude grandstanding. 

An example: Barbara Lee did not divide us with her vote against the war resolution. She had the respect of even those who disagreed with her. But the Council majority’s bumbling and arrogance as they pushed their own resolution divided us unnecessarily. 

They must run respectfully (sort of) but forcefully against the establishments of both of the city’s political factions, making their political clubs targets of the campaign, labeling them as outdated impediments to progress. 

A viable candidate should pay attention to the pothole issues. Dean will. Street repair, efficiency in government, a non-confrontational approach to business (while still making sure they toe the line and pay the piper) – paying attention to such things gains you respect and votes and does not dilute your progressive credentials no matter what the fanatics say. 

An excellent candidate will act as a conciliator between the factions, a la Clinton’s new paradigm/triangulation without his smarmy abandonment of basic principles. 

The candidate should rely greatly on a long door-to-door campaign (itself well-advertised for maximum media coverage), and aggressive, inventive and grassroots fundraising.  

This candidate need not automatically come from the city’s boards and commissions, which too frequently are the scenes of war by proxy. (Berkeley is an odd place: the most coveted political payoffs are not city contracts but appointments to obscure commissions, with one or two exceptions who always want the money.) 

All of this is very tricky, but still possible. Paradigms and the status quo are meant to be shattered. That’s what first attracted many of us who moved here from other, dimmer places. It’s just time to face our own status quo, not that of whence we came. 

The question is, where are we going? 

- James Day