Why would the Berkeley City Council ask voters to disregard long-standing city tradition and move mayoral elections to coincide with the vote for president?
It depends on who you ask.
For supporters of Measure I on the November ballot, the switch is simply a good government reform.
More Berkeley residents vote in presidential elections and more voters means better democracy, reasoned Councilmember Kriss Worthington, the measure’s author.
But Worthington’s colleague on the council, Betty Olds, sees a different rationale.
“This is all because the mayor only wants to run for two more years,” she said.
To align mayoral elections with presidential races, the measure dictates that the winner of the 2006 election receive only a two-year term, setting up the next mayoral contest in 2008.
That year Assemblymember Loni Hancock, the wife of Mayor Tom Bates, will lose her seat to the state’s term limit law. Olds speculated that the couple wanted to retire together and then back City Councilmember Linda Maio for mayor.
“I know [Maio] wants to run,” Olds said. “That’s one of the reasons they want to pass public financing of elections because otherwise she would have had problems.”
Former Mayor Shirley Dean, who agreed with Olds’ synopsis, predicted the measure would essentially guarantee a Bates victory in 2006 if he chooses to run.
“I don’t think anyone would run for a two-year term,” she said. “Who has the resources to raise money for just two years?”
Bates is still raising money to pay back his campaign debt from his victory over Dean in 2002.
A further disincentive to anyone challenging Bates in 2006 is that if city voters pass a separate measure to finance elections with city money, the 2006 election could be the last one to require candidates to raise private funds.
The campaign finance reform measure gives the City Council discretion on when it implements public financing.
Sam Ferguson, head of the public financing campaign, said Bates told him that if voters approved realigning the mayoral election, he would be hesitant to start public financing in 2006.
“He said funding two mayoral elections in two years would be too expensive,” Ferguson said.
Bates did not return a phone call for this story.
Last January, Councilwoman Maio, with Bates and Councilmember Dona Spring at her side, told the city’s Fair Campaign Practices Commission that she had been interested in running for mayor, but without campaign finance reform, she would need to take a second mortgage on her house or possibly dip into her retirement savings.
Maio isn’t the only potential candidate for mayor who could benefit from an election in 2008. Like Maio, the other two councilmembers most widely speculated as possible mayoral candidates, Gordon Wozniak and Worthington, are up for reelection in 2006. By setting the next election for mayor in 2008, none of them would risk losing their council seat if they lost a bid for mayor.
Asked if the ballot measure he sponsored might work to his own political advantage, Worthington, one of the more left-leaning members of the council, replied that “progressive candidates do better when there’s a higher turnout.” As for the timing of the measure, he said he had proposed similar reforms before he won a seat on the city council.
Councilmembers Wozniak and Miriam Hawley said they assumed there was a political component to the measure, but weren’t as forthcoming as Olds.
“It’s a good government reform,” said Wozniak. “Are there other reasons for it? I think there are, but I don’t want to discuss it.”
There is some precedent for changing the dates of Berkeley elections for both improved participation and political gain. In June of 1982 voters passed a progressive-sponsored charter amendment to move elections from April of odd-numbered years to Election Day of even-numbered years. In November 1982 the change netted progressives three out of the four open seats on the council after they were swept in the previous election, said the measure’s author Marty Schiffenbauer.
Recent election returns leave little doubt that more voters in Berkeley come to the polls when the presidency is at stake. In 2000, 54,684 of Berkeley’s 72,299 registered voters cast a ballot, while two years later with approximately 2,000 fewer registered voters only 40,142 cast a vote for mayor.
Worthington argued that if the mayoral and presidential elections were aligned, more Berkeley voters would take the time to study the mayor’s race.
But Barbara Gilbert, who is running for the City Council in District 5, said her experience has been that local issues get lost in the heat of the presidential race.
“People are totally distracted by Bush and Kerry,” she said. “This isn’t the opportune time to be talking about Berkeley.”›