Race, which formed a quiet subtext to the Berkeley School Board elections, bubbled over the surface this week as a representative of presumed defeated candidate Karen Hemphill charged that “that Berkeley showed its true colors” on election day.
“There is a lot of frustration in both the African-American and Latino communities [following the election],” said Hemphill campaign manager Marissa Saunders. “It shows once again that our voices don’t matter. I think Berkeley isn’t as progressive as it claims to be.”
Preliminary results in the closely contested race showed incumbents Joaquin Rivera and John Selawsky defeating challengers Karen Hemphill, Kalima Rose, and Merrilie Mitchell. But with the preliminary tally showing Selawsky with only a 680 vote margin over Hemphill, city election officials cautioned that the still-uncertain number of uncounted provisional ballots could possibly change the election results. Rose finished 116 votes behind Hemphill and Mitchell trailed the field badly, some 7,200 votes behind Rose.
Rivera, who finished 3,000 votes ahead of Selawsky, is of Puerto Rican descent. Selawsky and Rose are white. Hemphill is African-American.
From time to time throughout the campaign, Hemphill made mild mention of her contention that another minority member of the board was needed because Rivera was ignoring the needs of Berkeley’s Latino and African-American citizens. But two days after the final votes were in, Saunders—who is African-American—was more harsh.
“I’m surprised that Rivera came in first,” she said.
Asked why she thought that happened, she replied, “Some people in the city don’t care that the African-American community and the Latino community said they didn’t like him. It doesn’t matter to them. He’s looking out for their kids. He’s never represented people of color, the eight years he’s been in office. And now we have another four years that he’s not going to be representing us. I like him personally. We’re friends. But in all honesty, he doesn’t represent me or my children. He never has, and he never will. It’s never been an urgency with him.”
Saunders added that “the wonderful thing about the campaign was that we were able to develop a multi-racial, multi-economical campaign base which was something that we think the incumbents didn’t have, and never will have.”
Rivera did not reply to telephone calls requesting comment on the election.
Defeated challenger Kalima Rose was more philosophical.
“I’m disappointed that Karen and I didn’t win,” she said, “but I thought that we made a strong showing and gained a lot of community support. I thought it was very interesting that our [my and Karen’s] numbers stayed very solid throughout the precinct results, so it wasn’t like we only had supporters in one community or in one part of the city. That was encouraging to me that we showed a broad base of support. The fact that she and I finished so close together showed that the message we took out to the communities for educational excellence resonated with those folks. It strengthened my resolve to keep working on those issues.”
Rose said it was too early to talk about possible plans of running again.
“I’m going to keep on with my work for reforms at the high school,” she said. “I expect that a lot will unfold in the next few years that would inform my decision.”
Discussing the passage of Measure B—the tax measure for supplementary funding for the Berkeley Unified School District—Selawsky said, “Assuming that Joaquin and I have been re-elected, I think there was a recognition that the board has done its work over the past four years, and that we’re on the right track. I think it’s a recognition that the board has done what it needed to do to balance the budget, to get the systems back in operation, and to lay the foundation for the next four years.”
But Selawsky cautioned that he wasn’t going to be complacent.
“I also realize that there’s a lot of work that we have left to do,” he said. “The next step is the strategic planning process, which is coming up real soon. Measure B passed, and we have to plan for some of that funding. I also want to take a good look at our middle school program. Joaquin and I have been saying through the campaign that we’ve made real gains in the elementary school program, but it plateaus at the middle school. There’s been small progress at the middle school level, and we need to work on our program there—get more resources, if that’s what it takes—analyze what’s working and what’s not working.”
Rose credited a portion of Measure B’s success to volunteers who also worked in her campaign and Hemphill’s, and the measure also benefited from a united front of support from the five school board candidates. During at least two candidates’ debates, Rivera closed by urging that however citizens voted in the school board race, they should all cast their ballots in favor of Measure B.
Selawsky noted that a key factor in the tax measure victory was that unlike the city tax measures J, K, and L, Measure B escaped the opposition of the city’s anti-tax forces, particular that of BASTA (Berkeleyans Against Soaring Taxes). BASTA was formed this summer to fight the four city tax measures and a measure to publicly fund city elections on the November ballot, all of which were defeated on Tuesday’s ballot.
“I think the biggest factor was the BASTA people and the anti-tax folks did not include Measure B in their anti-tax mailings and literature and publicity,” Selawsky said. “From talking to people and seeing the signs around, I would say about half the BASTA people supported Measure B. Looking at that, I figured that Measure B was probably going to be okay.”