Tax Vote Mandates New Politics: By BECKY O'MALLEY

Tuesday November 09, 2004

As usual, our readers are doing a great job of analyzing the local election results in these pages, and we really don’t need to add much. We have just a few observations on the stylistic issues which affected the campaigns for local taxes. Our front page election night photos said it all. They were taken by a photographer who doesn’t cover city politics, didn’t necessarily know the names and numbers of the players, and just shot what he saw. In the Measure B victory photo we saw a bunch of happy parents lifting apple slices to toast their victory. Among them were fathers Dan Lindheim and Larry Gordon, who darn near drove us at the Planet crazy with a steady stream of letters, commentary pieces and “informational” phone calls. Voters who were paying any attention at all to local elections couldn’t miss the message; if they didn’t catch it in the Planet, they could have seen the hundreds of signs on their neighbors’ lawns around town. Good job, guys.  

At the headquarters of the proponents of the city tax measures, it was a different picture. The photographer caught Julie Sinai, one of the mayor’s paid professional staffers, staring glumly at a computer screen. In the background were three political insiders, one of whom was another paid mayoral assistant. No “average taxpayers” were anywhere in sight.  

When the final precinct-by-precinct returns are in, a more sophisticated analysis of how the votes came down will be possible. And when the final financial filings have been tabulated, we’ll know more about who paid for the campaigns. We do know, however, that there was precious little rank-and-file voter support for the city taxes. Employee unions and developers by and large funded the pro-tax campaigns, and taxpayer groups funded the anti-tax position (at a much lower level). The Antis also wrote lots and lots of letters and commentaries. Like the pro-B parents, they were not shy about insisting that they got their share of space in the opinion pages. From the Pro-city-tax side, we got a letter signed by the mayor, and perhaps a few more, but no outpouring of citizen sentiment, no anguished calls.  

And with friends like the employee unions, the tax measures didn’t really need enemies. Many citizens tagged over-generous city employee contracts followed by union intransigence on meaningful salary cuts to help with budget shortfalls as their reason for voting against the taxes. Conservatives, including the traditional Grumpy Old Men and Women, were up front about it. Moderates and progressives didn’t join BASTA in any numbers, and were more likely to complain in furtive phone conversations and via e-mail, but they were plenty annoyed by union stonewalling.  

Another issue which brought many moderates and progressives together was a shared perception that the city’s planning department is out of control, dominated by pro-growth ideologues who have no interest in citizen control of the agenda. Every group had its horror stories. Progressives in general acknowledge the need for additional low-cost housing in Berkeley, which many moderates do not, but members of both groups have good communication and shared outrage at the way densification in the form of big ugly boxes for market-rate renters is being promoted by city staff with a “neighbors be damned” attitude. It’s possible to argue, and we did, that voting no on tax measures is not the way to solve the problem, but it was hard to think of an alternative to recommend. 

City Council elections weren’t much help. Berkeley, like the U.S. Congress, has been gerrymandered, with the collusion of sitting council members, into “safe” districts, so that candidates didn’t have to reveal their positions on touchy issues like growth or salaries. District 3 was designed to be safe for Maudelle Shirek, but when she was unexpectedly removed from the action it was also safe for a successor from her progressive camp. District 2 is another safe district, especially for a political insider like Darryl Moore. District 6 is designed to be safe for the right wing of the moderate faction, and it was. District 5 was tailored for the nervous middle moderates, a slam dunk for affable candidates like Hawley and Capitelli who can engineer endorsements from both sides by avoiding taking positions on anything of consequence during the campaign.  

The bottom line is that the many citizens who were unhappy with employee salaries or staff-promoted pro-growth policies felt that they had little recourse but to vote no on everything. This will cause a good deal of unhappiness for recipients of effective city aid for the unorganized and defenseless among us, if the city council yields to the temptation of cutting programs instead of staff salaries. Homeless people don’t have a union to advocate for them, so the temptation will be there.  

What’s the alternative? The old political alliances have just about disappeared. Berkeley Citizens Action and the Berkeley Democratic Club are vestigial organizations which meet only to endorse in election years, and whose endorsements have less and less impact. Members are grey and tired in both camps.  

Well, there’s a mayoral election in only two years, as well as council races in some of the more volatile, less safe districts. This might be a good time for unhappy citizens to begin planning a unity strategy which would bring together disgruntled residents of the growth-impacted districts and voters who want better control of city spending on staff salaries. A candidate for mayor who announced early, in the next few months, and who could tap into both of these streams, might provide a focus. 


—Becky O’Malley