Election Section

Commentary: The Berkeley Progressive Alliance Wants YOU! By Laurence Schechtman

Friday September 09, 2005

A new progressive coalition is growing in Berkeley, and you are invited to our second meeting at 7 p.m. Monday, Sept. 19 at the Unitarian Fellowship at Cedar and Bonita.  

Our mission statement is simple, although perhaps not yet complete: “The Berkeley Progressive Alliance has been created in order to unite progressive citizens and organizations in Berkeley. Our goal is to promote a more equitable economic and social life in our city, and to enhance democracy and solidarity on every level.” 

We see ourselves working on two levels; first, politically to elect candidates and to hold them accountable to a people’s agenda, and second, to work with Berkeley’s communities and labor unions, to help with their communications, and perhaps with their organizing. At the present time Progressive Alliance people are out on the picket line with the Honda strikers on Shattuck Avenue. 

Politically in Berkeley we have been watching our progressive democracy slip away. Berkeleyans do not have the government we think we elected, and the policies of City Hall are increasingly escaping our control or even our knowledge.  

Consider, for example, the Downtown Plan. Negotiated in total secrecy with the university, it gives UC veto power over planning in central Berkeley, and exempts them from millions of dollars in taxes and fees (sewage fees to the university are a fraction of what they are worth). The city is doing million-dollar favors for the university, while services to seniors, the disabled, the homeless and youth are being cut, as Kriss Worthington explained to us in our first meeting on Aug. 8. (Twenty-nine people were present.) 

Berkeley Youth Alternatives has been hit with a meat ax. Before May it was able to hire 20 high school students—poor, “at risk” and mostly minority—to do organic gardening, landscaping, and culinary arts. These students also received mentoring and training for permanent employment. Now, according to Director Mark Gambala, BYA is only able to hire six, and the culinary program in which high school students cooked for and fed elementary students, has been cut entirely. 

Isn’t Berkeley supposed to have a “liberal” or “progressive” City Council? The fact is that although six councilmembers (including the mayor) were elected with the support of progressives, only three voted against the Downtown Plan, and only three can be consistently counted upon to vote for the poor and the powerless. The Peace and Justice Commission, appointed by the present council and School Board, cannot even agree to recommend a federal Department of Peace, which is simply an embarrassment. In fact, there have been many progressive ideas which have originated in Berkeley, but which are implemented in other cities when they cannot get passed here. One example is Community Choice Aggregation for energy, by which homeowners and businesses can buy power directly from producers, bypassing the PG&E middleman. 

Why does Berkeley government fail to enact the ideals of its people? Mainly because we have allowed our progressive coalition, which used to transmit our needs and desires to the city, to decay and fall apart. The objective of the Berkeley Progressive Alliance is to re-create that coalition. 

In the 1970s and most of the ‘80s we had conventions which attracted up to 600 people. We wrote lengthy platforms. And the candidates we elected usually stayed true to progressive principles, and built up our nationally admired services, unique in small cities; our health department, our three senior centers, our powerful rent control (undermined by state legislation), our library system (now, alas, in decline). Our resolutions against apartheid and for U.S. withdrawal from Central America were models to the nation. 

Berkeley is still a progressive city. Republicans here often run as a third party behind the Greens, and in some flatlands precincts they run fourth behind Peace and Freedom. George Bush won 7 percent here in 2004. If we can host a coalition convention which will draw 5-600 people, who will then stay active in holding our candidates true to their word, we can again become a national model. It can be done. But only if we organize, not just for elections, but throughout the entire Berkeley community, in neighborhoods, schools, businesses, churches, and in the streets. Later we’ll talk about some community organizing ideas of the Berkeley Progressive Alliance.  


Laurence Schechtman has been a Berkeley activist since 1964. He can be reached at laurenceofberk@aol.com or 540-1975.