Editorial: Give Purple a Chance in Berkeley By BECKY O'MALLEY

Friday January 20, 2006

Every year about this time I start feeling my California confusion. Though I’ve lived here for most of my life, my imprinting on the proper rhythm of the seasons came in the years I spent as a child and again as a young adult in the East and Midwest, where January is cold and the trees are bare. But even though the holiday wreath of bay leaves on our front door is still fresh and green, the spring bulbs next to the door are coming up fast, and the pear tree next door is already covered with white blossoms. Spring is here already, though this year, with a long warm fall, winter lasted less than a month. 

In this context, perhaps I should not be so surprised to hear on the grapevine that the old pols are already soliciting endorsements for their fall mayoral campaigns. In Oakland, Ron Dellums’ kickoff has taken place, and he presumably got a bunch of signers before he even declared. Two opponents were already in the race when he decided to enter, each with an existing coterie of early endorsers, some of whom jumped ship when Dellums made his move.  

The mayor of Berkeley is the currently reigning representative of an erstwhile progressive organization (only conservatives unkindly call them “machines”) that rivaled Dellums’ own when both were young Turks. Each of them has managed to control the succession to his respective position, Dellums in the U.S. Congress and Bates in the state legislature.  

Dellums saw to it that trusted aide Barbara Lee succeeded through a carefully timed sequence of resignations and special elections. Bates anointed first his top aide, Dion Aroner, and then his wife, Loni Hancock (who engineered her own succession when she resigned as Berkeley mayor midterm.) Unseemly primaries have largely been avoided, though the two groups, who exhibit frosty politesse at public gatherings, have sometimes duked it out when underlings engaged in fights for lesser offices. It’s all very cozy, and newcomers don’t have a chance.  

Some are now suggesting that if the 68-year-old Bates is re-elected, he might resign in the middle of the next term to take a job with his UC administrator friends. The retirement benefits for such positions are awesome, and he could leave the mayor’s job, a la Hancock, to an anointed successor without an untidy election. 

Bates has started to press everyone in Berkeley whose name counts with the public to support his re-election campaign. Rumor has it that he started with the City Council faction formerly known as Moderates or even conservatives (Capitelli, Wozniak, Olds), and with them in hand moved on to some former Progressives (Maio, Moore), but that he has yet to sign the two stubborn true-progressive holdouts, Dona Spring and Kriss Worthington. There’s no final word on the position of the enigmatic Max Anderson, who was substituted in for Maudelle Shirek in a truly remarkable piece of political engineering which saw her top aide “forgetting” to file her nomination papers, enabling Anderson to step out of the wings just in time to avoid a real contest for her seat. Anderson’s recent alliance with Bates to propose a big pork project for the Ashby BART station is taken by some as a clue that he’s now joined the council’s developer-driven majority. 

To make things more interesting, ex-Mayor Shirley Dean, who used to be the leader of the Mod faction, has been popping up in appearances all over town, though she coyly refuses to say whether or not she’s a candidate. But just her face on a discussion panel seems to be enough to send some local progressives running back to the Bates camp. Many progressives claim to be deeply disappointed with Bates’ record as mayor, where he’s distinguished himself by siding consistently with big developers (especially the biggest of all, UC Berkeley) against the interest of residents. It’s a record that is virtually indistinguishable from Dean’s on most key issues, but the knee-jerk partisan reaction from some is that they’d never support a candidate opposing Bates if it gave Dean a chance to win.  

The major reason why no one in Berkeley with any sense should be filling out endorsement cards for Bates this early in the game is that we don’t yet know what form the November mayoral election will take. Berkeley passed a ballot measure authorizing instant runoff voting, which would enable voters to indicate their second choice for mayor if their first choice loses, in a multi-candidate race. In a no-primary election, that would be the best way for a newcomer to get a foothold on the electoral ladder without an organizational blessing. But IRV in Berkeley is currently stalled because Alameda county is claiming that its voting machines aren’t set up to handle it, even though San Francisco has made it work. If it doesn’t happen by November, a candidate who can get 40 percent (almost any incumbent, in this case Bates) will win without a runoff. But if it does, new candidates with a truly progressive and neighborhood-friendly agenda will have a shot at defeating Bates.  

Where would such candidates be found? Spring and Worthington, the most obvious choices to carry the progressive banner against the neo-Mods who now control the council, both face re-election in their council districts, and are likely to be reluctant to risk losing everything, since they can’t run for both offices at the same time. There seems to have been a recent poll which put forward names of former candidates, commissioners, neighborhood activists and other plausible contenders, but no results have been released.  

In any event, two slogans for whatever candidate is willing to step up to the plate emerged at the remarkable meeting this week of those who oppose the Ashby development. Oakland resident and Berkeley artist Bob Brokl talked about the coalition of those who defeated a recent developer-backed attempt to bring redevelopment and eminent domain to his Temescal neighborhood. He said they came from all parts of the political spectrum: “both red-state and blue-state kinds of people: we should be called the purple people.” Le Conte neighborhood activist Patti Dacey, a preservationist recently removed from the Landmarks Commission by Max Anderson, happened to be wearing a purple scarf at the meeting. She characterized the pro-developer council majority this way: “They’re not left, they’re not right, they’re just wrong.” Before purple Berkeleyans sign up for two more years with Bates, they should wait to see if there are any other options available.