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Progressive Convention GIves BCA Competition

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Friday May 19, 2006

Depending on whom you talk to and how you read between the lines, this Saturday’s Berkeley Progressive Coalition Convention will pull together a coalition of old and new progressive organizations in the city—including members of the longtime Berkeley Citizens Alliance and the year-old Berkeley Progressive Alliance—strengthening all of them. Or else it is a movement by the BPA to supplant the BCA that could potentially lead to a split in Berkeley’s progressive movement and establish competing progressive candidate endorsements for the fall elections. 

The first session of the progressive convention is scheduled to be held this Saturday at 2 p.m. at the Unitarian Universalist Hall. It is designed to be a two-part process with Saturday’s session setting out a progressive platform and a later session inviting local candidates for possible endorsements. 

The convention has been organized in two separate sessions in part because local nonprofit organizations, that wanted to be part of the platform-writing work, were prevented by tax-exemption laws from participating in the political endorsement activities. 

Part of the confusion as to whether the progressive convention is a distinct entity from the BPA, and not simply an auxiliary, is that both are most closely associated publicly with local progressive activist Laurence Schechtman, and the convention is a direct spinoff of the BPA. 

In a Daily Planet commentary last September that announced BPA’s second meeting and outlined the group’s mission, Schechtman was already talking at length about the need for a progressive convention, tying it directly to the BPA. 

“In the 1970s and most of the ’80s [Berkeley] had conventions which attracted up to 600 people,” Schechtman wrote. “We wrote lengthy platforms. And the candidates we elected usually stayed true to progressive principles . . . If we can host a coalition convention that will draw 500-600 people who will then stay active in holding our candidates true to their word, we can again become a national model.” 

In a telephone interview this week, Schechtman said that the convention was spun-out of the BPA last January partly because of a conflict of interest involving former Planning Commission chair Zelda Bronstein. 

“Zelda was on the BPA coordinating committee, and the organization became closely identified with her,” Schechtman said. 

The conflict occurred between an endorsement convention and Bronstein’s plans to run for mayor of Berkeley against incumbent Tom Bates. 

“If you’re going to be an honest broker, that can’t be,” Schechtman explained, “so the BPA voted to form a second organization.” 

Even though several BPA members are closely associated with the progressive convention, Schechtman says that Bronstein is not, adding that “now it’s two different bodies. No one group dominates.”  

Closely associated or not, Bronstein was working with the convention at its onset. She was among some 25 Berkeley activists—including Councilmembers Dona Spring and Kriss Worthington—who met at the Downtown Berkeley Library in February to plan the convention. 

And some of the convention activists are not BPA members. 

Councilmember Dona Spring, who convened the February convention planning meeting, said that while she “thought the idea [of the BPA] was good,” she said that she has “never been to any of the meetings.” 

Spring said that she felt the convention was necessary because “progressives in Berkeley have become rather rudderless. There has been a vacuum for a least the last half-decade.” 

She attributed that in part to past success. 

“As late as 1988, the BCA produced a progressive platform that [then] Mayor Loni Hancock endorsed,” Spring said. But after progressive majorities were elected to Berkeley City Council “it was kind of like people thought they didn’t have to organize any more. Progressives thought all they had to do was just tell [councilmembers] what to do, and they’d do it. But it doesn’t necessarily work that way.” 

But Spring said that progressive political activism has resurfaced because “many progressives do not feel they are represented by Mayor Tom Bates.” 

It was Spring who convened the progressive convention four years ago that encouraged Bates to enter the race against then-mayor Shirley Dean. Spring now calls that “kind of a shotgun wedding. He was probably the only person who could beat Dean, but at the time we didn’t question enough why. His positions on local issues were not well known at the time, and they later came as something of a surprise.” 

Meanwhile, just under the surface, the rivalry between the BCA and the BPA smolders, even though representatives on both sides try to downplay it. 

“It feels like the BCA has been shrinking, without a lot of energy to it,” said Building Opportunities for Self-Sufficiency (BOSS) staff member Michael Diehl, who is working on some of the convention platforms. Prior to the formation of BPA, Diehl said that “there were some thoughts of trying to revive BCA and go through them. But a lot of progressives have gotten alienated from the organization. For a lot of the young people, BCA doesn’t mean much to them. And if progressives want to advance, they have to reach out to the youth.” 

Diehl said he believed the goals of the convention was “to try to do what BCA was doing originally.” 

In his commentary, Schechtman made a thinly-veiled dig at the BCA, staying that Berkeley government “fail[ed] to enact the ideals of its people . . . mainly because we have allowed our progressive coalition . . . to decay and fall apart.” 

And he said that after the convention was over “later we’ll talk about some community organizing ideas of the Berkeley Progressive Alliance.” 

Asked in a telephone interview this week if that “decay and fall apart” comment referred to the BCA, Schechtman said that the BCA “used to be that greater coalition, and it isn’t now.” 

He called the BCA an organization “in serious disrepair.” 

That the progressive convention and the progressive alliance was virtually one and the same was the impression of members of the BCA steering committee when they were presented with the idea of the convention earlier this year, leading to the BCA steering committee declining to officially endorse the convention. 

“Our impression is that it was the same group putting together both,” BCA secretary Judy Ann Alberti said in a telephone interview. 

“So when the steering committee looked at it, they didn’t feel like they were looking at two separate things. The people who came to present the convention plan to us said that was why they were setting up the Progressive Alliance, so they could have these conventions.” 

In the end, while failing to endorse the convention, “is not discouraging people from our organization from going and participating,” according to Alberti. “Our feeling is that it’s great. We hope that they come up with candidates that the BCA will also see as progressives, so that both groups can endorse them.” 

But asked what might happen if the BCA and the Progressive Convention end up endorsing different candidates in the November election, Alberti said, “That’s always a potential.” 

Other activists hope that doesn’t happen. 

Both Councilmember Worthington in the February convention organizing meeting and Schechtman in his telephone interview referred to the progressive division in the District 8 City Council meeting, in which moderate Gordon Wozniak beat out three progressive challengers. 

“I think one of the key reasons to have a convention is to have a candidate to pull people together into a District 8 coalition,” the Daily Cal newspaper quoted Worthington as saying at the February convention. 

“Progressives have lost a lot of elections because they were not united,” Schechtman said, citing the Wozniak victory and stating that “the BCA did not prevent that.” Schechtman said that rather than splitting their vote between several progressive candidates, “we should decide on only one progressive for each office.” 

Former District 5 City Council candidate Jesse Townley is working on the convention, and is a member of the BPA. But he’s also a BCA member. 

“A lot of us are,” he said, referring to joint BPA and BCA membership. “And happily so. We’re allies.”  

Townley called the BCA “more establishment progressives; they can bring in more well-known figures to do major speaking events. They have the name and the history.” 

The BPA, on the other hand, he said, “has its feet on the ground more. We’re knocking on doors. It’s helping groups focus more on grassroots work. We’re bringing in people who were never BCA members, or even know what those initials stand for.” 

And despite the fact that the BCA has turned down the convention’s request for an endorsement, Schechtman says “I won’t say the matter is entirely closed. It depends on how many groups we can get involved in the convention. If it snowballs, then they’ll come in.”