Editorial: Finding the Real Progressives in City Elections

By Becky O’Malley
Friday September 29, 2006

It seems too early, with the September hot spell still upon us, to be thinking about the November local election, but it’s here. Vote-at-home ballots will be mailed out next week, and consultants will be directing calls to frequent voters urging them to vote NOW. The local campaigns, such as they are, are almost over. 

In Berkeley we’re seeing what looks like a monumental shift in political alignments. The disappearance of rent control as a meaningful political yardstick against which candidates can be measured seems to be creating an issues-free “politics by cronyism.” Mayor Tom Bates, formerly considered a progressive, has firmly joined the ranks of the Dead Armadillo party by endorsing the most conservative candidate in this year’s race, old crony incumbent Gordon Wozniak, instead of progressive Rent Board Commissioner Jason Overman. Wozniak does a fine job of upholding the interests of the upscale Claremont District where he lives, but a notably poorer job for the students in his gerrymandered council district. He’s not much help either for the permanent residents living near campus, both renters and homeowners, whose lives are continually impacted by UC’s unchecked expansion. Wozniak’s a retired university administrator, and on many key votes his sympathies seem to be with his old bosses at the U rather than with his beleaguered constituents.  

And now Bates has even been caught covertly dissing the most stalwart progressives still on the council, Kriss Worthington and Dona Spring, both up for re-election. East Bay Express gossip columnist Will Harper managed to disguise himself well enough to be a fly on the wall at the meeting which launched the Berkeley Chamber of Commerce’s political action committee’s effort to influence the November elections. (I wish I could manage to be so inconspicuous.) He says that Bates allowed as how he didn’t plan to endorse either Worthington or Spring, and that the mayor even made snide remarks about their personal qualifications. 

Worthington and Spring are the councilmembers most likely to speak up for the poor, for the homeless, and for the beleaguered residents of their flatlands districts who are bearing the brunt of Bates’ pro-development push in their neighborhoods. Their opponents are a pair of hale-fellas-well-met, jolly Chamber-of-Commerce types with big-bucks backing who’d like to remake Berkeley in their own image. It’s no wonder that today’s affable Bates, now the very model of a middle-aged burgher, would feel closer to them than to the outspoken defenders of progressive causes they’re running against. (And by the way, the Bates-endorsed Wozniak is even sharing campaign headquarters with Worthington’s opponent.) 

Dona’s tenacious defense of what she thinks is right, regardless of who disagrees with her, has been particularly annoying to Bates ever since he was elected, despite the fact that she was a prime mover in persuading him to run. Reviewing old videos of council meeting shows many unattractive occasions where he’s cut her off in mid-sentence in a remarkably patronizing fashion. Worthington is more discreet, less outspoken, but equally tenacious. He made a sincere effort to get along with Bates at the beginning, but has been poorly rewarded for his pains. 

Many of the old warhorses who showed up for the BCA endorsement meeting last Sunday didn’t seem to know what’s going on in Berkeley any more. They didn’t see the contradiction in simultaneously endorsing Bates and the councilmembers with whom he’s most often at odds. Many of them are also comfortable middle-aged burghers with houses now worth close to a million dollars who tend to assume that the causes and controversies are still the same as when they were eager graduate students living in the flats. BCA’s mailing and membership lists are as ancient as the members: They’re still mailing meeting invitations to one of my daughters who went away to college in 1980 and now lives in another city.  

The firebrands in the old BCA would have noticed that a large hunk of Bates’ current endorsers are from the faction formerly known as moderate, old foes of rent control and other causes dear to the BCA heart. They might also have noticed that though BCA endorsed Bates in the last election, he didn’t mention that endorsement anywhere in his 2002 campaign mailings. Yes, he’s “a uniter, not a divider”—but we know what mischief Dubya did with that slogan. 

The new progressive issues which are replacing now-defunct rent control are not as easy to identify. A recent op-ed columnist in the San Francisco Chronicle took it for granted that opposition to inappropriate development and ugly densification is a core progressive issue, but much of Berkeley hasn’t caught on yet. Randy Shaw, who lives in Berkeley but runs the Tenderloin Housing Clinic in San Francisco, does understand what’s going on, and laid it out clearly in these pages. 

But in response to his op-ed, a recent letter writer, an old BCA pol, criticized Shaw and lauded Mayor Bates because Berkeley “was one of the few to be given an ‘A’ for meeting its state-required “fair share” of affordable housing.” That’s exactly the point: There’s now enough housing in Berkeley which meets the generous state affordability standard that we don’t need to continue mindlessly overbuilding enormous buildings which harm residents on adjacent streets (both renters and homeowners) just to secure a token trickle of tiny “affordable” units in each ugly box. If we want to build genuinely inexpensive housing suitable for low-income families in order to preserve Berkeley’s traditional income and racial diversity, we should do that, upfront, but we shouldn’t kid ourselves that anything at all that’s good for builders is de-facto good for Berkeley.  

A signature effort of the Bates term has been his inexplicable crusade to destroy the Landmarks Preservation Ordinance, which has been responsible for retaining a substantial portion of Berkeley’s existing older housing stock. It’s well-documented that when older housing is demolished to make way for new, the new units almost always are smaller and cost more to rent than the old ones. And many developers see Berkeley’s owner-occupied flatlands bungalows as ideal demolition candidates. Bates’s appointees to land-use boards and commissions have all been on the side of the building industry, not on the side of the neighborhoods. 

Dona Spring and Kriss Worthington, unlike Bates, understand the nuances of what it means to be a progressive councilmember in today’s Berkeley, now a bedroom community increasingly dominated by a well-off majority. They’re proud of standing up for underdogs. Jason Overman has shown himself to be equally aware of problems faced by lower-income Berkeleyans and others living near UC, and as a student will bring a fresh perspective to an increasingly elderly City Council. Voters who want the best representation for both students and neighborhood residents should choose the real progressives: Dona Spring in District 4, Kriss Worthington in District 7 and Jason Overman in District 8.