Editorial: Big Lie Politics Creeps into Berkeley Elections

By Becky O’Malley
Tuesday October 31, 2006

A panel discussion of the upcoming national election at UC’s Wheeler Auditorium last Thursday featured some familiar faces—Joan Blades of MoveOn.com, Prof. George Lakoff of “framing” fame, and the bloggers’ hero, Markos Moulitsas, “Daily Kos,” with political scientist Bruce Cain as moderator—articulating their now-familiar themes about what’s happened to progressive politics in the United States and what can be done about it. Cain joked that the panel was “fair and balanced” just like Fox News. A strongly partisan audience was obviously hoping that one of them had brought along a crystal ball showing a clear victory for Democrats nationally next week, but no one was confident enough to make such an optimistic prediction. The fourth panelist, political science professor Paul Pierson, was a new face, a last-minute replacement for Robert Reich, another familiar member of progressive pundit arrays.  

Pierson’s a co-author, with Jacob Hacker, of a book which came out in January, Off Center: The Republican Revolution and the Erosion of American Democracy. Its thesis is sometimes contrasted with Lakoff’s rhetorically-based “framing” hypothesis, which contends that it’s not so much what you say in political discourse as how you say it.  

Pierson characterized such theories as supporting the “senior class president” model of politics, which defines elections as essentially popularity contests where “the candidate who wins must be the one closest to the electorate.” He emphasized that he didn’t mean that framing and spin were unimportant, but that he believed that the institutions surrounding the contestants played the major role in determining outcomes.  

The discussion Thursday focused in on what role the structure of today’s national Republican and Democratic parties might have in determining the outcome of next week’s election. Several panelists alluded to poll results showing that voters’ opinions on national issues are much more liberal than those of the Republicans they elect to office, which Pierson attributes to the power of institutions to shape elections. 

He summarized his book’s analysis in a January interview with Barry Bergman, posted on UC’s public information website: 

“….we don’t accept what we think is the primary way that people often think about electoral politics: that it’s primarily a popularity contest between two competing sets of ideas, and two competing teams, and that if one teams wins it must be because they’re doing things that are closer to what people want — their ideas are better, their ideas are more popular, end of story.  

"What we’re trying to point out in the book is that politics isn’t just about ideas and platforms. It’s about organization, and it’s about how the structure of political institutions, and the ability of particular organizations to use those institutions, translates into political power.” 

Some of us in the audience who follow politics in Berkeley were struck by how well the Pierson model describes the local scene, though it’s not clear what it would predict for outcomes of current local contests. This was made even more apparent by last week’s deluge of glossy mailers, a significant percentage of which seem to be paid for by the Berkeley Chamber of Commerce’s political action committee. Some pieces, though not all, complied with the law by listing the PAC’s name as sponsor, but the tip-off was the use of U.S. postal permit No. 157, mailed from Carlsbad. This campaign could mark a sea change in Berkeley politics similar to what we’ve seen on the national level since the Republicans took over. 

The centerpiece of the Chamber’s effort was distributed in Districts 4 (Spring) and 7 (Worthington) late last week. We’re posting it on the Planet’s Internet edition, but briefly described, it’s a large print red and brown cardboard fold- 

out headed “GUESS WHO FAILED ON IMPORTANT BERKELEY ISSUES? WHO’S FAILED YOU?” A grid design lists issues on the left side and mayor and councilmembers across the top, and gives a letter grade from A to F to each one on each issue. We’ll leave it to our reporters and our correspondents to detail the specific enormous factual errors in what’s said about the candidates’ positions on the chosen issues. Let’s just look for the moment at what the graphics convey.  

The piece is a transparently nasty effort to cut two candidates, Spring and Worthington, out of the pack. Their so-called “records” are highlighted in red, and their “failing” averages of D and F are further circled in red in case you miss the point. Bullets highlight catch phrases (“Protect and enhance our neighborhoods”), the same kind which were featured in the very expensive push-poll which called many of us last summer, paid for by a source as yet unrevealed. It’s a package of half-baked slogans which the Chamber seems to think Berkeley is dumb enough to swallow. 

Bates, Beier and Raudell Wilson, the mailer’s high-score candidates, are three examples of the “senior class president” model in action. (One sharp-tongued observer described Beier’s performance at a meeting of business leaders as “Mr. Toastmaster”). This trio might win, not because they understand local issues and represent Berkeley voters’ wishes, but because they have big money and powerful organizations on their side. Beier, a self-made millionaire, also has the means to add his personal bucks to the Chamber’s war chest. If they’re successful, as Pierson’s theory points out, it won’t mean that they represent what the electorate really wants. It will just mean that well-funded interests which control organizations like the Chamber of Commerce have figured out how to manipulate elections. 

This would be a good place to acknowledge that we made a mistake in our last editorial. We thought that Tom Bates has endorsed George Beier, but Bates campaign representative Armando Viramontes (on loan from Bates’ wife Loni Hancock’s Assembly office) called to tell us he hasn’t gone quite that far. He simply hasn’t endorsed Worthington, Beier’s opponent, which is indeed different from endorsing Beier himself, but not very different. (He did endorse the Chamber’s B and C rated picks, Wozniak and Maio.)  

Bates has pointedly ducked endorsing Spring, Worthington and Jason Overman, the real progressives in the race. He admits participating in the $250-a-head private party which raised much of the money for the Chamber PAC’s mailers, and his snide remarks about Spring at the event, as captured by Will Harper in the Express, are quoted in a Wilson campaign piece. Like George Bush, Bates could be described as “a uniter, not a divider”—with the remarkable achievement of snaring both the conservative Berkeley Democratic Club and the pathetic remnant of their old nemesis Berkeley Citizens Action as endorsers. Neither the old-line Democrats nor the former old-leftists who have recently been born again as Democrats seem to understand the pernicious consequences of Bates’ attempt to dump Spring and Worthington, if they even know about it.  

Bates has the incalculable institutional advantage of a long and largely respectable political career, which he’s successfully used to disguise his own recent role in Berkeley politics as a front for development interests. He’s also carried water for developers by his persistent attempts to sabotage Berkeley’s Landmark Preservation Ordinance, now reborn as Measure J and the target of another Chamber PAC mailer, also filled with what can only be called blatant lies.  

We’ve lived in Berkeley for 33 years, and we’ve never seen a campaign in which out-and-out lies played such a big role. It turns out that organizations like the Chamber PAC are just about immune from Berkeley’s campaign reform laws. Albany has seen similar manifestations in the way mall promoters are trying influence its council elections. It seems that the virus which has infected national politics in the last eight years is starting to take root around here—if you have enough money and power behind you it doesn’t matter what kind of lies you tell, the bigger the better. After this election is behind us, we need to work on that. 







Mayor: Zelda Bronstein 

District 1: No endorsement 

District 4: Dona Spring 

District 7: Kriss Worthington 

District 8: Jason Overman 

Measure A: Yes 

Measure I: No 

Measure J: Yes 

More to come...