Message to would-be politicians: watch out for e-mail. The time-hallowed practice of pitching part of your message to Interest Group A and another part to Interest Group B becomes very risky when just one Group A recipient who doesn’t like what your pitch letter promises can quickly forward it to all sorts of others who really don’t like it.
That’s what seems to be happening to new Assembly candidate Nancy Skinner, whose number has come up because Loni Hancock is now officially termed out, thanks to the defeat of Proposition 93. She was (reportedly reluctantly) tapped by the Bates-Aroner-Hancock organization as Hancock’s replacement, jumping into a crowded field to join Councilmember Tony Thurmond of Richmond, Phil Polakoff of Berkeley (endorsed by ex-Mayor Shirley Dean and ex-sheriff Charlie Plummer) and Berkeley City Councilmember Kriss Worthington (full disclosure: endorsed by this space and many more.)
A pitch letter signed by consultant Carole Selter Norris, identifying the writer as vice-president of the San Francisco consulting firm ICF International, is in wide circulation on the Net, and has been forwarded to me by several anonymous correspondents. Norris is a sincere person who’s been active in Berkeley politics for many moons, including an unsuccessful bid for a city council seat in the same historic era as Skinner’s council term, but presumably this letter, because it’s on her firm’s electronic letterhead, represents more than personal preference. Suggested donation: “up to $3,600.”
It came to me complete with a list of first-tier recipients, all of whom we won’t identify here because they probably didn’t ask to be included. Hey You Guys: someone should show you how to do “bcc”, blind copying, to conceal the names of the addressees on your list. Let’s just say that number 2 addressee is Ali Kashani, the developer whose bid to replace Iceland with a condo complex sparked a fierce battle in the Berkeley City Council.
The letter did sport a scary-sounding warning: “This message is for the designated recipient only and may contain privileged or confidential information. If you have received it in error, please notify the sender immediately and delete the original. Any other use of this e-mail by you is prohibited.” Of course, it’s legally meaningless. Two words, for you intellectual property buffs out there: Fair Use.
Much of the content is plain vanilla resume stuff and normal political PR, but a few bits are sure to catch the eye of anyone outside of the Bates-Skinner orbit. First, it says that she “organized the July 2006 Climate and Energy Roundtable with Gov. Schwarzenegger, Prime Minister Tony Blair, Assembly Speaker Nunez...” None of these are exactly names to conjure with around here, though the letter does claim that this ‘led to the governor’s signing of California’s groundbreaking global warming bill.” Time will tell if this was a real accomplishment or simply Advanced Greenwashing 101 .
But the sentence that will generate too much excitement around Skinner’s candidacy in exactly the wrong circles in this district was this one:
“Nancy ... worked with Berkeley ZAB members to organize support and approvals for a number of infill projects facing opposition including the Berkeley Bowl, several condo projects and the proposed mixed use project that includes Trader Joe’s.”
One would hope that it’s just a drafting error: that the writer doesn’t actually intend to say that some ZAB members worked with Nancy to pass projects that came before them for decision, since that would be unethical. But even so, Skinner doesn’t seem to be aware that these two projects were and still are very controversial.
Both of the supermarkets mentioned, though loved by some shoppers because they’re cheap (as is Wal-mart) have had serious problems with labor unions, whose support is needed by any candidate in this district. Berkeley Bowl reluctantly agreed to allow employees at their current store to organize after a long struggle, but made no such guarantee for their new development. Trader Joe’s is resolutely and proudly anti-union.
And even more, there’s the growing anger of many residents of the urban East Bay, including but not only Berkeley, about the Big Ugly Boxes that have landed in their midst in the last few years. If Skinner really plans to run on a platform of “more condos coming to a neighborhood near you” she might be in trouble in some areas.
The letter gets even worse, with an all-caps pitch aimed at those who know the code words:
“NANCY UNDERSTANDS THE IMPORTANCE OF SUPPORTING URBAN INFILL DEVELOPMENT WHEN CHANGES TO THE STATE BUDGET, CEQA, THE GOVERNMENT CODE, REDEVELOPMENT LAW, AND OTHER STATE LAND USE AND DEVELOPMENT LEGISLATION IS [sic] INTRODUCED IN SACRAMENTO THAT MAKES [sic] URBAN INFILL PROJECTS MORE DIFFICULT. [all caps sic]
Does this mean, as it seems to, that she’s hoping to join the ranks of the developer-funded legislators, Fabian Nunez among them, who’ve been working to get rid of the protections for urban areas in the California Environmental Quality Act? Does it mean, as it seems to, that she will work to expand the powers of the redevelopment laws, frequently exploited and often misused by development interests in Oakland, Berkeley, Richmond and elsewhere? This sentence looks like a message to the building industry that Nancy’s on their side, which works fine for a privately circulated fundraising letter, but which will galvanize some opponents when they read it as a forwarded e-mail. (Of course, it might also raise some Big Bucks from the Big Boys.)
Sitting through the long and tedious proceedings of then-new-mayor Tom Bates’s Task Force on Permitting and Development, I became aware that Skinner, the mayor’s appointee to the committee, turned a tin ear to the pleas of city neighborhoods adversely impacted by poorly planned development, as does Bates himself. Subsequently on his watch it’s gotten worse instead of better, and Skinner, if this letter is accurate, has enthusiastically been part of the problem.
But then, tin ears in the Bates camp seem to be the order of the day. Tonight (Tuesday) the council will be facing the wrath of those, both local and imported, who took exception to the Marines-Go-Home resolution passed a couple of weeks ago with the Mayor’s blessing. On the other hand, Kriss Worthington, who certainly agrees with the goals of the anti-war protestors, showed his usual good judgment in voting from the start against the unnecessary inflammatory language which has provoked the expensive circus the city’s been experiencing. It’s important to choose your battles carefully, but Bates et al. don’t seem to understand that.