Pick up a copy of the Berkeley Daily Planet and you are almost certain to find a letters to editor/opinion page filled with complaints about Berkeley city government. While such reader feedback is not a scientific sample, it does show that there are many, many people dissatisfied with one or more aspects of Berkeley’s quality of life.
On June 3, Berkeley voters had an opportunity to express their concerns in two elections impacting Berkeley’s longstanding political leadership. Loni Hancock, a former Berkeley mayor and the wife of current mayor Tom Bates, was running for the State Senate. Nancy Skinner, the hand picked choice of Bates and Hancock, was one of four candidates in what was thought to be a tight Assembly contest.
The election gave critics of Berkeley government the perfect opportunity to change the identities, if not the direction, of the city’s key players. And what did voters do? They gave Hancock a major vote of confidence, and went overwhelmingly for Skinner despite one of her opponents being a longtime councilmember endorsed by the Daily Planet and who likely started with much higher name recognition.
What happened here?
I think this election, like Bates’ large victory in November 2006, shows that most Berkeley voters do not pay close attention to t daily decisions of our city government. Most voters appreciate Bates for his creation of Eastshore Park, and his stellar two decades of work in the Assembly; few connect him to a stagnant downtown business district or the problems on Telegraph. Similarly, Loni Hancock’s long service to Berkeley has made her a local icon, overshadowing whatever effectiveness, or lack thereof, she exhibited in Sacramento.
Some will argue that the June 3 results show that the letters and opinions expressed in the Daily Planet are entirely unrepresentative of the electorate. The resounding victory of the so-called Bates-Hancock “machine” will be said to confirm that there is a broad silent majority in favor of how Berkeley is being run.
Tempting as it may be to accept this latter thesis, it is contrary to my experience talking to, and overhearing, Berkeley residents. And while the letters submitted to the Daily Planet disproportionately involve land use concerns, the lack of correspondence affirmatively praising Bates or the status quo is striking.
Hancock had a huge advantage over Wilma Chan in name recognition in Berkeley, which was enhanced by the latter’s failure to campaign in our high-voting city (nobody seems to have even seen a Chan house sign) So her big victory is easier to understand.
But Skinner’s landslide victory in what was supposed to be a close race---she nearly tripled Worthington’s vote overall---is more telling. I have known Nancy since the 1970’s, and she is a dynamic candidate, will be an excellent Assemblyperson, and clearly benefited from being the only woman in the field---but the margin of her triumph is a testament to voters’ fond memories of Assemblymember Tom Bates, not a show of support for his performance as Berkeley’s current mayor.
I noted before the November 2006 mayoral election how the electorate did not blame Bates for Berkeley’s many problems. I saw then, and still see, a local electorate far more interested in national politics than in learning about Berkeley’s Downtown Plan.
Occasionally, as occurred when Cody’s on Telegraph closed, a brief window opens and people start asking questions about municipal government. But these moments soon pass. Despite all of the promises in the wake of Cody’s demise, the Telegraph business climate remains troubled—but Berkeley residents in 2008 have been primarily riveted on the Obama campaign, not the failure of city government to address a declining commercial district.
Unfortunately, the prospect that Berkeley residents will soon reengage with their city government is not good.
Back in the 1960s and ’70s, Cal students like Nancy Skinner stayed politically involved in Berkeley after graduating. But high housing costs and other factors have changed this dynamic, so the flow of young people eager to challenge the city’s political leadership has been slowed to a trickle. One is struck by the fact that, like Bates and Hancock, those most involved in Berkeley politics have been so for decades; this is in stark contrast to San Francisco, where most local elected officials and activists were not engaged in city politics until the 1990s, if not later.
Hancock’s victory means that Tom Bates will likely seek re-election in November. In the wake of the success of his political allies on June 3, and having easily won in 2006, Bates is unlikely to face a serious opponent.
This means we can count on a continuing stream of anti-Bates letters in the Daily Planet, but it also means that the mayor’s administration is even less likely to pay them heed. The antidote to the mayor’s lack of vision, and lack of a proactive agenda, is a strong grassroots opposition; but as was again shown on June 3, this clearly does not exist.
Randy Shaw is a Berkeley resident and author of the forthcoming Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century. He is also editor of BeyondChron.org.