Election Fever and the All-Alaska Pig Races

By Becky O’Malley
Thursday September 18, 2008 - 09:33:00 AM

On Sunday we took our grandkids to the Santa Cruz county fair in Watsonville, a cornucopia of old-fashioned delights and some new ones too. The animals proudly displayed by the 4-H club members who raised them are hands-down favorites, especially the competition for dressed-up goats, perhaps a unique specialty found only in Watsonville. It inevitably reminded some of the adults in the group of the recent lipstick-on-a-pig discussions in the national political arena. If you put a tutu on a goat, does that make her a ballerina, or is that a sexist question aimed at poking fun at Sarah Palin?  

As we were dragging the kids out the gate after an exhausting morning of excitement, we happened upon the event that best evokes the pre-election frenzy, the All-Alaska Pig Races. Who knew?  

My Santa Cruz family tells me that this is not an election year anti-Palin satire. These races been held at every Watsonville fair for years now. Why All-Alaska? Who knows? 

This is how it works: Spectators crowd around a miniature race track. A barker with a microphone in the center of the ring works the crowd, mostly kids, into a competitive frenzy. Then four little piglets, uniformly cute, identical-looking except for different-colored vests, appear in the starting gate. (None of them seemed to be wearing lipstick this time.) 

A gong sounds, the gate lifts, and the piggies trot off eagerly around the short horse-shoe track, and are rewarded with a nice bowl of food at the end. One, of course, gets there first, and is declared the winner. There are several elimination rounds, all virtually alike, with a final round where the kids in the audience are divided by the barker into cheering sections for the finalists, who are named after counties in Alaska.  

(Aside to animal activists: This is more fun than most pigs, who sad to say are only bred to be slaughtered, get in a lifetime. Pigs are smart, and their ordinary lives are often boring.) 

In the last week, as it happens, I’ve made cameo visits to a couple of candidates’ forums featuring the contenders in the Berkeley race, and comparisons to the All-Alaska Pig Races are inevitable. There too, all the contestants seem similar or even identical at first glance. All favor diversity, affordable housing, mass transit and greenishness (a close relative of truthiness). All oppose earthquakes. All claim to have opinions about homelessness and panhandlers, though it would be difficult for the casual observer to detect exactly what those opinions might be.  

But the two meetings I caught were dramatically different in format. One was sponsored by a big pan-Eastbay Democratic club named after the late Paul Wellstone, and it was a contest to see who could claim to be more progressive than thou. Invited candidates were permitted to speak for a soundbyte of what seemed like about two minutes, and then their passionate supporters had a chance to cheerlead for a few more measures, kind of like the kids at the All-Alaska Pig Races. The hundred or so Wellstoners, though, weren’t kids—they looked like a sea of indistinguishable uncoiffed grey heads from the back of the room where I stood. 

Progressiveness, like greenishness and truthiness, abounded. It was remarkable to hear Susan Wengraf, for 16 years aide to reliably-moderate Councilmember Betty Olds, deliver a speech in which “I’m progressive” must have occurred six times in two minutes.  

But all was not sweetness and light. Very little of it was, in fact.  

As I walked in, a supporter of Terry Doran, who speedily entered the race for Berkeley’s District 4 seat the moment Dona Spring was dead, was saying that really Dona hadn’t been “all that responsive,” so the fact that Jesse Arreguin was endorsed by most of Dona’s old allies should be taken with a grain of salt. Up jumped one of said allies to remind the audience that Dona had been re-elected the last time with 71 percent of the vote. Much of the discussion while I was there was on a similarly elevated level. 

Another notable exchange took place when a substitute spoke on behalf of District 5 candidate Sophie Hahn, an officer of the King School PTA, who had a conflicting event with the parents’ group on the same night. The surrogate mentioned that Hahn supports rent control, among other motherhood-and-apple pie progressive causes.  

This time it was anointed state Assembly candidate Nancy Skinner who leaped into the fray on behalf of the District 5 incumbent, realtor Laurie Capitelli, a reliable player in the Bates organization’s City Council lineup. I’ve known Sophie Hahn for five years, Skinner said, and she’s never mentioned rent control to me! It wasn’t clear whether or not she intended to call the previous speaker a liar or not.  

The whole evening, or at least as much of it as I could stomach, went like that. Many Wellstoners are battle-scarred veterans of the left sectarian wars of the 20th century, and they carry on as if they were still in the cafeteria of the City College of New York in the 1930s. Candidate Arreguin (20-something) was the only under-40 person I spotted in the room.  

There seems to have been a whole teapot-tempest about whether it was proper for candidates to recruit supporters to join the club, following all the published rules of course, prior to the endorsement meeting. That’s a time-honored tradition with political clubs in most places, including Berkeley, but I gather that some Wellstoners think it’s politically incorrect. I was lucky enough to miss most of that part of the program, though I heard more than I cared to about it from the inevitable pre-and-post-meeting e-mail CC circuit. Evidently at least Hahn, Arreguin and Phoebe Sorgen in District 6 had signed up some new folks for the Wellstone club, and some of the old folks were outraged. 

Not surprisingly, attendees couldn’t manage to agree on whom to endorse in any of the races. Berkeley voters will just have to make up their own minds, I guess. 

The other candidate appearance I checked out was the forum the Berkeley Chamber of Commerce sponsored at the ungodly hour of 8 a.m. on Monday. All of the candidates were invited to that one, unlike the pre-screened field at the Wellstone event. Most of them showed up. Candidates, handlers and newsies seemed to outnumber audience members. This one was super-genteel, each speaker given at least three minutes and more to start, with no endorsement vote on the program.  

Again, however, there was little ostensible disagreement. Wengraf did say that Betty Olds has been her mentor, and she didn’t mention “progressive” at all. The only audience question I heard (I left about 10 minutes before the end) produced the only real conflict of the morning. It was from someone who’d just moved here from Massachusetts.  

He wanted to know what the candidates could tell him about the measures on the ballot, but they largely tiptoed around the topic. The only clash was when Laurie Capitelli spoke up for a yes vote on Measure LL, which would ratify a proposed new watered-down developer-sponsored historic preservation ordinance. It was passed by the Bates majority on the City Council, but was then stopped by a voter-initiated referendum. Hahn and District 4 candidate L A Wood both delivered eloquent remarks in favor of retaining Berkeley’s long-standing Landmarks Preservation Ordinance instead, which is what voting no on Measure LL would accomplish. 

This candidates’ forum, like the Wellstone club meeting, was strongly reminiscent of the All-Alaska Pig Races. All the candidates, like the piglets, managed to look a lot alike as they came out of the starting gate. As someone who’s been following them in the news columns, though, I happen to know that they’re actually pretty far apart on several issues I think are crucial to what will happen in Berkeley in the next few years. More on that later.