McCarthyism? In Berkeley? Well, No.

By Becky O'Malley
Thursday January 21, 2010 - 09:25:00 AM

The combination of watching the Berkeley City Council and hearing the results of the Massachusetts elections on Tuesday night could give you a serious case of mental indigestion: just too much to swallow in both cases. Even though it was completely predictable, even though I stopped just short of predicting it a couple of weeks ago in this space, Massachusetts was a sad spectacle.  

A friend forwarded E.J. Dionne’s column to me on Wednesday morning. Dionne is one of the few prominent talking heads on the national scene who manages to maintain some connection with observable reality, who remembers what life on the ground is like, outside the glare of TV lights. He said that “this race was the Democrats’ to lose, and they managed to lose it.” Then he went on to detail every dumb thing they’ve done in the last year, and he finished up by saying that Democrats are all too ready to blame each other when things go sour:  

“Why does the term ‘circular firing squad’ seem to pop up after every Democratic defeat? Those Democrats whose mistakes led to this fiasco know who they are. If they don’t take responsibility and instead just try to shift all the blame to someone else, they will prove themselves unprepared for the work they now have to do to get their party out of this hole.” 

Too true, and I would add that three of the last four Massachusetts governors have been Republicans, including the odious Mitt Romney, who bombed so badly when he tried to enter the national scene. My suspicion, based on a number of years working in Democratic party politics, is that the bulk of money spent in this particular race went to entrenched hacks in a state party lulled into complacency by the trailing edge of the Kennedy comet. I have no doubt that it featured the usual ineffective phone banks staffed by lackluster union retirees looking to make a little petty cash on the side and similar enterprises which accomplish nothing but reward the faithful with patronage bucks just for showing up. 

Dionne and others have also tried to extract a national message about the Obama administration from the Massachusetts results. If there is such a message, it’s that business as usual didn’t work there and isn’t working nationally. It’s partly image questions—just the sight of the fat-cat bankers lapping up more cream is bound to offend. But it’s also organizational.  

The wrong people are running the Democratic party nationally as well as in Massachusetts. It’s not healthcare the voters oppose, it’s the spectacle of wheeler-dealers like Rahm Emanuel cynically trading principles for votes in order to engineer a narrow victory in Congress for a weak compromise bill. Emanuel is the product of an Illinois machine very similar to the one in Massachusetts, where back-room deals are preferred to open discussion and transparent decision-making, where going along to get along is the order of the day. 

Which brings us, inevitably, to the local scene. On Tuesday night there were at least two agenda items which highlighted the Berkeley City Council’s increasing reliance on off-camera alliances and insider actions. First, there was the behind-closed-doors “settlement” of the Zamboni organization’s lawsuit against the city for daring to designate the Iceland building a city landmark. The backroom deal between the city and Zamboni which was up for approval was flagrantly illegal in a couple of major ways.  

It was made without the participation of Save Berkeley Iceland. A letter from Berkeley Law faculty member and skater Antonio Rossmann cited “the constitutional premise that litigation should not proceed in the absence of third parties whose interests will be determined by that litigation.” He called the announced settlement terms a “two-party collusion to deprive Save Berkeley Iceland of the benefits of the city’s well-considered landmark designation.” And Berkeley’s longstanding Landmarks Preservation Ordinance doesn’t allow “de-landmarking” a historic resource just because the owner thinks he might not be able to extract maximum profit from selling the property, but that didn’t stop the City Council from trying to do it with this deal.  

The second outrage, late in the evening when most viewers had gone home, was the sanctimonious discussion of whether or not it was proper for Councilmember Jesse Arreguin to have asked about the city of Berkeley’s role in expediting passage of a bill which exempts the University of California’s enormous expansion of the use of its football stadium from a state law regulating new construction on earthquake faults. Councilmembers fell all over each other (shocked, shocked!) castigating Arreguin for daring to ask any questions about the involvement of the mayor and the city staff in this matter. Maio said it felt like a “witch-hunt.” Wozniak even invoked “a senator named McCarthy.” (Both Maio and Wozniak are UC-affiliated retirees.)  

The city manager has denied writing the legislation, no surprise there. But the smoking gun, muttered toward the end of the discussion in his usual hard-to-follow rambling style by Mayor Bates (a former Cal football player) who sometimes doesn’t know whether his mic is on, was that some sort of conferring about SB 113 had indeed taken place under city auspices while it was being drafted. Participants seem to have been city staff, the mayor and/or his staff, and state Sen. Loni Hancock and/or her staff. There was no disclosure of whether it had also been a pillow talk topic for Bates and his wife the senator.  

This is a matter of huge importance to the city of Berkeley. Good old Memorial Stadium is being turned into a $360 million sports-entertainment complex, with many more days in which it will be filled with spectators added to the schedule—the regents sealed the deal on Tuesday. In order to get SB 113 passed, it seems that someone in Berkeley, we still haven’t been told exactly who, told a state Senate committee that our city had no problem with changing the law to make things easier for UC Berkeley to get started on its construction projects.  

Councilmember Arreguin, a model of gentlemanly restraint, called what he was asking about a “lack of transparency.” But the language of another famous inquiry into what government was doing might be more appropriate: What did you know, and when did you know it? One Berkeley speaker Tuesday night said it was all about trust—and many people no longer seem to trust government, for good reason perhaps.  

It’s not clear whether the Massachusetts voters were giving the Democrats a vote of no confidence or were just reacting to an extremely poor local campaign in Tuesday’s election. But the same comment Dionne made about the national party could also apply to the Berkeley City Council: “If they don’t take responsibility and instead just try to shift all the blame to someone else, they will prove themselves unprepared for the work they now have to do...”