File Now Before the City Council Races Close on Friday

By Becky O'Malley
Tuesday August 03, 2010 - 03:42:00 PM

Heads up! According to the pundits slavishly following the statewide races, we’re within 100 days of the November election. The question in everyone’s mind is whether two recycled female executives, one a definite loser, both with histories of ignoring the political process, can buy state and national office with the ill-gotten proceeds of a career in corporate crime? It’s a puzzlement.  

Me, I’ve been tired of Jerry Brown since about 1980, but sure, I’ll vote for him. What’a’ya’gonna’do? Barbara Boxer is a much more appealing candidate, even though she has been pumping for the Fourth Bore. 

Jobs, jobs, jobs, that’s what our Dems want, even if the work product is undesirable in light of climate change threats. This is a problem that must be solved sometime, but Not This Year. 

Locally, we might need to fasten our seatbelts—we’re going to be in for a wild ride. This will be the first city council election to explore the uncharted turf of instant runoff voting, known to its fans as IRV.  

Buzz around town among the armchair pols is a recent New Yorker article reviewing books about novel voting methods. Novel here means anything except the traditional first-past-the-post format we’ve taken as the norm in this country—everyone votes, and the guy (usually) with the most votes wins. Political parties and run-offs have made things a bit more complex, but basically simple majorities rule. 

Here in Berkeley this November we’ll be guinea pigs for an experimental scheme which will let every voter rank up to three choices by preference. (The limit of three candidates is imposed by the voting machine technology currently approved by the California Secretary of State.) If none of the three candidates gets a majority of first place votes in the initial count, the second and third choice votes of those whose first place candidate came in third will be redistributed to the two leaders to produce a winner. 

At least I think that’s how it works. In preparation for writing this, I read a whole lotta stuff online, including articles pro and con, web sites ditto, and the Wikipedia article on IRV, but despite more than 50 years avidly following and participating in politics, a law degree, and a very smart computer scientist partner and various mathematician friends who’ve tried to explain it to me, I’m still confused. Anyone who’s not confused just isn’t paying attention. 

What I have gleaned from all this research is that the system works best when the voter has more than one acceptable choice. Ideally, if my district has four people running and I think three of them might do a fine job, I could vote for all three, secure in the knowledge that anyone who wins would suit me. 

Which is why I’ve signed the petition to get on the ballot which is being circulated by one candidate in my district (District 8) already. Some quirk in the law seems to indicate that I’m only allowed to sign one petition, even though I personally know at least two other people who’d make good councilmembers. But I’ve told two more that I’ll also endorse them, so when I vote in November my ballot will offer genuine one-two-three choices that I won’t be unhappy with.  

And this is why we should all encourage anyone we know who wants to run to give it a shot. This election will definitely be an experiment, but it will be more interesting if there are more candidates.  

Sad to say, incumbents have always had a huge advantage, just from name recognition alone, regardless of how bad their record might be. In my district the incumbent, retired UC bureaucrat Gordon Wozniak, has always functioned as a spokesperson for the University of California administration, even though the students, UC Berkeley employees and other residents who live in his south of campus district have had many bones to pick with UC in the last 8 years. I know we don’t need any more of him—maybe one of the other three can win with IRV. 

The other potent force in Berkeley elections is the power of the Bates/Hancock machine. The last time I referred to that organization as a machine, I got a stinging letter from an old friend who thought that self-styled progressives didn’t have machines, but face it, they do. How else can you analyse the fact that this district’s representation in Sacramento has been limited to husband and wife Bates and Hancock, plus his former staff manager and her hand-picked successor, for more than 20 years?  

If more proof is needed, Bates’ endorsement of not one but two candidates running against independent progressive Kriss Worthington, who has an impeccable track record on issues important to his district, should provide it. Worthington had the chutzpah to run in the Democratic primary against Hancock’s anointed Assembly successor Nancy Skinner, and now he’s paying the price. Skinner’s endorsement, very early in the District 6 race, has followed Bates’ dictum—no surprise here. Why do Berkeleyans need Skinner to tell us how to vote, anyhow? 

In Jesse Arreguin’s district, rumor has it that architect Jim Novosel, otherwise a nice guy, has taken out papers to run against him. First-term Councilmember Arreguin is the only young person currently on the City Council and a smart, hard-working independent progressive to boot, not to mention the only member of Berkeley’s growing Latino minority in local office. Anyone who watches the City Council meetings online (a decadent taste, to be sure) will quickly figure out that Arreguin and Worthington are the only councilmembers who reliably read and understand their packets, and the city needs them for that reason alone. Novosel should back off and find other ways to serve the city. 

In other rumors, a varied group is supposed to be taking on District 1 councilmember Linda Maio. She’s a sad case, because in discussion of contested issues she always seems to understand the progressive point of view, but she always ends up voting with the Mayor, who’s long since given up the pretense that he works for anyone but developers. 

Which brings us to the other Berkeley item on the November ballot, the Giant Greenwash masquerading as some sort of Berkeley Downtown Plan advisory, or perhaps as a “lite” plan. For the full pitch, signed by my incumbent councilmember but undoubtedly authored by whatever consultant has been retained by the B/H organization to push the ballot measure, see this op-ed which appeared in the Daily Cal. 

The Bates-hatched so-called Green Vision hides a few pernicious provisions which will make it easier to build big new buildings and demolish old ones in a sea of green rhetoric. Between now and the campaign there will be enough time for opponents to deconstruct the deceptive language adequately for experienced local voters, but if the main target voters in the November election will be well-meaning students from elsewhere who don’t know much about the city of Berkeley it might be hard to get the message out. 

Bottom line: for the next 100 days anyone who cares about what will become of Berkeley needs to participate actively in the political process. In the council elections in Districts 1,4,6 and 8, that might even mean running yourself so that the voters will have three independent progressives to fill out their ballots. All such candidates would be well advised to endorse one another to make this easier for the voters to understand. And all such candidates (it would add up to 12 if enough independent progressives stepped up to the plate) could share the job of explaining to voters what a sham the Giant Greenwash really is. 

Filing for the council races closes on Friday unless an incumbent chooses not to run. If that happens, filing will be possible for some longer period—not likely, but we’ll keep you informed. 

If nothing else, IRV has given new meaning to the old Chicago machine slogan: “Vote early and often.” In November you can finally give it a shot.