Endorsements: What They Mean and Who's Doing It

By Becky O'Malley
Tuesday September 28, 2010 - 10:13:00 AM

Because of the hallowed California tradition of “non-partisan” local elections, it’s hard for the infrequent voter to figure out which candidate to vote for. In Berkeley the local elections, which used to be held in the spring, have been added to the huge November ballot. As a result, a lot of occasional voters here will be confronted on election day with a list of unfamiliar local names and incomprehensible local proposals when they show up to cast their Democratic ballots for statewide offices (as we dearly hope they will).  

To fill the information gap, various self-appointed endorsing bodies have sprung up. Most of them have some sort of membership roster, but often anyone who shows up at the endorsement meeting qualifies to vote on who gets the nod. Around here, a fair proportion of these have “Democratic” in their name, a strategic choice since reapportionment gerrymandering guarantees that with very rare exceptions the Dems will attract the most local voters in the partisan races in these parts for November. Those extra Democratic votes are needed for the statewide races, but from the state legislature on down the ticket, primaries and/or machines have already sealed the deal in supposedly partisan contests. 

Unsophisticated voters with generally liberal leanings are likely to look in local non-partisan races for someone endorsed by “The Democrats”, but that’s not as easy as it looks. For starters, positions on “slate cards” which are mailed to registered voters are available for purchase, though there are also some slate cards which represent actual endorsements by respected groups or people. Fair or foul, slate cards usually are headed by well-known candidates (Barbara Boxer, Jerry Brown) whose names are expected to attract votes to people listed on the bottom of the ticket.  

Endorsements, however they are publicized and whoever they come from, are the main source of guidance for confused voters. Newspaper endorsements used to count for something, but as the influence of newspapers has declined their endorsements are less and less respected. The poor old San Francisco Chronicle seems to have hit a new low this time, admitting in print that their editorial board can’t tell the difference between Barbara Boxer and Carly Fiorina and so won’t endorse. Come on, guys, I know you’re asleep at the wheel, but that’s embarrassing!  

The San Francisco Bay Guardian is still as good a guide as any on statewide questions, particularly the propositions, and on San Francisco offices. For local races outside the city they sometimes get a little squirrely. I vividly remember, when I worked there many years ago in my youth, someone hollering across the press room floor “Anyone know anyone in Marin?” when endorsements were being decided, and I fear it hasn’t changed much since then. For example, The Guardian endorsed Tom Bates for Berkeley mayor last time, under the mistaken impression that he was still “the progressive candidate”, long after he’d been outed as a Developers’ Democrat. They’d never endorse anyone with his politics in The City. 

What about local endorsers? A reader who attended the endorsement meeting of Berkeley Citizens’ Action over the weekend was kind enough to send us the results, which can be seen here in our Election Section. This has inspired us to ask any and all attendees at endorsement meetings of whatever body wants to take a crack at it to send us the results, which we aim to compile into a master matrix.  

This will be somewhat helpful if you happen to know the history and present leanings of the endorsing body, but you should always remember that endorsements do depend on who shows up on a given day. Let’s start with the BCA, since we happen to have their results in hand.  

Long, long ago, my children, even before we moved to Berkeley, there was an organization called the April Coalition, which morphed into Berkeley Citizens Action in due course. Hard though it might be for you to believe, Loni Hancock (originally Berkeley councilmember, then mayor, now state senator, now—but not then—wife of now-mayor Tom Bates) and Ron Dellums (first councilmember, then congressman, now outgoing Oakland mayor) were among the Young Turks who were the founding BCA members. (If you want the whole story, you’ll just have to read David Mundstock’s Berkeley in the Seventies website, an amazing history written by someone who was there.)  

As of now, many in Berkeley still believe that the BCA endorsements represent the “true progressives”, though a number of name-brand Seventies Progs have long ago migrated to the center where the money is. It’s noteworthy that the Bates slate didn’t garner any BCA endorsements this time—not Measure R, the Developers’ Democrats’ vision statement for downtown Berkeley, and not one of his hand-picked candidates, not even incumbent Democratic Assemblymember Nancy Skinner, who inherited the Hancock-Bates seat . Independent progressives Arreguin, Worthington and Jones were chosen by BCA for three council districts, and there was No Endorsement for a fourth. 

We’d like to get an eyewitness account of the endorsements of the Berkeley Democratic Club, formerly known as “The Moderates” back when BCA was sole claimant to the title of “The Progressives”. There’s a rumor that even Measure R came within one vote of losing the BDC nod, but we’d like that confirmed. Readers, write us. 

And there are still more Democratic clubs, about which we know even less. The Wellstone Democratic Club was formed fairly recently by a core group with some historic ties to the Old Left. Probably a majority of its members live in Oakland, but that doesn’t stop them from weighing in on Berkeley elections. More Democratic clubs are out there too—Stonewall, John George, Cal Dems, Young Dems and more—and we’d love to hear whom they’ve endorsed. They confine their favors to registered Democrats, leaving out the Greens who are running for some races.  

How about the non-partisan parties? The Sierra Club, for example, tries to cut as wide a swath as possible in local races, and often deserves respect. Myself, I still think David Brower had a point when he left the Sierra Club trailing fire and brimstone, but many sincere voters pay close attention to Sierra Club endorsements, unaware that Machiavellian machinations sometimes underlie them. The League of Women Voters, which endorses measures but not candidates, has a similar affect, ostensibly fair and balanced but often with unexpected internal undercurrents created by partisan lobbying.  

The Berkeley Chamber of Commerce is probably the farthest right of the endorsing organizations. They have a long history of creating political action committees and other front groups to benefit development interests in elections, and they’ve been chastised for it more than once by the relevant government regulatory agencies. They’re on their third executive director (they call them “CEOs”) in as many years, so it’s a bit hard to determine what they’ll try to push for this fall’s election. Check out their website—note the letter from Mayor Bates on the front page, coupled with “Chairman’s Circle” sponsorships from the likes of PG&E and the Berkeley Labs, to understand where they’re coming from if they endorse. 

The Chamber’s Governmental Affairs Committee, per their website, is not the same thing as their PAC, but the GAC committee chair told us he isn’t quite sure if there even is a PAC this year. In any event, the GAC is sponsoring a couple of candidate forums, but so sorry, you missed the first one. The announcement went out by email Monday at 9 a.m. and the forum was at noon the same day. Oh well…. 

Bottom line: don’t bite on the first slate card you get in the mail. Just because you were a “Prog” or a “Mod” in the olden days, don’t necessarily rely on people or groups you used to trust to do your thinking for you. You might want to go to candidate forums, if you can find them in time, and actually meet the candidates in person. We’ll try to let you know when they’re happening, if indeed they are.  

Good luck, and don’t forget to vote early and often, as they say in Chicago. The absentee ballots go out this week.