The Editor's Back Fence

Who’s Behind Measure R? “Sam Zell” is the Answer

By Becky O'Malley
Tuesday October 05, 2010 - 09:51:00 PM

Last night (Tuesday, October 5) a League of Woman Voters debate on Measure R, on the Berkeley ballot in the upcoming election, served as the arena for dramatic revelations about the financial muscle behind the advisory ballot measure which purports to give citizens the opportunity to endorse their mayor’s “green vision” for downtown development.

As they say in clichéd movies about investigative reporting, all you have to do is “follow the money.” Measure R opponents, including anti-R debaters Councilmember Jesse Arreguin and Planning Commissioner Patti Dacey, showed up clutching the hot-off-the-internet documentation of California Form 460, the Campaign Disclosure Statement, which was made available only yesterday. .

It revealed that the “Berkeley Alliance for Progress – Yes on Measure R” committee has raised $32,450 so far, of which by far the greatest percentage,$25,000, came from—wait for it—billionaire Sam Zell’s Equity Residential Corporation. .

Yes, that Sam Zell. The same one who bought the L.A Times and the Chicago Tribune and sucked them dry, ran them into bankruptcy. 

Planet readers know him well. A Google search on the Planet website will give you more information than you need about who he is and what he’s been up to, mostly collected by ace reporter Dick Brenneman. 

And as luck would have it, the front page of today’s New York Times features a multi-page expose of how Zell destroyed the Tribune: “At Flagging Tribune, Tales of a Bankrupt Culture

It’s disgusting reading. 

When he’s not destroying newspapers, Zell is the dominant financial interest in Equity Financial, which bought the many downtown Berkeley properties developed by Patrick Kennedy. The company is gradually buying up more and more of downtown Berkeley. Equity’s latest project proposal would cover almost all of a big block at the corner of Shattuck and University. 

Berkeley’s campaign finance laws limit individual contributions to candidates, but vague committees with high-flown monikers like “Alliance for Progress” aren’t covered, which is why the Zell group (and other development corporations) can contribute the lion’s share of the budget for ballot measures like R. 

It’s all part of a really disturbing trend in campaign financing, capped by the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision which says that corporations are just like people when it comes to cash-register politics. Here in Berkeley, they’re even better off than people, allowed by law to make $25,000 contributions (and more) to advance their political goals. 

The listed treasurer of the Berkeley Alliance for Progress is Vicky Liu of San Francisco, previously an aide in Mayor Tom Bates’ office, who told the Planet she’s an independent contractor just “volunteering” for this job. Bates himself is a well-known “Developer’s Democrat” who was supposed to speak on the Pro side at the debate, but bailed at the last minute. 

How is the committee spending Zell’s cash? Well, at the debate someone was passing out the Alliance’s glossy and expensive tri-fold mailer, heavy with green ink and prominently displaying the name and logo of the Sierra Club, which ought to be ashamed of itself. The League of Women Voters, despite its claim that it was the “nonpartisan” sponsor of the debate, lent its logo to the piece as well, along with several other well-known green-washing outfits like the Downtown Berkeley Association. Needless to say, none of these organizations was listed as financial contributors. 

With Meg Whitman, Carly Fiorina and Developer’s Democrat Don Perata in Oakland all trying hard to spend their way into political power, Berkeleyans should worry that now their own city seems to be for sale. 

This is not a new story, of course. The San Francisco Mime Troupe’s summer show several years ago was called “City for Sale”, satirizing the San Francisco trend which has now reared its ugly head here. 

What happened in the debate itself? I’ll leave that story for the Planet reporter who was there to tell you. 

But I’d like to hereby announce the Planet’s Sam Zell cartoon contest (funded by the O’Malley family and friends as a public service). We’ll pay $500 for the best editorial cartoon which depicts Sam Zell (not a pretty fellow, judging by his picture in the Times) in bed with the League of Women Voters on one side and the Sierra Club on the other. Entries will be published in this space, and readers can vote for their favorite. 

It should be fun. 

If you want to know more, Berkeley Daily Planet historic preservation columnist Daniella Thompson has also posted an excellent analysis of Berkeley Alliance for Progress Yes on R contributors on the Berkeley Architectural Heritage blog.