With Elections on the Horizon, Reform Starts (and Stalls) in Berkeley

By Becky O'Malley
Friday June 29, 2012 - 10:55:00 AM

The summer solstice has passed, and the days will grow shorter ‘til we reach November. Election fever is starting to heat up.

In the last week, several election-related occurrences have provided data points for our ongoing inquiry about whether democracy will survive at least for our lifetime. The big news, of course, is that ObamaCare won in the Supreme Court.  

Surely the president’s campaign apparatus is capable of enough jujitsu to turn that derogatory appellation for the Affordable Health Care Act into a salable brand, now that the Supremes have given it their seal of approval.  

I’m already ordering my “I ♥ObamaCare” bumperstickers. Yes, yes, I know it could be a whole lot better, but really, folks, we’ve got to do the best we can with what we’ve got for the moment. 

A better Congress could pass a better healthcare bill. On Monday I went to a meet-and-greet with a guy who’d like to work on that.  

Dr. Ami Bera is running for Congress against the creepy Dan Lundgren in the Sacramento area, and he seems to have a pretty good shot at winning.  

Here’s what he said about the decision yesteday: 

“Today Chief Justice Roberts did what Dan Lundgren could never do. He set politics aside to do what he thought was right. 

"We cannot go back to the days when patients were denied coverage for preexisting conditions and when women were unfairly charged more than men. Health care costs are still rising. Washington needs to put politics aside and make coverage more affordable for our middle-class families and small businesses. 

"As Chief Medical Officer for Sacramento County, I took on big pharmaceutical companies to lower the cost of care and increase coverage; in Congress I will do the same." 

Bera would be more than just another Democratic vote in Congress, though heaven knows we need that too. As an M.D. with public health experience he’d be in a good position to provide some real leadership toward improved health care legislation. 

Then on the local level, on Wednesday I attended a party at Urban Ore put on by a bunch of West Berkeley people who are excited by the idea that at least three candidates have taken out papers to run against the incumbent councilmembers who have treated their neighborhood so shabbily. Two of them, Denisha DeLane and Adolpho Cabral, are running against Darryl Moore, who has proved himself to be a reliable rubber stamp for Mayor Tom Bates’ various schemes to enhance construction industry profits at the expense of local citizens. 

The latest ground zero is in Moore’s own West Berkeley district, when owners of some big tracts near the water are promoting changes to the West Berkeley Plan and its zoning to allow big office buildings to be built on their holdings. Residential and small business inhabitants are concerned, to put it mildly—outraged would be more accurate. 

Ranked choice voting will permit citizens who are tired of Moore to push for change by selecting DeLane and Cabral, in whichever order, for the one-two positions on their ballots. Either one would be a big improvement over Moore’s passive participation in developer enterprises. At Wednesday’s event each candidate gave a thoughtful though not slick presentation stressing community ties and hopes for the future.  

The third aspirant, Jacquelyn McCormick, is running against Bates himself. The Berkeley city charter establishes a weak mayor position, with the mayor effectively just an at-large councilmember who chairs council meetings. But in Bates’ ten years in office he’s managed to take maximum advantage of the perks of the office so that he’s captured a reliable majority of spineless fellow councilmembers to vote for most of what he wants most of the time. 

Although McCormick is a relative newcomer to electoral politics (she ran once in firmly conservative District 8 and lost to the incumbent) she’s a savvy former businesswoman who’s spent two years attending almost every council meeting to get a firm grasp of the city’s problems. Her articulate, passionate speech on Wednesday reflected this experience. And she appears to be under 50, which would be a refreshing novelty in an increasingly elderly council, most of whose members have been in office for decades.  

It’s clear that she’s trying to avoid being pigeonholed as belonging to one of the two factions (once labeled progressive and moderate) which dominated Berkeley politics a decade ago. Thus she’s active with Berkeley Budget Watch, which scrutinizes city expenditures in a time of shrinking revenues, a cause traditionally beloved of the old moderate faction. At the same time, she’s scornful of Bates’ latest attempt to mask the manifold problems of Berkeley’s commercial districts by blaming street sitters and promoting yet another round of controversial anti-sit/lie legislation. This stance earns her major points with Berkeley’s beleaguered progressive element, now disgusted with former progressives Moore and Maio, who weep copious crocodile tears while voting to put regressive ordinances on the ballot.  

This brings us to the latest sneaky maneuver on the part of a city council now in the pocket of the U.C. Berkeley administration and the biotech business interests it increasingly represents. The council has chosen to offload its two most controversial recent proposals, re-jiggering West Berkeley and the sit/lie offensive, into ballot initiatives to be voted on in the November general election. This is, needless to say, the poorest possible public policy, since ordinances enacted by initiative require initiatives to amend or repeal, and these two are full of questionable details sure to cause problems if enacted.  

The worst thing about legistlation-by-initiative is that it provides a prime opportunity for the Citizens United syndrome to rear its ugly head. In Berkeley until now propaganda for or against ballot measures could be published with unlimited and unrevealed corporate funding, and several recent initiatives have accrued secret corporate finance. 

Thus, for example, the recent Measure R ballot measure, which green-washed what has turned out to be carte blanche for downtown development, was passed largely because a very well-designed glossy brochure supporting it was mailed to every voter with the apparent sponsorship of the Sierra Club but with hidden financing by Berkeley’s largest commercial landlord, a corporate arm of the notorious Sam Zell empire. To complete the string of colorful metaphors, the incident gave both the Sierra Club and Berkeley’s election laws a black eye. 

The city’s citizen Fair Campaign Practices Commission has been working on cleaning up this obvious loophole in Berkeley’s election law, bringing forward the Berkeley Election Reform Act to require disclosure of corporate funding on printed election materials. The council finally passed it on Tuesday, after watering down the commission’s initial draft in a number of significant ways.  

But guess what? They also voted, in a quick sleight-of-hand maneuver which went largely unnoticed in press reports, to delay the law’s effect until after the upcoming November election, which will mean for two more years when the next election takes place. Worthington, Arreguin and Anderson protested, but as usual they were outvoted by the Bates faction. 

What this means is that corporate interests which have a strong financial stake in the outcome of the West Berkeley initiative will be able to spend their way to election success with no disclosure that they’re doing so. Similarly, downtown Berkeley property owners will be allowed to buy the results they want on the sit-lie intiative without voters knowing what’s happening. 

What does all this mean for the future of democracy? Well, the forces of good are currently ahead this week by one Supreme Court decision and four promising candidates. On the other hand, the corporate grip on election financing, in the nation and even in Berkeley, persists.  

What will it take for good to triumph? Same old same old: eternal vigilance is the price of liberty. 

But you knew that, didn’t you? What more can be done?  

Amending the U.S. Constitution to overcome the toxic consequences of Citizens United might be an ultimate goal, along with supporting the good candidates who are out there, but simply demanding that the Berkeley City Council implement the Berkeley Election Reform Act before the November election might be a good place to start. Good government, like charity, begins at home.