Berkeley Can Be Better, but Some Voters Missed the Memo

By Becky O'Malley
Friday October 19, 2012 - 01:30:00 PM

The newsies (as we used to call them back when I was managing campaigns instead of reporting on them) are all excited right about now about what the “low information voters” are going to do in the presidential election.

That’s the new name for what have also been called “swing ” or “ independent” or “undecided” voters, and it’s a better choice. When I was doing what we used to call “door-to-door” campaigning (now militarized as “the ground game”) I learned that all of these terms usually meant “unlikely to show up at the polls”, so we concentrated instead on making sure that Our Guys showed up on election day.

But now I’ve met the newsies, and they is us. And for us newsies, now that election day is little more than a dozen days away, the poll action is around the dwindling number of “who me?” low information voters.

In Berkeley, as in many other places in the country, some people know exactly what they’re doing when they vote, and these sophisticated voters often take the option of voting early with absentee ballots. Unfortunately, Berkeley is also the home of an unusual number of voters who know an awful lot about a lot of things, but pride themselves on not knowing much about Berkeley—and they vote too, early and often, whether they need to or not. 

Candy Crowley (one smart cookie) rounded up a few supposedly undecided voters to ask questions of the presidential contenders on Tuesday night, but it was apparent that she knew better than to select the genuine Low Information contingent—most of the questioners had obviously formed opinions and were just trying to get the candidates to come clean by playing dumb. 

The answers they gave surprised no one, leaving what Paul Krugman calls the “drama critics” the most to say about who “won” the “debate”. A lot of the after-market commentariat focused on Romney’s use of the admittedly silly-sounding phrase “binders” full of women, truly dopey but not world-changing. 

If this piece so far appears to be dominated by ironic quotation marks, it’s because there’s not much that’s concrete to say about the Low Information crowd. The discourse is around style over substance at this stage in the game, since the High Information folks have cast their dice already. Some true believers who are proud of having voted for Ralph Nader in 2000 are still on the fence, but that’s about religion, not politics. The (let’s call them) LIVs add spice to the last weeks of the national election, but only a smallish fraction of them will actually show up at the polls to cause mischief on November 6. 

In local elections LIVs can do more harm. In Berkeley, for example, people who are reasonably conscientious about reading their New York Times online will be sure to vote in the presidential election—and they’ll vote right. The problem is that then they will be tempted to go straight on down the ticket to the state propositions, local measures and city council race with—yes, very Low Information about who’s who and what’s what. 

Let’s be clear: we’re not talking about Berkeley Daily Planet readers here. Online Planet readers have to make a conscious decision to click on a story, and many of them tell me they actually read right down to the end. We’re talking about the woman I encountered in a meeting of people trying to keep a Safeway monster store out of her neighborhood, someone who says she has an advanced degree and works at UC, who boasts that she reads no newspapers and doesn’t even listen to NPR because it makes her anxious. Well then… 

In Berkeley we have a lot of residents who treat the city as a bedroom suburb. They live in comfortable tree-shaded view homes in the Hills, drive and/or BART to well-paid jobs in San Francisco or Silicon Valley, take their cars when they shop in El Cerrito, Emeryville or Walnut Creek where parking is not a problem, have nice little second homes in Tahoe or Manhattan or Cambridge, and increasingly send their kids if any to private schools. The workaday problems of residents of flatlands council districts don’t affect them: no streams of traffic past their homes, no noisy student parties lasting into the morning hours on their blocks, no mentally confused wanderers who have been driven from commercial areas sleeping on their lawns, no multi-story luxury apartment buildings shading out their tomatoes. 

These are Berkeley’s special breed of Low Information Voters, and there are a lot of them. Berkeley’s one of the increasing number of places where voters can split their tickets: High Information and therefore reliably liberal on state and national races; Low Information on local questions because they can afford to be literally above the fray. 

They will vote in numbers for the ten-year incumbent in the Mayor’s office, because why not? Life is good for me, isn’t it? He must be doing something right. 

They will vote for Measure S, because registering complaints about unsightly street life downtown gives them a plausible excuse for shopping in El Cerrito, where the parking is better and it’s closer to home in the Hills. 

They might support Measure T, because who would choose to live in that smelly West Berkeley industrial area? And if big office buildings there bring in more revenue to the city as promised, their own residential property taxes might go down or at least stay level. 

They might vote for Measures O and N, because they like to swim, though on the other hand the M.L. King pool’s not bad, and the Claremont Club, the YMCA and UC’s pools are even better and easily affordable for people like them. Or they might not, because they don’t approve of coddling those who would use a warm pool. 

I’ve now been to four of what are loosely called “debates”, and at all of them I recognized more than half of the audience. They’re the doughty members of what former Planet reporter John Geluardi used to call “the Berkeley 200”—the small number of local citizens who actually keep their eye on the local ball game. They’re the ones who sign their own real names when they write letters to the editor, instead of hiding behind juvenile pseudonyms. They often disagree among themselves, but their arguments tend to be rational and fact-based. They’re the High Information participants in Berkeley’s public process. 

I didn’t see Alice Waters or Robert Reich at any of these discussions. Both of these national celebrities have lent big glossy color images of themselves to the incumbent mayor’s latest expensive re-election brochure. 

In the past year Alice (as she’s known to those whose life revolves around what goes into their mouths instead of what comes out of them) has made much hay about her past association with the Free Speech Movement of the sixties. Perhaps no one has told her that her choice for mayor is the major—really the only—backer of Measure S who’s not a downtown commercial landlord, or that Measure S would criminalize the simple act of sitting down downtown. Not very FSM, is it? 

Reich, who once ran unsuccessfully for Governor of Massachusetts and now is a U.C. Professor who writes good snappy little pieces about national politics, presents himself as one standard respectable liberal of the traditional type. As such, he also should know better than to allow his brand to be associated with Measure S, which has been strongly condemned by the ACLU and will probably cause a lawsuit if it passes. 

The two of them are poster kids for Berkeley’s particular flavor of Low Information Voter: smug, comfortable and out of it where local matters are concerned. I imagine they don’t ever go to Berkeley City Council meetings or even watch them online—which is why it’s easy for them to believe that all is well in beautiful Berkeley. 

Yes, it’s a lot harder than it used to be to follow local politics, now that local dailies, including this one, have pretty much died. But as a typical over-educated Berkeleyan, when I see Low Information fellow Berkeleyans spouting off like this in campaign propaganda with little data to back up their opinions, I can’t help thinking of Voltaire, who had maxims for every circumstance. 

Some Berkeley LIVs, with Dr. Pangloss in Candide, cling despite all evidence to the idea that in this best of all possible worlds, all is for the best. (Dans ce meilleur des mondes possibles, tout est au mieux.) Perhaps Professor Reich might qualify as a Panglossian where Berkeley is concerned. 

Alice (who has a degree in French Cultural Studies) seems now to have turned into Candide, the guy in the book who concluded that the last word on the meaning of life was that what we all need to do is cultivate our gardens. (Il faut cultiver notre jardin.) She’s taking that mantra too literally. 

There’s a middle position between Pangloss and Candide. Incumbent Bates’s campaign slogan Berkeley at Its Best is not reality based. Gardening is fine. Nice food is nice. But we should look beyond our own gardens sometimes. This is not the Best of All Possible Berkeleys, but we can make it better. 

Both Kriss Worthington and Jacquelyn McCormick in their debate presentations have said that Berkeley Can Be Better should be our slogan , and either of them would make a better mayor than Bates. They deserve your votes for first and second places on the Ranked Choice ballots in the Berkeley Mayor’s race. (But no, I’m not yet ready to tell you which order I recommend between the two.)