Which Berkeley City Council Candidates Should You Support?

By Becky O'Malley
Friday August 08, 2014 - 10:21:00 AM

Okay, today’s the last day for candidates for the Berkeley City Council to file, so it’s time to take a look at what choice voters might have for the November election. But first, let’s remind ourselves that the November election these days actually starts October 6, the first day you can get and mail your vote-by-mail ballot. So if you’re the kind of person who likes to cross items off your to-do list early, it’s time to figure out whether you might want to support any of the candidates. As you'll see if you read all the way to the bottom, I've made my choices. 

The general organizing principle in Berkeley politics these days is whether you’re for or against the status quo. The status quo is brought to you by Mayor Tom Bates and the five-to-three majority of councilmembers who have been kept firmly under his thumb for, what is it, about 12 years now. That would be Linda Maio, Darryl Moore, Laurie Capitelli, Gordon Wozniak and relative newby Susan Wengraf (who was, however, aide to her predecessor for umpty-ump years before running herself. ) 

If you hold the Panglossian view that Berkeley is the best of all possible worlds, you can stop reading now. But if you think there’s room for improvement, you need to become aware of the names and numbers of all the players, so you can vote for the right person in your own district and help out those you like with their campaigns in other districts. 

First, you should know who doesn’t vote all-Bates-all-the-time. Three councilmembers have minds of their own. One, Max Anderson, the clearest voice on the council, who deftly articulates the progressive position in every discussion, is not up for re-election in this round.  

But his two progressive colleagues are. 

That would be Jesse Arreguin and Kriss Worthington, policy wonks both, who make numerous enemies by closely reading all the documents in their packets and bringing to light inconvenient truths that the conservative majority would like to sweep under the rug.  

As of this writing—unless someone files before closing time today—Arreguin is unopposed for the District 4 seat. He’s well-liked in his district, and is probably assumed by possible opponents to be unbeatable. 

Kriss Worthington is another matter. Since he’s been around longer and has never been shy about taking firm stances on key issues, he’s had a chance to make even more enemies. He was the prime target for the majority’s gerrymander of council district boundaries, which is now being contested by a ballot measure. The putative (my favorite Berkeley word) excuse was that the council was trying to create a much-desired student-majority district. But—surprise!—no student seems to have decided to run even in the re-drawn District 7. So much for the bogus theory of hungry student hordes ready to batter down the council gates. 

Instead, the Bates apparatus has chosen to back Sean Barry. He’s a former U.C. student to be sure, but aren’t we all? He’s also an in-house flack for the Blue Shield insurance empire, not a job to endear him to a progressive electorate. His listed supporters are all about money, honey, so it will be interesting to see how many novice voters can be confused by big spending to vote his way. 

The District 1 race pits Worthington’s long-time aide Alejandro Soto-Vigil against Vice-Mayor Linda Maio, who’s been in her office even longer than Bates has been mayor. She’s known as the reliable fourth vote on the council—she’ll vote with the progressives as long as they’re sure to lose in a particular contest, but she spends most of her time gently reining in the Mayor’s old-guy explosions at council meetings. And if by some miracle one of the hard-core conservatives on his team threatens to switch sides, she’ll vote with the Mayor even when she knows better. In 2008 she was touched by a whiff of scandal for accepting a loan from bad-boy developer Patrick Kennedy and then voting on his projects, but that seems to have been forgotten. 

Soto-Vigil is another relatively recent former student, but one who has put down roots in the Berkeley community. He grew up in Richmond in an activist family and is often seen around City Hall with one of his handsome offspring on his hip. As a young father with a family he would represent a demographic which has been absent from the council for a good while now, and he’s well acquainted with the key issues.  

Merrilie Mitchell, another well-informed long-time resident, has taken out petitions but hasn’t returned them, so she probably won’t be a candidate.  

It’s District 8 where the contest might be most interesting, especially with the mathematics of ranked choice voting applied for the first time in a four-candidate race. 

All four have been very active in their local neighborhood associations, three in the Claremont-Elmwood Neighborhood Association and one in the Willard Neighborhood Association. All have served on city commissions. 

In alphabetical order: 

Michael Alvarez-Cohen (his name as it would appear on the ballot) could be U.C. Berkeley’s main man on the council, following in the footsteps of now-retired U.C. administrator Gordon Wozniak, who is not running for re-election. His university online bio (posted under the name simply of “Michael Cohen”) says that “Mike drives initiatives, agreements and relationships that catalyze the commercialization of UC Berkeley innovations….[and] Mike conceived, co-championed and was the founding director (part-time) of the award winning Berkeley Skydeck -- an information technology-oriented startup accelerator in Downtown Berkeley.” A number of his endorsers are members or supporters of the council majority faction, and some are developers. 

George Beier—under his protest, it must be noted—was gerrymandered by the council majority out of District 7, where he’d run unsuccessfully against Worthington a few times. He has served on many commissions, as have his opponents, and despite knowing too much about Berkeley politics still wants to be on the council. He’s been a leader in the fight to restore Willard Pool, and is the president of the Willard Neighborhood Association. 

Lori Droste, like Alejandro Soto-Vigil, is a parent of young children. Her main civic service has been on the Commission for the Status of Women. Her major endorsers are also from the council majority faction.  

Jacquelyn McCormick is the current president of CENA, where Alvarez-Cohen and Droste are board members. She’s assumed the role of independent civic watchdog, going to every city council meeting and running the Berkeley Council Watch website. She has also been a leader in the fight to save the historic Berkeley post office as well as in the national campaign to save other threatened post offices. 

If I could vote in the two districts nearest to the U.C. campus, I’d happily vote to re-elect Arreguin and Worthington. Both have put the interests of their constituents, students as well as long-term residents, first—ahead of the greedy developers who are just in Berkeley to make money and take it out of town. Both do their homework to an impressive degree, trying their best to educate a woefully uninformed city council on the consequences of their votes. And both, along with Max Anderson, form the conscience of the council on progressive questions like a fair minimum wage.  

Sean Barry, Worthington’s non-student opponent, clearly displays the stamp of the ruling Bates apparatus in his list of endorsers, so District 7 voters who think there’s room for improvement in the way the city treats their neighborhood should vote against him.  

In District 1, it’s time for a change. It’s possible to believe that Linda Maio once knew better, but now she slavishly follows the Bates line in optimizing key votes for the benefit of commercial property developers like Kennedy. Constituents complain that staffing at Maio’s office is haphazard at best. Soto-Vigil on the other hand has proved in his job as Worthington’s aide that he understands what voters want and need, and he’ll do a good job. 

District 8 is harder, because I think any of the four candidates would probably do a pretty good job. That’s where I vote, and I lean away from the two candidates who have sought and received the support of the Bates crowd. If I had to vote tomorrow, I’d mark the first spot for McCormick because she’s had the most relevant experience and is not afraid to ask questions, followed by Beier, who’s been in some pretty good struggles but is unfortunately new to the district through no fault of his own. I’m not sure enough of the ranked choice math at this point to know whether I’d record a third choice, but if I did it would be Droste. I wouldn’t vote for Alvarez-Cohen because I think it’s the job of councilmembers to resist U.C. Berkeley’s excessive desire to control Berkeley’s civic decision-making, and given his job it would be hard for him to do that., 

If you like to follow the money, Frances Dinkelspiel on Berkeleyside.com has effectively mined the data on the city of Berkeley website for a first look at how the candidates are being funded. The big bucks will come in later, of course, as much as possible delayed until the very last minute. Voting doesn’t start until October 6, however, so I reserve the right to change my mind if new information surfaces.