Beware: Berkeley's being barraged with dubious election propaganda, and it's only going to get worse

Becky O'Malley
Saturday October 29, 2016 - 01:54:00 PM

It’s the money, honey.

I’ve been watching Berkeley politics off and on for more than forty years, and I can count on the fingers of one hand (okay, maybe two hands) the number of times the less-financed candidate or ballot measure has won the local election.

A major reason for this is that that most people seem to make their voting decisions on the basis of the elaborate color brochures that flood mailboxes in the last week or so before the election. Now, ten days out from the election, you should starting watching your mailbox for expensively printed phony charges that cannot be easily refuted by their targets at this late date.

In all these years, Berkeley has never had a generally read news source to provide uniform information to all voters. There have been numerous attempts, including ours, to get the attention of Berkeley readers, but they’re stubbornly resistant to knowing what’s going on around them.

A certain class of Berkeleyans, among whom I number many of my favorite friends, pride themselves on reading only the New York Times, which they seem to regard as a badge of their urbanity.

Many even scorn the San Francisco Chronicle, which is admittedly a shadow of its former lusty self. Who would have thought to see the Chron’s front page dominated day after day by huge color photos lifted from the sports section, with only the occasional confused piece on Berkeley in the second section, written by a novice reporter from across the bay? 

( I’m so old that I remember, under the pre-Hearst owners, Count Marco on the front page telling “ladies” how to look sexy, but that’s a story for another day.) 

When the Oakland Tribune, R.I.P., was owned by the New York Times and edited by Bob Maynard, it was actually a real newspaper, but after its 15 minutes of fame it was subsumed into the corporate maw. Now every single daily newspaper in the East Bay has been lumped under the vapid banner of the East Bay Times, which actually has some good reporters, but few Berkeleyans even recognize the name of the publication, let alone read it. 

I’m getting tired of the Land of the Lotus Eaters metaphor for Berkeley, and I bet readers (yes, we do still have a few) are too. But many who Winter in Berkeley and Summer Wherever desperately want to believe that landing here is the apex of a successful career and now all must be well in LovelyLaLaLand. (Yes, Robert Reich and Michael Lewis I’m looking at you now.) 

Don’t nobody never bring me no bad news, said the wicked witch in The Wiz. 

Many of us proudly boast that we’ve sent our kids to integrated schools, ignorant of the fact that the African-American percentage of the population has declined from 30% to 10% or maybe even by some counts to 6%. The only reason our schools are at all diverse is that grandmothers in South and West Berkeley wink at filling out forms which say that their brown-skinned grandkids live here with them instead of in Oakland or Richmond or Antioch or San Leandro. And why shouldn’t they? Meanwhile Berkeley has sprouted a vigorous crop of vigilantes eager to prove with bedchecks that these kids actually go home to Mom’s house in the cheaper suburbs at night. 

Last Thursday night I dropped in at Berkeley’s Zoning Adjustment Board, and oh how I wish I hadn’t. Way too depressing. 

I watched a parade of angry residents of the Adeline corridor, both Black and White and even some Asians, protesting the fact that the City of Berkeley was on the verge of granting numerous zoning fixes to a San Francisco company called Realtex which was hoping to score permits to plop about 50 apartments at 2902 Adeline, almost all very small and very expensive, into a neighborhood which desperately needs affordable housing for families if it’s to continue as a racially and economically integrated neighborhood. 

South Berkeley has had a target painted on it for years because many homes in the community were demolished to make way for BART, leaving some tantalizing open spaces on the map. There’s a sea of asphalt around the Ashby BART station, both the parking lot where the much-loved Berkeley Flea Market meets on weekends and the vast intersection at Adeline and Ashby which is almost impossible to cross on foot if you’re too old or too young. 

Now residents are about to feel the shoe drop--on their heads. Speculators like Realtex are flocking to acquire building permits which they can flip over to new developers before the much-touted Adeline Corridor planning process can be completed. That’s where you start to smell the money, honey, and some of it is sweetening campaign pies in Berkeley. 

Though Berkeley hill-dwellers are sometimes accused of having more money than sense, those who are hanging on by their toes in the Berkeley flatlands are required to have more sense than money to survive. The smart folks in the threatened area have organized themselves as Friends of Adeline, and they were out in force on Thursday, critiquing the Realtex proposal,sadly to no avail. 

Promoters now demand six stories instead of the three for which the site is zoned. They offer a grand total of four kinda-sorta-affordablish units in the building, down from an original promised six. The locals, on the other hand, want more people like themselves to move into their neighborhood, instead of a bunch of yuppies or techies or whatever the latest term of opprobrium for the over-privileged young might be. 

Yes, Virginia, as the plan stands now, the new apartment dwellers are expected to be young enough to ride bikes, and rich enough to park their cars on Berkeley side streets during the week while they bart to plushy City jobs. But these well-off tenants will sooner or later accumulate enough money to move to Danville when they partner up and want kids—you can count on that. 

South Berkeley’s going to get its transit village whether it wants one or not, and its name will be Potemkin. If you want the mythic version of how then-Assemblymember Tom Bates personally invented the transit village concept and codified it into state law, pick up that wet November issue of The Monthly (now a corporate product) which someone probably left on your doorstep, and read the hagiography of the Bates-Hancock partnership which the writer credits for all this. Let’s just say that his whole story is approximately as factual as the whitewashed account of the couple’s personal history, which is providing a good chuckle to oldtimers who were actually around in the steamy 70s when it started. 

Some clever friends of Adeline have followed the money going into this Realtex project and others, and come up with an interesting paradigm of how you become a playa in Berkeley. Since they have no money to defend themselves, they’ve asked me to keep their names off the Internet, which I’ve agreed to do so, but I know who they are and I trust their research. 

Just a few bullet points from what these sources told me: 


  • Even before proposing any Berkeley projects, a number of individual RealTex principals and employees pooled their donations to fund Mayor Bates’ unsuccessful attempt to dump Councilmember Kriss Worthington in favor of an ex-UC student government functionary . This method allows businesses which are looking for favors from Berkeley politicians to circumvent the $250 individual campaign contribution limit—it happens often. Evidence is easily found on the city’s campaign finance website.
  • Russian flight capital may be behind Realtex , since most principals listed on their website seem to be Eastern European and there’s a similarly named company in Russia. Speculation in cities like New York and San Francisco and Vancouver and even little Berkeley are a popular destination for foreign money.
  • Realtex offered an unsolicited $10,000 donation to a non-profit trying to build in the Adeline area. The founder said as much at the Thursday ZAB meeting.
  • Realtex is known to “flip” projects in San Francisco. Here’s a quote from the website of San Francisco Real Estate Trends, Tips, and the Local Scoop: "....with Realtex leading the development charge, don’t be surprised if the 1394 Harrison Street site returns to the market as an approved development site before it actually breaks ground."

Our sources are collecting a lot more information of this type, but they have nowhere to go with it unless a better-staffed news source takes it up. It’s almost certainly relevant for the upcoming election, but the all-volunteer Planet can’t possibly check it all out. 

Unfortunately, in the next couple of weeks Berkeley voters can expect to see a flood of glossy mailed campaign propaganda from murky sources, almost always coming out too late to trace. An example: in 2010 a Planet columnist discovered that a last-minute mailing promoting the first Measure R, the dishonest initiative backed by the Mayor which has been used as the excuse for many dirty developments ever since. She discovered that it was funded by the corporation of Chicago magnate Sam Zell, but that’s long been forgotten—and Zell’s entitled project permit has been flipped at least once but never built. See: Yes on R mailer financed by Sam Zell

I do realize that warning Planet readers, a special breed, to be wary of making voting decisions based on flashy postcards is preaching to the choir. But those who actually want to inform themselves can also get a lot of information from Berkeleyside, especially in some of the reader-written comments, and from Tom Lochner’s reporting in the East Bay Times, which is collected here. 

And our own volunteer news analysts are doing a good job of uncovering the kind of election contributions which are required by law to be reported. In particular, they’ve traced the enormous contributions which the national real estate industry PAC has made to the campaign of Laurie Capitelli, that industry’s choice for our mayor. They’ve monitored the contributions from unions for Berkeley’s very well-paid police and fire personnel to the campaign of their candidate, who is running against Sophie Hahn for Capitelli’s seat, and noted that developers have slipped a bit of sugar into both of those pies. 

Watch this site for more, and if you get a piece of campaign promotion which seems fishy to you, tell us about it at opinion@berkeleydailyplanet.com. And please tell your poorly informed friends to read more than the colorful ads before they vote.