Only 18 Months to Get Ready for the Next Berkeley Election

Becky O'Malley
Friday June 07, 2019 - 04:40:00 PM

Oy veh. The next election is only about 18 months away. Thanks primarily to the Democratic Party apparatus which controlled the City of Berkeley government for a couple of decades under Mayor Tom Bates, local elections now coincide with the biennial state and national elections, and local officials have four year terms. What this means in practice, whatever the intent of the councilmembers who set up the current rules, is that many voters now show up at the polls in November who have only the vaguest idea of what the local issues are, let alone who the candidates might be. 

This is particularly true of Berkeley’s transient academic population. Undergraduates, who are allowed to vote, only expect to be here for about four years, though sometimes graduating takes a bit longer. It’s hard for them to get to know much about the candidates. 

Many on the UCB teaching faculty are now non-tenured, thanks to various cost-cutting schemes, and even the lesser ranks of the tenured can’t afford to buy in Berkeley these days. The city has also become the Florida of the aging literati, with a goodly number of residents who winter in Berkeley and summer near their well-paid eastern emeritus appointments in Cambridge or Cape Cod or Maine or Princeton. 

All these groups are pretty much out of the loop when it comes to Berkeley problems. The more scrupulous among them simply don’t vote the bottom of the ticket, but many do, regardless, out of habit, whether or not they know anything about who or what they’re voting for. 

The well-meaning gerrymander which created a student-dominated City Council district after the 2010 census produced in November of 2018 a council candidate—the only student in the race—elected with only about 1500 votes, though the leaders in the other three districts got +/- 3000 first place votes after ranked choice distribution. The total number of votes for all candidates in each of the four districts was similarly skewed. The students just didn’t turn out for the council race, and many of those who voted for Arreguin for mayor simply relied on his Bernie Sanders endorsement. 

With little serious consistent local news coverage of Berkeley campaigns, at least in print, glossy mailers paid for by special interest groups have become many voters’ main source of information. Unless and until there’s a law requiring disclosure of who’s paying for the hit-pieces which come out under the names of transient ad-hoc committees, these are more likely than not to be slimy fabrications. 

Chatting recently with a few friends who are theoretically interested in local government, I came to the conclusion that it’s nigh on impossible at the moment to concentrate on what’s going on around here because the national scene is so much more of a mess. Yes, Berkeley sometimes seems like a swamp, but it’s the kind of benevolent swamp in the old Pogo cartoons, populated by crafty but amusing characters for the most part. Washington, on the other hand, is a gross, open, running sewer—not even very funny anymore. 

How can a bit of annoyance about all the plushy downtown apartment projects (possibly backed by Russian oligarchs who plan to flip them) compete for the voter’s mind-share with, for example, the story of a lobbyist and close buddy of Jared Kushner who is busted with a phone full of child porn in the JFK airport ? 

And that was just Wednesday’s Trumpista scandal. Every day, a new horror. 

But just in case anyone who still cares what’s happening near home wants to know, in November 2020 these seats will be on the ballot, with current incumbents: 


  • Mayor (At-Large): Jesse Arreguín
  • District 2: Cheryl Davila
  • District 3: Ben Bartlett
  • District 5: Sophie Hahn
  • District 6: Susan Wengraf
And what are the issues? Well, Berkeley in particular has a target painted on it by one faction in the all-Dems-all-the-time state legislature which believes Sacto knows best about local land use. Berkeley’s own State Senator Nancy Skinner is a leader in this movement, which can loosely be characterized as supply-side housing policy, a touching neo-liberal belief in the efficacy of markets to remedy the state’s chronic shortage of homes for lower-income citizens. 


Real planning wonks can read this article in L.A.’s City Watch magazine, which skewers Skinner’s latest effort, SB 330, the ugly stepchild of wo failed previous attempts, SB827 and this year’s SB50, co-sponsored with San Francisco’s Scott Wiener, which has been consigned to legislative limbo. Her (rebutted) spokesperson in this online debate is ex-journalist Robert Gammon, who is now flacking for Skinner. 

The idea promoted by Skinner and Wiener seems to be that if we build enough luxury market-rate apartment buildings something will eventually trickle down to house the homeless. Their bills are aimed at taking power to make land use decisions away from local officials.The icing on the cake is repeated moves to gut the California Environmental Quality Act to speed up this process. 

Uh-huh. These are funny ideas coming from self-styled progressives. 

Early local results of these theories, which have been taken up with gusto by the city of Berkeley’s hired planners, can now be seen in the new and vulgar “luxury” units all over Berkeley, which, if you believe their signs, seem to have lots of pricey vacancies at the moment. 

And meanwhile, enough housing which genuinely low-income people can afford is not being built here (or anywhere). So Berkeley still has a real housing crisis, easily observable at the tent and RV encampments which the city manager and her subordinates are ever eager to de-populate by force. 

What can local elections do about this situation? 

There’s a whole lot of concern about the homeless around. It tends to fall into two camps. Some simply don’t want to have to see and hear these unsightly people, especially when they gather in groups in public places and on residential streets and even ask for money. Some in this group hope that trickle-down from market-rate development will eventually get rid of homelessness; others don’t care as long as the offenders can be disappeared somehow. Such opinions can usually be seen on nextdoor.com and in the anonymous comments on berkeleyside.com

The other camp is those concerned about the welfare of the unhoused, who tend to think tents and RVs are inadequate, but better than nothing. A letter from one concerned citizen on this topic is included in this issue. 

Among incumbents whose terms are expiring, Cheryl Davila has been outstanding for her courage, compassion and diligence in speaking up for people who need homes, particularly those who are trying to make homes in encampments. Her colleagues have reacted in a variety of ways to the seemingly perpetual crises that plague unhoused people. 

In the eighteen months between now and the election, we will have enough time to press these incumbents to support ethical positions which recognize the rights of all humans to have decent places to live. 

If incumbents can’t or won’t vote to come through on this important topic, we can look for candidates to replace them. Take a look at the variety of progressive organizations are interested in local electoral politics: Berkeley Progressive Alliance, Sustainable Berkeley Coalition, Berkeley Tenants Union, Berkeley Citizens’ Action, Wellstone Democratic Club and Berkeley Neighborhoods Council are among them. 

Somewhere in their ranks effective candidates might be found before November of 2020. But in addition to finding good candidates, major work needs to be done to assemble a unified grass roots organization which gets the progressive word out to the countless dozens of Democrats who will be showing up in Berkeley to vote for president. There's no time to waste.