Tomorrow, months of mudslinging and campaign promises will come to a head, with Berkeley voters deciding a tight mayoral race and four City Council contests. But what does it all mean?
With City Council currently split 5-4 between Berkeley’s “progressive” and “moderate” factions, including Mayor Shirley Dean on the moderate side, activists on both sides say that the stakes are high, with issues like affordable housing, rent control, and the environment hanging in the balance.
While the candidates have had difficulty distinguishing themselves on most issues with all favoring more affordable housing and better environmental protection, rent control, by contrast, has provided a real dividing line.
Moderates like Dean and 8th District City Council candidate Gordon Wozniak are calling for curbs on the rent control program, much to the dismay of progressives. But any significant change in rent control policy would require a ballot measure, and citizen support for the program remains strong, making a shift unlikely.
Everyone agrees that the election could have a significant impact on the tenor and quality of Berkeley’s notoriously divisive political debate.
Moderates have focused on the 7th District race, where they are backing UC Berkeley student Micki Weinberg in his attempt to unseat progressive City Councilmember Kriss Worthington. Moderates say Worthington is one of the chief instigators of the moderate-progressive brawl and argue that City Council would be more productive without him.
Worthington, expected to win re-election, says the City Council factionalism is regrettable, but argues that it is rooted in real policy differences on affordable housing and the environment that are worth debating.
Worthington lays the blame for any personal bickering on Dean. The mayor’s chief opponent, former state Assemblyman Tom Bates, also faults Dean for failing to “reach across the aisle.”
“I think it’s been demonstrated that the mayor cannot work across lines,” said Bates, arguing that he could bring peace to the council.
But Dean, who says that she has been able to make real progress in her eight years in office despite the factionalism, argued that a Bates victory and progressive triumphs in the City Council races would have a negative impact on local debates over key issues.
“It’s 5-4 now. If it went 6-3 or 7-2, that would really mean that the wonderful exchange of ideas that makes Berkeley such a wonderful place would all go down the tubes,” Dean said. “It would be a real tyranny of the majority.”
Progressives, expected to win at least three of the four council seats up for grabs, play down the idea of a leftist super-majority on the council, arguing that the current slate of progressive councilmembers is splintered on many issues.
“I don’t think it’s going to be a monolithic majority,” said Worthington.
In addition to Worthington, progressive incumbents Linda Maio in the 1st District and Dona Spring in the 4th District face re-election and are expected to win. The 8th District seat is open after the retirement of moderate Councilmember Polly Armstrong. Moderate Planning Commissioner Gordon Wozniak is considered the favorite by many, but centrist human rights consultant Anne Wagley and progressive-backed UC Berkeley graduate student Andy Katz are strong candidates.
Voters could shake up the moderate-progressive balance if they elect one of the “independent” candidates in the race. All the challengers, from the moderate Wozniak to the more progressive Katz, say they will provide an independent voice on the council. But a few candidates, like Wagley in District 8 and LA Wood in District 4, make a more plausible claim to falling outside the city’s two “machines.” Both say they will work with both sides if elected.
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