When Max Anderson announced this summer he was challenging Councilmember Maudelle Shirek in District 3, he was prepared for the inevitable charges that he was an ingrate.
But the chairman of Berkeley’s Rent Stabilization Board never expected the many twists and turns the race would take.
When Shirek, a 93-year-old icon of the civil rights movement, was thrown off the ballot for not submitting candidate papers with the requisite number of signatures from residents of the district, neighborhood activist Laura Menard entered the fray and attacked Anderson from the right as a tool of the city’s progressive political machine. Also in the race is Jeffrey Benefiel, a jeweler with little or no experience in city government.
Now with Shirek, the only person to represent the district, back in the race as a write-in candidate, District 3 residents are guaranteed something they have not known since district lines were drawn 18 years ago: a competitive election.
Even two of the city’s biggest political powers, Mayor Tom Bates and Rep. Barbara Lee, who have made nearly identical endorsements over the past two years, are split on the race. Bates and his wife, Assemblymember Loni Hancock, are backing Anderson, while Lee and her predecessor in Congress Ron Dellums support Shirek, who assisted Dellums on his first run for Congress in 1970.
“[Maudelle’s] got a history of service and a vision for the community,” Lee has said.
District 3, one of Berkeley’s most ethnically diverse areas, covers a section of South Berkeley from Dwight Way to the Oakland border between Sacramento Street to the west and Ellsworth Street to the east. The district has always elected someone to the left of Berkeley’s political center, and that person has always been Shirek.
But in recent years, progressives on the council maintain that Shirek’s vote has been inconsistent and her attention has wavered at council meetings. Often she has allied herself with the council’s three most conservative members, all of whom have backed her candidacy.
“I wouldn’t describe her as a progressive anymore,” said Councilmember Dona Spring, who said Shirek increasingly appeared not to understand what she was voting on.
Last winter, Spring began rallying support for an Anderson bid, and most progressives in Berkeley have followed her lead. The left’s embrace of Anderson culminated in his endorsement last month by Berkeley Citizens Action, a progressive political organization that had previously backed Shirek.
But Anderson has had more difficulty making inroads among members of South Berkeley neighborhood groups, many of whom are backing Menard, the president of the Russell, Oregon California Street Neighborhood Association and the founder of the South Berkeley Crime Prevention Council.
Menard said she was planning to vote for Shirek, but jumped into the race when the incumbent was disqualified.
“I didn’t think Max was going to represent our initiatives,” said Menard. “He hasn’t been here in the trenches with us.”
Menard has led the fight against relocating a cannabis club on Sacramento Street, worked to revitalize community policing and most recently has battled a daytime center for the homeless and mentally ill, which some local merchants and residents blame for increasing crime along Adeline Street.
She charges that the city has hampered business development and exacerbated social ills in District 3 by concentrating social service providers along its commercial corridors and not requiring that they are managed competently.
“You can’t attract businesses unless you deal effectively with crime, homelessness and drug activity,” she said.
Crime in District 3 has declined steadily over the past decade but the district still leads the city in violent crimes, according to figures compiled by Councilmember Gordon Wozniak using police and census tract data. In census district 40, which includes a section of District 3, assaults account for about 16 percent of all crimes. Census Tract 28 in Downtown Berkeley is second at eight percent.
Anderson criticized Menard’s approach to problem solving as “divisive” and charged that she had used wedge issues like the homeless center to divide the district. He said the district wouldn’t be able to address its multitude of concerns effectively until tensions eased between long-term residents and recent transplants.
“If crime becomes the only thing, it crowds out the possibility of working with everyone in the community,” he said. A former member of the city’s Planning Commission, Anderson said that besides attacking crime, local businesses would also benefit from better street signs, more foot traffic and re-engineering boulevards to encourage motorists to slow down and stop at local shops.
On the five tax measures facing voters on the November ballot, Menard opposes all but a tax for schools, while Anderson and Shirek support all of the tax proposals.
Closer to home, Menard and Shirek oppose a school board proposal to consume a block of Derby Street between Martin Luther King Jr. Way and Milvia Street to build a regulation size baseball field. Anderson, who at a League of Women Voters forum supported the plan, now said he would convene neighborhood discussions before taking a final position.
Though Shirek hasn’t embroiled herself in the battle between Anderson and Menard, neither candidate nor their supporters are dismissing the eight-term incumbent.
Wanda Stewart, an Anderson backer and the vice president of Berkeley’s PTSA Council, said several of her neighbors have urged her to cast a write-in vote for Shirek.
“It’s hard for the black community to say no to Maudelle,” she said. “Look at Barbara Lee, she had the courage to be the only vote against the war in Afghanistan and she can’t tell Maudelle not to run.”
The Shirek campaign posted campaign signs last week and plans to deliver a mailing before Election Day, said Jackie DeBose, a campaign aide. DeBose chastised progressives who questioned Shirek’s left-leaning credentials.
“For Dona Spring to say Maudelle is not a progressive is like someone calling Dona a rap star,” she said.