Editorial: Time to Get Ready to Vote: Endorsements

By Becky O'Malley
Thursday May 22, 2008 - 09:38:00 AM

We’re down to the wire on the June election. June election? What election, you might be saying right about now. Wasn’t the primary in February?  

Well, yes, the California presidential primary was held in February, and Hillary Clinton won. If it were held today, the outcome might be different, but it’s come and gone. 

The election we’re talking about now is on June 3, a week from next Tuesday. Political commentators predict an “extraordinarily low turnout” (Dan Walters in the Sacramento Bee). Absentee ballots have been sent out, and some nervous nellies have already voted by mail. 

What’s on the ballot? Let’s get the easy one out of the way first. There are two separated-at-birth twin measures purporting to correct the problem created by a decision of the U.S. Supreme Court that it was okay to take homes in Connecticut to give to private developers who wanted to build a shopping center. Some dishonest and greedy people are pitching one of them, Proposition 98, which adds a boatload of undesirable extras, including doing away with rent control. Vote no on that one, for sure.  

The other one, Proposition 99, is carefully drawn to do exactly what’s needed and no more. Vote yes on that one. The one with the most votes wins. A big turnout in the urban East Bay would be a big help statewide in a low turnout election. 

Which leaves us with the political primaries. Because of the peculiar way California’s legislative districts are traditionally gerrymandered, in most districts it’s only the party primaries that really count. The professional pols have arranged things so that the vast majority of districts are only Democratic or only Republican.  

How fair is that? Not very, because that means, especially in an election year like this one, that only a sliver of the electorate actually chooses the legislators. 

Even worse, in many districts even the primary candidates within parties are anointed by their predecessors, so newcomers are locked out of the process altogether. In the worst case, which has happened often at the national level, the successors are actually related to the predecessors, which is a recipe for creeping feudalism. 

In the urban East Bay, specifically in the districts which include Berkeley and surrounding cities, the June primary is the crucial one, and yet not many voters participate in the decision. In the last 14th District Assembly race, when Loni Hancock was nominated for eventual election, only sixty or seventy thousand votes were cast. This year’s turnout, with the national primary gone from the mix, is sure to be much less. With four plausible candidates splitting the vote and no runoff, that means that one of them could win with as few as 20,000 votes. (For comparison purposes, we estimate that at least 40,000 people read the Planet in print every week, and more online.) 

The state Senate races aren’t much different. This year’s 9th District Senate contest has only two candidates, and covers a larger area than the assembly districts, but it’s still a pretty small number of votes which will determine who our next state senator will be. 

Both candidates in this race are also plausible. Both Wilma Chan and Loni Hancock are Assembly veterans, and both are backed by an impressive assortment of officials and interest groups of all types. And regrettably, a quick look at their big dollar campaign contributors shows that both have taken money from some less-than-appealing sources, and are backed by people many of us don’t much like.  

It’s a tricky analysis for the progressive voter. One of Hancock’s oldest friends posted a letter supporting her on the Wellstone Democratic Club list-serv, which someone else passed on to me. Among other things, he said, “Wilma Chan, though she has been a good, solid liberal vote, comes out of the Perata machine.”  

Yes, that’s true, but there’s more. As of this week, Don Perata, the District 9 incumbent, who is definitely not a Berkeley kinda guy, is listed on Hancock’s website as endorsing her, while Chan has dropped Perata’s name from her own endorsement list in order to distance herself from his questionable record. 

Then there’s this week’s tempest in a teapot over a nasty flier sent out under the name of “Education Leaders for High Standards Independent Expenditure Committee.” A bit of sleuthing by environmental lawyer Stu Flashman uncovered the real sponsor: “California Tribal Business Alliance.” The full story is in this issue of the Planet, but the bottom line is that Chan and Hancock voted the same way on the bill the flier atacks.  

The funding group turns out to be yet another face of those promoting urban casinos, which both candidates oppose, and Chan had nothing to do with the mailer.  

Like Barack Obama with Rev. Wright, she’s “both repudiated and denounced” the mailer and its senders. With friends like this she doesn’t need enemies. One could even imagine that it was some kind of tricky Swift-Boat-in-reverse maneuver to make Chan look bad, but that’s far-fetched, and it didn’t work if it was. A leaky bucket, not a Swift Boat, in the end. 

Another flap, also reported in this issue, is over the decision by “the California Democratic Party", whoever they are, to endorse Hancock, and to back up their endorsement with major money for her to spend on the primary. This kind of cash comes with no contribution limit, which Chan calls a big loophole in the campaign spending laws. And that very same “California Tribal Business Alliance” gave the California Democratic Party $100,000 to spend wherever they want.  

I’m a registered Democrat, but they didn’t ask me about this. If the candidate has already been chosen by some faceless guys in Sacramento, it seems unfair. That’s what primaries are supposed to be all about, isn’t it?  

Which puts us back where we started: who should we vote for in this race? Long time readers of the Planet know that “The Planet” doesn’t endorse, but the executive editor sometimes does, and the publisher usually agrees with her. We have two respectable progressives here, and we’ll have to choose one.  

At a weekend party another of Hancock’s oldest and truest friends from the good old BCA days spent a long time trying to convince us not to oppose Loni just because her husband, Mayor Tom Bates, has been a bitter disappointment for Berkeley. It was somewhat like those who tried to convince us not to hold Bill against Hillary—hard to do, and harder as the campaign went on. 

Both couples are more than just spouses, they’re political allies on substantive matters. In the local arena what links Loni to Tom is their joint support for the urban building boom. Her website boasts that she “authored legislation that expanded opportunities for cities with transit-oriented development to take advantage of transit village incentives.”  

Translated, that means that if your neighborhood is unlucky enough to be near a BART or Bus Rapid Transit station, local zoning might be trumped by these laws. An ugly condo complex might be on the way to a corner near you. It’s often a field day for speculators who have bought up building sites in strategic locations near transit, and a nightmare for residents who already live there.  

Bates, as Berkeleyans have discovered, has never met a developer he didn’t like. His friends in the building industry have contributed generously to his wife’s campaign, and they’re not stupid. They’ve got to expect some return on their investment. 

And there’s the whole dynasty thing. Ever since we’ve lived in Berkeley, now coming up on 35 years, Democratic nominations—equivalent to legislative seats—have been passed along like family heirlooms among a small group of close cronies from the olden days. The results aren’t always bad—Barbara Lee got her job that way, and she’s great. But all in all, it’s a fundamentally undemocratic (the small “d” is important) way to choose our leaders.  

The fact that Wilma Chan seems to have broken her original ties to Perata makes her look better to us. But Hancock can hardly break her ties to Bates, and she’s still close to Dion Aroner, who started out running his Sacramento operation, succeeded him in that seat, and is now a big-time lobbyist for corporations like Pacific Steel Casting and Safeway.  

It’s the same factor that caused us to endorse Kriss Worthington for the Assembly even before the Bates organization anointed Nancy Skinner for Hancock’s successor. Skinner too has courted developer cash. 

Now, even though both Loni Hancock and Wilma Chan have performed respectably in the Assembly, we think Chan is the better choice for the Senate seat. On most matters, her record and Hancock’s are almost identical, but Chan has less unattractive baggage and owes less money to fewer people. As Barack keeps telling us, it’s Time for a Change at all levels. 

So if you want to vote like me, here’s your very short cheat sheet to take to the polls: California Senate District 9: Wilma Chan. Assembly District 14: Kriss Worthington. Proposition 98: no, no, no. Proposition 99: yes. (If you vote in the Oakland City Council races, you’re on your own.) 


—Becky O’Malley