The Sky is Falling But We Still Have to Vote

By Becky O’Malley
Thursday September 25, 2008 - 09:54:00 AM

With the world economy collapsing around our ears and before our eyes, it’s difficult to focus on local level considerations. But focus we must, because the election is upon us. Absentee ballots will be mailed next week. Candidates are amassing war chests and soliciting endorsements.  

It’s not the Planet’s custom to endorse as an institution. This space is where I express my own opinions on all topics, including which candidate I support. When I say “we” it usually means that the publisher and I agree, but that’s it.  

Our staff members, even the sales staff and the every-other-week-for-three-hours proofreaders, have always been free to express their own opinions, clearly identified as such, in print just as our readers are. Sometimes they do. Often they don’t bother. 

Now that the disclaimers are out of the way, what do I think about the Berkeley races? Well, for starters, it’s clear that in Berkeley it’s a whole new ball park. Biggest straw in the wind: The City Council’s retiring matriarch Betty Olds has endorsed BOTH candidates for mayor. She’s always been the stable anchor of what used to be called the “moderates”—people who would be called “conservatives” in a liberal-conservative city. Since we’re almost all at least liberal Democrats here, we’ve made do with progressive/moderate as the descriptive dichotomy.  

What does it mean that Betty has endorsed both current mayor Tom Bates and ex-mayor Shirley Dean? That’s easy, it means that neither one of them is a progressive. But we’ve figured that out already, haven’t we?  

Then again, what might it mean to be a “progressive” these days? This in view of the fact that Olds’ longtime aide Susan Wengraf, running to succeed to Betty’s District 6 seat, was overheard at a candidate’s night describing herself as one, a bit of a surprise to those of us who have seen her in action on the Planning and Landmarks Commissions. (See last week, this space.)  

It seems that now everyone running for any office in Berkeley must be self-identified as a progressive in order to have any chance at being elected. And yet, several former progressives are now passing as moderates. Is this, to coin a word, progress? What Berkeley’s now experiencing is the same kind of homogenized feel-good politics that has managed to bring the nation’s financial system to a grinding halt.  

National digression: It used to be that Republicans stood for a weak federal government and few regulations, and Democrats were the opposite. But old Bill Clinton kicked off the disastrous deregulation spiral that has now resulted in major collapse. “Moderate” or “centrist” Democrats like him deserve a good share of the blame for the current disaster (along, of course, with the Republicans). 

On the local scene, rent control used to be the litmus test dividing “mods” and “progs,” but that’s so over. Rent control is basically dead, done in (with Democratic complicity) at the state level—in fact, it’s so over that one of the tenants who won a major rent control court victory in the past has signed on as one of Dean’s ballot endorsers. Those of us who vote usually describe their decision process in one of two ways. Some say “I vote for the person, not the party,” others “I vote on the issues, not on personalities.” But issues are seldom clearly articulated in campaigns, so it’s important to look at candidates’ records as well as their platforms. 

Here’s where that gets me: When Shirley Dean was mayor, I didn’t much like her, and I thought she was wrong (or at least voted wrong) on many issues, including rent control. Since Tom Bates has succeeded her, I’ve come to appreciate how smart she is. Despite being wrong frequently, she’s smart, and that counts. She always read her whole packet and understood what she was voting on, in pointed contrast to Bates, who frequently is lost in procedural thickets at council meetings. Out of office, she’s made some great PR moves: joining the tree-sitters in the branches, doing seriously hard work on the badly needed sunshine ordinance, denouncing more big-box development (even though she once voted for it.) But if she’s re-elected, she absolutely must stop bickering with Kriss Worthington, the other intelligent voice on the council, as she did before.  

Bates is usually summed up these days by a single cliche: He never met a developer he didn’t like. He’s allied himself most of the time with his old-boy cronies: realtor Laurie Capitelli, who usually speaks for the commercial development interests who contribute heavily to his campaigns, and Gordon Wozniak, who usually speaks for the development goals of the University of California, his former employer. Neither ran for office as a progressive.  

Bates has also exploited his lifetime of experience as a Sacramento wheeler-dealer to co-opt three of the other councilmembers formerly known as progressives. One or another of them has occasionally contributed a third or fourth (losing) vote against the Bates machine’s agenda to those of true progressives Worthington and Spring.  

Locally as well as nationally, it’s past time for a change. In District 4, the untimely death of Dona Spring, Kriss’s only reliable progressive ally, has produced a plethora of candidates, several of whom might do a pretty good job. L A Wood, who previously ran against Dona, has served valiantly as a civic gadfly for many years. Asa Dodsworth is a lively young fellow who’s embraced some good causes. N’Dji “Jay” Jockin grew up in Berkeley and gives a good speech, but hasn’t been much involved in local activities as yet. 

The obvious standout is Jesse Arreguin, who has been endorsed by most of Dona’s past supporters. He’s the kind of person Berkeley needs more of. In the first place, dare I say it, he’s young, something badly needed on a council whose average age hovers around 65 these days, though he’s compiled an impressive record of experience in a short time.  

He’s the son and grandson of farmworkers. His first reported political act, when he was about 7, was stumping to have the name of Army Street in San Francisco changed to Cesar Chavez, and he’d be Berkeley’s first Latino councilmember. He was active in UC student politics as an undergraduate, and since then he’s been the main brain and frequent chair for several major Berkeley city commissions, including Housing, Planning and Zoning, as well as the Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee.  

Terry Doran, on the other hand, is the Bates machine candidate, a consistent booster for bigger buildings everywhere, both on ZAB and on DAPAC. He would be a disaster on the council. District 4 is where the university’s expansion lust will take its biggest toll, and the last thing it needs is a councilmember lobbying to shove ever more enormous elephants into its crowded residential neighborhoods 

District 5 has been relatively immune from over-development pressures until now. That could easily change: Safeway is on the move, and Solano Avenue is potentially threatened because it could be considered a “transit corridor,” the new frontier for speculative developers. 

In this dicey climate, Sophie Hahn is the second kind of person the Berkeley City Council needs now. Just as Arreguin is the best of new Berkeley, she represents the best of Berkeley’s traditional values, the Berkeley-reared daughter of a professor and a musician. She’s an intelligent woman who’s had an excellent education (Berkeley High, UC and Stanford Law) and a varied, impressive career, including both New York City big firm law practice and local small business. And yes, she’s also a PTA activist, which still counts for a lot even though Sarah Palin is embarrassing. By Berkeley City Council standards, she’s young too, the age of my daughters, though elsewhere she might be considered approaching middle age. 

Her opponent, incumbent Laurie Capitelli, manages to simulate being an amiable non-entity much of the time, but he’s actually a shrewd participant in the real estate industry and a key Bates ally in the quest to bring bigger box buildings to Berkeley. He backed the Bates ordinance which attempted to emasculate the Landmarks Preservation Ordinance, now up for referendum vote as Measure LL. District 5 doesn’t need this kind of representation. 

Finally, in District 6, it used to be taken for granted that “the moderate” would always win, and it’s still true, but what does that mean today? Like her retiring mentor, Susan Wengraf has endorsed Tom Bates—will that anger the old-time moderates, or not?  

Opponent Phoebe Sorgen is an attractive, articulate person with commission experience who has been endorsed by a constellation of the national and international stars like Daniel Ellsberg who have made their home in Berkeley. She brings passion and determination to issues of major importance. If I lived in District 6, I’d vote for her—she’d contribute a lot of thoughtful new ideas to the pedestrian-level discussion we’ve gotten from our go-along-to-get-along council lately, and we badly need that.