Chicago Politics Comes to Berkeley: Sam Zell's Behind Measure R

By Becky O'Malley
Tuesday October 12, 2010 - 11:38:00 AM

This has been a busy week for the hardy little band of Berkeleyans who follow what’s going on in city government. They’re mostly downtown dwellers anxious about what’s about to land on their neighborhood, so they follow everything the City Council and the Planning Department are prepared to inflict on them with laser gaze.

For those of you who actually read the Daily Planet on a daily basis, much of what follows will be familiar, because an earlier draft was posted on Wednesday in the Editor’s Back Page category. Since then a great deal of new information has been added to the public discourse by public watchdogs. I’m revisiting the topic in this space (traditionally the best read section) to make sure no one who cares will miss a beat.

Here’s the instant replay: last Tuesday a League of Woman Voters debate on Measure R, which will appear on the Berkeley ballot in the upcoming election, served as the arena for dramatic revelations about the out-of-town financial muscle behind the advisory ballot measure which purports to give citizens the opportunity to endorse the mayor’s “green vision” for downtown development. 

For the full story of the debate, blow-by-blow, see Steve Finacom’s Page One piece in this issue. If you’ve managed to miss Measure R altogether, read all about what it is and why you should care there. But in brief, it’s a four-page-long ballot measure that uses the word “green” 23 times, but is almost completely advisory. It essentially gives the City Council a blank check to start all over again on yet another Downtown Plan for Berkeley. Only two of its “provisions” are binding: one makes it easier to fast-track demolition of historic buildings, and the other makes it easier to build high-rises.

As they say in clichéd movies about investigative reporting, all you have to do is “follow the money.” Measure R opponents, including anti-R debaters Councilmember Jesse Arreguin and Planning Commissioner Patti Dacey, showed up clutching the hot-off-the-internet documentation of California Form 460, the Campaign Disclosure Statement, which was made available only yesterday. .

It revealed that the “Berkeley Alliance for Progress – Yes on Measure R” committee has raised $32,450 so far, of which by far the greatest percentage,$25,000, came from—wait for it—Chicago billionaire Sam Zell’s Equity Residential Corporation. .

Yes, that Sam Zell. The same one who bought the L.A Times and the Chicago Tribune and sucked them dry, ran them into bankruptcy.  

Planet readers know him well. A Google search on the Planet website will give you more information than you need about who he is and what he’s been up to, mostly collected by ace reporter Dick Brenneman.  

Yes, yes, we remember that just recently we said kind words about Chicago-style politics in this space, but that doesn’t mean that we wanted to bring Chicago to Berkeley. Zell has even been linked with the quintessential Chicago operator Rod Blagojevich. 

And as luck would have it, the front page of Wednesday’s New York Times featured a multi-page expose of how Zell destroyed the Tribune: “At Flagging Tribune, Tales of a Bankrupt Culture.  

It’s disgusting reading.  

When he’s not destroying newspapers, Zell is the dominant financial interest in Equity Financial, which has bought the many downtown Berkeley properties developed by Patrick Kennedy. The company is gradually buying up more and more of downtown Berkeley—some believe it will soon be the largest commercial landowner in the city, if it’s not already. Equity’s latest project proposal, reviewed by Steve Finacom in last week’s issue, would cover almost all of a big block at the corner of Shattuck and University.  

Berkeley’s campaign finance laws limit individual contributions to candidates, but vague committees with high-flown monikers like “Alliance for Progress” which back ballot measures aren’t covered, which is why the Zell group (and other development corporations) can contribute the lion’s share of the budget for ballot measures like R. As Gar Smith explained in last week’s Planet, there’s been a proliferation of these shady non-profits nationwide, and it’s happening here in Berkeley too. 

It’s all part of a really disturbing trend in campaign financing, capped by the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision which says that corporations are just like people when it comes to cash-register politics. Here in Berkeley, they’re even better off than people, allowed by law to make $25,000 contributions (and more) to advance their political goals.  

The listed treasurer of the “Berkeley Alliance for Progress—Yes on Measure R” committee is Vicky Liu of San Francisco, previously an aide in Mayor Tom Bates’ office, who told the Planet she’s an independent contractor just “volunteering” for this job. Bates himself is a well-known “Developer’s Democrat” who was supposed to speak on the Pro side at the debate, but bailed at the last minute.  

The Berkeley Alliance for Progress first filed its organizing document with the City of Berkeley in November of 2009. At that time, Beth Wright of Richmond was listed as the treasurer. She’s the proprietor of Beth’s Bookkeeping Shop, marketed primarily as serving non-profits. She told us that she knows little about the group’s current activities, but that at the time it originally filed her contacts were Berkeley District 5 Councilmember Laurie Capitelli and Tim Frank, the “environmental consultant” who spoke in favor of Measure R at Tuesday’s debate. (He did similar favors for the developers who are trying to build a big bay fill project near Redwood City on the salt flats, much to the distress of Save the Bay.) 

How is the committee spending Zell’s cash? Well, at the debate someone was passing out a glossy and expensive tri-fold mailer, heavy with green ink and prominently displaying the name and logo of the Sierra Club, which ought to be ashamed of itself. The League of Women Voters, despite its claim that it was the “nonpartisan” sponsor of the debate, lent its logo to the piece as well, along with several other well-known green-washing outfits like the Downtown Berkeley Association. This piece later in the week showed in mailboxes everywhere in town. 

Needless to say, none of the organizations whose names were prominently featured on the brochure was listed as paying the cost of the fancy print job. The fine print on the back said “Paid for by the Berkeley Alliance for Progress, FPPC #1322829”. But oddly enough, the Alliance’s recently filed Form 460 listed expenditures up to September 30 as “$0.00”. Maybe they’re running a tab at the printer?  

With Meg Whitman, Carly Fiorina and Developer’s Democrat Don Perata in Oakland all trying hard to spend their way into political power, this is not a new story, of course. The San Francisco Mime Troupe’s summer show several years ago was called “City for Sale”, satirizing the San Francisco trend which has now reared its ugly head here. Berkeleyans are worried that now their own city seems to be for sale.  

Later in the week, Berkeley Daily Planet historic architecture columnist Daniella Thompson, who is also the president of Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association, posted a detailed expose of all the rest of the “Alliance for Progress—Yes on R” contributors on the Berkeley Architectural Heritage website which we’ve reprinted in the Planet

There are several other opinion features in this issue which shed more light on what’s happening with Measure R, and we expect more will come in as Election Day approaches. 

To make the discussion more entertaining, we have announced the Planet’s Sam Zell cartoon contest (funded by the O’Malley family and friends as a public service). We’ll pay $500 for the best editorial cartoon which depicts Sam Zell (not a pretty fellow, judging by his picture in the Times) in bed with the League of Women Voters on one side and the Sierra Club on the other. 

The deadline is next Monday. Entries should be sent to opinion@berkeleydailyplanet.com, with a subject line containing the words CARTOON CONTEST. All entries will be published here, and readers will be able to vote for their favorite. If you know any cartoonists, tell them about it.  

It should be fun.