Who will speak for Berkeley (and the East Bay) in Sacramento?

Becky O'Malley
Sunday July 30, 2017 - 01:01:00 PM

UPDATE, 8-4-15. It's summer and the Berkeley City Council is on its long vacation, so I might not get around to a new editorial this week, and some of our regulars are also away. Stay in touch--some new pieces are in, and more on the way. And also, click "more" if you haven't read the previous editorial.  

“All politics is local.”

That’s a truism or perhaps a cliché often attributed to one-time Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill, but it probably predates him. With today’s instant updates from social media, it’s desperately hard not to be distracted by the Washington circus, but stuff is happening at the state and local levels whether we notice it or not.

Local outrages are not so easy to miss. Around here last week in certain segments of the online opinionate there’s been justifiable outrage about the fact that Berkeley has no public toilets which are open 24/7, which is hard on people who have no homes and therefore no private toilets.

Citizen efforts to provide a portable toilet for the very civilized encampment of otherwise homeless people next to BART on Adeline Street have been stalled for much too long in a typical Kafkesque bureaucratic nightmare with Berkeley officials. Maybe next week they’ll get lucky, but meanwhile we owe a big vote of thanks to Sweet Adeline bakery for graciously sharing their facilities with needy residents.

This struggle has sucked up a lot of energy from the loosely defined Friends of Adeline, who have been trying to prevent gentrification by speculators who’d like to use all the available development sites in their neighborhood to construct market rate extravaganzas instead of low-cost housing. But it’s hard to completely forget about what’s been happening when the resultant buildings loom ever larger and definitely uglier in what used to be the viewshed for south central Berkeley. (Case in point: Parker Place. Huge, vacuous, pricey and vacant.)

It’s easy, however, to miss why this change is happening.

It’s all being orchestrated at levels outside local. One level of outsider manipulation manifests itself actually and symbolically as “Plan Bay Area”. In a sentence or two, that’s a scheme which purports to be the solution for the very real shortage of housing for the many who aren’t paid enough, those employed on the fringes of the boom created by technical corporations, to compete with employees and principals of such lucrative enterprises for Bay Area housing.

Advocates of this religion believe foolishly in the simplistic high-school Econ 1 model of market optimization: They think that building lots of expensive apartments on transit lines in already dense cities will keep techies out of their cars and out of the suburbs.

I’m going to choose not to reiterate the logical challenges to that theory here, because I’ve done it all too often elsewhere. However, what it means, bottom line, is that development interests have taken control of regional planning, and the tune they’re calling is “Build, Baby, Build”.

You might reasonably hope that someone we’ve sent to the state level (where there’s a Democratic governor and a Dem supermajority) would be watching out for local interests. That’s one reason State Assemblymember Tony Thurmond was elected with big Berkeley backing, because his opponent was funded by corporate clients. But now many here who worked hard for him are disappointed to learn that he wants to become State Superintendent of Public Instruction instead sticking with the Assembly. Oh well…

Meanwhile, the Governor and his corporate-Dem buddies are backing a horrendous assortment of bills designed to strip local governments of most of their current control over what kind of edifices are built in their towns.

You knew that, right? Numero Uno at the moment, sponsored by former San Francisco supervisor Scott Wiener, is SB35.

And of course, local control of planning is not the only issue that counts, but it’s the one most likely to create contention among Democrats, so it could be the one that makes up your mind when you decide which assembly candidate to back. 

State Senator Nancy Skinner, with many corporate contributors, is hand-in-glove with the Weiner/Brown scheme, which leaves our next assembly member, whoever he or she might be, as the only possible alternative. 

That marvel of social engineering, a top-two primary election, will be held on June 5, 2018, and the general election will be held on November 6, 2018. The filing deadline is March 9, 2018 for major party candidates, and for write-in candidates May 22. 

That’s less than a year away, folks, so they’re off and running. 

What makes it tricky is that most voters think that big elections are held every four years, and in November. But with the top-two system, in a district where just about everyone claims to be some kind of a Democrat, the real excitement is in June, every two years. And our very own Fifteenth Assembly District is a prime prize in that race. 

Which is why just about everyone in the district is talking about running. At last count, let’s see, in no particular order, I’ve heard talk of: 

Andy Katz, Ben Bartlett, Buffy Wicks, Dan Kalb, Judy Appel, Diane Martinez, Jean Quan and Jovanka Beckles, with apologies to anyone I’ve forgotten. 

Last week I was invited to the Wellstone Democratic Club’s annual picnic, and it gave me a unique opportunity to get a brief first look at four of them, who showed up eager to court the favors of members of the most powerful progressive Democratic club in the east bay. 

It was a picnic, not an interview or a panel discussion, when I didn’t really have a chance to quiz the candidates, so I decided to shortcut the process by just asking on the fly what they thought of SB35. And no, I didn’t tell them it was off the record, but I’m sure they didn’t reveal anything they wouldn’t have said to anyone at the picnic. 

You might wonder what SB35 is. For an opinionated take-down, see Alarming housing bill heading for approval, by Peter Cohen and Fernando Marti, San Franciso affordable housing activists. They describe it thus: 

“Known as the ‘By-Right Development’ bill, Senate Bill 35 would eliminate the role of the community and the local commission or city council in the approvals of ‘infill’ real estate development projects.” 

That would include almost all of A.D. 15. No more public hearings for you, Berkeley, Oakland, Richmond! 

For my quick and dirty litmus test, I started with one of the two women that I’d never met. First up was Jovanka Beckles, a Richmond city council member elected on the Richmond Progressive Alliance slate. She’s obviously smart, verbal, outspoken, strikingly attractive, African-American. full of good ideas and already endorsed by several people I respect, including Bernie Sanders. 

But she didn’t recognize the SB35 bill number. However, when I told her what I thought it entails, she didn’t like the concept, because she worries about Richmond being the next opportunity site for gentrification which would squeeze out current brown-skinned residents. 

Next on my list were Andy Katz and Dan Kalb, not strikingly dissimilar. Both are White men of a certain age. Andy might be in his mid-30s, Dan maybe in his 40s. 

Both come across as earnest, wonky and well-informed. Dan is on the Oakland City Council, Andy on the East Bay Municipal Utilities District board. 

The main difference might be in temperament. Andy, whom I’ve know slightly for years, seems cautious—he was reluctant to volunteer a final opinion on SB35, saying he hadn’t yet read the most recent amendments. Dan, on the other hand, quickly characterized SB35 as bad, but then hedged a bit by saying he hadn’t read the amendments either. 

Either one would probably make a fine assemblymember, not flashy but competent. 

Finally, I talked to Buffy Wicks. I’m ashamed to admit that I identified her at the picnic because someone told me she was the only person there who looked like her name was Buffy. And she does: a perky 40ish blonde White woman. I asked her about SB35, and with no hesitation she said she supports it, as well as the whole package of the other corporate developer-backed bills. 

Uh-oh. We didn’t talk much more. 

After the picnic, I looked her up online, and got an eye-opening look at her back story. She’s clearly a national professional political operative, with friends in all the right places. A Politico piece about her was aptly headlined BUFFY WICKS Jumps into Ebay Race, a 

In fact, what she’s doing is usually called parachuting in, and with a golden parachute at that. It’s rumored that her war chest is already in the hundreds of thousands, with a million or more anticipated. She’s only lived here for a little over a year and has held no previous elected office anywhere, but she’s wired. 

From her campaign website: “Buffy is proud to have been an architect of President Obama’s 2008 and 2012 campaigns. She is credited with innovating Obama’s grassroots organizing model – from right here in Oakland.” 

Unfortunately perhaps, I happen to be reading Steve Phillips’ best-selling Brown is the New White, which advances the thesis that emphasizing demographics with a coalition of non-Whites and their White allies, was the winning strategy for Obama. 

In a chapter provocatively entitled Fewer Smart-Ass White Boys, under the equally provocative sub-head MYTH 2: BRILLIANT WHITE CAMPAIGN STRATEGISTS GOT OBAMA ELECTED, he says that “The voters of color who provided the margin of difference in 2008 and 2012 didn’t cast their vote for a historic candidacy because the White hands of tech-savvy whiz kids typed fancy code on computer keyboards. They were carrying on the legacy of hundreds of years of struggle.” 

Maybe he was referring to people like Wicks, maybe not, but he’s got a point. Since his book came out last fall, he’s had a couple of good op-eds in the New York Times suggesting that the official Democratic party should concentrate on mobilizing its natural allies among the non-White voters instead of trying to win back the mythical working class White men who voted for Trump. Sadly, the DCCC’s recent announcement of “A Better Deal” in a backwoods Virginia town seems to indicate that they haven’t yet gotten the memo. How does Wicks stand on this spectrum, I wonder? 

Next, I accepted an invitation signed by former Berkeley Mayor Gus Newport, former Berkeley councilmember Ying Lee, Friends of Adeline organizer Margy Wilkinson and others to a meet-and-greet with Jovanka Beckles in a storefront child care center on Adeline. At the event I recognized some key long-time activists in the East Bay African-American community. 

Let’s just end this by saying that my second look at Beckles was even more impressive than my first. She opened herself up to a round of questions from each and every one of the 30 or so attendees, and gave quick on-target answers on a lot of hard topics, including the Sacramento trend to take environmental controls away from local governments. 

At the moment, I might be old-school, but I think I’d prefer an assembly member with substantial local experience. I know I’d prefer that another person of color replace Tony Thurmond, in a state where we have all too few African-Americans in state office. And also, how about a woman, another under-represented group in Sacramento? 

With these criteria in mind, Beckles looks pretty good right now, but I’d like to have the same close look at the cast of thousands who aspire to take this seat before deciding which to support, so I’m awaiting invitations from the other candidates. As academics angling for the next grant often say, “Further research necessary”.