Progressives in Berkeley Challenged by Tradition

Times Staff Writer

Radical progressives had been knocking on City Hall’s front door for two decades before voters finally asked them in two years ago, giving the leftist Berkeley Citizens Action coalition an 8-1 City Council majority.

With an ambitious radical agenda championing low-income renters and locally owned small businesses and the broad backing of local voters, the coalition promised some interesting experiments in municipal government.

Experiments came, all right; so did controversy. People complained that the progressives had plenty of social conscience but little social grace. The same self-righteous streak that seemed like winning bravado to many voters was seen as arrogance once the new order came to power.

Voters rebelled last June, narrowly adopting a system of district elections, which debuts on Tuesday, that is clearly aimed at cutting the radicals’ power and may toss some of them out of office.

The new process cuts short council members’ four-year terms, requiring everyone to stand for election this Tuesday, and calls for a runoff election between the top two vote getters in each district where a candidate fails to win a majority. If needed, the runoffs will be in December, and the timing is also considered a setback for the radical coalition because University of California students--among the coalition’s strongest supporters--will be on Christmas vacation or studying for finals during the campaign.


Coalition Initiative

The coalition has responded with an initiative to return to at-large elections, cancel the December runoffs and award council seats to people who tally the most votes Tuesday.

Few people in this city of 103,000 expect the progressives to lose control of the City Council, but the nonpartisan race should give some insight into how people like living in what critics deride as the “People’s Republic of Berkeley.”

“People see them (progressive council members) as arrogant, pushing through their own agenda at the expense of the community and neighborhoods,” said one leading opponent, a former coalition member who spoke on the condition that he not be named.

“I thought this group stood for greater citizen participation, so decisions were not made by businessmen in some back room somewhere. But now they are the ones in the back room.”

Coalition members acknowledge some excesses--"I think in terms of process, we have made mistakes,” said Vice Mayor Veronika Fukson--but they trace most of the discord to what they say is a small minority of political moderates and ousted council members.

“Contrary to what our opponents say, we’ve increased citizen participation--perhaps too much,” said Sean Gordon, an aide to Mayor Eugene (Gus) Newport, a widely traveled international peace activist who is leaving Berkeley for a teaching fellowship at the University of Massachusetts.

‘Virtual Veto Power’

“It is almost to the point where people think there is so much opportunity for people to talk that everyone has virtual veto power over any decision.”

People were not upset by the coalition’s more radical actions, such as extending city workers’ fringe benefits to both their homosexual and heterosexual live-in lovers or requiring businesses to subsidize local public transit and hire jobless Berkeley residents rather than people living elsewhere.

Rather, the controversy grew out of two traditional city issues: low-income housing and garbage collection. The council decided to build subsidized rental units on the sites of two surplus schools and require homeowners to tote their garbage to the curb for pickup.

People were upset not only with the decisions but with the manner in which they were made. Council members were accused of putting their personal ideology before the wishes of their constituents.

“They haven’t represented the people,” said Phil Polakoff, a doctor and dark-horse mayoral candidate. “They have established a form of government by political caucus.”

Officeholders may change, but decisions are made by the same few non-elected coalition leaders, one disaffected member of Berkeley Citizens Action said.

Critics cite as an example the council’s decision on where to build low-income housing. They said bored and indifferent council members held public hearings only after the decisions were made, then blithely dismissed the concerns of the middle-class white and working-class black families near the sites.

Coalition leaders believe that the fight is over the style rather than substance of their policies, which would qualify as wildly radical anywhere else but are sometimes criticized here as timid and bourgeois.

To counter the resentment, the coalition has headed its ticket with mayoral candidate Loni Hancock, an affable and earnest coalition veteran who served on the City Council in the 1970s but not when the group was alienating voters.

“To the extent that it (the coalition’s political storm) is style, I think it can be fixed,” she said, sipping a caffe latte in a cafe across University Avenue from the coalition’s campaign office. “Remember, an enormous amount has been accomplished, and only a few things have been controversial.

“An important part (of her job) is to encourage civil dialogue. We have to keep reminding ourselves this is the late 20th Century; money is short, time is short and tempers are short, but we cannot let that cause us to collapse.”

Innovations Since ’84

The brouhaha has nearly eclipsed the innovations Berkeley has embarked upon since the progressives swept into City Hall in 1984.

Berkeley has not yet founded the egalitarian municipal bank once promised by coalition supporters, but it has formed two semi-independent businesses. One is a consultant and adviser to small-business owners and the other helps homeowners comply with the city’s mandatory home-weatherization program.

Other quasi-independent city-sponsored businesses will come, Gordon said.

The city also was among the first in the nation to sever its financial ties to South Africa, declare itself a sanctuary for Central American refugees, abolish mandatory retirement and adopt binding arbitration for city labor contracts.

Special emphasis has been given to such environmental issues as recycling, and an unusual 15% of the trash collected in Berkeley is now resold at a profit rather than buried at a loss. An ambitious curb-side pickup program will start soon, and Hancock said the city’s goal is eventually to recycle 50% of its trash.

Council members also adopted an ambitious redevelopment program that aims to rebuild run-down neighborhoods without bulldozing their low-cost housing or marginal small businesses. They also routinely veto chain store and franchise restaurant companies seeking to build in Berkeley.

Pedestrian Concerns

At the same time, they have been tending to more common city concerns--repaving streets and rebuilding sewers for the first time since property taxes were cut in 1978 by Proposition 13 and reassuring a skeptical local Chamber of Commerce of their support for environmentally sound, politically progressive small businesses.

They also are scrambling to help the local school board, which has coalition members in all five seats, cope with its $3-million deficit. The council has proposed helping the school budget with a property tax surcharge that also is on Tuesday’s ballot.

In addition, the coalition has had to accept its new position of being able to change things as well as to criticize them--of being the new establishment.

“It was interesting to go from being the opposition coalition to being the coalition in power and having not only authority, but responsibility,” Gordon said. “We all learned that it’s one thing to have an idea and another to do something about it and be responsible for the way if affects people.”

“It’s easy to be in the minority, always taking shots at people in charge,” said Fukson, who is not running for re-election. “You can really do no wrong. Now that we’re in the majority, we have to take real responsibility for what we do because people take shots at us for everything.

“That has taken some getting used to.”