November 2016: Candidates

Here are my current thoughts on candidates on the November 2016 ballot in Berkeley, in ballot order.

You can also read my thoughts on state-wide and local propositions, or see a cheat sheet summary.

President and Vice President: HILLARY CLINTON AND TIM KAINE

Honestly, I’d rather spend my time writing about other choices, but in short: I think Hillary Clinton will make an excellent President. I don’t agree with her on everything — her approach to foreign policy is slightly more aggressive than I imagine I would be as President, although I also have far less experience in it than she does — but generally find her approach to domestic issues to be commendable and practical. The decades of faux-scandals whipped up by the right (and this year, by Sanders supporters as well) have repeatedly failed to bring any substance. No candidate has been investigated as deeply as she has, and the lack of actual major problems discovered makes me pretty confident that I know what type of person she is, and I’m not worried. I hope that she will expand on Obama’s legacy and use her superior tenacity to make even more progress for justice.

But let’s talk about the alternatives.

Donald Trump is the worst candidate for President in my lifetime, and if you need me to explain why, then you probably aren’t generally interested in my election advice.

Gary Johnson’s libertarian philosophy is entirely the opposite of my belief that government is capable of being a force for good in our society. Jill Stein may have some ideas that sound nice, but when you dig in you find that her knowledge doesn’t go very deep, and incidents like the time she silently edited her pro-Brexit post to turn it into an anti-Brexit statement don’t assure me that she is the magical perfect embodiment of purity that some of her supporters imagine she is. In any case, I don’t think it makes sense to give the country’s most powerful position to somebody from a political party so unrepresentative of our country and so out of touch with the actual work of governing that they haven’t managed to find a single one of this country’s 7,383 state legislative districts willing to elect one of their members. (Nor do I think such a party is an appropriate use of matching federal campaign funds.)

And about the “safe state” concept. Perhaps you agree with me that Clinton is vastly superior to Trump but still find Stein or Johnson to be superior to her. You live in California! That means your vote doesn’t matter, right? Well, the only reason your vote “doesn’t matter” is because your fellow citizens take their right to vote seriously. By what process have you determined that you are special and don’t have to waste your vote on achieving electoral outcomes? Which people have you determined need to do the dirty work of actually preventing President Trump? It’s an elitist, self-centered approach, just as bad as declining to vaccinate your children because you know herd immunity will likely shelter them from measles.

Anyway, let’s move on to less heavily covered topics.

US Senator: KAMALA HARRIS

Kamala Harris was SF’s DA when I moved there. I liked her a whole lot better than her successor Gascon. Notably, she took the bold-for-a-DA stance of avoiding asking for the death penalty even in high-profile politicized cases like the murder of a police officer and a murder by an undocumented immigrant. (Admittedly, as CA AG she did appeal the judgment which declared the CA death penalty unconstitutional. She says she did it because it was her job to defend CA’s laws, not because she supported it herself… but she made the opposite choice in choosing not to defend Prop 8. She supports Prop 62 this year at least.) In general her views mesh with mine on things like gun control and approaches to crime. My takeaway is that she was an excellent DA but maybe not the most effective AG.

Most of what I know about Sanchez is that she’s a proud Orange County Blue Dog Democrat. While I’m happy to support a somewhat more conservative Democrat to run our entire diverse country (though I think Sanchez is more conservative than Hillary Clinton), as districts get smaller I want people who are closer to my views, and I think we can get a more liberal Democrat for CA. And all else being equal I’m inclined to vote for a Bay area/northern California representative over SoCal, though that’s admittedly self-centered.

The fact that Sanchez has chosen to explicitly court the Republican minority (and my opinion of CA Republicans is even lower than my opinion of the average Republican), including campaigning with Darrell Issa, one of my least favorite Representatives, doesn’t help.

It’s great that we’re guaranteed a Democratic Senator this year, but I think it should be Kamala Harris.

US Representative, California District 13: BARBARA LEE

Barbara Lee is essentially unopposed: she beat the Republican on the ballot 92-8 in the primary. I’m still excited to get to vote for her in a general election for the first time. She’s arguably the most progressive member of Congress, famous especially for being the only member of Congress to oppose the authorization of military force after 9/11.

State Senator, District 9: Nancy Skinner?

Basically everything I’ve read has suggested that SandrĂ© Swanson and Nancy Skinner are virtually identical policy-wise and that both of them would make excellent State Senators. So how to choose?

One way they differ is demographics: black man from Oakland, white woman from Berkeley. That doesn’t help me much though — we could use more women and more people of color in Sacramento, and while I personally live in Berkeley, having a State Senator hail from the largest city in the district seems appropriate too.

The East Bay Express endorsement of Skinner suggests that Skinner may be somewhat superior as a crafter of detailed legislature and policy. That tips me slightly into her camp… though who knows if the Express is actually accurate here. Fortunately, I’ll be happy with any outcome in this race.

State Assembly, District 15: Tony Thurmond

Thurmond’s Republican challenger is a Cal senior with no campaign website or social media. Thurmond beat her 91-9 in June. Maybe with a shorter ballot, I’d spend time learning about Thurmond.

(To those of you who think that the Green Party is a legitimate political party with an interest in helping govern our country rather than a publicity-hungry gang of whiners: why is there no Green candidate running for this seat? The Republican got nine percent, and the structure of our elections could have easily led to a November election with only Thurmond and a Green on the ballot.)

Superior Court Judge, Office 1: Scott Jackson

I haven’t done any serious research on this seat recently, but back in the primary, Jackson was one of the two candidates I liked. Back then my impression was that Barbara Thomas is opposed to renter’s rights. The fact that she pitches herself as a “victims rights attorney” really rubs me the wrong way: our criminal justice system is specifically not designed as a mechanism for victims to get revenge on criminals, but for our society as a whole to prevent bad behavior. Jackson has the endorsements and attitude that make sense for me.

Berkeley Rent Stabilization Board: Christina Murphy, Alejandro Soto-Vigil, and Leah Simon-Weisberg

There are six candidates for four positions on the Rent Stabilization Board; we get to vote for 4 of them. The best information I found on the candidates is this grid of all of their answers to questions from Berkeleyside.

They have divided themselves into two slates. There’s the CALI slate, named after the first names Christina, Alejandro, Leah, and Igor. And then there’s the FAIR slate of Judy Hunt and Nate Wollman, which is just a random acronym of four words. (I mention this because my first impression was that this was two overlapping slates with Alejandro and Igor on both of them — not true!)

The CALI slate portrays themselves as being more “pro-tenant” and “progressive”, for Berkeley definitions of progressive. The FAIR slate describes themselves as being more balanced (which can be portrayed as “pro-landlord”). The CALI slate on the whole seems more aligned with the Arreguin/Bartlett side of things, and the FAIR slate with the Capitelli/Matthews side (see my thoughts on City Council and Mayor below).

As I describe below, I’m pretty torn between the two “factions” of Berkeley politics. My heart really wants to always side with the pro-tenant, “progressive”, stick-it-to-the-man approach. But I don’t think the solution to a housing crunch is to continue to not build housing, which is why I’m sadly endorsing the realtor side for City Council and Mayor.

But hey, the Rent Stabilization Board doesn’t have any thing to do with approving new construction, as far as I know. So it doesn’t matter how NIMBY the rent board is — here’s a place where I feel comfortable letting my bleeding-heart sympathies out. I’m planning to vote for most of the CALI slate, despite not supporting their Mayoral and City Council candidates of choice.

Why not all of the CALI slate? Igor Tregub was one of the two members of the Zoning Adjustments Board to vote against the 2902 Adeline project at the meeting I attended. Even if the Rent Board won’t give him a chance to stop new construction, I can’t trust the judgment of somebody willing to be on record as saying that a new project being built a block from BART and across the street from the Bowl shouldn’t be as large as feasible. Perhaps the other three I’m voting for also agree with him, but they did not have the opportunity to show off their lack of connection to reality.

Berkeley School Directors: Judy Appel and Beatriz Leyva-Cutler?

There are three candidates for two seats on the School Board, as well as a write-in candidate; we can vote for two. The best information I’ve found has been via Berkeleyside’s interviews.

Sikder, the non-incumbent, doesn’t seem to have any detailed understanding of the challenges specifically facing BUSD; his answers are all very vague. He does not seem to have a personal connection to the school district (his kids are at UC Berkeley and Berkeley City College, not the school district). The only endorsement I could find for him was from an organization that also endorsed the two incumbents.

Harrison, the write-in candidate, has an anti-school perspective that is certainly compelling in its way but not in my mind the best fit for leading a public school district.

I’m not an expert on the details of the problems facing BUSD. If one reads the comments on Berkeleyside one would come to the conclusion that the only problem facing the district is that it allows kids from Oakland and Richmond to register (the commenters vary only on whether or not they are explicit about the race of the kids they are so concerned with keeping away). Though my child is not yet old enough for school, I suspect that this issue is far less relevant than the stingy racist commenters think it is.

The advice I’ve gotten from a few friends who do know more about the school board than me is that the incumbents have been fine and are worth re-electing. That is also the conclusion I came to based on their interviews.

AC Transit Director (at-large): Chris Peeples?

So this is the current President of the Board of Directors, who’s been on the board for almost two decades, vs a retired bus driver who has run and lost 3 times recently. While I can find statements from the candidates to various groups, I can’t find much in the way of analysis or endorsements other than the somewhat conservative East Bay Times (who endorse no on RR and C1, so clearly our views on transit don’t line up) and the League of Conservation Voters East Bay.

While the idea of voting for a queer woman of color who represents the transit system’s employees appeals to me, I feel uncomfortable voting for her without first finding any organization who endorses her in this particular election. I’ve found some resources that said that she was a better choice than some of her previous opponents, but not necessarily this one. Without seeing any endorsements for Jones, I will probably vote for Peeples or not vote.

BART Director, District 7: Lateefah Simon

Lateefah Simon has a background in social justice, and a host of specific improvements in mind for BART, ranging from increased oversight for the BART Police who killed Oscar Grant to re-opening station bathrooms to reducing overcrowding. She’s got all the endorsements I care about.

The incumbent, Zakhary Mallett, really really wants you to know that he really really doesn’t like the BART employees and that the transit strike was all their fault. My memory was that the 2013 strike was over sub-cost-of-living wage increases and safety issues. I’m not inspired by bashing the hard workers who make my life possible (and still are paid less than I am even post-strike). To his credit, he is easily accessible and makes his positions very clear; see his thorough engagement with critics on his Facebook ad.

I have heard literally nothing about the other two candidates.

Berkeley City Council, District 3: Deborah Matthews #1, Ben Bartlett #2

Berkeley Mayor: Ben Gould #1, Laurie Capitelli #2

I have to consider these together, as my thought processes work similarly for them.

The biggest problem facing Berkeley these days is the high cost of housing, and the displacement that it’s causing. (Full disclosure: my family bought a house in Berkeley last year from a family who had owned it for 60 years, although the owners were no longer living there. To some degree, we are part of the problem.) I honestly don’t know how to fix it. I’m pretty sure “don’t build any new housing” is not the answer, but I also am unconvinced that building only shiny luxury apartments will help all that much — yes, some people will choose to live there instead of in existing housing, but I don’t know if it’ll be good enough.

Honestly, this is a complicated problem, and I don’t have the answer. I’d love to get the opportunity to vote for serious housing policy wonks rather than people who are hard-line opposed to all new housing or people who are literally realtors. In the City Council race, I don’t have that option, and in the mayoral race, the only person who really fits that option stands no chance of winning.

While I’ve been despondent about my inability to find any candidates I’m unequivocably excited about, it’s been great how accessible many of the candidates have been. I’ve been to a debate between the Council candidates; emailed back and forth with Ben Bartlett and Ben Gould; run into Bartlett, his wife, and Deborah Matthews on separate occasions in my neighborhood; and met other folks who are close friends of candidates.

For City Council, the only candidates I’ve seriously considered are Bartlett and Matthews. My impression of Mark Coplan, based on the debate, was that he is an intelligent and caring hard worker who would be incredibly dedicated to his role and highly accessible. His articulations of the problems facing Berkeley were excellent. Yet… he did not seem to have any real ideas about how to fix any of the problems he addressed. For example, his single piece of printed literature listed “Save Alta Bates” (the hospital that may need to close by 2030 due to seismic problems) as one of his top priorities. Yet when I submitted as a debate question “How will you save Alta Bates?” his answer consisted entirely of describing why it would be awful to lose Alta Bates and contained no ideas about solutions. He is also strongly opposed to building housing, speaking out against building high-density housing a block from BART and specifically complaining about parking. Al Murray also had no real ideas about how to fix problems.

It really feels to me like Ben Bartlett’s heart is in the right place. He too strikes me as an intelligent hard worker, and he cares deeply about preventing displacement from my neighborhood. He believes there are ways to help stabilize rents that don’t involve new construction, and the programs he lists (allocation of property transfer tax to the housing fund, use of the housing fund to enable non-profits to buy existing housing to stabilize rents, etc) do sound like they might work. He claims to not be a NIMBY and to not be opposed to all new housing construction. But so far has hasn’t provided me with a single example of a proposed, recent, or in-progress housing project in Berkeley that he likes. (His wife suggested the senior housing at 3132 MLK as an example of such a project; when I ran into Bartlett himself we were literally standing in front of it and he couldn’t think of a single example. Though to his credit, we were both in a hurry and he wasn’t in “campaign mode”.) His Friends of Adeline group continues to push back on the 2902 Adeline project, trying to cut a few stories off of it and demanding more parking. More parking, for a project that’s one block from BART and on a bicycle boulevard! If we don’t stop overallocating parking, we will never fix our over-reliance on the privately owned automobile. He himself spoke against it at the October 27 Zoning Adjustment Board meeting which I attended. He sat next to me and I enjoyed talking with him during the meeting, though confusingly he kept insisting to me that he supported all sorts of nice things (raising the height limit across Berkeley! building housing in North Berkeley!) that he claims he couldn’t actually put in his platform because it would be politically unwise. A secret ally for building housing who can’t name a single good project and speaks against building housing? Or a charismatic politician who tells everyone what they want to hear? He sure is likeable, and I suspect he’ll win, but sure felt like the latter.

Deborah Matthews wants to build housing — not surprising given that she is a realtor. I like that about her. But her approach to other policy matters concerns me. For example, her answers at the debate about policing were pretty focused on getting more cops on the street; while her website mentions Black Lives Matter, I’m more impressed by Bartlett’s work rewriting the police department’s manual after the BLM protests. A friend at the debate tried to engage her in a discussion about transit, biking, and development, and she really didn’t seem to connect the dots about what he was trying to talk about.

None of these candidates are policy wonks.

And then there’s the mayoral race. The main candidates are Jesse Arreguin and Laurie Capitelli. While Bartlett may be equivocal about whether or not he’s OK with any new housing, Arreguin is incredibly opposed. (Image sent to me by Ben Gould and not verified.) I’m admittedly learning more about this now (having only moved to Berkeley last year), but he was the main force behind 2014’s Prop R which tried to halt the current Downtown Plan, and generally seems opposed to most new construction. Laurie Capitelli (another realtor) supports construction, though he hasn’t been as great on other issues — for example, he pushed back on the minimum wage increase for years, caving only once BB and CC already made it to the ballot. At least according to his website, he cares about transit and bikes. Arreguin has also put out an anti-Capitelli attack site that mostly makes me more sympathetic to Capitelli. For example, the page that claims that Capitelli is too conservative appears to be a list of 17 “council resolutions” that Capitelli didn’t support. Most (though not all) of them seem to be “Berkeley City Council wasting their time making resolutions about things that have nothing to do with Berkeley”, like a resolution condemning building a wall on the Mexican border. If Berkeley didn’t have problems, I’d be more sympathetic to the Council spending their time on random resolutions. And well, Robert Reich did endorse Capitelli… gotta count for something, right?

Ben Gould is a 24-year-old Berkeley native Cal public policy grad student. He’s the policy wonk I’ve been looking for! Of course, he has limited government (and life) experience, has no real chance of winning, and his positions are sparse outside of housing, planning, and budget (his issues page has nothing about police, crime, or schools, say). But his detailed proposals on housing look good to my admittedly amateur eye.

I am pretty tempted to give Ben Gould my #1 vote for mayor, as a statement that I want more policy wonkery in our local government. (And I’d be happy if he won.) But that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t still decide between the two front-running candidates for my #2 vote. (There are several other candidates running too. Guy “Mike” Lee does actually bring a legitimate homeless perspective; I met him briefly at the Council candidates debate and I was more impressed than I expected. But I don’t think he or any of the other candidates I haven’t mentioned are really prepared to do the job of Mayor.)

Honestly, I’m pretty torn. I’m sympathetic to the simplistic supply-and-demand explanation that building housing is the way to make housing more affordable. I’m also sympathetic to the argument that that’s one of those oversimplificiations that sounds obvious to non-experts but the truth is subtler… and I’m really not excited about literally voting for realtors.

If I went and told myself at the age of 18 that I was even considering voting for the supposedly marginally more conservative candidates against the candidates who talk the good talk about being there for the renters facing eviction, I would be shocked at myself. I really wish there were compelling candidates out there whose focus is on the renters who haven’t allied themselves with the old rich NIMBYs of Berkeley who want nothing to change ever (especially not their precious parking spots). But there aren’t. I’m not excited about this, but I’m voting for the people who are willing to build housing in Berkeley. That’s going to be Deborah Matthews for City Council, and Ben Gould and Laurie Capitelli for Mayor. I’ll give Bartlett my second choice vote for City Council, as he seems more prepared to do something about his concerns (and I agree with him on many non-housing-construction-related issues) than the other candidates.

At least I can tell young me that I’m supporting most of the CALI slate for Rent Board and Prop AA (owner move-in restrictions)?

I just wish that the good people of Berkeley who care about affordable housing and displacement weren’t in an inexplicable self-defeating alliance with rich homeowners who are scared of shadows.