How Quirky was Berkeley? Politics as Theater

Miller-for-Mayor-Poster

Berkeley was a crucible for New Left politics in the 1960s and 1970s. Often forgotten when we speak of the Free Speech Movement, the Vietnam Day Committee, People’s Park, and anti-war/anti-imperialism movements, are the several New Left ventures into electoral politics, three of which introduced an element of theater not typically seen in political campaigns.

The first radical venture into electoral politics was the most serious – Robert Scheer’s 1966 primary challenge of Rep.Jeffrey Cohelan, a pro-war Johnson liberal who had served in the House since 1959. Scheer campaigned on the war, poverty, and a new style of politics.

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His campaign produced a prodigious amount of literature. He was all about issues, and he wrote and talked about them with intelligence and without pause. Scheer received 29,393 votes to Cohelan’s 35,921.  He won the election in Berkeley, North Oakland, and West Oakland. Terming the results a “moral victory and political success,” Scheer clearly sent a message to pro-war Democrats. If Cohelan didn’t get the message right away, he did in 1970 when Ron Dellums defeated him in the primary and began his long career in the House.

In 1967, two products of Telegraph Avenue ran for mayor of Berkeley, Jerry Rubin and Bill Miller. With their campaigns came theatrical aspects of the counterculture that had not been present in the Scheer campaign.


Bill Miller ran the General Store on Telegraph, a head shop. Miller had been active in the Free Speech Movement and early protests against the Vietnam war. His ethos was on the hip end of the uniquely Berkeley blend of counterculture and New Left.

Berkeley Citizen (1967)
Berkeley Citizen (1967)

For several months in early 1967, he wrote a column for the Berkeley Citizen, a short-lived newspaper with left credentials, but well to the center of the Barb. When Miller announced that he was running for Mayor, he did so with tongue firmly in cheek. His campaign literature made his intentions clear.

Miller-Questions Miller-Qualifications

His leaflets and posters were infused with counterculture graphic concepts.

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And as a result of all this work he got 61 votes out of 35,921 total votes cast, or 1/10th of one percent. He left Berkeley, but by 1969, Miller was back. He managed the Steppenwolf bar at 2136 San Pablo, which had once been owned by Max Scherr of Berkeley Barb fame. He ran for City Council in 1969.

Miller-1969-1

He improved substantially from his 1967 race, winning 2,548 votes, or 2.2% of the votes cast.


Miller was a leading figure in the building of People’s Park. As the countercultural movement in Berkeley ebbed, Miller faded from the scene. In 1984, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that Miller was living in Monte Rio. He eventually moved to New Mexico, where he set up shop as a trader.

The second radical candidate for mayor in 1967 was Jerry Rubin. Rubin had come to national attention as a leader of the Vietnam Day Committee, a very early anti-war group. He is on the right of this photo, which was taken in October 1965 at an anti-war rally.

Jerry Rubin.  Photo: Paul Richards.
Jerry Rubin. Photo: Paul Richards

Like Miller’s campaign, Rubin’s literature was informed by counterculture graphics.

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Rubin-Color-PosterRubin ran on a platform in which he ventured that if he won, he could grant himself a pardon.

Berkeley Citizen, February 24, 1967
Berkeley Citizen, February 24, 1967

In the end, he did far better than Bill Miller, winning 7,385 votes or slightly more than 20% of the vote. His transformation from student radical to crazed yippie revolutionary continued.

Berkeley Barb
Photo: Berkeley Barb

Shortly after the election he moved to New York and continued his mischief there.


Last and not least, in 1970, a true son of Berkeley, Stew Albert, ran for Sheriff of Alameda against Frank Madigan. Madigan had been Sheriff since 1963 and played an important role in the law enforcement suppression of Berkeley protests.

Stew Albert and Jerry Rubin. Photo: Leni Sinclair
Stew Albert and Jerry Rubin. Photo: Leni Sinclair

Albert was closely associated with the Red Mountain Tribe, the collective that published the Berkeley Tribe, and he embraced their militant position on armed self-defense. Albert was a central player in building People’s Park, and was a master of the issue is not the issue.

His 1970 campaign for Sheriff was the typical Yippie blend – part prank, part serious politics.

Albert-Will-Win Albert-Peoples-Pig

In the end, Albert won 65,000 votes, almost ten times as many votes as Jerry Rubin had received three years earlier when he ran for mayor of Berkeley. Albert declared it a moral victory:

“So you take those votes, and all the high school kids who hate the cops, who are hassled and busted by them, who can’t vote, and then those revolutionary blacks and freaks who just don’t vote at all because they have totally given up on voting, then you have a majority.” He wrote about the campaign in depth in The Realist.

In the years following these radical and theatrical ventures into electoral politics, more conventional leftists won control of Berkeley politics. The flair and flamboyance of the pioneers was relegated to history.

Tom Dalzell, a labor lawyer, created a website, Quirky Berkeley, to share all the whimsical objects he has captured with his iPhone. The site now has more than 8,600 photographs of quirky objects around town as well as posts where the 30-year resident muses on what it all means.

A longer version of this post may be found at Quirky Berkeley.

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