Op-ed: Don’t let developers buy Berkeley’s election

In Berkeley, it’s sometimes easy to feel like our local politics are immune to the kind of cronyism and monied influence that afflicts most localities. After all, we like to think of ourselves as a well-informed, progressive city. We opposed Citizen’s United. We want money out of politics . . . Bernie Sanders did very well here in the primary…so we would never vote for people or ballot measures that have been bought by corporate, big monied special interests.

Or would we?

Sadly, Big Money has arrived in Berkeley – in the form of Big Development – and more than ever before, they are busy trying to buy this election. Berkeley voters deserve to know which candidates and campaigns are being influenced – bought – by huge infusions of cash from those whose only interest in Berkeley is to maximize their own profits. These folks do NOT have the community’s best interests at heart, or in mind, but they are pouring cash in right now: developers, landlords and the consultants who depend on them to make a living, as well as national, state and local political action committees (PACs).

Here is a rundown of Big Money being spent in two of the most highly contested Berkeley races.

The mayor’s race

The two frontrunners for mayor are Jesse Arreguín and Laurie Capitelli. The differences are stark.

To date, Mr. Arreguín has raised $69,000, substantially all from the community. Excluding real-estate money, Capitelli would be at about $104,000. Most mayoral campaigns need to raise and spend in excess of $100,000 to reach voters city-wide. That’s a lot of money to raise, given Berkeley’s $250 limit on contributions to candidates. But there are other ways money gets into our campaigns. PACs are active in Berkeley. For every mailer and Google or Facebook ad you get, check carefully to see who paid for it!

Capitelli is a real-estate broker and landlord who has long been cozy with developers, and the landlord lobby folks in Berkeley. About a third (33%) of donations made directly to his campaign committee are easily identified as coming from landlords and developers, their spouses and employees, and the consultants, architects, engineers and others who work for them.

Two of Capitelli’s donors, former Patrick Kennedy partner David Teece, and his wife, also each gave $50,000 to Jeb Bush’s PAC, Right to Rise USA, for a total of $100,000, and in 2010 gave $500,000 to Republican Carly Fiorina’s failed Senate campaign against Barbara Boxer.

Via their PAC, the National Association of Realtors has spent more than $60,000 to support Capitelli’s campaign — to date. When 58% of a mayoral candidate’s support comes from a single industry that seeks favors and influence in local politics, I believe that candidate has been bought.

District 5 Council race

This race mirrors the mayoral race, in that one candidate is receiving significant infusions of cash from developers and a real-estate PAC, while the other candidate has raised virtually all of their funding from the community.

Stephen Murphy, Capitelli’s hand-picked successor, who was drawn – some might say gerrymandered — into the District by Capitelli three years ago so he could run to take his place, has received $23,258 from developers and other real-estate interests, representing 41% of his support, including over $13,000 spent to date by the same Chicago-based National Association of Realtors.

In addition, the Police Union PAC has spent $18,000 on Murphy’s behalf, with some of their money coming from local real-estate interests, who use this as a back-door vehicle to skirt Berkeley’s $250 limit on direct donations to candidates. Without real-estate and developer contributions, Mr. Murphy would have raised about $33,700 from individuals, much of it from family and friends. Mr. Murphy, an attorney, is also hobbled by a terrible record on ethical issues, having been sanctioned and fined by the California Court of Appeals for lying to the court, being abusive to opposing counsel and wasting public resources.

The other District 5 candidate, Sophie Hahn, is a longtime resident and community activist. She has raised $65,480, with virtually all donated by individuals, most of them local (she has two organizational donations: the California Nurses Association and the Berkeley Progressive Alliance). That’s over 500 small donations – and no money from real estate and development interests or PACs seeking to buy the favor of local candidates. Ms. Hahn is the community-oriented candidate, focused on serving the local people and neighborhoods of Berkeley, as opposed to developers and outside interests.

Here’s the bottom line: do we want a Mayor and City Council who represent the community, with loyalties that are uncompromised, or do we want representatives who owe their political careers to real-estate and development interests? If you believe Big Money has a corrupting influence on politics, vote for Berkeley candidates who are funded by, and will work for, you.

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Donald Goldmacher lives in Berkeley and is the co-director of 'Heist: Who Stole the American Dream?'