4 take aim at open South Berkeley City Council seat

District 3 candidates: From right, Ben Bartlett, Deborah Matthews, Al Murray and Mark Coplan. Photo: Emilie Raguso
District 3 candidates: From right to left, Ben Bartlett, Deborah Matthews, Al Murray and Mark Coplan. Photo: Emilie Raguso

For the first time in 12 years, South Berkeley will have a new representative on the City Council.

Four people are vying for the seat to be vacated by Max Anderson: Anderson’s pick, Ben Bartlett, is an attorney who is proud of his family’s deep heritage in Berkeley and has wracked up a long list of high-profile endorsements; real estate agent and longtime Berkeley zoning board commissioner Deborah Matthews, who believes in “direct engagement” with developers to get the best projects; recently retired Berkeley schools spokesman Mark Coplan, who pledges to bring his approach to public service to the City Council; and retired public servant Al Murray, whose focus is on government accountability but was sued this week for failing to comply with campaign reporting rules. (He says the error was due to a staffing mix-up that’s been fixed.)

Profiles of each candidate follow a brief look at campaign fundraising and endorsements to date.

Bartlett has raised the most in contributions thus far, nearly $28,000 from about 175 donors, according to the latest campaign filings. Matthews isn’t far behind, with about $24,000 from nearly 140 donors. Bartlett has vastly outspent his opponents, however, with $28,000 in expenditures compared to Matthews’ nearly $15,000. (Bartlett also listed a $10,000 loan from his wife, Yelda Bartlett, which could keep the campaign going in the final stretch.)


Coplan committed early on to sticking to a budget of less than $10,000, and he’s done that, though half of the money he’s raised came in the form of a $5,000 loan to himself. The rest, about $4,800, has come from about 40 people. Coplan describes his campaign as “zero waste,” though he’s spent about $8,000 on literature, postage and campaign materials.

Bartlett has spent that much — $8,000 according to the most recent filings — on San Jose-based JW Consulting Group for campaign consulting services, as well as more than $9,000 on campaign signs and literature. The bulk of the rest of the money, about $7,500, has gone to campaign staff salaries.

Matthews has spent $2,500 on consulting fees paid to Berkeley-based Merrill Strategy Group, nearly $4,000 on literature, and another $3,100 on professional services for the campaign paid to Deane & Company (“professional political reporting and campaign treasurer services”) out of Sacramento.

Compare the candidates’ answers to key questions in a handy grid.

In addition to his council support — from Anderson, Jesse Arreguín, Kriss Worthington and Lori Droste — Bartlett has the endorsements of Assemblymember Tony Thurmond, Alameda County Supervisor Keith Carson, District 5 candidate Sophie Hahn, the Berkeley NAACP, the Sierra Club and many of the big Alameda County groups representing labor, the nurses, progressives and more.


He also has the support of Friends of Adeline, which he helped create last year in response to the city’s Adeline Corridor planning process to ensure it listens to neighbors. The group, which claims several hundred members, has advocated aggressively for affordable housing and community preservation in the face of increasing gentrification. It has also been criticized by those more friendly to private development for having unrealistic demands that will simply kill projects, not improve them.

(Group members lobbied recently for a minimum of 40% below-market-rate units in a new Adeline Corridor project and more parking, as well as community benefits from the developer such as the dedication of 5% of rental proceeds to South Berkeley nonprofits.)

A number of high-profile former elected officials have also come out in support of Bartlett, including Ron Dellums — Bartlett’s uncle through marriage — a former U.S. Congressman and District 3 council member; former Oakland Mayor Jean Quan; former Assemblymember and Oakland Mayor Elihu Harris; former Assemblymember Sandré Swanson; and former Berkeley Mayor Gus Newport. He’s also supported by the Berkeley Tenants Union.

Donors to Matthews’ campaign read like a “who’s who” of builders, architects and developers in Berkeley, and include many of the people working to create new housing and commercial projects in recent years: Denny Abrams, credited with developing Fourth Street, Avi Nevo, David Trachtenberg, Patrick KennedyRobert Ellsworth, Bill Schrader Jr., Ali Kashani and Wareham Development are among them.

Matthews moved from the Zoning Adjustments Board to the Planning Commission after nearly two decades on the former, but still has the support of many of her former colleagues, including Bob Allen, Steven Donaldson, George Williams and Michael Alvarez-Cohen. All, including Matthews, have tended to vote, more often than not, in favor of new projects that would add to the city’s housing stock. Those votes have often drawn the ire of project critics including nearby neighbors as well as those who want developers to give back more to the community.


Council members Susan Wengraf and Laurie Capitelli — both of whom are running their own races — also support Matthews, as do former council members Gordon Wozniak, Betty Olds and Carole Kennerly. And Matthews has several powerhouse figures in the Berkeley arts and culture scene behind her: Susie Medak, managing director of the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Gina Moreland, who runs Habitot Children’s Museum, and David Mayeri, who recently opened the nonprofit UC Theatre.

Compare the candidates’ views on housing.

Bartlett and Matthews each have a celebrity in their corner too: actor Danny Glover is backing Bartlett (and mayoral hopeful Arreguín), and feminist organizer Gloria Steinem recently announced for Matthews. Councilman Darryl Moore, running to defend his seat in District 2’s West Berkeley race, has endorsed both candidates.

Coplan’s endorsements include primarily individuals, many of whom are associated with the Berkeley Unified School District, where he worked for 20 years. Susan Craig, director of Student Services for BUSD, Harold Adler, owner of Shattuck Avenue’s Art House Gallery, Lisa Bullwinkel — whose company puts on a number of Berkeley’s biggest events, former Berkeley Mayor Shirley Dean, mayoral candidate Mike Lee, and former BUSD Superintendent William Joyce are among the many names on Coplan’s list.

The profiles

The stories that follow aim to offer a sketch of each candidate. To learn more about their main campaign objectives, and discover their proposed solutions to the city’s most pressing problems, use this side-by-side comparison grid showing their responses to 10 key questions posed by Berkeleyside.

Bartlett: “The Berkeley that raised me is still the same Berkeley”

Photo: Courtesy of Ben Bartlett
Photo: Courtesy of Ben Bartlett

Ben Bartlett’s long heritage in South Berkeley is a point of pride for him: His family on his mother’s side goes back several generations. His grandfather, Leo Higgs, has been described as the first black Realtor in California and helped William Byron Rumford create the Fair Housing Act in 1963, Bartlett has said. Higgs helped integrate the city and brought many black residents into Berkeley’s southern and western neighborhoods. It was one of Higgs’ six daughters — Leola, widely known as “Roscoe” — who married Ron Dellums, eventually bringing a young Ben Bartlett into his orbit.

And that’s not all, by a long shot. Bartlett’s father, Dayle, worked for many years for former City Councilwoman Maudelle Shirek. When Dayle first came to Berkeley on a bus, after both his parents died, Shirek took him in.

“He helped her run for office and became her voice,” Bartlett said, ultimately helping her author 353 pieces of legislation. When Bartlett was little, he attended a number of meetings related to his dad’s political work. And Shirek was his godmother.

“It’s the lineage that I come from and the one I carry forward,” Bartlett says. “The Berkeley that raised me is still the same Berkeley.”

It’s apt, then, as part of that lineage, for 12-year Councilman Max Anderson to be passing on the mantle to Bartlett. Bartlett, who served as class president in high school, college and law school, says he is ready to take the reins.

“It’s time for new blood. It’s time for a fresh perspective,” he said recently outside Rasa Caffe, a few blocks south of Ashby BART on MLK, and within view of the South Berkeley Neighborhood Development Corporation, a low-income housing nonprofit he said his father helped create. “I’m already on the job.”

When there was a spate of shootings in South Berkeley in September, including one that injured two people at Alcatraz and King, he contacted the police chief and the city manager, along with a neighborhood pastor and youth workers to bring them together to come up with a plan of action, he said.

Last year he helped found Friends of Adeline, which fought budget cuts to neighborhood nonprofits, and has worked with the group — bringing along his skills as an environmental attorney — to try to make the city more responsive to community interests. He says he will fight for South Berkeley to get its share of basic services like street cleaning, tree trimming and lighting.

“I won’t rest until it’s done,” he said. “I believe in working your friendships to get it done.”

He said he’s proud of his work on the plastic bag ban while on the Zero Waste Commission, and of helping direct money to small businesses in South Berkeley while he was on the Loan Administration Board. On the Planning Commission, he says he helped close a South Berkeley check-cashing business, and hopes to close even more.

“They are drains upon the community. They get our weakest people at their most vulnerable,” he said. “They gotta go.”

Bartlett attended Thousand Oaks Elementary and the Black Panther school, then later split his time growing up in Berkeley and Chicago after his parents divorced. He moved back to Berkeley almost a decade ago. He says he has been frustrated at times during the campaign when opponents have questioned his commitment and ties to the neighborhood. He said he’s been a frequent target of attacks from opponents, despite an agreement to keep the campaign positive.

Bartlett said, in recent years, he got plugged into city politics when he ran a coffeeshop by the downtown library for a time. (The shop closed in 2011 and later became Café Clem, which itself closed last month. The location, set below ground level, has been described as particularly challenging.)

Bartlett’s dad was a longtime coffee importer, and they worked together to build out the shop and turn it into a community gathering place. High school kids particularly loved it, and Bartlett said it was inspiring to see them come together in the same space as City Council members and homeless individuals, some of whom used to help him clean up. Bartlett said he also helped organize BHS students, many of whom were his customers, to rally in favor of library improvements that were under attack by a lawsuit.

“I really learned the value of using economic development to uplift people,” he said. “That really sparked everything. It was transformative in my life.”

Bartlett said his schedule as an attorney is flexible enough to allow him to handle all the duties that being a councilman would bring. One of his critics compiled Bartlett’s attendance records for the city bodies he’s been on and noted a pattern of absenteeism during his time on the Loan Administration Board, the Planning Commission, the Zero Waste Commission and the Police Review Commission.

Bartlett shrugged off the accusation, though he did not dispute it.

“I missed some but I got it done,” he said. “I still got everything done.”

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Matthews: “I came into real estate as a single mom”

Deborah Matthews is a candidate for the District 3 City Council seat. Photo: Deborah Matthews
Photo: Courtesy of Deborah Matthews

If you turn up your nose at developers on principle, Deborah Matthews may not be your candidate. She’ll be the first to tell you: She’s a real estate broker who believes in “conversations and direct engagement” with the people who are bringing building projects forward to the city.

“To me, that’s important,” she said. “I am willing to be open to those conversations. It does not mean that I embrace them when they walk in the door.”

It is also true, however, that Matthews voted in favor of quite a few projects while on the zoning board. And she was on the board for nearly two decades. But she said she always paid attention to whether she felt community needs were being taken into account before making an affirmative vote, and wanted to see real efforts made by developers to change their projects in response to those needs.

If elected, she said, she hopes to put in place “community impact studies” that would make it clear to developers and citizens alike what project impacts would be — to neighborhood character, traffic, housing and displacement — and what solutions would be applied.

Matthews, while offering tea and cookies to a visitor at her South Berkeley apartment, said she feels people have taken her job in real estate out of context.

“I came into real estate as a single mom: I had a kid to raise,” she said. “I wanted to make sure I had a career that allowed me to be effectively involved in her education and the timelines around that, and allowed me to provide for her education.” (Her daughter is now grown.)

Matthews says she takes an “activist” approach to her work. She’s advised a number of South and West Berkeley residents over the years when they’ve come to her with questions about everything from mortgages to working with an estate, to insurance and repairs.

Matthews said she saw a need “for communities of color to understand the industry, the field, the language,” to learn the advantages and disadvantages of real estate, and “how it empowered and could disempower people.”

She recalled her early days on the zoning board, and the polarization she saw among board and community members. It was those experiences that emphasized to her the need to listen, even to opposing viewpoints.

“We have to have the very difficult conversations without looking at each other as the enemy,” she said.

And she said she would like to see some community members — who turn out repeatedly at public meetings to oppose many of the projects coming before the city — shift their focus toward what she believes would be more productive ends.

“They should put a team together and do their own development,” Matthews said. “Find a way to build exactly what you would like and bring it before the city and put it through the process. Start to implement the thing you would like to see done rather than trying to stop others from coming to the table.”

She said her vision of South Berkeley, and what she’s been hearing as she goes door to door during the campaign, is a desire for more small businesses to make the neighborhoods more walkable, as well as more open green space that community members can enjoy. Matthews said she’s happy to see Habitot coming in, and would love to see a place outside where seniors could practice activities such as tai chi.

Matthews describes herself as the true “change” candidate for South Berkeley, and points out that much of the gentrification the neighborhood has seen occurred while Max Anderson was in charge.

“It’s on his watch,” she said. “What was done to really help people in South Berkeley?”

Matthews says the city needs to take a deep look at creating safety nets and learning from the housing crisis to create ways to protect people who are at-risk of defaulting on mortgages to allow more time to get back on their feet.

Even after decades on city commissions, Matthews says, the campaign has been tough. It’s her first time running for office, and the experience has not been pretty. Individuals and businesses have removed signs in support of her due to vandalism or threats of vandalism, she said. People have gone into businesses that supported her and said: “We’ll shut you down.”

People have called Matthews a “gentrifier” and questioned her commitment to the community. They’ve questioned whether she truly lives in the district, and said she doesn’t care about people of color. (Matthews, along with all the D3 candidates but Mark Coplan, is black.)

“I have been personally attacked all the way through from the beginning until now,” she said. “It’s Trump tactics.”

Matthews says the campaign has forced her to be a better listener, to get more in tune with the neighborhood’s needs. She says she’s loved walking the district, seeing its beautiful bungalows and “the incredible art, the vegetable gardens in the front yard. Children playing, elders sitting on front porches. It really is wonderful, the richness of community that is here.”

She continued: “I want to be the leadership that celebrates that in ways we have not experienced in a very long time.”

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Coplan: “We really need to serve our community”

Photo: Courtesy of Mark Coplan
Photo: Courtesy of Mark Coplan

Mark Coplan’s name may be more familiar than any of the other District 3 candidates, particularly if your kids went to Berkeley schools. Coplan thinks the recognition could give him an edge, despite his smaller campaign budget. Every day at 6 p.m., he’s knocking on doors with members of his campaign. They hit from 300 to 400 a week.

“When we knock on doors, three out of five answer,” he said. The responses often indicate familiarity: “Oh, I know Mark. In 2002, he did this with my kid in the schools,” or “My daughter got into UCLA because of the video reel he got her for her application.”

He describes himself as a lifelong public servant who did that work without any ulterior motives: “It’s all been pure.”

Coplan retired June 30 after 20 years with BUSD. Since 2002, he’d been the school district’s public information officer, aka PIO or spokesman. Since then, he told Berkeleyside in mid-October, he’s taken just two “retirement days.” As for the rest, he’s been working 10 hours a day, seven days a week. He reflected, in mid-October, when he sat down with Berkeleyside at Alchemy Collective Cafe and Roaster on Alcatraz, that Berkeley could learn something from Britain, which limits campaign activities to 30 days prior to the election.

“The reality is it should be that focused,” he said.

Part of the reason for the big door-knocking push, he said, is that he was told in January he was already a year-and-a-half late to the race: “The momentum now is beginning to show I’m beginning to catch up.”

He said he had planned for more than a decade to retire “at some point” to run for Berkeley School Board. When Beatriz Leyva-Cutler said she would run for a third term, Coplan changed course: “I wouldn’t run against an incumbent in this town. It’s kind of crazy.”

A neighbor convinced him to run for council, telling him, “What we need is the kind of representation you’ve given us at the schools.” Coplan says he always made a point to be available to community concerns, giving out his cellphone number to anyone who needed to reach him. He’s continued that practice, and has posted his number on his website and on his campaign materials.

He said he “reinvented the role of the PIO” by making it one that was visible in the community, rather than a “behind-the-scenes person who shepherds the message and isn’t very visible.” He donned his camera and went out into the schools, taking photographs and making videos.

“It’s my ministry for healing and community building,” Coplan said. “It’s something I do that brings me into the room as another person, not as an administrator. The hands-on model has kind of been my persona all along.”

He said he wants to use his experience with the school district to improve communication with the city to make better policy decisions. He recalled when council lowered speed limits around schools without talking to the district about it first.

“The issue at drop-off and pick-up times ain’t speeding,” he said. “It’s crammed traffic. There’s a clear sign of the disconnect.”

Coplan describes himself as “a meeting person,” and says he loves to drop into meetings to hear about everything going on. He said he plans, if elected, to meet monthly with all 48 of his appointees over home-cooked meals, in part to help introduce them to each other, to know about each other’s work and share ideas. To make it more manageable, he said, he’ll split the dinners up over three nights.

Coplan says he will be at the neighborhood association meetings and the business association meetings, too. He said he wants to hold more town hall meetings for major projects so the community can give more input to council earlier on in the process.

“I really want to bring it back to a time when sitting on the council was really about service,” he said. “Most of our ‘electeds,’ when people see them, they reach to touch the hem of their cloak, that’s kind of what’s expected. We really need to serve our community.”

He said he’d like to step up efforts to bring more services into South Berkeley, which has not consistently had them for decades.

“It’s not anybody’s fault, it’s just the way the system was built,” he said, noting that Anderson was “wonderful for decades,” and Shirek “went to a level beyond early on” due to her political efforts and success outside the neighborhood.

In response to a question from Berkeleyside, Coplan said he does not think race will be a barrier to his success in the district. (He is the only white candidate in the race.) He said it wasn’t the first time he’d been asked that question.

“The majority of my supporters are African-American,” he said. “The African-American community is not asking me that question. When they hear it, it’s like — what?”

He said the South Berkeley seat is not the only legitimate place on council for diversity.

“I agree we have to maintain the presence, to maintain the leadership,” he said. “Why aren’t you running someone for Laurie Capitelli’s seat, for Susan Wengraf’s seat? Run a Latino against Linda Maio.”

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Murray: “I like to be a person that makes a difference”

Photo: Courtesy of Al Murray
Photo: Courtesy of Al Murray

So how does Al Murray fit into all this? His campaign has been so low profile that many have been left wondering what he’s all about.

“I like to be a person that makes a difference. That’s mainly what drove me,” he said, adding that, above all, he will not make empty promises. “I want to be able to say this is what I can do, this is what I cannot do.… It’s unfair to a voter to promise something you cannot deliver.”

Murray said he first got “bit by the political bug” when he was in ninth grade and ran for vice president of his class in Vallejo. He won.

He said he’s proud to be the oldest of the candidates in his race, and says that’s given him a wealth of experience to draw from. He worked for the state for 25 years as an inspector of group homes and board-and-care homes, then went to the EPA for 10. Murray, who is 67, says he has enjoyed campaigning: getting out, walking his district and meeting voters throughout South Berkeley.

“For a candidate to be successful in today’s world,” he said, “you can’t just go on the internet and expect to win.”

He also notes that his retirement will allow him to focus full time on council responsibilities.

Murray — seated in the living room of his South Berkeley home, left to him when his father died — described his campaign as “a combination of high tech and old school.” The high-tech piece has been tough to spot. Murray does not have much of a web presence, such that he missed an invite to the last District 3 candidate forum because its organizers were unable to track down contact information for him online. He’s unfailingly polite and accommodating over email, but often fails to close the loop when requests are made.

Murray has no listed endorsements on his campaign flier, at least one of which was a black-and-white xeroxed sheet of regular letter-sized paper. He does, however, describe outgoing Councilman Max Anderson as a “friend and mentor” and has been appointed by Anderson, Mayor Tom Bates and Capitelli to several public bodies.

Murray said he would not have run for District 3 if Anderson had not been stepping down, and said — when questioned about the Anderson reference on his flier — that the sitting councilman did not endorse anyone in the race. Bartlett, when he learned of that allegation during an interview with Berkeleyside, pulled out his cellphone and got Anderson on the line immediately to set the record straight and have him voice his support for Bartlett.

In a race where others have focused much of their energy on hot topics like housing and gentrification, Murray has a passion for something else. He says his main goal is to hold government accountable, and to make it accessible to the public as much as possible.

That’s one reason, while on the Fair Campaign Practices Commission, he supported getting rid of the real name sign-up card requirement at public meetings. You can now provide any name you’d like, and council will read it. Murray said people should not have to give their name to make their voice heard. He said he’s also been in support of having longer public comment time limits, especially for complex issues, and allowing people to “cede time” (to give it to other speakers) to let them go into more detail.

Murray said he’s also in favor of public campaign financing — including Measure X1 — and scheduling controversial items for their own meetings so those in attendance for other agenda items don’t have to wait so long. He’s proud of his contribution, as former chair of the Energy Commission, to helping bring LED lights to Berkeley to help save the city money and increase its energy efficiency in line with its Climate Action Plan goals. He is also proud of the solar panels on the roof of his home, which his father painted purple to honor Murray’s mother, who preceded him in death.

He said he does, also, see housing costs as an issue, as well as South Berkeley’s decreasing diversity, and would like to find ways to help businesses in the neighborhood, including along the Adeline Corridor, survive: “I believe that one person doesn’t have the answer. It’s going to be a collaborative group effort.”

For a candidate who prides himself on accountability, however, Murray’s campaign has stumbled. It listed no financial information until recently, then suddenly had a $20,000 budget that listed no donors. He told Berkeleyside on Tuesday that he’s “basically self funded” and had already submitted better records to the city clerk’s office.

“I have not asked individual(s) to contribute or fund my campaign because I believe I had the sufficient funds,” he said. Murray said the documentation problem had been due to staffing changes at his campaign, and that he has spent about $18,000 thus far. No breakdown has been available about those expenditures. Murray said he would provide the form by email but has not done so.

In the meantime, he’s being sued by the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission to require him to turn over the appropriate documents, the San Francisco Chronicle reported Wednesday.

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In addition to sit-down interviews, Berkeleyside conducted Q&As with all four candidates. See their responses, and compare the answers in a side-by-side chart. See Berkeleyside’s 2016 Election Hub for complete election coverage.

Related:
Election 2016 Berkeley: Spotlight on District 3 (10.11.16)
Compare all four candidate responses in a grid (PDF)
Housing views show split in South, West Berkeley races (09.13.16)
With mayor and two councilmen stepping aside, Berkeley’s election is heating up (01.14.16)
Watch the forum video from the League of Women Voters
Websites: Coplan || Murray || Matthews || Bartlett

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[Correction: An earlier version of this story said Ben Bartlett had received a $10,000 loan from his wife’s law firm. In fact, the loan was from his wife herself.]