Op-ed: A solution to Berkeley’s political price tag problem

Since 2008, I’ve had the privilege and responsibility of looking out for every Berkeley tenant and landlord while serving on the Berkeley Rent Board. Doing so has provided me a unique look at the skyrocketing cost of housing, the lack of affordable rental units, and the many other difficulties of Berkeley’s challenging housing market.

I’ve been elected three out of the four times I’ve run for office, and, while doing so, I’ve raised thousands and thousands of dollars. Even when our Rent Board slate ran unopposed in 2014, I raised more than $2,000 in order to make sure our message was heard across Berkeley. In my only losing campaign, I raised $18,000 in 2004. (That race was for City Council, and the eventual winner outspent me by $7,000 for a total of $25,000, which is still less than what it takes to win a council seat in 2016)

Money is a fact of life in political campaigns, but it shouldn’t be the decisive one. Yet here in the alleged home of tolerance and liberalism, money is a way that the entrenched power brokers prevent the rest of us from serving as an elected official.

Elections are expensive and the ability to raise money has an outsized role in the electoral process. Successfully distributing a message to voters through advertisements, mailers and staff requires tens of thousands of dollars, even in a small, well-educated city like ours.

A recent report from the Berkeley Fair Elections Coalition confirmed that Berkeley elections have been expensive, but not competitive. Seven of the last eight district City Council races went to the candidate who raised the most money, as did the last mayor’s race. Looking at all competitive Berkeley City Council races over the last 10 years, the winning district City Council candidate raised over $30,000 on average. The winning mayoral candidate raised $133,574 on average since 2002.

Here’s a statistic that sums up the problem: more than half of Berkeley campaign funds come from fewer than 350 households, or less than 1% of Berkeley.

Is there any doubt that those 350 households are not scrambling to make rent every month? Like too many of our city’s renters, anyone who is not well off, or extremely well connected, will quickly be priced out of both running for office and making a meaningful contribution to a favorite candidate.

Fortunately for the future of Berkeley’s democracy, there’s a measure on the ballot this election that will reduce the role of big money our elections. Measure X1, also known as the Berkeley Fair Elections Act, would establish a system of public financing for Berkeley elections — amplifying the voice of small donors and expanding the pool of candidates who can compete for office.

Here’s how it works: candidates for Mayor and City Council who pledge to accept no more than $50 per person are rewarded with $6 of public funding for every $1 raised from everyday Berkeley residents. That means a donor who can afford to give $10 or $20 to a candidate — but not hundreds — has a larger impact on the campaign. It also means that candidates who don’t have access to wealthy donors can successfully fund their campaign with small contributions.

Measure X1 has garnered the support of a diverse coalition of Berkeley citizens and organizations, including the Sierra Club SF Bay Chapter, California Common Cause, ACLU of Northern California, the Berkeley Tenants Union and NAACP Berkeley, and a majority of Berkeley City Council members.

Jesse Arreguín, councilman and mayoral candidate recently explained: “It’s very difficult to run for office in Berkeley if you are not independently wealthy or have access to lots of major donors.” Laurie Capitelli, also a councilman and mayoral candidate, explained that Measure X1 “will also broaden the base in terms of the number of people who can participate in the process.”

In this time of tumultuous national campaigns, we cannot be distracted from the local campaigns that will have the most immediate effect on us. These are also the ones where our individual votes have the most impact due to the smaller pool of possible voters.

Measure X1 makes the most powerful politics — local politics — accessible to all Berkeley residents. Running for office in Berkeley should require time, dedication and a vision for our city’s future, but it shouldn’t carry an unreasonable price tag. On Tuesday, please vote YES on Measure X1.

Berkeleyside welcomes submissions of op-ed articles. We ask that we are given first refusal to publish. Topics should be Berkeley-related, local authors are preferred, and we don’t publish anonymous pieces. We also ask that the op-eds are grounded in facts, not speculation or unsubstantiated accusations. Email submissions as Word or Google documents or embedded in the email to editors@berkeleyside.com. The recommended length is 600-1,200 words. Please include your name and a one-line bio that includes full, relevant disclosures. Berkeleyside will publish op-ed pieces at its discretion.

Jesse Townley is Chair of the Berkeley Rent Board.