News analysis: Who will control Berkeley’s City Council post-election?

Old City Hall. Maudelle Shirek building. Photo: Nancy Rubin
Who will control Berkeley’s City Council post-election? No one knows, but there are a number of distinct possibilities. Photo: Nancy Rubin

“Nobody knows anything,” said screenwriter William Goldman about Hollywood’s inability to figure out which movies would be hits and which would be flops. The same is true about Berkeley’s local elections. If Berkeleyside were so minded, we could do election punditry until the cows come home. But there’s zero data, or close to zero. There’s no possibility for a Berkeley 538 or Upshot, sifting lots of data sources to give some insight into the election.

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What we do know in 2016, however, is that there are an unusual number of open races: for mayor and for two City Council seats. Because of the power of incumbency in local races particularly, open races present a rare chance for the dynamic of city politics to change.

Berkeley’s City Council has had a clear majority supporting Mayor Tom Bates, generally with a 6-3 vote, for years. The three-vote minority, Jesse Arreguín, Kriss Worthington and Max Anderson, is frustrated more often than not.


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But Bates is retiring. If Councilman Laurie Capitelli, currently representing District 5, wins, the mayor’s vote will largely be a continuation of Bates’ positions. But if Arreguín wins (or, far less likely, Worthington), the mayor’s vote shifts from a Berkeley moderate position to a self-described progressive one. Similarly, if Capitelli’s current District 5 seat is won by Sophie Hahn, a moderate will be swapped for a progressive. If Stephen Murphy wins Capitelli’s seat, the current council majority will be shored up on most votes. Anderson is also retiring: on the stated positions of the four candidates running for the District 3 seat, it is harder to predict who will be a regular moderate or progressive vote.

It’s possible that the two council majority incumbents running in Districts 2 and 6, Darryl Moore and Susan Wengraf, will be unseated. But recent electoral history makes betting against an incumbent in Berkeley a bad choice.

We might know what happens late tonight as the votes are counted. But if a race goes to ranked-choice voting and margins are close, Berkeleyans could be waiting a long time for results. Two years ago, in the open council race for District 8, Lori Droste was declared the winner by 16 votes eight days after election day.

Here are the possibilities that might emerge.


No change: If Capitelli wins the mayor’s race and Murphy wins District 5, the current council majority will probably still be 6-3 or even 7-2 on many issues, depending on how Anderson’s successor votes.

Majority flips: If Arreguín becomes mayor, Hahn wins District 5, Anderson’s successor turns out to be a reliable progressive vote, and either Moore or Wengraf loses, the current council minority would become a majority with five reliable votes.

Wait and see: If Arreguín becomes mayor, Hahn wins District 5, and Anderson’s successor turns out to be a reliable progressive vote, the council becomes a 4-4 deadlock on many issues. The council majority would only be determined by the result of a special election to fill Arreguín’s District 4 seat. If Arreguín’s successor follows in his footsteps, the new mayor would count on a 5-4 majority on many issues. If the new District 1 council member was a Berkeley moderate, however, there would be many issues where the mayor would most likely find himself in a four-vote minority.

The one certainty is we’ll be covering all the twists and turns on Berkeleyside.

Can’t get enough of Berkeleyside election coverage? Check out our election hub, with details of all our stories and the many (not kidding: there are a lot) op-ed contributions on the election. Want some last-minute guidance for your own ballot. Visit the Berkeleyside Voters’ Edge site, done in collaboration with MapLight.