Op-ed: Why is the Berkeley City Council so right-wing?

You would think in a left-leaning city like Berkeley – a bastion of free speech and the home of one of the soda tax – that the City Council would be a pretty liberal group. So, it came as a surprise to me to learn that this liberal town has a right-wing City Council.

We’re used to thinking of right-wing politics in terms of social issues – anti-abortion, anti-gay marriage, pro-gun, pro-fossil fuels, etc. But this misses the point. The right wing is the business party. In right-wing politics, big business seeks to influence government decisions by backing candidates who will tilt the regulatory and taxation playing field their way. Some of our local council members are pretty clear about this. For example, Susan Wengraf (District 6) said, in effect, at a candidates’ forum that “what’s good for business is good for Berkeley.” A more effective approach, taken by Laurie Capitelli, is to find a wedge issue to distract ordinary voters from the favors that are being granted to big campaign contributors.This year in the presidential race the wedge issue is immigration. In past years it has been gay rights or abortion. The fact that a new wedge issue can be swapped in for an old one, tells you that these issues aren’t the main show. What really counts for the big contributors is whether the levers of government can be used to increase profits.

This is happening right now in Berkeley. Big real estate developers who stand to gain millions on decisions made by the council have tremendous influence on the Berkeley City Council by contributing a significant amount of money to the campaign coffers of four of the eight members of council over the years (Capitelli, Maio, Moore, and Wengraf) and Mayor Tom Bates. Just this week the National Association of Realtors filed paperwork with city reporting independent expenditures of over $90,000 in support of Capitelli, Moore, and Wengraf.

In a liberal place like Berkeley, where every council member can be counted on to vote in favor of gay rights or against the Keystone XL pipeline, the most effective wedge issue turns out to be homelessness. In fact, the best-funded mayoral candidate this year, Laurie Capitelli, is running for office on a “law and order” platform. He said in a recent candidate statement that he is opposed to public defecation – he’s the anti-defecation candidate. This may be a great political move (as if anyone running against him is in favor of public defecation), but it is also a total distraction from the fact that he can be counted on to let builders socialize the costs of their developments and privatize the profits.

Here’s an example. Builders are asking for, and receiving, permission from the city to build apartment towers in the downtown with a sub-standard number of provided parking places. In the meantime, the city has torn down the parking garage between Addison and Center St. and will be replacing it with a new much larger garage built at taxpayer expense.

Here’s another example. The City of Berkeley charges ‘in-lieu’ fees to developers who don’t want to add affordable housing units to their buildings (this was Jesse Arreguin’s proposal). The idea is that since the builders won’t add affordable units to their properties voluntarily (state law now prohibits cities from requiring them to do so) then at least the city can use the in-lieu fees to build affordable units. In recent years, the real-estate supported members of council voted to reduce the in-lieu fees from $28,000 to $20,000 a unit. This reduction coincided with the development of 2211 Harold Way, one of the biggest proposed projects in the downtown, giving millions of dollars back to the developer. [Eds note: Arreguin voted in favor of this discount on Feb. 19, 2013. However he has fought at other times to raise it and voted in favor of raising it to $34,000 in April when the higher fee was adopted by council].

When you hear that Jesse Arreguin is opposed to development, you should know that at other times he has opposed giving a sweetheart deal to some big developers. There are hundreds of people living on the streets in Berkeley, and the council voted to divert money from affordable housing so developers can make more profit – another example of privatizing development profit and socializing the cost.

The ironic thing is that Capitelli’s political strategy is to take advantage of citizen’s natural unhappiness with seeing people sleeping in the streets, and so distract us from the work he has been doing over the last decade to ensure that city government in Berkeley transfers as much wealth as possible from the public coffers to the bank accounts of the big real estate developers.   It is a double win, he can say “Elect me, I’ll protect you from these dirty homeless people.” While at the same time enacting policies that will ensure that the homeless will still be here for the next election.

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Keith Johnson is a resident of Berkeley and a professor of Linguistics at UC Berkeley