Berkeley’s Two-Party System

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Ron Dellums’s congressional victory in 1970 demonstrated that it was possible for progressives to win Berkeley elections. The result was the April Coalition, a grassroots political organization backing a slate of candidates on the April 1971 municipal election ballot. The coalition achieved a substantial victory, with Loni Hancock, Ira Simmons, and D’Army Bailey winning seats on the city council. The three eventually developed personal and policy disagreements, and Bailey was recalled from office. But the New Left had become an established force in Berkeley politics.

The April Coalition morphed into the Berkeley Citizens Action (BCA), an effective grass roots political organization, which endorsed left candidates loyal to the organization’s principles and platform. In response, moderate and mainstream Democrats gravitated to the Berkeley Democratic Club (BDC) as an alternative to the BCA. Eventually, the moderate Democrats joined what was left of the Berkeley Republican Party to form the All Berkeley Coalition (ABC) to oppose leftist candidates and issues. In the 1970s everyone who was elected to local office in Berkeley was endorsed by either the BCA or the BDC/ABC. Two local political parties, largely unrelated to national political organizations, had come to dominate Berkeley elections.

 Black Voting Power

Most of the Berkeley electorate was more or less evenly divided between the two parties. But Black voters were one significant bloc that was up for grabs. By the 1970s, Blacks made up about one quarter of Berkeley’s population. They had become increasingly politically active, stimulated by the national struggle against racism and locally by public school desegregation, demands for ethnic studies programs, and the rise of the Black Panther Party. Berkeley Black residents would often split their votes, supporting the African American candidates on both parties’ slates. Thus it was in the interest of both leftists and moderates to seek out and support strong Black candidates. Warren Widener, Berkeley’s first Black mayor, was elected in 1971 and became a leader of the BDC/ABC bloc. Gus Newport, a self-proclaimed democratic socialist and a loyal member of BCA, was elected the city’s second Black mayor in 1979.

                           

 Taking the Initiative

BDC/ABC had a city council majority for most of the 70s, but BCA supporters set the political agenda by placing initiative measures on the city ballot. California law facilitated the initiative process, and during the 1970s no city took more advantage of that fact than Berkeley. BCA activists like Marty Schiffenbauer became experts on initiative law and the petition process by which issues could be placed on the ballot. Berkeley voters faced at least one controversial initiative measure in every municipal election during the 70s. The initiatives were on a wide variety of subjects, including divestment of South African assets, marijuana legalization, rent control, neighborhood preservation, community control of the police, and recycling.

                                

End of an Era

In 1982 activists led by Marty Schiffenbauer persuaded Berkeley voters to support an initiative that changed the dates of city elections from odd to even years, ensuring that the local contests would occur at the same time as state and national elections. Schiffenbauer believed this would benefit BCA by resulting in greater voter turnout, particularly among UC students. It turned out he was right. BCA swept the 1984 elections, resulting in an 8-1 leftist majority on the city council. Berkeley council members were elected citywide, and therefore even a small voter majority for the BCA slate resulted the party winning all the open seats.

In control of city government, BCA council members became divided over several matters. The council discussed plans to place affordable public housing in the flatlands, a proposal vigorously opposed by many West Berkeley residents. This resulted in a successful 1986 initiative establishing district elections for city council seats. BDC/ABC supported the initiative, correctly assuming that districts in some parts of the city would elect moderate or conservative candidates. Although BCA and BDC survived for many more years, the initiative was the beginning of the end Berkeley’s local two-party system. Independent candidates with strong neighborhood support found they could win elections even if they were not on one or another party’s slate. A unique era in Berkeley political history was coming to an end, but many of the unresolved conflicts and questions raised by the politics of the 70s continue to face the city today.

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