From Street to Ballot Box: Berkeley Politics in the 1970s

Selections from the David Mundstock Collection

This site presents the material exhibited by the Berkeley Historical Society & Museum (BHSM) in the Fall 2021–Spring 2022 season. It is based on the papers of the longtime political activist and documentarian of Berkeley politics, David Mundstock (1948–2020). His website, Berkeley in the 70s: A History of Progressive Electoral Politics, recorded in detail the evolution of the political landscape in Berkeley. His voluminous papers provide the background for this work and include position papers, political action efforts, fliers, and commentary, with files in chronological order from 1968 to 2010, including detailed subject files and election analyses for the 70s. The many subject files on issues of the period contain such topics as rent control, police review, and redevelopment. His color-coded maps and voting summaries provide a granular look at election results, highlighting the political preferences of various neighborhoods of the city, and his collection of posters adds colorful documentation of the issues and candidates of the period.

The Mundstock Collection came to Berkeley Historical Society through the thoughtfulness and generosity of Lincoln Cushing, who inherited the collection from David Mundstock after his untimely death in August 2020.

While looking at the material quoted directly from the collection, one should bear in mind that they reflect one man’s opinions, and as David Mundstock stated: “Remember I wrote this history in 1984-85 and never updated it.  So please be tolerant of this text, frozen in time.” 

David Mundstock at a street-side voter registration table being interviewed by TV media in 1971, photo by Jim Yudelson.

More on David Mundstock

Contents


Video Interviews


Introduction

No northern American city was more affected by the great social and political upheavals of the 1960s than Berkeley. In a series of dramatic confrontations, including the Free Speech Movement of 1964 and the People’s Park battle of 1969, Berkeley activists took to the streets to protest war, repression, violations of civil rights and liberties, and racism and to advocate for new cultural values and political models. But in the 1970s many of the city’s activists turned from the streets to the ballot box, attempting to achieve their goals through the electoral process. Between 1971 and 1986, they tried to pass legislation through the city council and, when that failed, through initiatives. During these years, the Berkeley Left raised important issues that are still relevant and asked important questions that are still unresolved.

The process actually began in 1966, when leftist Cal graduate student and journalist Robert Scheer challenged incumbent East Bay congressman Jeffery Cohelan in the Democratic Party primary election. Cohelan supported civil rights and organized labor, but he also backed President Lyndon Johnson’s war in Vietnam. Scheer lost the primary but still won 45% of the votes, including a majority in the Berkeley portion of the congressional district. Four years later, in 1970, Berkeley city councilman Ron Dellums defeated Cohelan by combining Scheer’s progressive base with strong support from the Black community. In 1971 Dellums began more than a quarter century of service as the nation’s most politically left member of Congress.

Dellums’s victory demonstrated that it was possible for progressives to win Berkeley elections. Newly minted, the April Coalition ran a slate of leftist candidates for city government in April of 1971. The Coalition won three seats: Loni Hancock, Ira Simmons, and D’Army Bailey. However, once on the city council, D’Army Bailey alienated many and was recalled (see the Timeline for details), but The New Left was now a powerful force in Berkeley electoral politics. 

The April Coalition eventually became Berkeley Community Action (BCA), a full-time party operation with an ambitious platform.  Non-BCA candidates soon formed their own slates, endorsed by the Berkeley Democratic Club (BDC) (and beginning in 1981 by the All Berkeley Coalition, ABC). In the 1970s and early 80s, virtually everyone who was elected to local office in Berkeley was endorsed by either the BCA or the BDC/ABC. 

One of the most divisive issues between the two parties was rent control. The cost of housing in the Bay Area rose steadily in the 1970s, and in 1972, BCA responded with a successful initiative establishing public regulation of rents. To read the twists and turns of this story, please see the page on Rent Control and Neighborhood Preservation. 

Police and law enforcement practices were also the subject of 70s initiatives that divided Berkeley. Police had broken up, and in some cases violently attacked, 1960s demonstrations. There was widespread condemnation of the way the police had turned Berkeley into a war zone. But there was no consensus in Berkeley on how to restrain the police. In 1971, the Community Control of the Police initiative proposed a novel approach, but the initiative failed, only to be succeeded by a more successful initiative in 1978. To read the rest of this story, please see the page on Police, Marijuana and South Africa. This page also details efforts to decriminalize marijuana.

Environmentalism moved into the political main-stream in the 1970s, with important legislation enacted at both the state and federal levels. Berkeley had a long tradition of environmental activism, including the Save the Bay Movement that began in the city in the early 1960s. The People’s Park confrontation of 1969 was in part a conflict over environmental values. Also in 1969, environmental activists established the Berkeley Ecology Center. Community recycling was one of the center’s major goals, and in 1973 it began temporary citywide waste pickup and recycling as a demonstration project. Voters subsequently approved the city paying the center to run a permanent program (which continues to this day).  In the 1980s, the Ecology Center also began operating Berkeley’s farmers markets.

Although the BCA found quite a bit of success with its initiatives, it was less successful in gaining city council seats. Only in 1979 did it gain a majority on the council, which it lost again in 1981. In 1982 activist Marty Schiffenbauer had an idea to improve the party’s fortunes: an initiative that would increase turnout by moving the city elections from April to November. In November of 1984, the BCA won a City Council sweep—an 8–1 majority. However, once in the majority the BCA moved quickly and, some felt, without much citizen input. A particular flash point was the city council’s decision to build low-income housing on school sites and parks. The BCA lost some of its supporters. 

In response, in June of 1986, Berkeley voters approved an initiative in which city council members would be elected by districts instead of at large.  After this, the clout of the parties dwindled. For more on this, see the Berkeley Two-Party System page. 

In conclusion, it is fair to say that 1970–1986 was an unusual era in Berkeley’s history. A grassroots movement that had taken to the streets in the 1960s became a local political party that attempted to radically transform Berkeley city government. The solutions were not easy; while some stuck, many of the issues still trouble Berkeley today. 

This exhibit invites you to examine the issues and initiatives of this contentious period and form your own opinion about the strengths and weaknesses of Berkeley’s two-party politics of 1971–1986. 

We are deeply indebted to David Mundstock for preserving and documenting the heritage of an important era in Berkeley’s political history. 

by Charles Wollenberg,
with contributions by Jeanine Castello-Lin

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