Incumbents historically hold advantage in Berkeley elections

Mayor Tom Bates speaks at the Daily Cal 2012 Election Forum. He is one of six candidates running for mayor.
Derek Remsburg/File
Mayor Tom Bates speaks at the Daily Cal 2012 Election Forum. He is one of six candidates running for mayor.

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Incumbents have traditionally held certain advantages in elections, but hope for change within Berkeley City Council inspires challengers to run despite the odds.

Over the last 20 years, election results show relatively low turnover within the City Council, as there are no set term limits for mayors and council members in Berkeley. Since the current district boundaries were established, most mayors and council members have served at least two terms.

According to Denise Roth Barber, managing director of the National Institute on Money in State Politics — an organization that analyzes the influence of campaign finances on state-level elections — one of the main factors contributing to why incumbents have these advantages is the fact that voters often do not like voting for the unknown.

“Part of it is just that people don’t inherently like change,” Barber said. “We’ve seen nationwide incumbents with higher success rates … if we looked statewide, we’d see similar notices.”

Berkeley’s incumbency trend is not novel — on a nationwide scale, 85 percent of incumbents in the U.S. House of Representatives and 84 percent of U.S. senators were re-elected in 2010, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics.

Currently, only Councilmember Susan Wengraf is serving her first term on the council. Other council members have all been re-elected, and Councilmember Linda Maio has been on the council for more than two decades.

“It is what it is,” said mayoral candidate Jacquelyn McCormick. “When you elect to run against an incumbent, you give it your best shot and hope that your message will resonate with voters.”

Denisha DeLane, a candidate for council in District 2, said incumbents can actually face disadvantages depending on the issues they have or have not addressed, since they already have a record.

“You have to really demonstrate … that when times were tough that you rolled up your sleeves alongside residents and listened to their concerns and worked with them,” she said.

Some, including DeLane and Sophie Hahn, a candidate for District 5, said they hope to better engage with the community in their respective districts to address needs that have not yet been met.

Unlike district elections, however, the mayoral election is citywide and makes campaign spending more expensive and contact with voters much more difficult, said Mayor Tom Bates.

But Bates — who is now running for a fourth term after 10 years as mayor — said unseating the incumbent may not be as difficult as it seems, citing his experience in 2002 when he defeated former mayor Shirley Dean, who was elected in 1994.

“It’s just name identification,” he said. “People know who I am, and a lot of people don’t know who the other people are … so they’ll probably vote for those they know, and that’s statistically true.”

Kriss Worthington, who has been a council member since 1996 and is now running for mayor, said Berkeley needs a new mayor who will address residents’ concerns.

“It’s called an election, and the voters can set limits on the terms,” Worthington said. “We’ll see whether a majority of the people think it’s time for a change.”

Daphne Chen covers city government. Contact her at [email protected].