So far, this year’s race for Berkeley mayor seems to be composed of two parties: Tom Bates and everyone else.
As a 10-year incumbent, Bates is an easy target for the other candidates. But opponents are placing too much emphasis on criticizing his record when voters really need to see clear alternatives in order to decide whether they want Bates out. His challengers must do more to distinguish themselves from one another — simply being opposed to the incumbent is not enough.
The problem was most visible last Wednesday, when the Berkeley/East Bay Gray Panthers held the municipal election’s first mayoral forum at the North Berkeley Senior Center. Four of Bates’ five opponents — excluding UC Berkeley professor Bernt Wahl, who doesn’t seem to care if he wins the race — framed much of their discourse around proving that they are more progressive than Bates. Previously, three challenging candidates — current Berkeley City Councilmember Kriss Worthington, Jacquelyn McCormick and Kahlil Jacobs-Fantauzzi — indicated that they are forming a coalition to bring Bates down. McCormick and Jacobs-Fantauzzi even endorsed each other.
At the forum, Worthington told the audience that the city needs “a mayor who thinks senior citizens should be allowed to come to City Council meetings and not be disrespected. It’s time for a new mayor.” If Worthington and the other candidates really want to win, they should devote more time to discussing their own solutions rather than deriding the mayor’s actions.
In a standard election, alliances like the one between Worthington, McCormick and Jacobs-Fantauzzi would be highly unusual, but this ailliance is a product of the city’s ranked-choice voting system. Voters will be able to rank three preferences for mayor, and if one candidate does not receive more than 50 percent of the vote in the first round, the least popular candidate will be eliminated. That candidate’s second and third-rank votes will then be redistributed until a winner emerges.
Yet even though the system allows for such alliances, candidates can’t simply focus on attacking the incumbent at the cost of providing less substance from their own campaigns. A candidate should win on his or her own individual merits so that the city has a suitable mayor. Ranked-choice voting is not an excuse to change the way candidates approach the issues.
There is too much at stake in this election to choose a candidate who is not properly prepared to face Berkeley’s challenges. Candidates’ campaign rhetoric needs to focus on the issues voters care about, like redistricting, the ability to sit on city sidewalks and the local economy. When candidates find their arguments solely based on what will set them apart from Bates, this runs the risk of electing a candidate without a clear vision for the city. While Bates’ term as mayor absolutely can and should be scrutinized, it should not be the centerpiece of the election.