Candidates face uncertainty in Berkeley electoral processes for November election

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Starting May 29, candidates running for local office in the Nov. 3 election were able to begin collecting signatures to offset filing fees, but COVID-19 has disrupted parts of the electoral process.

Traditionally, to run for office, candidates can pay the filing fee of $150 or offset this fee by collecting signatures from registered voters. The impracticability of in-person outreach, however, has made it difficult for new campaigns to gain traction and for incumbents to focus on the election.

Leah Simon-Weisberg, vice chair of the Berkeley Rent Stabilization Board, said she prefers the tradition of getting in-person signatures.

“It gives you a vehicle to share with your community that you’re running, and it’s a way for people to show they support you,” Simon-Weisberg said. “It’s also an egalitarian way of doing it. What matters is that people support you rather than how much money you have.”

The COVID-19 shelter-in-place order is making this outreach difficult, however. Alejandro Soto-Vigil, a rent board member who is termed out in December, said he expects that people will simply pay the filing fee this cycle. Berkeley Unified School District, or BUSD, President Judy Appel, who is running for reelection, also said she will not be collecting signatures as long as stay-at-home orders are in place.

“We’ve never been in this situation before, to have to run a campaign and not be able to participate in house parties, door-to-door or forums that are put on by various agencies and organizations and debates,” said Susan Wengraf, a Berkeley City Council member who is running for reelection.

According to Appel, the Berkeley Federation of Teachers, which is BUSD’s teachers’ union, has already endorsed candidates, but she does not know if or how other groups are going to choose who to support if endorsement meetings are not held.

Similarly, the Berkeley Tenant Convention is traditionally hosted every election cycle, in which progressive groups and community members gather in order to vote on candidates who will run for rent board on the convention-selected slate. This year, a traditional convention cannot be held, which Soto-Vigil said he sees as a disadvantage for pro-tenant candidates.

“The landlords have the best chance of winning right now. The pro-tenant slate folks don’t have a lot of money, so they do a lot of walking and talking and paper distribution,” Soto-Vigil said. “We know that name ID matters, and if there’s no tenant convention, there’ll be some confusion with the voters.”

Councilmember Ben Bartlett, who is running for reelection, said he has not been thinking about his campaign and has been focused on the pandemic.

“The second phase of my work has been focused on the economic pandemic, finding ways to raise money for small businesses and tenants, and getting people emergency relief,” Bartlett said. “My higher duty is to protect the residents.”

The pandemic has heightened economic stress, but it has also highlighted the importance of local government. Simon-Weisberg said the rent board’s eviction moratorium made a positive impact on Berkeley tenants.

Appel and outgoing school board member Beatriz Leyva-Cutler underlined the need for a school board that can increase equity objectives and improve the quality of distance learning as Berkeley education faces budget cuts of more than $7 million.

Looking forward, Aidan Hill, vice chair of the Berkeley Homeless Commission and mayoral candidate, said they think there is potential for meddling in this election and candidates should be willing to run open and transparent campaigns.

The people of Berkeley “deserve to know their elections are in good hands by the city clerk’s office,” Hill said. “It’s important because, even if we don’t change things at the presidential level, we can choose the type of leaders we will have in the future at our local level.”

The seats up for election in November are mayor, four rent board seats, two school board seats and City Council seats for Districts 2, 3, 5 and 6.

Contact Catherine Hsu at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @catherinehsuDC.