Council Progressively Moderate in Bates Era

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Reporter talks with Council

Assistant News Editor Stephanie Baer talks with Councilmember Gordon Wozniak, Councilmember Jesse Arreguin, and Former Mayor of Berkeley Shirley Dean.

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Efforts to silence an outspoken minority within the Berkeley City Council have been ramped up for the coming November elections as Mayor Tom Bates and other more moderate council members seek to form a single and harmonized voice to represent the city.

Bates, voted into office on the strength of his "progressive" leadership as a state Assemblymember, has in recent years drifted increasingly toward Berkeley's more liberal version of a political center and - through his push to unseat progressive incumbents Kriss Worthington and Jesse Arreguin - is on a path to change council dynamics by possibly eliminating opposition to a more unified and sometimes moderate agenda.

District 7's Worthington and District 4's Arreguin remain unendorsed by any fellow council members, except for Councilmember Max Anderson. This year's new ranked-choice voting system also encouraged Bates to dually endorse District 7 challengers George Beier and Cecilia Rosales and District 4 challengers Jim Novosel and Eric Panzer to encourage voters to remove the two from office with either replacements, respectively.

In recent years, Arreguin and Worthington - occasionally joined by Anderson - have been a minority on the council, voting in favor of more progressive items, which are consistently shot down in a 7-2 vote.

"It's hard to imagine why people are fighting so hard when they get their way much of the time anyway - that they want to wipe out the only two or three people who dare to question," Worthington said. "Do you really have to have a nine to nothing vote? Is that so important?"

Despite inherent differences in the political ideologies of the council members, Wozniak said traditional divisions between progressives and moderates have been replaced in recent years by a "new center" and, in opposition, a "consistent minority" made up of Arreguin and Worthington.

The minority, Councilmember Gordon Wozniak said, has a "different agenda" while the "center" represents a mixed bucket of ideologies across the political spectrum.

Some council members insist this divide within the council is part of a historical rift that was also present during former Mayor Shirley Dean's two terms, though political differences at the time split the council more evenly in a 5-4 vote.

In comparison, other council members maintain that differences in political ideologies are less apparent since Bates took office in 2002.

A long history of battling between the progressive and moderate groups on the council fueled Bates' campaign when he was elected in 2002, at which time he said the "City Council was at each other's throats."

"It was almost like a food fight - it was an embarrassment," Bates said. "Shirley Dean ... did not get along with the City Council majority. She couldn't do what she wanted to do ... what I was able to do was stop the food fights (and) bring unity."

In an interview, Dean said that, while serving as a "moderate" mayor, she never held a majority vote as two groups emerged - Berkeley Citizens Action, a strong alliance of self-described progressives, and the Berkeley Democratic Club, which came to be known as moderate - within the council's landscape, causing moderate items to fail in a close vote.

"It was a degree of how much of a progressive you were, whether you were very progressive or moderately progressive," she said. "It was really kind of a war of labeling and, of course, the BCA labeled me as a conservative, almost Republican."

Bates said the divide present during Dean's mayoral reign has dissolved. But a break in council unity is often apparent at meetings as Worthington, Arreguin and sometimes Anderson seem to have formed a more progressive minority often at odds with Bates and several other council members.

Moderate proposals are now often passed easily through council and are sometimes even brought to the table by Worthington and Arreguin. But some of the most progressive initiatives that would have the most direct impact on the city, almost always proposed by one - or both - of the two, have been at the root of hours and sometimes weeks of discussion ending with little result.

While some debates between these two sides seem to drag on, many community members in meetings throughout the past year have complained that members of both the Worthington-Arreguin duo and what Arreguin called the "more moderate faction" seem too polarized, having already decided how to vote without considering comment from those outside their alliances.

"I don't understand what's happening in city government," Dean said. "Why it is so convoluted? Why it is so behind the times? I mean, Berkeley ought to be a leader, and it is not ... what we do not have on our council is healthy debate. It's almost as though everything is decided beforehand."

If Worthington and Arreguin are voted out of office come November, the council's seemingly intentional evolution toward a unified and less politically-aligned body may be complete, although it may possibly also eliminate some of Berkeley's most "progressive" leadership.

"On a scale of one to 10 - 10 being most progressive - Berkeley's probably a nine so ... it's all relative," Bates said. "Nobody knows what the heck it means to be progressive anymore. What does it mean to be progressive?"

Sarah Springfield of The Daily Californian contributed to this report.


Stephanie Baer is the lead city government reporter. Contact her at [email protected]

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