City Has Seen a Trend of Incumbent Success

Photo: Jesse Arreguin was re-elected to the city council Tuesday. Incumbents such as Arreguin have been winning in recent years.
Evan Walbridge/Staff
Jesse Arreguin was re-elected to the city council Tuesday. Incumbents such as Arreguin have been winning in recent years.

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Though a clear winner in the District 7 race has yet to emerge, all Berkeley City Council incumbents appear to have retained their seats, following a trend in Berkeley city politics to support incumbent candidates.

The city's newly-implemented system of ranked-choice voting has delayed the conclusion of the District 7 race between incumbent Kriss Worthington and challenger George Beier, since 381 second-choice votes cast for Cecilia Rosales are being used to determine the winner. But with a margin of 371 votes separating the two, Worthington is expected to retain his seat.

This would bring him in alignment with incumbents Linda Maio of District 1, Jesse Arreguin of District 4, and Gordon Wozniak of District 8, who said their respective re-elections show that constituents are happy with their work on the council.

However, some council members said many factors - other than the contentment of voters - contribute to incumbent success during elections, even while the new ranked-choice voting system has been said to favor challengers. All four incumbents agreed that funding, endorsements and name recognition may have kept them in their seats for another term.

In fact, according to Wozniak, a challenger has not beat an incumbent in a City Council race in at least the past eight years.

According to Mayor Tom Bates, who beat incumbent former Mayor Shirley Dean in 2002 to win his position, unseating an incumbent is typically very difficult in any election.

"People would rather keep the devil they know than elect the devil they don't know," Bates said.

Though Wozniak said he thought the new voting system would favor challengers, he added his eight years of experience on council were the basis for much of his community support.

"I think in my case, if the incumbent wins, it's generally because constituents are pretty happy with the job I have done," Wozniak said. "In my case, the big difference was that both of my challengers were relatively new ... they didn't have much experience. That's a big hurdle for challengers to overcome."

He added that major endorsements and name recognition play significant roles in helping incumbents keep their seats, and Maio said that a candidate's qualifications as presented in the voter handbook heavily influence voters. She added the title "incumbent" often influences a significant portion of voters on election day.

One of Wozniak's challengers for the District 8 seat, Stewart Jones, - who garnered 20 percent of the vote - said these factors, in addition to Wozniak's funding, were a part of his "slick" campaign. According to Jones, Wozniak outspent Jones 30 to 1, and most incumbents in the race, with the exception of Worthington, outspent their challengers.

Maio also said her high level of communication with constituents over the past 18 years increased her credibility with voters.

"I don't wait for campaigns to get in touch with my constituents," she said.

Maio's challengers in the race, much like Wozniak's and Arreguin's, were not high-profile political players in their communities prior to the election.

Still, the close race between Worthington and Beier may show that when two candidates are both active and communicative community members, challengers may have the ability to beat out long-standing incumbents, or come close.

"The salient difference (between the races for Districts 1 and 8 and District 7), is that George had been active in his district for a long time. People knew who he was, what he stood for," she said. "I think opponents can win. There has to be a good reason to turn someone out of office."

According to Bates, these elections' results show that people respect Berkeley's government because it is well-run, at least in comparison to those of surrounding cities.

But Arreguin said the maintenance of incumbents' seats does not necessarily mean that there is a level of satisfaction with the council overall, but only that people are happy with their respective districts.

"I'm not happy with the way the council is moving, personally," he said. "I know that some of my constituents aren't either, but they appreciate the work I've done."


Contact Sarah Mohamed at [email protected]

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