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Progressives in Berkeley Challenged by Tradition

November 03, 1986|MARK A. STEIN | Times Staff Writer

BERKELEY — Radical progressives had been knocking on City Hall's front door for two decades before voters finally asked them in two years ago, giving the leftist Berkeley Citizens Action coalition an 8-1 City Council majority.

With an ambitious radical agenda championing low-income renters and locally owned small businesses and the broad backing of local voters, the coalition promised some interesting experiments in municipal government.

Experiments came, all right; so did controversy. People complained that the progressives had plenty of social conscience but little social grace. The same self-righteous streak that seemed like winning bravado to many voters was seen as arrogance once the new order came to power.

Voters rebelled last June, narrowly adopting a system of district elections, which debuts on Tuesday, that is clearly aimed at cutting the radicals' power and may toss some of them out of office.

The new process cuts short council members' four-year terms, requiring everyone to stand for election this Tuesday, and calls for a runoff election between the top two vote getters in each district where a candidate fails to win a majority. If needed, the runoffs will be in December, and the timing is also considered a setback for the radical coalition because University of California students--among the coalition's strongest supporters--will be on Christmas vacation or studying for finals during the campaign.

Coalition Initiative

The coalition has responded with an initiative to return to at-large elections, cancel the December runoffs and award council seats to people who tally the most votes Tuesday.

Few people in this city of 103,000 expect the progressives to lose control of the City Council, but the nonpartisan race should give some insight into how people like living in what critics deride as the "People's Republic of Berkeley."

"People see them (progressive council members) as arrogant, pushing through their own agenda at the expense of the community and neighborhoods," said one leading opponent, a former coalition member who spoke on the condition that he not be named.

"I thought this group stood for greater citizen participation, so decisions were not made by businessmen in some back room somewhere. But now they are the ones in the back room."

Coalition members acknowledge some excesses--"I think in terms of process, we have made mistakes," said Vice Mayor Veronika Fukson--but they trace most of the discord to what they say is a small minority of political moderates and ousted council members.

"Contrary to what our opponents say, we've increased citizen participation--perhaps too much," said Sean Gordon, an aide to Mayor Eugene (Gus) Newport, a widely traveled international peace activist who is leaving Berkeley for a teaching fellowship at the University of Massachusetts.

'Virtual Veto Power'

"It is almost to the point where people think there is so much opportunity for people to talk that everyone has virtual veto power over any decision."

People were not upset by the coalition's more radical actions, such as extending city workers' fringe benefits to both their homosexual and heterosexual live-in lovers or requiring businesses to subsidize local public transit and hire jobless Berkeley residents rather than people living elsewhere.

Rather, the controversy grew out of two traditional city issues: low-income housing and garbage collection. The council decided to build subsidized rental units on the sites of two surplus schools and require homeowners to tote their garbage to the curb for pickup.

People were upset not only with the decisions but with the manner in which they were made. Council members were accused of putting their personal ideology before the wishes of their constituents.

"They haven't represented the people," said Phil Polakoff, a doctor and dark-horse mayoral candidate. "They have established a form of government by political caucus."

Officeholders may change, but decisions are made by the same few non-elected coalition leaders, one disaffected member of Berkeley Citizens Action said.

Critics cite as an example the council's decision on where to build low-income housing. They said bored and indifferent council members held public hearings only after the decisions were made, then blithely dismissed the concerns of the middle-class white and working-class black families near the sites.

Coalition leaders believe that the fight is over the style rather than substance of their policies, which would qualify as wildly radical anywhere else but are sometimes criticized here as timid and bourgeois.

To counter the resentment, the coalition has headed its ticket with mayoral candidate Loni Hancock, an affable and earnest coalition veteran who served on the City Council in the 1970s but not when the group was alienating voters.

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