Elections in 1970s
Note: This history was written by David Mundstock and republished here with his permission. The opinions in this piece are his and do not necessarily reflect the positions of BCA members. For original link go to
Berkeley’s electoral history from the Republican era through the Democratic victory in the early 1960s and the disintegration of the liberal coalition resulting from the Vietnam War. Ron Dellums is elected to Congress in 1970.
The battle is joined over Community Control of Police, the April Coalition slate of candidates, and their divided opposition. Loni Hancock was first elected to the Berkeley City Council on April 6, 1971.
The progressive agenda is developed, introduced and rejected in a bitterly divided City Council, torn by political betrayals. Government by initiative begins with Rent Control in 1972. The April Coalition fights its own internal civil war in 1973, and is then defeated by the Berkeley Four, a center right alliance of Democrats and Republicans with a huge spending advantage. Ying Lee Kelley is the only April Coalition candidate to win. Progressive initiatives, such as the Neighborhood Preservation Ordinance, pass.
Councilman D’Army Bailey, elected on the April Coalition slate, is recalled in the summer of 1973 by the conservatives. Bailey had managed to antagonize vast segments of the community, including many former supporters.
The April Coalition was dead, a casualty of the 1973 defeat. 1974 began without any progressive organization at all. Berkeley Citizens Action (BCA) was created to fill this vacuum and made its first endorsements in the November 1974 election.
BCA nominates Ying Kelley to run for mayor against the incumbent, Warren Widener. Widener had been elected with progressive votes in 1971, but then he changed sides and became the leader of the center/right coalition. BCA’s opposition is now the Berkeley Democratic Club (BDC), which relies upon Republican votes.
BCA’s first City Council race and the new progressive organization turns out to be competitive. This was the only Berkeley campaign with spending limited by law. Both sides can claim victory when the ballots are counted.
BCA now has three Councilmembers, with the addition of John Denton. BDC runs the Council with its six votes. A major battle is fought to try and save the historic Ocean View neighborhood from the West Berkeley Industrial Park. This is part of a 20 year legal/political struggle.
BCA was intended to be active in every election. The June 1976 primary was BCA’s first chance to endorse a complete slate of national, state, and local candidates plus ballot measures. From President of the United States to Municipal Court Judge, BCA made a choice and ran a slate campaign. Berkeley measures included an initiative ordinance to save Ocean View and the first attack on traffic diverters. Meanwhile, the United States Supreme Court was destroying all campaign reform laws, including Berkeley’s.
Berkeley’s voters passed a Rent Control Initiative in 1972 and an initiative to save Ocean View in 1976. Legal challenges by the opponents of these measures were successful. On both issues, the BDC City Council majority could have acted to implement the voters’ will, but refused. Positions for and against rent control would define the two parties for decades.
The November 1976 election was primarily about a single contested race for Alameda County Supervisor. BCA was part of a broad progressive coalition supporting John George of Oakland, whose opponent was Billy Rumford, a BDC Councilmember. Tom Bates was also running for his first Assembly term. George and Bates were victorious.
BCA prepared for the April 1977 election amidst great optimism based upon the victories of 1976. Ying Kelley would lead a slate that needed to win three seats for that ever elusive holy grail of the Council majority. However, ideological divisions similar to those that destroyed the April Coalition made it impossible to even nominate four candidates. BCA also supported a new rent control initiative that would face a massively funded landlord attack.
A divided BCA faced an alliance of the BDC plus the landlords who unleashed the most vicious fear smear ever waged against BCA candidates and rent control. The conservative coalition took full advantage of unlimited campaign spending. The result was a BDC sweep, as all BCA candidates and rent control were defeated.
The April Coalition never recovered from its defeat in 1973, when three out of four candidates lost. BCA had suffered a far worse disaster in 1977, a complete sweep. Yet a combination of anger at the conservative smear tactics and new leadership led Berkeley Citizens Action to an amazing revival. Loni Hancock and John Denton continued to resist BDC’s 7-2 Council majority.
The June 1978 primary election was sedate by Berkeley standards. BCA’s participation with an endorsed slate was another sign of the organization’s survival. While Berkeley overwhelmingly defeated property tax cutting state Proposition 13, California passed it. The result would be lower property taxes for owners not tenants. This unfairness made Proposition 13 the unlikely cause of new crusades for rent control throughout California. Rent control was back on the Berkeley agenda.
BCA drafted its own rent control initiative for the November 1978 ballot, seeking to give tenants their share of Proposition 13’s savings. This was measure “I”. Mayor Widener and his Council majority countered with their much weaker measure that also claimed to be rent control, measure “J”. BCA waged a highly successful campaign that led to the passage of “I” and the defeat of “J”.
BCA’s triumph in November 1978 indicated that Warren Widener might be vulnerable in the April 1979 race for Mayor. When Loni Hancock declined to run, BCA suddenly had a primary contest between Councilmember John Denton and (the then unknown) Gus Newport. It took eight ballots and two weeks before BCA managed to nominate a candidate for Mayor.
Unlike 1973 or 1977, BCA emerged from a contested convention united and with a complete slate of candidates, including John Denton for re-election. The glue holding BCA together was a decade-long loathing for the turncoat Widener.
Yet virtually no one believed Gus Newport could actually prevail over Widener, who was seeking his third term as Mayor. The greatest upset in modern Berkeley history occurred on April 17, 1979, with the lowest turnout.
To the shock of everyone, BCA had elected four Councilmembers: Mayor Newport, John Denton, Florence McDonald, and Veronica Fukson. Together with Councilwoman Carole Davis, who switched sides, there was now a progressive majority on the Berkeley City Council. Could this group actually govern?
Rent control supporters drafted a permanent rent stabilization ordinance to replace the temporary measure adopted in November 1978. Signatures were unnecessary, for unlike its three initiative predecessors, the City Council voluntarily placed Measure D on the ballot. Landlords and tenants went to war once more, but BCA was on a winning streak and rent control passed again. The full BCA slate included 18 candidates and ballot measures at the state and local levels. 17 of these carried the City of Berkeley.
Between initiatives passed by the voters and controversial measures that the Council adopted, Berkeley was forever being sued. Affirmative action, the Berkeley Waterfront, review of the police, campaign reform, and a tax on the Oakland Raiders (when playing in Berkeley), were some of the Berkeley issues ultimately decided by judges rather than voters or the City Council.
November 1980 lacked any seriously contested local races. Although Jimmy Carter’s BCA supporters were unable to win the organization’s endorsement for the President, Berkeley was never going to be Reagan country.
The City of Berkeley and the University of California are not good neighbors. University expansion is often perceived as a dangerous threat to the city. In the 1979-81 period, there was a protracted battle over the site of the California Schools for the Deaf and Blind, which were being forced to relocate. It was an omen of ugliness to come.
Berkeley has often received adverse press coverage because of the city’s special politics. With a progressive City Council majority, the media assault seemed to escalate. The majority itself did not last as Carole Davis went her own way. It was another bad sign.
Berkeley’s Republicans had always been the hidden power behind Berkeley Democratic Club victories. By withholding their votes, the Republicans took credit for BDC’s disaster in April 1979.
In 1981 the Republicans were placated by creation of the All Berkeley Coalition (ABC). This new organization brought the Republicans out of hiding as they publicly joined forces with the Berkeley Democratic Club.
The conservative coalition then launched a campaign against BCA intended to frighten Berkeley voters with new tales of dangerous radicals. Anti-BCA mailers were more hysterical than even the previous smear campaigns of 1973 and 1977, and the Berkeley police joined in this ABC/BDC effort. It all worked as intended.
Back in 1985, I was unable to finish writing this chapter on the 1981 campaign. The history ends where I left it, over fifteen years ago.
In April 1981, Berkeley’s voters rewarded the conservative coalition with an ABC/BDC sweep of all four City Council seats. The conservatives were back in control with their new majority.