07 November 2006

I Voted

And so it says on the red, white and blue, stars-and-stripes-bedecked sticker now adorning my breast pocket. Why I am wearing it, and why anyone who should happen to notice it as they pass me on the street would care, is a matter of some mystery to me. It's just that they were handing them out for free at the polling place, and I like free things.

Voting in Berkeley is always going to be a bit surreal. The very patriotically American-looking "I voted" sticker itself seems an odd thing to encounter in a city that for the most part refuses to acknowledge that we are affiliated in any way with George Bush's Evil Empire (for those of you not up to speed on the Berkeley Weltanschauung, the EE=the USA, not those misunderstood People of Multicultural Diversity who, true, might want to blow us up, but only because George Bush drove them to it with his imperial machinations). That's not to say that Berkeley takes no interest in American politics; in fact, one of this year's ballot propositions is a recommendation from the City of Berkeley to Congress, advising it that George Bush should immediately be impeached. Advice from the City of Berkeley on how to run a country, a company, or, for that matter, a lunatic asylum, is about as useful or welcome as advice from North Korea on how to create a free and open society, but I expect that will have escaped the notice of local electors, who will probably approve it.

Because the polling place has been moved this year to a nearby firehouse, there was actually an American flag flying outside, the firefighters being among the few Berkeleyans with the temerity to fly the national flag within city limits. But inside, apart from one voter loudly explaining to his girlfriend why one of the mayoral candidates is clinically insane (he's probably right), it could have been Anytown, USA.

There's something deeply comforting and assuring about participating in the democratic ritual, even when you're dubious that anything of great importance will come of it. This was the first time since - oh, I don't know, 1992, maybe - that I voted in person. Since then I've either used absentee ballots or, in recent years, not voted at all because I wasn't really living here. I wasn't sure I was going to vote this year, either, but now that I expect to be living in the United States again, it seems as though I should have something to say about who's running the place. I felt less certain about whether I should vote on issues specifically related to Berkeley, since I hope to be out of here as soon as possible. But in light of all the griping I've done about this town, and all the years I've spent in it, I figured I might as well have my say one last time. It's not like anything or anyone I voted for is going to win anyway.

The main reason it felt important to vote this year - helping the Democrats to take back control of Congress so as to put a brake on Bush's excesses - doesn't really apply in Berkeley. The idea of anyone other than a left-wing Democrat representing this area in Congress is about as plausible as the Ku Klux Klan choosing an African-American to be its next Grand Dragon. The Berkeley continuum of political acceptability runs from Clinton Democrats on the far right and moves steadily leftward from there. Our Congresswoman, Barbara Lee, cast the only vote against the 2001 attack on Afghanistan; she'd be classed as a moderate, as would Mayor Tom Bates, who in a previous incarnation was one of the most liberal members ever to sit in the California State Assembly.

Bates has got quite a few people angry with him, primarily because he allowed developers to build a few new apartment buildings downtown (prior to the late 90s, almost no new housing had been built in Berkeley since the 1970s, during which time the city's population dropped by more than 10%). To preservation-minded Berkeleyans, who have been known to riot if a homeless encampment (aka People's Park) is ever so slightly disrupted, this is tantamount to treason, so it was to be expected that Bates would face some stiff opposition. But silly me thought that at least one of his opponents might run from the right (e.g., as a centrist Democrat).

Obviously I've lost touch from being away from Berkeley so long, because of the three candidates vying with Bates, one is considerably to the left, one is a hippie-dippie "Native American" by the name of Running Wolf, and the third is a stark, staring bonkers member of the tinfoil hat/9/11 was a hoax brigade.

Our local city councilperson is no prize, either. You don't generally hear a word said against her because she's disabled (confined to a wheelchair), which runs neck-and-neck with being a Person of Color when it comes to conferring sainthood, Berkeley-style. She's also a bit of a dingbat, and a huge proponent of keeping Berkeley the Way It Is, i.e., an open-air refuge for dysfunctional street people and highly paid social services bureaucrats. She'll probably be re-elected in a landslide.

One of the issues I had to struggle with most is about extending a property tax surcharge for "schools." As usual with these things, it's being sold as "for the kids," though in reality the prime beneficiaries will be administrators and political appointees. The trouble with voting no is that any spending cuts made as a result will certainly indeed be taken from "the kids" and not through laying off superfluous curriculum advisers and self-appointed facilitators. Whereas a "yes" might mean that some of the extra money would eventually trickle down to those for whom it was intended, though considering he voracity of Berkeley's edu-apparatus, this is by no means certain. A further problem with voting yes is that it gives both tacit and concrete approval to a system that has been nothing short of disastrous for minority students; Berkeley sends a high proportion of its white and Asian students to the best universities in the country, but its black students might as well be attending school in 1950s Alabama. A disproportionate number of them graduates only to unemployment and/or penal institutions, largely because - at least in my opinion - anyone who dared attempt imposing minimal academic or behavioral standards would be swiftly smeared as a racist and cultural imperialist.

So I ended up voting no on the school tax, not because I'm against schools, but because I'm very much against leaving them in the hands of the dingbats who've been running them in Berkeley for the past few decades. I feel a bit churlish about it, but I don't know any other way of sending a message. Voting for a new school board alone won't do it, as candidates tend to inhabit the same spectrum generally found in Berkeley, i.e., moderately leftist to complete loony tunes.

I voted for Angelides for governor, but only because I don't think he has a prayer of winning. If it were a close race, I might give more serious consideration to Schwarzenegger, who despite getting off to a very bad start, hasn't turned out that badly. But Angelides is closer to my own views on things like the minimum wage and the environment; the main reason I wouldn't want him to win (apart from the fact that he seems to be utterly hopeless as a politician) is his forthright support for affirmative action, which I just as forthrightly oppose. I couldn't bring myself to vote for Jerry Brown for Attorney General; he's been such a disaster when it comes to law enforcement in Oakland that I can't imagine putting him charge of it for the whole state. At the same time, I couldn't vote for his right-wing opponent, either, so someone else is going to have to decide that race.

Only a few hours now before we find out whether the Democrats will be successful. While I'd prefer to see them control at least one house of Congress, I don't want it to be by that big a majority, because I don't want them thinking they've got a mandate for what ultimately isn't much of a program beyond "We hate Bush" and "Republicans are evil." If I thought there was a chance in hell of seeing progress toward national health care or a Manhattan Project-style push for energy self-sufficiency, I'd be considerably more enthusiastic, but I honestly don't expect much out of them beyond arrogant sniping and moral posturing. John Kerry's hamhanded blunder, with which he may have succeeded in costing the Democrats an election he's not even running in, serves as the archetypal example.

I found voting harder than usual this time, probably because I no longer have a firmly defined political party or ideology to dictate for me. Well, I'll confess to reacting viscerally on a couple issues: I voted yes on the oil tax primarily because I was so sick of the oil company ads against it (and in spite of being equally tired of hearing Bill Clinton blabber in favor), and yes on the cigarette tax because a) I hate smoking; and b) as long as teenagers and young 20-somethings can afford cigarettes, they're too cheap. I skipped over more races and issues than I have in the past because I simply didn't know who or what was best. But I tried my best, did my duty and all that, so don't come complaining to me if it all goes tits up. Especially if you didn't bother to vote yourself.


Anonymous said...

You really need to stop obsessing over Bekreley's liberal excesses and look at the big picture.

In America as a whole, it has been the far right that has exercized power to objectionable excesses.

And it has been the far right which has caused the insolvency of this country, the dissolution of centuries old Constitutional rights, and the deaths of perhaps a million innocents - almost 700,000 in Iraq alone.

Compared to any of this, the worst excesses of Berkeley's most liberal figures is child's play.

kendra said...

where'd you vote? totland?

i just got back from being an election official. all in all, my precinct was tame. very tame.

Psmith said...

I've never gotten an "I Voted" sticker. I want one.

I did talk to a poll worker, as I waited, who told me she'd been there since 5:30am (it was 7:30pm now) and that the two Greek guys sitting near her "think they know _every_thing."