Kriss Worthington (l) and Tom Bates (r) sit next to one another at city council meetings but are facing off against one another in the 2012 mayoral race. Photo: Emilie Raguso

Tom Bates’ fourth race for Berkeley mayor has a different dynamic to the previous three. In all of those contests, he faced a single major challenger: Shirley Dean in 2002 and 2008, and Zelda Bronstein in 2006. He won comfortably each time; the closest vote was in 2002, when he beat Dean by 5,000 votes, 55% to 43%.

But this year there are two organized challengers, Jacquelyn McCormick and Kriss Worthington, and, equally important, the new system of ranked choice voting (RCV). If the challengers (along with long shots Kahlil Jacobs-Fantauzzi, Zachary Runningwolf and Bernt Wahl) can keep Bates’ tally below 50% plus one vote, then RCV will be used to produce an instant runoff.

In RCV, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, and her or his votes are redistributed to the voter’s next-ranked choice among the remaining candidates. The process continues until one candidate crosses the 50% threshold. (We’ve embedded a rather cheesy — but clear — video on RCV from the Alameda County Registrar of Voters at the bottom of this post. If you want to read more on the intricacies of RCV there’s a helpful FAQ on the registrar’s website.)

When Jacobs-Fantauzzi announced his candidacy in August, Worthington and McCormick joined him to declare their joint determination to oust Bates. That’s still the plan. The three don’t share a platform — in fact, there are some major policy differences — but each thinks the other could be a path to the mayorship.

“I’m hoping that the combination of Kriss and I running and being such strong competition to Tom will pull his majority down below 50%,” said McCormick. “The combination of votes will put someone other than Tom in the mayor’s seat.”

All they have to do, for encouragement, is to look next door and see what happened in the Oakland mayoral race in 2010. In a race with nine candidates on the ballot, favorite Don Perata won the most first-choice votes, but with only 34%, he was far short of a majority. Jean Quan finished second, with 24%, and Rebecca Kaplan third, with 22%. On the ninth “pass,” or redistribution of votes, Quan garnered 75% of 25,000 Kaplan voters’ second choices, and squeaked through with 51% of the vote.

Could it happen here? If McCormick and Worthington voters are focused on changing the mayor, it’s a possibility. But if voters make their choices more on policy, the odds may decline. Worthington and McCormick do agree on some issues: both are opposed to Measure S, the sidewalk sitting ordinance, and Measure T, the West Berkeley plan, for example. But on McCormick’s signature issues, the so-called sunshine ordinance, Measure U, and the financial accountability ordinance, Measure V, Worthington has conspicuously not taken a position.

Worthington, in turn, supports the pools measures N and O, as well as the streets and watershed bonds, Measure M, while McCormick opposes them has taken no position. Worthington supports the redistricting Measure R; McCormick opposes it.

In the Berkeley political spectrum, Worthington is the most outspoken member of the “progressives,” voting in the city council with Jesse Arreguín and Max Anderson in the minority on many occasions. He supports unionized city workers in many areas (as does Bates), and counts the Firefighters and SEIU among his endorsers.

Jacquelyn McCormick

McCormick, in contrast, has made what she terms a “sustainable financial future” her top issue. The pension terms of unionized city workers have been a constant focus of attention from Berkeley Budget SOS, where she is a leading member. Many of her endorsements come from neighborhood associations (McCormick is on the board of the Claremont Elmwood Neighborhood Association). No unions have endorsed her. McCormick’s politics are not easy to pigeonhole, but she would not find common cause with the council progressives on many issues.

What about Bates? Unlike Worthington and McCormick, he supports Measures S and T. But he’s on the same side of the aisle as Worthington on M, N, O and R. He opposes Measures U and V.

It’s clear that McCormick and Budget SOS have had an impact on some of the terms of the race. Go to the FAQ on Bates’ website, and the first thing a visitor sees is Berkeley Fiscal Facts. The long list leads with the city’s AA bond rating, and emphasizes the low debt payments, hiring freeze and salary freeze under his tenure. Bates responds to the alarming figure of $1.2 billion in unfunded liabilities, often cited by McCormick, by writing “these liabilities are less than 6% of total revenues over 40 years, which is manageable.”

Worthington, too, stresses his fiscal bona fides. He notes his role in creating the city’s “rainy day fund”, his vocal opposition to the city manager contract terms, and says he made the council’s first proposals for pension reform.

Unlike presidential, Senate or even many House races, there is no public polling for a Berkeley mayoral race. So it may be a fool’s errand to guess what the electorate may do on November 6. But Bates’ record of commanding majorities and his certainly superior name recognition (as well as his commanding lead in fundraising, with $20,000 more than McCormick and Worthington combined in the third quarter figures), make it very hard to see him out of the lead.

Bates said Wednesday night at a campaign event at Vik’s Chaat Corner in West Berkeley that he is not overly worried. He does not think what happened in Oakland will happen in Berkeley. In that case, the perceived front-runner, Perata, had a high negativity rating and no incumbent.

“I am running against five different people,” said Bates. “What’s interesting about this race is the people who are opposing me are assuming Berkeley must be like Oakland. We have done some polling. I don’t have the negatives Don Perata had. There was no incumbent in Oakland, so there is a different playing field… Jacquelyn McCormick has not had much experience and Kriss Worthington has been there for 16 years and has a reputation that proceeds him… I am confident.”

Worthington doesn’t think Bates should be so sure.

“Five candidates are running against him,” said Worthington. “Each of us represents  large constituencies that are very dissatisfied.”

In a multi-candidate election, however, finishing with under 50% is a possibility for Bates. If that happens, the election will be decided in effect by whoever finishes third. Their second-choice votes will be redistributed. If the desire of voters to oust Bates supersedes other considerations, Berkeleyans could wake up to a shock result on November 7.

YouTube video

Five Berkeley mayoral candidates face off at neighborhood forum [10.02.12]
Berkeley on course for $250,000 election [10.08.12]

Visit Berkeleyside’s Voter’s Edge Berkeley for complete coverage and tracking of the city’s 10 ballot measures. Visit Berkeleyside’s Election 2012 section to see all our coverage in the run-up to Nov. 6.

Lance Knobel (Berkeleyside co-founder) has been a journalist for nearly 40 years. Much of his career was in business journalism. He was editor-in-chief of both Management Today, the leading business magazine...