District 8 candidates, in ballot order from left: Mary Kay Lacey, Lori Droste, Alfred Twu and Russ Tilleman. Photos: Courtesy

No one might have predicted Berkeley’s District 8 City Council race would feature so much discord.

There have been allegations of a smear campaign, campaign finance violations, reports of sign destruction, arguments over a misleading map and more. District 8 covers southeastern Berkeley. It includes the popular Elmwood shopping district and runs east to the city border.

Three challengers are trying to unseat incumbent Lori Droste, a public policy professor who was elected in 2014 by a narrow margin to replace longtime representative Gordon Wozniak when he retired. Contenders aiming for Droste’s seat are Mary Kay Lacey, an attorney who sits on the city’s Planning Commission; Alfred Twu, a designer and artist; and Russ Tilleman, a green transportation designer.

Berkeleyside spoke with the candidates this week to get their thoughts as election season winds down. The focus of the conversations was the tenor of the race in recent months, and how each person hopes to address some of the big issues in the neighborhood, including the impending closure of Alta Bates, retail vacancies in the Elmwood and the need for more affordable housing in Berkeley overall.

More than any of the council seats up for a vote this year — there are four — the District 8 race has by all accounts been the ugliest.

“I don’t know what started it but I think that, once it started, it kind of escalated,” said Twu, who uses the pronouns “they” and “them.” Of all the candidates, Twu’s campaign has managed to stay outside the fray. Twu said this may be because they (Twu) are aiming for the second spot in the ranked-choice process, so the other candidates “don’t want to make my supporters angry.”

Berkeleyside first began getting reports about drama in the race back in September. It seemed to have started after Tilleman hung signs around town to raise awareness about his campaign platform. In one — entitled “Would you want this piece of wire in your child’s eye?” — Tilleman took aim at a Berkeley firefighter, writing, “He made it clear he didn’t want to waste his time keeping a Berkeley child from losing an eye.” Tilleman wrote that firefighters support Droste and that, “If she is re-elected, I believe firefighters like this one will keep intimidating people who call in a hazardous situation.”

Tilleman signs in Berkeley. Photos: Citizen reporters

Tilleman also posted signs focused on Droste and her support by Berkeley police. He wrote that she “took money from the Berkeley Police Association” — without explaining that the contribution happened in 2014, before public financing was approved, or that the association endorsed a different candidate for District 8 that year. (Police did pay for mailer to support Droste this year, but none of the candidates taking public financing are eligible now for contributions from groups like police unions.)

Tilleman’s signs included several of his complaints about police and prominently featured the words “rape and murder” in capital letters. Another had Droste’s name and the phrase “fascists hate free speech” in large, underlined letters.

“We don’t have to accept this kind of behavior from our elected officials,” Tilleman wrote on one of the fliers.

Strangers and supporters wrote to Droste, and even showed up at her door, with concerns about the signs to tell her they had taken them down. People who wrote Droste called the signs disturbing and awful, and said they were “a new low” in Berkeley elections.

“I think that this kind of negative campaigning has no place in our city or District 8. NO CANDIDATE should campaign in this way,” wrote another. “This kind of smear tactic does nothing to help our city.”

Droste filed a complaint with the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission against Tilleman, alleging the violation of “Unidentified Advertisement or Mailer.” The commission investigated but “found insufficient evidence of a violation of the Political Reform Act.”

Tilleman, in turn, called Droste’s complaint “baseless and irresponsible,” and said the complaint “may have had a negative impact on my reputation.” Tilleman has said he was inspired to run for office, in part, because he hasn’t found Droste to be responsive to his concerns. And he said he was frustrated when she failed to decry the destruction of his signs when the Daily Californian interviewed her about it in September.

Four candidates are running for the District 8 seat on the City Council. They are, from left: Lori Droste, Mary Kay Lacey, Alfred Twu and Russ Tilleman. Photo: Emilie Raguso

Droste said this week that her campaign consultant had advised her to file the complaint against Tilleman, and that she is proud of how she has run her campaign.

“No matter whether one disagrees with my policy stances or not, most everyone in Berkeley will say I’m a civil and respectful person,” she said. “I’m not going to participate in any nastiness. My integrity is more important to me than winning election to Berkeley City Council.”

There have also been reports from parents in one family who said their children posted hand-drawn signs for Droste in the Elmwood that someone then tore down. In another incident, Droste hung signs on bulletin boards during an event at Redwood Gardens, a senior housing complex in the district, and was told a stranger worked quickly to remove them.

“They were literally all ripped down and taken five minutes after I walked around. I did a full lap and got confused because I thought I was lapping myself,” she said. “A staffer told me a woman followed me right afterwards and took everything down.”

Another supporter wrote to Droste to describe a visit from a council member who had lied about Droste’s record. And her campaign signs in the neighborhood have been ripped down repeatedly, too, she said. Her supporters, including former City Councilman Laurie Capitelli, have called it a “smear campaign.”

Challenger Lacey said she’s also had some issues. She said she has seen many Droste signs around the neighborhood, including in “a lot of places where my signs were up and are now down.” Lacey said she didn’t blame Droste herself, but hypothesized that Droste’s supporters might be responsible. Lacey also said she’s largely steered clear of the comments on Berkeleyside, as they have been described to her as “pretty vicious.” Beyond that, she said, she wasn’t aware of much tension in the race.

The focus on Droste makes sense to a large degree, given that she has the incumbency advantage. But it’s also somewhat surprising, as she has a reputation among her colleagues for working well with her peers and having a civil and grounded approach with the policies she recommends — which have often won unanimous support. The East Bay Express recently called Droste “one of the best elected officials in the East Bay,” and the East Bay Times said she was “the only incumbent we recommend.” (For context, there’s only one other incumbent running in Berkeley, and that’s Kate Harrison in District 4.)

Campaign finance mistakes remain an open question

Lacey and Droste both got into trouble recently with the city’s Fair Campaign Practices Commission. The city’s new public campaign financing law allows participating candidates to accept just $50 from any individual. It also prohibits loans. The Lacey campaign appears to have violated both provisions of the law, according to a staff report. Lacey has already received the maximum allowable amount in public financing, $40,000, despite the fact that those initial errors — had they been known — may have disqualified her from it.

Droste’s campaign, meanwhile, held an event on College Avenue in donated space valued at $100. Berkeley’s public financing law caps the donation limit at $50. Her campaign cut a check to the property owner and updated its paperwork.

Lacey said she does not believe there was any legal violation in her case. She’s taken no corporate money (it’s forbidden under public financing rules), and she has complied with the spirit of the law, she added. But a problem did arise: Lacey used a loan to open her campaign checking account, and the FCPC says she took $100 from a single person — her husband — when $50 is the limit. That money included the $50 loan.

Lacey said she’s “not concerned” about the outcome of the FCPC process because she’s not aware of any legal violation. (The FCPC voted Oct. 18 that there was probable cause she and Droste violated provisions of the Berkeley Election Reform Act.)

A similar mistake disqualified District 1 candidate Igor Tregub from getting public financing in the first place: He mistakenly gave himself a $100 loan. But, in Lacey’s case, the city did not catch the error until public money already had been disbursed. So the question remains: What will the city do now to remedy the problem?

The commission has yet to rule on what action it will take, if any. The agenda for its next meeting, Nov. 15, has not been posted.

Policy differences across the candidates

YouTube video

At a forum in September (the video appears above), District 8 candidates shared ideas on various questions from the audience, including how to address affordable housing. There was overlap, but differences emerged as well. All agreed that affordable housing is a critical issue Berkeley must address.

Lacey said there’s a “policy debate about whether we build as much market-rate [housing] as we can and hope that we get trickle-down affordability,” adding: “I’m on the other side of that debate.” She said her focus will be to secure affordable housing “for those who are the most housing insecure” by using creative approaches that include getting people into the “900 rent-controlled units sitting vacant” in the city right now.

Lacey said the city also needs to be cautious about the definitions it uses as it moves forward: “When we define transit corridors as a quarter- or a half-mile from a major bus route, we are talking about building in our entire city. We need to be careful about how we make definitions.”

Twu said they (Twu) would take an “all-of-the-above approach”: strengthening rent control through Proposition 10; passing Measures O and P to get as much money for affordable housing as possible; and “building more housing in general” to get the right “balance between the amount of jobs in the region and the amount of homes.” Twu also lobbied for better access to, and fewer hurdles for, accessory dwelling units, also known as “granny flats” and backyard cottages.

Twu said the city needs to look to Asia as a model, where there’s higher density housing and the transit runs every two minutes. Twu said scooters and other small vehicles, rather than traditional cars, could be used to travel between BART and the hills if residents want to cut down on greenhouse gases.

Tilleman said the city should create a program to encourage homeowners to raise their single-family homes one story and build new units underneath. He said that’s more sustainable than demolition or new construction, and could lead to the creation of many new inexpensive condominiums in Berkeley. Tilleman also said the city needs to look at approaches other than tax increases: “When you have to … do it all with tax increases, it limits the amount of housing you can build.”

Tilleman said building housing near transit “doesn’t do anything for the people who already live here.” He said he has an idea that would allow people to borrow electric vehicles to get back and forth to BART: “The cost can be about the same as riding a bus,” he said.

Droste pointed to the policies she has authored and her endorsements by national affordable housing experts, noting: “I pursue evidence-based policies and not catchy phrases that excite an anti-housing crowd.” She said her work streamlined the city’s affordable housing process and approach to ADUs and ushered in “groundbreaking anti-displacement legislation.” She also wrote the city’s “significant community benefits” package, among other policies.

Droste said she’s gotten “more money in traffic calming” for District 8 “than any other district in the city.” Her Vision Zero plan, to end traffic deaths in Berkeley, was chosen as the No. 1 City Council referral this year, she added.

Plans for Alta Bates, Elmwood vacancies

On the issue of Alta Bates, Twu said it would require “a local effort and assistance from the state” to keep the hospital in Berkeley. Twu said Berkeley might need to create a health-care district, similar to the city of Alameda’s approach, to raise taxes to keep Alta Bates open. Alameda now pays the county to operate its hospital, Twu said, which Berkeley may need to consider in the future.

Tilleman said he’d like to see Alta Bates set up as “single-payer health care for everyone in Berkeley.” That could require a collaboration with Richmond, El Cerrito and other communities to build a big enough pool to support it, he added. He said it could be possible for the community to take over Alta Bates through the eminent domain process, but “it might take a couple of years of really digging into the numbers to see if it would be viable.”

Droste said she already has a record of strong work on Alta Bates, from co-authoring a resolution to oppose its closure to sitting on the mayor’s task force to address the issue. She’s also met with Sutter and local and state officials in her efforts to tackle the problem: “The relationship that I have with Sen. Skinner is going to be the best thing that we can do to try to save community hospitals.”

Like Tilleman, Lacey said eminent domain could potentially be a solution for Berkeley. She is on the mayor’s task force as well. Lacey said it will take a “multi-pronged approach” to save the hospital, and that she’ll be able to use her legal background in land-use matters to find solutions. Having Richmond, El Cerrito, Albany and Berkeley form a “joint powers authority” could also be part of the approach.

Moving on to the subject of retail vacancies in the Elmwood, Lacey said she’d take a carrot-and-stick approach. On the one hand, she said, the city should look into a tax on longtime vacancies, which might involve blight proceedings on certain storefronts that are “intentionally left vacant” for years. But she also said it would be important for the city to look at tax breaks and other incentives to fill the openings.

Droste said she recently wrapped up work with a subcommittee on small businesses, where she’d asked proprietors to come in to share concerns. As part of that process, she said she worked with merchants and city staff on clean-up projects and street beautification, and on getting some big vacancies filled. She, too, said she supports a vacancy tax on retail, but noted it would have to go before voters.

Twu said it would be key to remove barriers for businesses that want to open in Berkeley because it can take as much as a year to get through the city’s process. That’s too much time, Twu said, and many businesses simply can’t afford it.

Tilleman said the city should look into whether it could pull someone’s retail license if a property sits vacant because, as he sees it, that’s a violation of the zoning code. He, too, said businesses have told him how tough it can be to navigate the city’s permitting process, and said it would be good to make it easier: “The city of Berkeley is just particularly obnoxious…. It’s picky about everything: You’ve got to be perfectly up to the latest codes when you do any work inside a building.”

Tilleman and others said they are looking forward to the end of the race, whatever the outcome may be.

“It’s become a lot more confrontational than I had hoped,” he said. “It’s been a long campaign season for everybody.”

Review Berkeleyside’s questionnaires with all four District 8 candidates:

The Downtown Berkeley Association also asked the candidates to answer questions. (The DBA said Tilleman did not respond.)

Emilie Raguso (former senior editor, news) joined Berkeleyside in 2012 and covered politics, public safety and development until her departure in 2022. In 2017, Emilie was named Journalist...