A voter uses a ballot box outside City Hall in Berkeley on Nov. 5. Photo: Pete Rosos

A controversial animal rights activist is running for mayor of Berkeley — and so, seemingly, is a former member of his group who’s accused him of leading a cult.

A contender for re-election to the City Council has sent out a press release announcing she’s already raised $25,000. The incumbent mayor has brought in nearly three times that amount.

A former School Board member is trying to unseat a different city councilwoman — and so are two newcomers.

Political junkies have lately been glued to the presidential primaries and debates, but local 2020 races are beginning to ramp up too. Berkeley Unified has three measures on the March 3 primary ballot, while several candidates have formed committees to run in November. The early campaign finance reports out of Berkeley, covering contributions made through the end up 2019, show some races have already drawn in big bucks.

The only local items on the primary ballot are the school district’s measures E, G and H. (There are county-level items as well.)

Measure E is a brand new parcel tax — a 12-year, $10 million per year, tax starting at 12.4 cents per square foot — supporting teacher and staff salaries. Measure G is the renewal of the district’s general obligation bond for facilities. Property owners would pay $45.21 per $100,000 of assessed property value if the $380 million bond passes. Measure H is the renewal of the district’s maintenance tax, a proposed 10-year tax which would bring in about $7.3 million a year at a rate of 9 cents per square foot.

The Committee for Berkeley Public Schools, formed to support the three measures, has raised around $140,000 so far. The campaign has a headquarters on University Avenue, and has garnered large contributions from teacher and building trades unions, as well as several School Board members and other individuals.

The next largest pot of money belongs to Mayor Jesse Arreguín’s November re-election campaign. The incumbent has accumulated more than $71,000 to run for his second term since 2017. According to his filings, he’s already spent around $46,000 of that. On the City Council, Ben Bartlett, Rigel Robinson, Sophie Hahn and Susan Wengraf have all contributed to the mayor’s campaign.

Arreguín has elected not to participate in public financing, a voter-approved system enacted for the first time in the 2018 election. Participants can only accept individual donations of $50 or less — and can’t accept anything from political action committees — in order to be eligible for a 6-1 match from the city up to a total of $40,000 for council races and $120,000 for mayor. Without using the public financing option, candidates can accept up to the legal limit of $250 per individual.

Voters will select the occupants of four City Council seats (plus the mayor’s) in November 2020. Photo: Emilie Raguso

Two other people have recently formed committees to run for mayor as well. Aidan Hill, a recent UC Berkeley student and activist who ran for City Council in 2018, is one of them. Wayne Hsiung, a lawyer and co-founder of the animal rights group Direct Action Everywhere, or DxE, is the other.

Hsiung is facing numerous felony charges and decades in prison for taking animals from private farms and elsewhere. Hill actually has experience with DxE too but considers themselves a “survivor” of what they’ve described as the organization’s predatory and dangerous tactics. Neither has reported any contributions so far.

Along with Arreguín, Hahn has also raised a hefty sum for her re-election run. The District 5 councilwoman, who represents North Berkeley, already has over $25,000 in contributions. She is not participating in public financing either.

Stephen Murphy, who ran against Hahn in 2016, formed a committee in 2017 to run again in 2020 but told Berkeleyside he no longer plans to join the race.

Three other council incumbents are running for re-election: Bartlett, who represents South Berkeley; Cheryl Davila, who represents West Berkeley; and Susan Wengraf, who serves the Berkeley Hills. Wengraf has not yet formed a committee to run again but told Berkeleyside she intends to.

Bartlett, in District 3, has been raising money for 2020 virtually since his 2016 election. According to filings, he’s raised around $7,400 for 2020.

Deborah Matthews, a real estate broker who ran against Bartlett in 2016, formed a 2020 committee in January. She has applied to use public financing.

Davila also appears to want to hang onto her D2 seat, having formed a committee to run again at the end of 2019. Because the finance reporting period only covers up to Dec. 31, money raised after that is not yet reflected in the city’s portal.

Davila so far has the most competitors. Berkeley Transportation Commissioner Terry Taplin (who’s raised $1,340) and Housing Advisory Commissioner Alex Sharenko ($2,650) are running, and both are using public financing. Karen Hemphill, the Berkeley School Board member who retired from that post in 2018 after 12 years, is also vying for the seat.

Four Rent Board commissioners’ terms are ending in 2020 and only one, Leah Simon-Weisberg, has already formed a committee to run again. She has not reported any contributions yet.

There are also two School Board seats up in 2020, but barely anyone has indicated they want them.

Longtime board member Beatriz Leyva-Cutler told Berkeleyside she isn’t running for re-election. Judy Appel, whose term is also up, hasn’t indicated whether she will.

The only person who’s formed a committee to run is Walter Mitchell, a Berkeley Unified security guard. If he won, he’d have to quit his job in order to preside over the district.

No matter what, the 2020 School Board will be a green one, with only one or two veteran members who have more than two years of experience:  Ty Alper — and Appel, if she runs again successfully. (Julie Sinai was elected in 2018 but had previously served an additional year in an appointed role.)

Or, who knows — with Hemphill trying to switch over to the city side of things, perhaps a former council member will come out of retirement to take a stab at school officialdom.

The next campaign finance reporting period covers Jan. 1 to June 30, with filings due July 31.

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Natalie Orenstein

Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...