District 2 candidates (from left to right in ballot order): Terry Taplin, Alex Sharenko, Cheryl Davila and Timothy Carter
District 2 candidates (from left to right in ballot order): Terry Taplin, Alex Sharenko, Cheryl Davila and Timothy Carter. Photos: Courtesy

In September, District 2 candidates looking to lead West Berkeley faced off in an endorsement forum focused on how to tackle climate change, improve neighborhood walkability and build more housing.

Stark differences emerged that night among some of the candidates, particularly on the subject of the role of market-rate housing in helping to address climate change. The candidates also differ in their approaches to public safety and housing in general. On Election Day, West Berkeley residents in District 2 will have to decide whether they are happy with the incumbent’s leadership, or want to see a council member at the helm.

All three challengers — Timothy Carter, Alex Sharenko and Terry Taplin — say they are in favor of the creation of more housing at all income levels for all people. Incumbent Cheryl Davila has said, in contrast, she wants to see affordable housing in Berkeley that is geared toward low- and very low-income residents.

“Market-rate housing, we don’t need any more,” Davila said at the recent forum. “I know they say it pays for the affordable, but right now we need to come up with some new options.”

That night, Carter said he wants to see city government “get back involved” in the housing business: to buy the land, design the projects, build the units and rent them out: “We need to be in control from beginning to end.” Some of that housing could be affordable and some of it market-rate, he said, but he’d like to see the city handling the process rather than developers. Carter said he did not see a direct tie between the creation of market-rate units and addressing climate change.

Taplin and Sharenko said, in their minds, the two subjects are tightly linked.

“Market-rate housing could be used to house students. It can prevent my grandma from having to compete with young professional families,” Taplin said. “It can subsidize below-market-rate housing. It can prevent people from having to drive from three hours away to get to work.”

“Abundant housing is affordable housing,” said Sharenko, “and that’s the way we need to approach this problem.”

During the recent forum, both young men dinged Davila for not supporting a large project at the downtown Berkeley Walgreens site that is slated to bring more than $10 million dollars into the city’s Housing Trust Fund, which it uses to help fund the creation of affordable units at sites around the city. One of these sites is the innovative and ambitious Hope Center that is now under construction on Berkeley Way. Projects like that could not happen without the fees that come from market-rate projects in the city.

Davila — who abstained from the Walgreens vote — said she is not in favor of projects that don’t include below-market-rate units on-site.

Sharenko struck back during the forum, calling Davila’s position “wishy-washy climate denialism.” Infill housing will help address climate change by reducing car trips, which are the biggest driver of greenhouse gas emissions, he said: “If you don’t understand that link at this point, you don’t deserve to lead.”

None of her colleagues support Davila’s run — but Bernie Sanders does

Sharenko’s remarks were emblematic of someone who has shown himself to be passionate and informed, and is not afraid to be direct about his views. That doesn’t always sit well with people.

“I speak truth to power,” he told Berkeleyside this week. “I speak truth as I see it. I think our community needs more of that.”

Sharenko pledged, if elected, to always be respectful while also doing what it takes to secure the five votes needed to get items approved.

Perhaps sensing a way to differentiate himself, Taplin has repeatedly emphasized his commitment to collaboration and coalition-building — with local residents, regional allies and City Council colleagues. Taplin told Berkeleyside that he learned those skills both as a student at Saint Mary’s College of California — collaboration is one of the institution’s core values — and as part of the slam poetry community, where he has previously coached teams in competition.

“I’m just used to balancing and managing very difficult personalities to achieve a singular goal,” Taplin said. “If I wanted to make speeches all day, I would just stick with performance poetry. As a council member, you really have to put others before agendas and put the city and the public before your ego. And that’s a lot easier to do if you come from a place of collaboration.”

A collaborative approach would also position Taplin very differently from Davila, who has often not worked well with others on the dais. Her lack of endorsements from her colleagues is one sign of the strife that has plagued numerous council proceedings. (Mayor Jesse Arreguín did contribute $50 to her campaign.)

Davila initially had endorsements from two Berkeley council members — Kate Harrison and Ben Bartlett — but both abruptly withdrew their support from her campaign in late September. People familiar with the matter have said disrespectful remarks from Davila during a recent closed session cost her the endorsements, but said they could not say more because of confidentiality laws.

In contrast, no other incumbent running for any Berkeley City Council or mayoral seat has endorsements from fewer than five of their colleagues.

Davila did secure a significant endorsement this week, from U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders. She was the only Berkeley candidate to do so. Davila also has support from SEIU 1021, the California Nurses Association, the county’s Green Party and numerous other groups.

A rocky road

Davila’s remarks and actions at a recent city meeting were a revealing example of the tensions that are often evident during council discussions. Davila — who says she has been disrespected by her colleagues and born the brunt of racist treatment from them more than once — began the meeting with a reminder about the importance of civility and the need to treat each other with compassion and respect.

Five hours later, when her colleagues said they would not get to one of her proposals because of the lateness of the hour, Davila became frustrated and logged off the Zoom meeting unceremoniously before the meeting had adjourned. It’s not the first time she has left council meetings under similar circumstances, upset by the lack of support. (She did note recently, however, that she has a record of perfect attendance during her four years in office.)

Davila has framed her loner status as a point of pride, describing herself at the recent endorsement forum as the “voice of the people” and “the conscience of the council.”

“My voice is different from the other voices on the council because I will not be bought or sold,” she said. “I will not fall in line just because. No.”

As it stands, seven members of the nine-member City Council, including the mayor, have endorsed Taplin in the District 2 race. Taplin has racked up the longest list of endorsements by far from dozens of organizations and individuals in the region. The California Democratic Party has also endorsed him.

Three sitting Berkeley council members have endorsed Sharenko, whose supporters are mostly individuals rather than organizations.

Carter lists no endorsements on his website but said he was endorsed by the Berkeley Council of Classified Employees, which represents hundreds of Berkeley Unified workers such as custodians and technical and support staff.

“I’m new to this political thing,” he told Berkeleyside this week. “I started late.”

Carter, a longtime West Berkeley resident and business owner, has had limited experience working on civic issues in Berkeley aside from his role as chairman, for eight years, on one Berkeley Unified School District commission. He said he decided to get involved with local politics this year now that two of his children are in college, giving him more time. Existing street conditions related to homelessness were one of the key drivers for his candidacy, he said.

“The homelessness in our area has just gotten worse under the incumbent’s tenure,” Carter said. He said he and other small business owners feel the city has not done enough to address the issue, which he acknowledges is a challenging one. His idea to improve the situation, Carter said, is to figure out how many campers there are, in both tents and RVs, and spread their numbers evenly in districts around the city.

“I want the city available for everybody, not just the most vulnerable,” Carter said, adding that he’s very much in support of services and programs to help those who need it. But that’s not where the city’s role should stop, he said. “I live here too. I don’t want to come home to my West Berkeley house and see somebody urinating in my neighbor’s rose bush.”

At the time of last report, Sharenko was leading the fundraising charge for District 2, with about $52,000 from individual donations and public financing. He was followed by Taplin, who had tallied nearly $44,000. Davila was not far behind, with close to $35,000. Carter had raised about $17,000.

The issue of abstentions

During the recent forum, the mild-mannered Taplin did aim a subtle slight in Davila’s direction, noting in his opening remarks that “facing the housing and climate crises requires more than speeches, resolutions and abstentions.”

Those abstentions have been a regular topic of interest and concern for Berkeleyside readers. Every council member abstains periodically, even after making it clear they don’t support a proposal or an aspect of a new policy, but Davila has done so regularly from the dais throughout her term.

According to a Berkeleyside analysis, in 2020 alone, Davila has abstained from more than 30 items, including the mayor’s omnibus police reform bill, which she said didn’t go far enough fast enough; the Berkeley police contract; and a request from the city manager to seek nearly $8 million in state funding for homeless services and affordable housing.

In late June, Davila abstained from perhaps the most important vote of the year, when the Berkeley City Council decided on its annual budget, closing a projected $40 million gap between general fund revenues and expenses that came about as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

She also abstained from votes in September to allow for the enforcement of city rules about camping in parks prompted by worsening conditions at homeless campsites and the city’s decision to issue fines for repeated, blatant violations of the city’s mask rules designed to protect people from COVID-19. (Davila has said in many meetings that her focus is on protecting the rights of unsheltered people and wanting to keep them from being targeted for enforcement.)

“When I abstain on things, it’s to make a point,” Davila told Berkeleyside on Friday. It means, she added, “it’s not worth a no or a yes.”

District 2 candidates have different takes on public safety

This year, Davila has been in the spotlight more than once, raising her public profile, particularly in the area of police reform. She has throughout her term been an outspoken critic of policing and its disparate outcomes. She voted to get Berkeley police out of the county’s Urban Shield exercise and, more recently, convinced her colleagues to ban the Berkeley police from using tear gas in any situation.

Davila has also been a huge proponent of the movement to defund police, and her proposals following the in-custody police killing of George Floyd — including an unsuccessful item to immediately reduce the police budget by at least 50% — have repeatedly drawn more than 100 supporters to council meetings where they made hours of public comment in support of deep cuts to the police budget and, in some cases, abolishing the department altogether.

All four District 2 candidates have said they are in favor of shifting some responsibilities away from police to civilian staff focused on homeless services and mental health calls. At the recent forum, all of the candidates said they also support the city’s plan to consider the creation of a new Department of Transportation (“BerkDOT”) where unarmed staff would handle the majority of traffic stops.

In addressing a question regarding their level of support for BerkDOT, Sharenko was the most measured of the bunch, noting that he wants to be sure the data analysis currently underway by the city auditor’s office supports any changes the city makes. Taplin said, if elected, BerkDOT will be one of his priorities.

Of the four candidates, Sharenko has been the most outspoken in recent years during comments at a variety of meetings about more traditional public safety concerns. He told Berkeleyside he fully supports the conversations underway locally and nationally among those who want to see changes to policing. But he said he also believes in the importance of evaluating Berkeley police officers on their own record, which he described as “imperfect but very respectable.”

“I’m sure that there are police departments that are so corrupt and so racist that the only solution is abolishing them and starting over,” he said. “I don’t think that’s Berkeley.”

Sharenko and Taplin are the only candidates whose websites mention the need to address crime in the neighborhood. Sharenko’s website refers more broadly to crime, however, while Taplin specifically calls out gun violence and bike theft.

The two men’s views on housing also diverge to some extent, including on the issues of rent control and tenant protections. Taplin supports both broadly, while Sharenko is more circumspect. For example, Sharenko does not support rent control for single-family homes (which is not currently permitted under city rules), while Taplin does. And Sharenko said he does not support the proposed Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act, while Taplin is in favor of the policy, which is slated to come before council in 2021.

How will ranked-choice voting impact the District 2 election?

Davila describes her own rise to power as “unexpected.” In 2016, she defeated 12-year incumbent Darryl Moore when he failed to garner more than 50% of the ballots cast in District 2. That triggered the ranked-choice voting process.

Moore got approximately 40% of the votes among first-choice candidates, while Davila got about 31%. When challenger Nanci Armstrong-Temple’s votes were reallocated, however, Davila ended up on top, with 51% of the votes compared to Moore’s 49%.

With three challengers, it’s possible ranked-choice voting will also play a role in the 2020 battle for the District 2 seat.

Some disaffected neighbors have launched an “Anybody But Cheryl Davila” campaign. And this week, Sharenko and Carter said they will be sending out a joint campaign mailer. Each candidate will be urging their supporters to rank himself first and the other man second.

Davila said people should vote for her because she is the best candidate for the job.

“I’m already here,” she told Berkeleyside. “It won’t be a learning curve. I know the ins and outs and would like to complete what I started.”

Among other work she is proud of during her time in office, Davila pointed to her resolution to declare a climate emergency in Berkeley in 2018 — nearly 1,800 places around the world followed suit — and her creation of a regional Climate Emergency Mobilization Task Force, which has been holding a “virtual summit series” Davila says will eventually culminate in a coordinated regional approach to policy change.

Davila has also increased shower and laundry access, through twice-weekly visits by the Hope and Dignity program, for unsheltered people in Berkeley. She said she also helped get Sixth Street paved, lobby for the year-round opening of the West Campus pool, and push for improvements — including Aquatic Park’s tide tube repairs — that are underway now at parks around the district: “Any chance I get, I highlight District 2.”

Her challengers say the district has not had the leadership it needs, however, as evidenced by the tensions that have arisen on the dais. Davila makes her feelings plain when she is displeased, at times rolling her eyes at her colleagues’ remarks, leaving meetings abruptly or refusing to cede the floor when her time is up. That can be an issue when it comes to getting support for policy changes that would affect the district, challengers said.

“I think a lot of people are dissatisfied with her,” said Sharenko, who described Davila as “a divisive person.” He went on: “There are a lot of people that love her and a lot of people she’s alienated.”

Davila told Berkeleyside she does not believe she gets the level of respect from her colleagues that they give to each other. More than once, Davila has assigned racist motives to what she has felt to be disparate treatment on the dais.

In 2018, Davila said a motion by one of her colleagues — in response to a proposal from Davila to put new welcome signs at Berkeley’s borders — was one example of that racism. Other times, she has described questions from her colleagues about her proposals as racist as well.

“I’m a Black woman in America. Being on council, that hasn’t changed as far as the disparities,” she told Berkeleyside on Friday. “Racism is alive and well, especially in Berkeley.”

Berkeleyside, through its parent organization Cityside, has received sponsorship revenue from many candidates running in the November election. Our editorial policy, outlined in full here, states: Berkeleyside retains full authority over editorial content to protect the best journalistic and business interests of our organization. We maintain a firewall between news coverage decisions and sources of all revenue. Acceptance of financial support does not constitute implied or actual endorsement of contributors or their products, services or opinions.

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 of the Year...