Saturday, August 16, 2008

November ballot offers mix of hot and cold

It's a good year to be an incumbent on some East Bay boards: No one wants your job.

The filing deadline to run for local nonpartisan offices on Nov. 4 came and went this week and quite a few races will go uncontested while other incumbents face largely unknown or scant opposition.

Pittsburg's two councilmen have no challengers, the city's first uncontested City Council election in 60 years. The city's two school board incumbents will sail into office.

An additional 12 races for school boards elsewhere in the East Bay have no challengers.

BART Directors Gayle Murray of Walnut Creek and Bob Franklin of Berkeley get free rides into office along with officials on the Contra Costa Water District and East Bay Regional Parks board.

Democratic nominee Nancy Skinner in Assembly District 14, which stretches from Berkeley into Lamorinda and Pleasant Hill, has no challenger.

Numerous contests feature only one or two opponents lined up against the incumbents. Many of the would-be officeholders are perennial unsuccessful candidates or appear to be candidates with no financial backing and low name recognition who are unlikely to mount serious campaigns.

Concord, a city considering major decisions about the 5,000-acre surplussed Naval Weapons Station, has one candidate running against two incumbents.

In Pinole, one challenger signed up to face the two incumbents and she was Maria Alegria, a former councilwoman the city's Advertisementvoters recalled in a bitter election last February.

Statistically, the same number of people have filed for office in Contra Costa County this year as did in November 2004, the last presidential election cycle. In 2004, the ballot featured 104 races and 279 candidates. This year, it's 109 races and 279 candidates. There is only one fewer contested race this year than in 2004.

Some incumbents in these uncontested seats say a lack of opponents signals voters' satisfaction with current officeholders.

That may be an overly positive spin. Serving in public office is a tough sell these days.

Polls reveal record low approval ratings for Congress and the state Legislature among voters.

While the surveys don't ask about the public's views on local government, its sour mood probably extends into the local landscape.

A poor economy has cut into local agency revenues and forced leaders to make difficult service cuts, none of which makes for attractive campaign literature.

Campaigns cost money and few people enjoy asking strangers for cash. And others who might otherwise consider running for office may be preoccupied with keeping their jobs and paying the mortgage.

"Being in local office is a very hard job right now," said Mark Baldasarre, president of the Public Policy Institute of California. "There is no extra money, government has to make cuts, reduce staff and make decisions that will make the public unhappy."

Disinterest does not prevail, of course.

In Richmond, a city renowned for its heightened local political involvement, 10 people will chase three seats.

That number is down, however, from 2004 when 15 people filed for five seats. Interest may have been tempered by a reduction in the council's total membership from nine to seven.

The Richmond campaign will likely revolve around the Richmond council's recent decision to approve upgrades at the Chevron refinery. Incumbent councilman and re-election candidate Tom Butt, who opposed the oil company deal, has vowed to help unseat fellow council members and project supporters Harpreet Sandhu, Nate Bates and John Marquez.

Four cities could have contentious mayor's races — Pleasanton, Dublin, Antioch and Brentwood.

Hostilities on the Mount Diablo Unified School District board produced two challengers against the two incumbents, as competing factions push to take majority voting control.

Open seats in cities where incumbents have opted to stay off the ballot — which often draws in more candidates — have generated contests for city councils in Walnut Creek, Dublin, Pleasant Hill and Discovery Bay.

On Bethel Island, a tiny east Contra Costa community beset with political angst and threats of recalls, seven people want one of the three open seats on its municipal utility district.

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