Seven Days

Barbara Lee and the Curse of History; Loni Hancock and the Burden of Memory; Bob Treuhaft's Life of Integrity

Barbara Lee’s Lonely Vote: If history repeats itself, then Rep. Barbara Lee should be worried. More than fifty years ago, the only member of Congress to vote against FDR’s declaration of war against Japan lost her seat as a result. Jeannette Rankin’s vote was so unpopular that she had to call the US Capitol Police to escort her back to her office through an angry mob. In fact, the Montana congresswoman had the unique situation of being the only member of Congress to vote against both world wars. Rankin, who in 1917 became the first woman elected to the House, lost her seat a first time when she, along with 48 others, voted against America’s entry into World War I.When Lee cast her lone vote on September 14, a statue of Rankin (who died in 1973) stood just outside and down the hall from the House chamber. Like Lee, Rankin had a background in social work. Inscribed on the statue are Rankin’s famous words: “I cannot vote for war.” Although Rankin never regained the position, she returned to the Capitol to protest the Vietnam War.

Coincidentally, Oregon Senator Wayne Morse and Alaska Senator Ernest Gruening, who cast the only votes against the Tonkin Gulf resolution, which granted LBJ the authority to wage war in Vietnam, also lost their reelection bids. Morse lost his seat in 1968 to Robert Packwood by fewer than three thousand votes and died six years later while campaigning to regain that seat.

But Barbara Lee won’t share the same fate, says Lee Halterman, chairman of Lee’s campaign. “Our view is her vote is not out of touch with the district, and that’s what counts. … People take a look at her record and say she’s been a great representative. … Even people who disagree with her are going to cut her some slack and say, ‘I’m not going to throw that all out, and dedicated community service, over one vote.'”

A recent poll by the UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies and the West County Times seems to support this view. The poll found that 40 percent of Berkeley voters approved of the current US military action in Afghanistan, compared to 88 percent nationally who responded to a CNN/USA Today poll. More than half of Berkeley voters disapproved of the war, compared to 10 percent nationwide. However, the poll focused on Berkeley and did not include the other cities in Lee’s district, including Oakland, Alameda, Albany, and Emeryville.

If reelection numbers serve as indicators, though, Lee will hold on to her seat. After all, she won reelection in 2000 with 85 percent of the vote. And that, Halterman points out, is more than her predecessor Ron Dellums could ever claim.

Black and White and Red all over: Black guilt is perhaps the best explanation for why two Dellums protégés, Lee and Supervisor Keith Carson, have put aside their political differences and historical baggage and endorsed black Charles Ramsey in the 14th Assembly District Race. The two African-American lefties were feeling pressure to back Ramsey, who comes from the more moderate side of the Democratic Party, and help raise the shamefully low number of black elected officials in the state Legislature. Nonetheless, they also have given their imprimatur to their ideological, albeit melanin-challenged, soulmate, former Berkeley Mayor Loni Hancock.

But one local Dellums devotee, an African-American political icon in her own right, isn’t bothering to hedge her bets. Nonagenarian Berkeley Councilwoman Maudelle Shirek is not only giving her sole endorsement to Ramsey, she’s also pledged to display a lawn sign for Sir Charles. Even though Shirek probably shares more in common philosophically with Hancock, insiders say the notoriously crotchety councilmember — who once uncharitably called an ostensible council ally “a white South African” — just can’t stand her former colleague. Why? As the legend goes, it goes back to 1990 when Hancock unveiled the results of a poll during a BCA powwow purportedly showing Shirek in danger of losing her council seat, while Loni and less rabid lefties fared much better. The implication, of course, was that BCA needed to become more like Loni and less like Maudelle. Some of Maudelle’s minions grumbled at that time that Hancock was trying to strong-arm Shirek into “voluntarily” stepping aside and letting someone more electable run for her seat. As things turned out, Shirek coasted to victory, while Hancock barely beat Fred Weekes in a runoff.

But Mike Berkowitz, Shirek’s propagandist-in-chief, assures 7 Days that Maudelle snubbed Hancock for all the right reasons. Sure, there’s been some bad blood between Shirek and Hancock in the past, he concedes. But Shirek is backing Ramsey because she wants more African-American representatives in Sacramento, he says. She also appreciates that Ramsey has kept active over the past few years unlike some other people in the race who quit their Berkeley mayor job midterm to take a job in the Clinton administration. “Ramsey has worked hard to overcome obstacles,” Berkowitz explains, “and has done a lot in the community.”

Round One, Oakland: Last week Alameda County Superior Court judge James Richman knocked down the first legal challenge to Oakland’s new predatory-lending law, throwing out a request for an injunction filed by American Financial Services Association, a lobbying group that represents institutions that lend to people with less-than-stellar credit histories. Oakland’s anti-predatory lending law was designed to protect borrowers from lenders who market loans with “excessive” interest rates to borrowers with poor credit. The law passed in October, shortly after the state passed similar, but less stringent, legislation. Like the state law, the Oakland ordinance prohibits “excessive prepayment penalties,” lending without regard for repayment ability, and refinancing in ways that will not benefit the borrower. But it also contained several local-only provisions, such as preventing the city from doing business with “predatory” lenders, and requiring that home-loan borrowers receive credit counseling before signing a loan. Local critics have said that the Oakland ordinance is overly broad, and may actually end up penalizing legitimate local lenders who try to serve low-income communities and those who could not get loans elsewhere. No doubt the judge’s decision is just the first round in a much longer legal bout.

Wearing the pants: You should have seen the models at the Shop Oakland fashion show. During the kick-off breakfast for the city’s annual campaign, designed to help local businesses lure customers during the holiday season, at-large city councilmember Henry Chang and City Manager Robert Bobb paraded across the stage of the Lake Merritt Hotel showcasing a line of Italian suits. (Bobb created quite a sensation when he stripped off his coat jacket to show off a set of pale yellow suspenders.) Attendees were equally wowed by the sight of Council President Ignacio De La Fuente sporting a black leather casual suit. The crowd hooted and hollered and ate it up with a spoon. What can we say? Power is always in fashion.

A Death in the Family: Say a fond farewell to Robert Treuhaft, the renowned attorney and husband of Jesicca Mitford who died last week at his daughter’s house in New York. Treuhaft and Mitford first moved to Oakland in the ’40s and immediately began working to break the color line of housing discrimination in the East Bay. Since realtors wouldn’t sell homes in certain neighborhoods to African Americans, Treuhaft and his friends came up with the sneaky idea of buying homes themselves and turning the property over to African Americans. He also worked with Mitford on her groundbreaking book The American Way of Death, which exposed the excesses and gouging in the funeral industry. After Mitford died in 1996, Treuhaft divided his time between here and New York to be closer to his family. But we were all part of his family and will miss him.

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