Going into the November 3 election, there seemed to be no way that Measure Z, the ballot measure to repeal the City Charter provision prohibiting multi-family housing and limiting residential density, could lose:
- Virtually every self-identified “progressive” Democratic politician, from the “Gang of Four” members of the Alameda City Council up to Congresswoman Barbara Lee, lent their names to the “Yes on Z” campaign. (Even the County Assessor, for goodness sake, jumped on board.)
- Every left-leaning political organization in the City, new (e.g., the “Alameda Justice Alliance”) and old (e.g., the City of Alameda Democratic Club), endorsed Measure Z. Even advocacy groups from off the island (e.g., the Silicon Valley Leadership Group) voiced their support.
- Not only the usual online polemicists but the editorial boards of the San Francisco Chronicle and the East Bay Times urged Alameda voters to approve Measure Z. When John Diaz and Daniel Borenstein agree on something, it must be worth voting for.
- Buoyed by contributions from developers, architects, engineers, and construction trade unions, the “Yes on Z” campaign raised (and presumably spent) more than $100,000 to promote Measure Z. This paid for a four-sided fold-over mailer, three two-sided full-size mailers, and one half-size two‑sided card. (The “No on Z” campaign raised all of $18,530.75 and sent out one mailer.)
- This was the right time and place for “transformational” change. Millions of voters across the country were expected to flock to the polls for the express purpose of evicting Donald Trump from the White House. Why wouldn’t thousands of voters in Alameda, an overwhelmingly Democratic city (60.8% of registered voters are Democrats), likewise rally to tear down a target of local “progressive” scorn?
And yet . . .
Measure Z was resoundingly defeated. According to the latest election results, nearly 60 percent of Alameda voters cast ballots against the measure, and it lost, with 16,728 votes in favor and 25,053 votes opposed.
So what went wrong?
That’s the question on the table for the Merry-Go-Round today.
Two caveats before we begin. First, we intend to ignore the most tendentious explanations: The sponsors and proponents of Measure Z may believe that their adversaries are liars of Trumpian proportions and that 60 percent of Alamedans are fools or scofflaws. As far as we’re concerned, they can tweet or post away to their heart’s content – or submit Council referrals – but we’re not going to be swayed. By the same token, we’re going to tune out any explanation that attributes the result to the superior insight of those who voted against Measure Z.
Second, we ordinarily try to avoid making statements of fact that we can’t prove. (That’s why we always include sources at the end of the column.) But in this case no evidence is available to us about why Alamedans voted the way they did. Using exit polls, the pundits may able to break down the vote for a presidential candidate by race, gender, and age and, based on that breakdown, tell you where his support came from. But if any of the political consulting firms who worked on the “Yes on Z” campaign – it appears there were three different ones – conducted exit polls in Alameda, they haven’t made them public.
So what we’re left with is a series of hypotheses – plausible, we hope, but unprovable, we admit. We’ve come up with five of them.
Let’s start with the most general:
Hypothesis One: Measure Z got lost in the shuffle in a tumultuous election year.
Those of us who typically spend part of an evening flipping between CNN and MSNBC occasionally need to be reminded that not everyone finds politics as fascinating as we do. If the ordinary citizen pays attention to political issues at all, her attention span is likely to be limited, and only the most high-profile matters may catch her eye.
This year, of course, one topic by itself was sufficient to suck all the air out of the space in one’s brain reserved for politics: whether Donald Trump would retain the presidency. And for Californians, statewide issues might have occupied any remaining room. There were 12 propositions on the ballot, and at least a couple of them raised pretty weighty policy questions. Amid this cacophony, could anyone even hear the debate over Measure Z?
Some “Yes on Z” supporters we talked to think that the voters’ preoccupation with national and (perhaps) statewide issues may have hurt their campaign. We’ve been told that it was difficult to recruit volunteers to make phone calls on behalf of the ballot measure – local activists would rather be calling undecided voters in swing states on behalf of Joe Biden instead. Likewise, an unusually large number of Alameda voters who picked up the phone admitted they hadn’t heard of Measure Z at all. It’s difficult to have a conversation with a voter about something she knows nothing about.
(We should hasten to add that, if true, this lack of knowledge among the electorate would pose an equivalent problem for the “No on Z” campaign – unless one believes that if a voter knows nothing about a ballot measure, it’s easier for her to vote no than yes.)
Hypothesis Two: The Alameda electorate isn’t as “progressive” as the Measure Z supporters thought it was.
This hypothesis seeks to fit Alameda into a larger narrative.
Take a look at what happened in California. Despite the Biden landslide, the Democrats lost four House seats they’d flipped two years ago. Even more significantly, the state propositions to reinstate affirmative action, expand cities’ authority to pass rent-control laws, and raise revenue for schools and local governments by increasing property taxes on commercial property owners – quintessential “progressive” causes – all failed. And the proposition exempting gig workers from being classified as employees succeeded despite vigorous opposition from organized labor.
Maybe, the pundits have suggested, these results show that California voters just aren’t as “progressive” as the left wing of the Democratic party thought they were.
Can the same be said of Alameda voters?
Remember, the last ballot measure before Measure Z to fail so abysmally at the polls was also one pushed very hard by “progressives”: Measure M‑1, the initiative crafted by the Alameda Renters Coalition to impose rent control and ban “no cause” evictions, which was defeated, 66 percent to 34 percent, in 2016.
Or consider this year’s Council race. There were 70,474 votes cast for Council (each voter could vote for two candidates). Of this total, 41 percent went to the two “progressive” contenders (Council members Jim Oddie and Malia Vella) versus 59 percent to the center-right candidates (former Mayor Trish Spencer and newcomers Amos White and Gig Codiga). It doesn’t seem like a coincidence that the breakdown between “Yes on Z” and “No on Z” votes matched this split pretty closely.
Indeed, even Councilman Oddie (or his handlers) appeared to realize that he was fighting against the tide. At the very end, Mr. Oddie made a desperate attempt to retain his Council seat by sending out a mailer explicitly warning that “Alameda’s progressive City Council majority is in danger,” and urging a vote for Mr. Oddie in order to “Preserve the Progressive City Council Majority.” (It also smeared two of his opponents – not by name, of course – but that’s a story for another day.) But the appeal didn’t work; he came in fourth out of five.
Both of the foregoing hypotheses do not depend on any critique of the way in which Measure Z was marketed to the electorate. The next two focus on the “Yes for Z” campaign itself. Upon reflection, it can be argued that the pitch made in support of the ballot measure not only demonized the current Charter provision unnecessarily, but it also hyped the benefits of repeal unjustifiably. This approach may have delighted single-minded partisans – but it also may have turned off fair-minded citizens who, after all, still constitute a majority of Alameda voters. As much as they’d like to, the Right Thinkers do not rule the roost.
Hypothesis Three: Alameda voters didn’t buy the idea that Article XXVI was a blot on the local escutcheon.
From the beginning, one of the themes of the “Yes on Z” campaign was that Article XXVI was a symbol of a reprehensible past that Alameda voters had a moral duty to repudiate. If “progressive” activists elsewhere could take down statues of Jefferson Davis in public parks and take names of slave-owning politicians off public schools, Alamedans could strike their own blow for racial justice by removing Article XXVI from the Charter.
The pro-Measure Z ballot argument drafted by Mayor Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft and Vice Mayor John Knox White sounded this theme, denouncing the Charter provision as a “relic of racist land-use policies and discriminatory housing policies that have denied the dream of home ownership to families who deserved better from our City.” And the campaign literature reiterated the message. As one mailer put it, Article XXVI “enshrines into law redlining, exclusion, and discrimination” and thus constitutes a “stain on our City’s character and reputation.”
Now there surely was a subset of voters to whom this kind of attack appealed. To them, what Article XXVI symbolized was just as (or more) important as what it actually did. But the appeal of the vilification strategy wasn’t universal. Some voters equally committed to the cause of racial justice would focus more on practical impact than on symbolic import. They’d want to know, for example, whether repealing Article XXVI in fact would induce private developers to build housing that was more affordable by Blacks or other people of color (as opposed to more profitable for themselves). If it wouldn’t, they might see no reason to vote for Measure Z just to make a symbolic gesture.
In fact, this strategy ran the risk of becoming counter-productive. Some Alameda voters might have taken offense at the insinuation that they lived in a racist city. Others might have balked at the suggestion that they should be held responsible for sins they hadn’t personally committed. The Mayor and Vice Mayor may have thought they could guilt-trip voters into supporting Measure Z; instead, their “anti-racist” argument may have driven some of the electorate into the other camp.
Hypothesis Four: Alameda voters weren’t convinced that Measure Z was all it was cracked it up to be.
Whether for lack of funds or for some other reason, the “No on Z” campaign sent out only one mailer, which focused on an argument that virtually everyone in Alameda could understand: Eliminating Article XXVI would mean more housing and thus more traffic. By contrast, the five mailers distributed by the “Yes on Z” campaign made a welter of claims in support of the ballot measure, many of which the ordinary voter would be required to accept on faith.
Read together, the pro-Z ballot arguments and mailers portrayed the measure as offering something for almost everybody. The beneficiaries included retirees, whom Measure Z would “allow . . . to downsize and stay in Alameda”; young families, for whom Measure Z would create homes that were “smaller in scale”; local high-school graduates, whom Measure Z would “help . . . to stay in Alameda (and not just with their parents)”; and local workers, whom Measure Z would “allow . . . to find housing near where they work.”
And these were just the benefits for specific groups. There were community-wide benefits as well: Measure Z would “enhance” and “strengthen” Alameda’s commercial corridors, “rejuvenate” our neighborhoods, and “improve” the City’s “access to state funds.” What’s more, not only would Measure Z enable Alameda to “avoid the sprawl and traffic congestion that plagues other Bay Area cities” but it would also give the City “our chance at safer streets and traffic reduction.” And it would “reduce” greenhouse gas emissions, to boot.
Sound too good to be true? To some Alameda voters, it may well have. Even to those willing to trust campaign promises, the suggestion that Measure Z was some sort of magic potion that would turn Alameda into an earthly utopia may have been just a bit too hard to swallow.
And it didn’t go down any easier when the arguments were inconsistent or confusing. Suppose one took at face value the claim that passing Measure Z would increase the supply of affordable housing. In what world does more housing lead to less traffic? Or to lower greenhouse gases? Not many Alamedans would be able to reconcile these assertions – even if John Knox White himself proclaimed all of them to be true.
Perhaps the most puzzling mailer was the one that depicted the effects of sea-level rise: most of Bay Farm Island and Alameda Point, and all of the land along the shoreline, is under water. The caption says, “If you believe in CLIMATE CHANGE, then believe in MEASURE Z.” But Measure Z doesn’t prohibit residential development in any of the areas projected to become submerged. Did its proponents really expect voters to believe that it would somehow prevent climate change, or reverse its effects, anyway?
In fact, the mailer actually may have alienated some potential voters. It shows that, as the result of sea-level rise, only the area in the middle of the main island would be developable. If Measure Z indeed would increase the supply of housing in the city, this is the only place it could go. Did its proponents really expect the residents of central Alameda to be pleased by the prospect of more housing in an area that already is almost fully built out?
Our final hypothesis focuses not so much on what Measure Z would (or would not) do but on who would implement it.
Hypothesis Five: Alameda voters don’t trust the current or future Council to make fundamental land-use decisions.
The most objective analysis of Measure Z we read before the election was published by the Alameda League of Women Voters. The piece posed a series of questions about Article XXVI and the effect of its repeal and laid out the relevant facts. Most praiseworthy (to us) was that where the evidence was absent or equivocal, it said so.
The analysis concluded this way:
Summary on Measure Z. Regardless of the rhetoric on both sides, it essentially boils down to this: should the current and future City Councils be given the ability to decide whether multi-family projects provide a net benefit to the community. If you trust their judgment, a “yes” vote would give them that flexibility. If you don’t, then a “no” vote would maintain the status quo.
This summary got us thinking about another way to explain the election results.
If Measure Z passed, the key decisions about whether, or how much, multi-family housing would be built in Alameda would be left, as the LWV piece explains, to the discretion of City Council, unhampered by Article XXVI. The Council majority would be able to re-write the General Plan and the zoning laws to authorize whatever type of housing they wanted wherever they wanted to put it, and nothing in the Charter would stand in their way.
Some voters may not have trusted Council to exercise this discretion wisely. They see decisions now being made to curry favor with interest groups who fund campaigns or ideologues who insist upon orthodoxy. And they might have feared that, unrestrained, Council members would make land-use decisions for similar reasons: They’d seek to please the construction trades unions by approving more apartment buildings all over town; they’d endeavor to gratify the “transit-oriented development” visionaries by putting high rises near bus stops. And future Councils might be no better: voting one stooge out of office doesn’t mean that his replacement won’t bring her own set of biases.
To these voters, if the choice is between a hard-and-fast rule and unfettered discretion, they’d pick the former. And maybe that’s what they did on November 3.
So there you go. We suspect that neither the “Yes on Z” crowd nor its opponents will agree with all (or maybe any) of our hypotheses. So be it. At least no one’s claiming that Paul Foreman and the Alameda Citizens Taskforce stole the election. Yet.
Text and ballot arguments: Measure Z ballot measure