Coalition Politics has as much to offer us today as it did when it was formulated in the 1970s. Here is a story of my experience with Coalition Politics in Berkeley California in the late 1970s and throughout the decade of the 1980s.

Berkeley Citizens Action: When I moved to Berkeley in 1978, I encountered Berkeley Citizens Action (BCA).

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Progressives in Berkeley split from the Berkeley Democrats over the Vietnam War and, in 1970, they elected Ron Dellums to Congress. Although the Progressives were a majority in Berkeley, they were torn apart by disputes between different Ultra-Left Sectarian factions, and they had a lot of trouble electing a progressive majority on the City Council and a progressive Mayor. So, in 1975, staff from Ron Dellums’ office along with many other local Progressives came together to form BCA.

To avoid the Ultra-Left Sectarian disputes over different ideologies, the BCA organizers grounded BCA in “Coalition Politics.”

Coalition Politics was based on a set of key principles, including:

  • A shared vision, clear goals, and a concrete action program for Berkeley.
  • A focus on taking action together to accomplish the program rather than on ideological disputes.
  • A welcoming of everyone who shared the vision and goals and agreed to make and keep agreements to guide joint action.

The core political strategy embraced by BCA’s Coalition Politics can be formulated as supporting issues and policies that mobilized its base and split its opposition. BCA worked hard to avoid strategies that did the converse of splitting its own base and mobilizing the opposition.

Electing Gus Newport: By 1979, BCA had become the largest independent local political party in the U.S. When I got involved, it was time for BCA to nominate a candidate for Mayor of Berkeley. The favorite for the BCA nomination was a white BCA City Council person named John Denton from the low hills (the hills were the higher income more conservative part of town, and the flatlands were the lower income more progressive areas).

I had become buddies with Al Haber, a co-founder of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), and I was collaborating with him on a place called the Union Hall that housed a significant portion of the SDS archives. Al introduced me to the more activist wing of BCA. This group decided to nominate a little known African American City employee named Eugene “Gus” Newport.

The BCA nominating convention was well attended (close to 300 people) and Tom Hayden (the former SDS and then current Campaign for Economic Democracy leader) gave the keynote, which was well received. I really enjoyed the convention, being a part of a large group of people who were engaged in putting progressive politics into action.

Then it came time to do the balloting. A candidate needed a two thirds majority to be nominated, and after many ballots, John Denton was well ahead, but he couldn’t quite get the requisite two thirds, so it was agreed that the convention would be recessed for a week and then reconvene.

That evening the core of us who were supporting Gus got together. It was a muggy night with a rainstorm about to break and everyone felt pretty down. Finally, Pat McClintock, in whose house the meeting was held and one of the leaders of the Newport forces, stood up and said, “I wish we could just come out and fight for what we really stand for – a new kind of Socialism.” At that point, the storm broke and a giant bolt of lightning struck a block or two away from where we were meeting, with booming thunder almost immediately after, so strong that the house shook a little. Pat shouted out, “I’m sorry Lord, I take it back,” and sat back down. But I jumped up and exclaimed “No, you misinterpreted the sign.”

Right then, with that lightning strike, the mood of the evening changed, and we decided to fight for Gus over the next week. We were the group with the community organizers, and we decided to organize a week-long campaign and reach out to every member of BCA. Al Haber and I volunteered the Union Hall as a headquarters, and I agreed to be one of the coordinators of that little one-week campaign.

During that week we went to work and did indeed connect with every one of BCA’s more than 700 members. Mal Warwick, who was BCA Coordinator, negotiated an agreement between the Denton and Newport camps that, after the Convention reconvened, whoever was behind after two ballots would withdraw.

When the Convention reconvened the next weekend, attendance had grown to closer to 400. Each candidate gave a speech and then we took the first ballot. Much to the other side’s surprise, Gus was ahead by 6 or 7 votes on the first ballot. After the second ballot, he was up by about 15 votes and John Denton withdrew.

We ran a highly effective campaign for Gus during the citywide election that fall, covering the town with posters, using direct mail, and hanging a BCA door hanger on the door of every house in Berkeley on Election Day.

A group of us, called the Community Self Reliance Collective, even put together a guerrilla theater piece, which I directed, that we presented all over town called “For Whom the Cash Flows.” Again, to outsiders’ surprise, Gus won the election and became Mayor of Berkeley, along with a BCA majority on the City Council, and we did indeed set out to implement a new kind of Socialism, though we didn’t call it that.

Energy Self-Reliance: Gus asked a group of us to design an economic development plan for Berkeley. The process was led by Marc Weiss and his wife Ann Markesan. It was the first municipal economic development plan in the U.S. to put the environment at the center, fostering community based enterprises and government actions, like rent control, to level the economic playing field.

My area of concentration was energy, and we formulated and implemented an ambitious program, which, among other things, included:

  • Establishing 1981 as Energy Self Reliance Year.
  • Creating the position of Energy Coordinator for the City of Berkeley.
  • Passing the Residential Energy Conservation Ordinance and the Commercial Energy Conservation Ordinance by the City Council to require installation of energy saving measures at the sale of properties.
  • Launching the Community Energy Services Corporation (CESC) to assist residences and businesses to implement energy efficiency measures.

CESC was my special project. I called it a “public enterprise” business because it was a publicly owned enterprise of the City of Berkeley but designed to make a profit – an example of a new kind of Socialism. The Berkeley Energy Commission served as its Board of Directors. I was on the Energy Commission and, at the end of Energy Commission meetings, the Commission morphed into the Board of CESC, and I took over as Chair of the CESC Board.

When we launched CESC, Gus came to me and suggested that we interview Landon Williams for the Executive Director position. Landon had been a leader in the Black Panthers and had recently been released from prison back East. I met with Landon, and, almost immediately, we liked and respected each other. He fully understood what we wanted to do as part of our environmental agenda, but he also understood that we were launching a new kind of business that not only needed to succeed as a public entity, but also as a business.

It turned out that we made a great choice in hiring Landon and he led CESC to become extraordinarily successful. As residences and businesses implemented the Residential and Commercial Energy Conservation Ordinances, many of them hired CESC to do energy audits and implement the mandated measures along with solar and other programs. A lot of energy and money was saved and CESC itself made significant profits.

A Progressive Agenda: BCA gave Berkeley a progressive government through the whole decade of the 1980s. Many of us saw ourselves as making a revolution in one city. Our conventions drew upward of 400 people and we put 1,000 campaign workers on the street on election day hanging a campaign doorhanger on every door in Berkeley. During that decade, Berkeley enacted a wide-reaching progressive agenda, including:

  • Adopting residential rent control and successfully defending it before the US Supreme Court.
  • Implementing a citywide economic development strategy based on embracing energy self-reliance and community based businesses.
  • As I have described, passing residential and commercial energy conservation ordinances, and setting up a public enterprise business, the Community Energy Services Corporation, to assist residences and businesses with implementing the energy conservation ordinances.
  • Encouraging the evolution of a cooperative community economy with a large consumer cooperative and a wide array of worker cooperatives.
  • Becoming the first city in the U.S. to divest from Apartheid South Africa.
  • Being the first city in the world to ban Styrofoam.
  • Playing a significant role in other ways in the Progressive Movement in the U.S. and around the world.

Education for Democratic Action: Students made up a particularly important part of the BCA coalition and in 1980 Nancy Skinner (U.C. Berkeley Student Vice President), John Hurst (Conservation and Resource Studies Professor), and I started a class at U.C. Berkeley called Education for Democratic Action. Many of the leaders of the student political party, Educational Democracy that controlled student government, participated in this class.

Each class took on a class project and each class had a facilitator, who was the class organizer. In one class, the students launched the program of student-initiated classes called DeCal, Democratic Education at Cal. DeCal is still in operation in the Fall of 2024, offering 170 student initiated courses.

The Wealth Exchange: In another class, we studied the Mondragon model of worker cooperatives and started a cooperative food store in the basement of the Student Union, called Cooperative Connections. I fell in love with the Mondragon model, studied it intensively, and decided to join with others from the class to initiate the Wealth Exchange as a “secondary level cooperative” to help launch worker cooperatives, provide technical assistance to them, and undertake large scale public events to promote the cooperative way of doing business.

We embraced worker cooperatives as another important contribution to the new kind of Socialism we saw ourselves building in Berkeley. In addition to Cooperative Connections, the Wealth Exchange went on to start and assist:

  • The Cooperative Type, the first desk top publishing business in Berkeley.
  • The Source Café, a restaurant across the street from the U.C. Berkeley campus.
  • Cooperative Concessions, undertaking food booths at public events and organizing food booths at progressive public events.
  • The Berkeley Distribution Cooperative, doing short haul trucking for the Associated Coops Warehouse, the warehouse and distribution center established to service the Berkeley COOP and other food stores.

The Wealth Exchange and our five primary level worker coops all joined the Intercollective, an association of some of the older worker coops in the San Francisco Bay Area such as The Cheese Board, The Juice Bar, Veritable Vegetables, Uprisings Bakery, and Nabolom Bakery.

The Wealth Exchange collaborated with the Berkeley Coop, the largest consumer cooperative on the West Coast, to bring this all together in the Coop Harvest Fair in the fall of 1986 in downtown Berkeley. All the Coops displayed their wares along with the dozens of non-profit organizations. The Coop Harvest Fair became our new kind of Socialism on display.

By then, in our BCA election campaigns, I typically ran security and so, it was natural for me to take responsibility for security at the Coop Harvest Fair. I particularly enjoyed implementing an idea I had for a long time. We handled security completely with martial artists from 4 different dojos in Berkeley and then, as a highpoint of the event, undertook a martial artist extravaganza, where the dojos each put on demonstrations and some of their more advanced members spared with each other.

In our efforts to create a revolution in one city, I saw myself as taking special responsibility for building the economic side of the revolution to go along with participating in the political side that was the territory of BCA. Through BCA on the one hand and our public enterprise business and our worker cooperatives on the other, I viewed us as making a noble effort to reunite the two great wings of the Socialist Movement that had split in the 19th Century:

The Utopian Socialists who saw building cooperative enterprises as the primary route to a Socialist world.
The Marxists, or Scientific Socialists who saw building Socialist political parties and taking state power as the primary route to the Socialist revolution.

Summing Up: In summary, we had some great years in Berkeley in the decade of the 1980s, applying coalition politics to lead Berkeley city government for the whole decade, implement our progressive agenda, and build our cooperative enterprises. There was a lot of overlap. Gus Newport joined and worked with the Wealth Exchange for a time and Joe Gross, then the BCA President of the Berkeley School Board, was the Coordinator of the Berkeley Distribution Cooperative. And, in addition to being the President of the Wealth Exchange, I also served two terms as Co-Chair of BCA.

As the years went by, Gus Newport did a lot of traveling to promote our efforts at social transformation in Berkeley. He even got the nickname of “Galloping Gus.” We were delighted to play a role in the larger progressive movement around the world and one of our proudest moments was when Gus went to El Salvador during the El Salvadoran revolution and made a series of radio broadcasts from behind the lines of territory controlled by the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) to help strengthen support for the FMLN in the U.S. We heard bombs dropping in the background during his broadcasts.

Toward the end of the decade, unfortunately, the Berkeley Coop over-expanded from its Berkeley base into suburban areas in Contra Costa County and Marin County, which led to the election of a problematic board and the hiring of poor administration that, in turn, led to the decline, and ultimately, the bankruptcy and closure of the Berkeley COOP. This meant that the Associated Coops Warehouse also had to close. Without the Berkeley COOP, we couldn’t do the Coop Harvest Fair and the Berkeley Distribution Coop couldn’t survive the closing of the Associated Coops Warehouse, so the economic side of our grand experiment of “revolution in one city” began to come apart.

We didn’t really have the capital to survive these developments so, when my friend Peter Camejo invited me to help him launch the first investment broker/dealer specializing in Socially Responsible Investment, I decided to set out to learn the craft of capital and investment.

Looking back on those years now, they stand out for me as an outstanding instance of political, economic, and social transformation. Coalition politics has as much to offer now as it did then. It’s hard to find examples of the type of government and the type of economy and the type of society to which we aspire. For one full decade back then, Berkeley stood out as one such example.

 

James Hurd Nixon