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Mayor Gilmore’s 36% of the vote four years ago cries out for runoff elections

Opinion, by Leland Traiman.

At the last city council meeting Mayor Gilmore pointed to Mayor-Elect Trish Spencer’s 120 vote margin of victory and proclaimed that it was not a mandate for change. This sad and inappropriate display of sour grapes came from a mayor who, despite seven years as a city councilmember prior to becoming mayor and hundreds of thousands of dollars spent by out-of-town interests on her behalf, was elected with only 36% of the vote.

Did Gilmore’s one third plus 3% give her a mandate? I think not. Yet, she ran the city as if she had been elected by an overwhelming majority and unfettered development and increasingly jammed tunnels and bridges are her legacy. (Should our worsening traffic problems now be referred to as Gilmore gridlock?)

Mayor Gilmore’s tenure is an excellent case for charter reform and runoff elections. Four years ago five candidates ran for mayor. Two candidates, Frank Matarrese and Doug deHaan, both city council veterans with similar slow-growth platforms, collectively garnered 47.4% of the vote. The “clown” candidate, Kenneth Kahn, who was quite serious about overdevelopment and essentially agreed with Matarrese and deHaan, received 3.5%. This means that four years ago a majority of voters cast their votes for slow-growth candidates. The fifth candidate in the race, Tony Daysog, seemed to be in neither the slow-growth camp nor the give-the-developers-whatever-they-want camp (a position he still seems to hold) and he received almost 12% of the vote.

Of course, it is impossible to say with certainty who would have won if Matarrese and Gilmore had faced each other in a runoff. What is a certainty is that four years ago, even with overwhelming financial support, almost two thirds of Alameda’s voters voted against Mayor Gilmore and her policies. Nonetheless, Gilmore became mayor. This sad circumstance cries out for change.

Before Oakland had ranked-choice voting, Oakland elected their mayors with a primary in June and a runoff in November. These elections were consolidated with regularly scheduled elections to save money. Alameda could adopt Oakland’s previous system of runoffs insuring that our mayor is elected by a majority of voters.

Alameda’s city council will soon have two people who can clearly claim they were elected by a majority of Alameda’s voters, Mayor-Elect Spencer and Councilmember-Elect Matarrese. (Matarrese’s vote total for council equaled 53% of the total number of votes cast for mayor.) This is a good beginning.

To avoid a future mayor, elected with a minority of votes but who still has the power to contradict the will of the majority, Alameda needs runoff elections for mayor. (A re-examination of how councilmembers are elected might also be in order.) To accomplish this Alameda’s charter must be amended. The most practical way for charter reform to happen is for the council to form a charter review commission to hold public meetings to discuss such a change. Whichever direction Alameda chooses it should be chosen by a majority of Alameda’s voters.

A mandate is winning an election by winning a majority of votes, not by winning only 36%.

3 comments to Mayor Gilmore’s 36% of the vote four years ago cries out for runoff elections

  • Daniel Davenport

    Nice writing.

  • barbara

    The result of Runoff elections if no one garnered 50 % plus 1 vote, could cause a candidate to undergo two expensive campaigns for election to either City Council or Mayor, While it may sound good on paper, there needs to be another important change, that of the salary of Mayor or Council. When the Charter was initially adopted, the Mayor and City Manager received essentially the same pay.

    Decades later, our Mayor still gets about $300 a month. while the City Manger gets roughly 1000 times that amount. Two results: only someone well funded can run for office denying many well qualified persons the option of running entirely, and a Strong City Manager city. City Manager now controls what is developed in our City as long as (s)he has 3 Council votes.

    If the City changes the charter for run-offs, it should also adopt the law for general law cities for pay of elected officials. Pay is a function of the population size of the City. Not perfect but would allow more candidates to run, pay elected officials a modicum of compensation for the many hours they put in, and put some controls on the Manager.

    This is something that the City could have considered some years back when it went through a substantial review of the Charter. But pay of our elected officials is not something that the highly paid support staff cares about. Especially since our chief officials do not have to live in the our City. They can do whatever they want, and then drive home in the reverse commute to better run cities.

  • Alameda needs instant runoff voting, also known as ranked-choice voting. Oakland and San Leandro saw the need and implemented it. Hopefully one day Alameda will too.