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Four-three, and everybody loses

By Mark Primack

The phone call was obligatory, or so I was told. I’d jumped into a City Council race because I wanted to expand the debate beyond feel-good sloganeering and empty promises. I wasn’t going to raise money, plant yard signs, inflate accomplishments, suffer fools gladly or care about winning. But then suddenly what seemed like a lot of people wanted me to win. So we printed up signs and I made the call.

The county supervisor ruled the roost with an iron fist. She’d dominated the political machine ever since it kick-started her first campaign. She owned its platform, network and revolving slate of wannabes, and I was rocking her boat. My courtesy call to request her endorsement was diplomatic protocol.

The conversation was friendly enough. Neither of us suspected that in 18 months I’d be competing for her seat. We exchanged requisite niceties, and then she cast my fate with one simple declarative sentence. She said there would always be a four-three Council.

That ordinary sounding term--four-three Council--explains the decades-long hegemony of a single-minded machine and its ultimate failure. She might just as easily have decreed that Santa Cruz would always be at war.

The machine’s slate had already been chosen by the time they held the first candidates’ forum. I told the audience then that Santa Cruz didn’t need seven of me on the council, or even two. I was bringing something valuable to the table that others lacked, and the same should be true of any candidate worthy of a vote. Ironically, I offered up the most radical proposal of the bunch, that we make garages optional and start housing people instead of cars. It didn’t get me their endorsement, but it got me elected. Today, ADUs are California’s ace in the hole for addressing our housing needs.

Twenty years later, the most damning thing to be said of any local politician is that he or she is just a four-three candidate, a place-holder for an obsolete and bankrupt machine. Fourthree has proven itself a recipe for overreach, paralysis and egotism. It is intolerant of the diversity of opinion that has always defined this community.

It cannot function without an “us” and a “them.” Every two years, like clockwork, it intentionally fabricates or magnifies discord in the service of consolidating power. Such fear mongering usually pays off. Predictably, when Measure M blew up in everyone’s faces, others were immediately blamed for the hubristic incompetence of the four-three machine.

Stephen Kessler, respected and principled columnist for this paper, recently endorsed former mayor and city council replacement candidate Tim Fitzmaurice over an “inexperienced” Bayview School teacher, Renée Golder. Tim admits he didn’t step forward to serve his community; rather, he was recruited to fill and hold a postrecall four-three majority; the same is true of Katherine Beiers. I sat with Tim on the council; he’s smart. Smart people think best when they think for themselves. Should he ever step forward of his own volition to serve as one among seven, I will support him wholeheartedly. He has much to offer.

Kessler questioned Golder’s experience and her ability to jump into the complexities of City government. But Stephen has dared endorse candidates with far less applicable experience, like Justin Cummings. And Justin has on occasion shown a courage and dedication worthy of his position. It boils down to who to trust and, well, both my kids went to Bayview and they turned out great. Couldn’t be happier. So yes, I’d trust one of seven council seats to a respected, bilingual public school teacher, mother and wife of a firefighter, as much as I would yet another university employee. Those have definitely been hit and miss.

However you cut it, fourthree or three-four, machine politics isn’t working in Washington and it’s never worked here. As the mayor’s Sunday letter clearly demonstrated, we have next to nothing to show for it beyond declarations of solidarity and a heightened tolerance for drugs. If we truly want an inclusive and hopeful future, we’d better start electing leaders who can count to seven. Mark Primack is a former city councilman and author of “Divisible Cities: Acting Local in a Transient World.” Reach him at

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