Entering People's Park is like walking into a time warp. The men and women who hang out here are ``laid back'' in every sense of the 1960s meaning. Reclining on sleeping bags or sitting cross-legged on the grass, they ``rap'' for hours, until a late-afternoon chill drives most of them home. The 20 or so people who remain begin preparations to stay the night.
This 2.8-acre vacant lot is owned by the nearby University of California, but it has been ``occupied'' by ``the people'' since 1969. Depending upon one's point of view, the takeover of People's Park was either a grand experiment in community beautification and ``togetherness,'' or it was a socialist challenge to the capitalist concept of property ownership.
The scene at the park is evidence that control of this city's government by the liberal-left, which has prompted some outsiders to call it the People's Republic of Berkeley, has survived intact the conservative tide of the '80s.
In today's runoff election for three seats on the nine-member Berkeley City Council, voters will decide whether the governing reins will remain in the grip of the far left or fall into the hands of more moderate forces - the ordinary liberal Democrats who governed the city during the turbulent years of the Vietnam war protests.
The ruling Berkeley Citizens Action coalition (BCA) has its roots in the antiwar student movement.
To the liberals, their BCA opponents are ``the radicals.'' Members of the BCA, on the other hand, call themselves ``progressives,'' dubbing their liberal opponents ``conservatives'' or ``corporate Democrats.'' Actually, the two sides are known for publicly calling each other names that are much less polite.
``Everybody here speaks at a level about 10 decibels higher than most people like to be spoken to,'' notes Sandy Muir, a political scientist with the university.
The old-guard liberals, who were virtually shut out of city government two years ago by the BCA, are hoping they can redirect the city's priorities by capturing a 5-to-4 majority on the City Council. Their vehicle for this turnaround is election of councilors by district, a system approved by Berkely voters in a June referendum. An initiative sponsored by the BCA to reverse that vote failed in the Nov. 4 election.
Occupants of six of the City Council seats were chosen in November, leaving three to be determined in a runoff election today.
The moderates, who took two of the six seats decided in November, need to win all three seats today to wrest control from the BCA.
Not many people here think they can do it, despite the fact that electing city councilors by district dilutes the BCA's citywide political strength.
Understanding Berkeley politics requires a lesson in semantics. First, conservatives are anathema. The last Republican to serve on the City Council, who describes himself as a ``moderate'' by national standards, was elected in 1969. In the Reagan landslide election of 1984, four out of five Berkeleyans voted for Walter Mondale for president.
For decades, Berkeley has been a haven for rebels, radicals, and free-thinkers who challenged conventionality. Poised on the edge of the bay across from San Francisco, this city of 103,000 spawned the campus Free Speech Movement of the '60s, the anti-Vietnam war protest, and the alternative life styles of the ``flower children.'' Even now, telephone poles and light posts along Telegraph Avenue are plastered with fliers urging passers-by to vote yes on a nuclear-free Berkeley, to attend a poetry reading benefiting the Ecology Center, and to hear a lecture entitled ``Women, Popular Struggle, and Revolution in Peru.''
Berkeley's street ambiance has infiltrated City Hall as well. The city was ahead of its time in establishing, among other things, a school desegregation plan and an affirmative-action program. But in recent years Berkeley has also been known to push at the limits of state and federal law - legalizing marijuana, implementing a strict rent-control ordinance, and declaring itself a sanctuary for undocumented Central Americans.
Shirley Dean, a newly elected councilor who helped engineer the comeback of the moderate faction, says Berkeley's national reputation as a ``kooky city'' is partly deserved. She says she'd rather see it hailed as a progressive city ``that knows how,'' rather than as an example of what to avoid.
``The Berkeley electorate is progressive, interested in change and world issues,'' explains Gilda Feller, former vice-mayor and a member of the traditional liberal coalition. She says the BCA neglects less-glamorous city issues such as sewer services and road repair.''
But Mrs. Feller says she thinks ``things are changing with this election.'' The November defeat of the BCA initiative signaled ``disaffection with the way BCA has conducted itself in office,'' she says.
The district election system is calculated ``to recall the BCA City Council and to weaken minority [black and Hispanic] power in the city,'' says BCA campaign manager Frank Darr. ``The districts negated the value of [blacks and whites] being joined together'' in an effective BCA coalition.
The BCA has held office for years, but only since 1984 has it taken the levers of power firmly in hand. Now BCA councilors, put in the position of defending their record, frequently note that today's ``kooky'' policies are tomorrow's national trends.
``The national media have never taken us seriously, but we've been in the vanguard of many issues,'' says Arlene Talbot, staff aide to BCA councilor Ann Chandler. She cites divestment of stock in firms doing business in South Africa and self-insurance of cities caught in the liability-insurance crunch.
But critics fault the BCA for arrogance, for over-politicizing city government, and for spending too much time protesting US foreign policy instead of solving city problems. BCA-aligned Mayor Gus Newport has also raised eyebrows - and made headlines - by taking part in socialist-sponsored gatherings in Cuba, Czechoslovakia, and the Soviet Union.
Even if the BCA comes out on top after the election, political observers here expect it will begin to moderate its left-leaning agenda. Loni Hancock, who succeeds Mr. Newport as mayor next week, received the BCA endorsement precisely because she is a moderate voice among a radical coalition.