For the first time in recent memory, Berkeley has a professional politician in the mayor’s office — a schmoozer, a comedian, a dealmaker, a diplomat. He is a 20-year veteran of the state Assembly who, after terming out in 1996, fought like hell to overturn the law that pushed him out of office.
Now, after a seven-year hiatus and a bona fide scandal to kick off his administration, Tom Bates is back in the game and he clearly revels in it.
“I really do enjoy being back in the action,” he said.
On a recent Tuesday, the action was in the mayor’s office. Bates, who had promised to go homeless for a night during his fall campaign to unseat former Mayor Shirley Dean, was meeting with four activists to plan the March 19 event.
The mayor was relaxed and friendly, but he gently pushed the conversation forward whenever it began to drift.
“We should think about the message we want to give the media,” he said at one point.
Booma Cheema, who heads Building Opportunities for Self-Sufficiency, a Berkeley nonprofit, suggested that the group capitalize on the looming invasion of Iraq.
“They’re talking about city, state and federal cuts to pay for the war, and here’s what we’re talking about,” she said.
Bates agreed and asked the activists to come up with a schedule he could release to the media.
As the meeting came to a close the mayor, who would later postpone the event when war broke out, had some final questions about his night on the streets.
“Do I bring a sleeping bag?,” he asked. “Do I get to bring my teddy bear?”
Making of a Politician
Bates, 65, grew up in the Southern California town of La Habra Heights, the son of a salesman and a homemaker. In 1956, he went to UC Berkeley on a football scholarship and played on the university’s 1959 Rose Bowl team. After college, he served with the U.S. Army in Germany before returning to the Bay Area to work in real estate.
Bates got his first taste of politics volunteering for John F. Kennedy’s 1960 presidential campaign, and 12 years later he won election to the Alameda County Board of Supervisors. In 1976, he jumped to the state Assembly, where he compiled a liberal voting record on health care and the environment that built a pool of good will in the East Bay.
During the campaign, Bates made no effort to downplay his political pedigree. In fact, he made his Sacramento skills a chief selling point — pledging to bring civility to a notoriously divisive City Council, promising to improve the local legislative process and touting his connections in the state Capitol — not the least of which is his wife, Loni Hancock, a former Berkeley mayor who now holds his old Assembly seat.
But critics, echoing those of San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, say there is something distasteful in Bates’ polish. They see a big shot Sacramento politician who is cozy with developers, bent on controlling the agenda and not above a dirty trick.
Detractors begin with Bates’ famous admission to trashing about 1,000 copies of The Daily Californian, a UC Berkeley student newspaper that endorsed Dean, the day before the Nov. 5 election.
The mayor’s allies insist the incident was an out-of-character mistake that inspired regret in the mayor — who publicly apologized in December just a month after denying the allegation.
“It was very tough on him,” said Malcolm Burnstein, who served as Bates’ campaign treasurer and attorney during the newspaper fiasco. “He had done something of which he was ashamed. People of integrity don’t like to do shameful things.”
Some Berkeley residents won’t let him off so easily.
“I don’t believe it was a momentary thing,” said West Berkeley neighborhood activist Michael Larrick. “I think it goes deeper to his character. I think he’s just used to getting his way.”
The incident sparked a torrent of negative publicity and several calls for the mayor’s resignation. But Bates escaped with a $100 fine and a free ride from the moderate faction of the City Council, which had supported Dean during the campaign.
“Look, the election was over — our charge was to govern the city and deal with the city’s problems,” said moderate Councilmember Gordon Wozniak, recalling the speedy move to forgive. “People aren’t saints.”
If the newspaper scandal has faded from public view, analysts say it will resurface if Bates runs for re-election, and possibly before then.
“He has one strike against him and people are waiting for the other shoe to drop,” said UC Berkeley political science professor Bruce Cain. “The second mistake will be magnified.”
So far the mayor has avoided any significant new missteps — in part because he has stayed out of the public eye since the newspaper story surfaced. Bates and his allies, however, say he hasn’t made any effort to lay low.
“He’s made a conscious effort to be mayor,” said Burnstein. “Being mayor doesn’t mean staying in the limelight, it means getting things done.”
Bates’ chief accomplishment, supporters say, has been restoring civility to a City Council renowned for the bitter, petty factionalism that divided its moderate and progressive camps.
City Hall insiders, on both sides of the divide, say weariness with the constant bickering played a role in the truce. But they also give much of the credit to Bates.
“He’s aggressively friendly,” said City Councilmember and ally Kriss Worthington.
Still, some of the progressives who backed Bates as an alternative to Dean say they are concerned that the mayor has sold out his supporters and moved to the center. Most troubling, they say, is his focus on development.
Task Force Controversy
The bulk of the criticism centers on the mayor’s Task Force on Permitting and Development. The group, appointed by Bates, is reviewing the city’s permitting process for everything from home improvement to large-scale development and will make recommendations for changes in local law.
Many have criticized the current permitting process, particularly when it comes to big projects. Drawn-out, litigious battles that leave both neighbors and developers frustrated are commonplace in Berkeley.
But community activists say Bates, the former developer, has stacked the task force with pro-development forces.
“I want to keep an open mind, but I think if you read the list of names, there is some reason for concern,” said Nancy Carleton, who volunteered on the Bates campaign.
Others are more pointed.
“It is slanted one way,” said activist Marie Bowman, president of the Council of Neighborhood Associations. “The whole reason it’s been put together is to get developers’ projects through faster, not to fix the process.”
“I think it’s a balanced group,” Bates replied, arguing that he has put together a strong mix of developers, zoning experts and community activists to fix a deeply flawed process. “I think I’ve tried to bend over backwards to get people who are fair and experienced.”
Whatever the composition of the group, some are skeptical that it will get anything done.
“Changing processes in Berkeley is a bit like changing the Politburo,” said Berkeley developer Patrick Kennedy, who said he partnered with Bates several years ago in a development deal that ultimately fizzled.
Critics don’t stop with the task force. Bates’ appointment of former UC Berkeley official David Stoloff to the Planning Commission has raised eyebrows in a town that has done constant battle with the university over its booming student population and the resulting housing crunch.
“David Stoloff is a strong advocate for the university in a town where the university runs rampant,” said progressive City Councilmember Dona Spring, who backed Bates during the campaign but has emerged as one of his leading critics.
When Stoloff joined the commission he immediately pushed for a special session with university officials, allowing them to voice concerns about the Southside Plan, a document years in the making, that will guide development south of campus.
Planning Commission Chairperson Zelda Bronstein said that Stoloff lobbied her to forbid any public comment at the workshop and, when she refused, to limit public comment to half an hour at the end of the evening, a claim Stoloff denies. Bates, Bronstein said, followed with a call making the same request.
The commission decided not to limit public input. But critics say the mayor’s overtures to the university were troubling.
“City Council has always tried to be a strong counterbalance to the university, and the Berkeley community has always been on the short end of the stick,” Spring said.
Bates said the Planning Commission has often been a hostile arena for the university. Appointing Stoloff and giving the university a forum to air its grievances, he said, was part of an attempt to improve upon the often combative relationship between the city and one of its most important institutions.
“I think people see dastardly things in everything I do,” Bates said. “But I’m interested in having a better relationship with the university, period.”
Healing broken relationships and fixing broken systems has emerged as perhaps the dominant theme in the first four months of the Bates administration.
The mayor has made a particular effort to reach out to the Berkeley Unified School District, hiring a former district official, Julie Sinai, as a senior aide and working to convene a March 29 education summit that brought together city, district and university officials to discuss collaboration in a time of severe budget deficits.
School officials say their relationship with Bates marks an improvement over their sometimes tense exchanges with Dean.
District Superintendent Michele Lawrence joked that she used to call the monthly “2X2” meeting — which pairs two school officials and two city officials — the “2X4” meeting.
“I’d go to these things and they’d beat the school district up,” she said. “I think there’s a lot less blame.”
“I believe Tom has a great attitude toward the schools,” added school board Director Terry Doran. “He wants to help in any way possible, but he doesn’t want to control what it is.”
Bates has, indeed, been careful to avoid a turf war with the district, stating clearly that the city will stay out of the classroom and focus instead on its traditional support role — funding after-school programs, providing police support on youth safety issues and working to get kids healthy for school.
The Budget and the Future
The challenge, observers say, will be funding these priorities, or any others, when the city faces a budget shortfall as high as $16.8 million over the next two years.
“The true test of leadership is to govern when times are bad, and the jury is still out,” said Planning Commissioner Jerome Wiggins.
Bates said he favors a balanced approach to the budget problem, cutting some city services while raising revenue through a hike in parking fines and a multi-million dollar parcel tax that would go before the voters.
While the budget may turn out to be the most difficult “fix” of the mayor’s administration, his most controversial, so far, was his push to streamline the local legislative process by establishing a Rules Committee, recently renamed the Agenda Committee.
Passed on a 7-2 vote at Bates’ first council meeting, with Spring and moderate Councilmember Betty Olds in opposition, the committee is composed of the mayor and two councilmembers — the moderate Miriam Hawley and progressive Linda Maio.
The group screens City Council proposals a week in advance to ensure they are properly formatted and include enough background information for a council vote. If there are any deficiencies, the committee sends the proposal back to the sponsor to make improvements.
The purpose of the Agenda Committee, supporters say, is to prevent the endless debates on half-baked measures that used to plague the council. Critics see an attempt to control the agenda.
“I suspect it is an attempt at political management,” said Dean, the former mayor. “You don’t get sound decisions when you politically manage an event.”
Spring, for her part, said the committee initially felt like a straightjacket, limiting her ability to bring measures before council. But Hawley, who serves on the Agenda Committee, said the body has not actually blocked any proposals from going before the council and will not in the future.
“I think [Spring] was really concerned in the beginning that Tom was going to run roughshod,” Hawley said. “I think he’s proven that he’s not going to do that.”
Spring said she is pleased with a recent reform allowing a councilmember to brush aside the committee’s proposed changes and place an item directly on the City Council agenda. But she said she had to fight Bates tooth and nail to win the change.
“He’s a tough cookie,” said Spring. “He’s been in the Sacramento environment for 20 years. I had to put a lot of energy into that.”
Spring also suggested that the Rules Committee and a “stacked” development task force may be part of a larger attempt by Bates to shape the direction of Berkeley politics to his liking.
“It feels like he wants to be in control of things,” said Spring.
Not so, says Bates.
“That’s not my style,” he said. “It’s my style to share. I’ve tried to be inclusive and get other people participating.”
Ultimately, Bates hopes his charm and style will allow him to leave the newspaper scandal behind and avoid the plight of Sacramento politicians like Willie Brown and Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown, who returned to local politics with great fanfare only to watch their reputations sour.
“A lot of these legislators who came down to be mayors became very unpopular,” he said in a recent interview. “So I thought I’d reverse the process.”