Page One

Tom Bates and the Secret Government of Berkeley: Excerpt 2

By John Curl
Friday June 22, 2012 - 03:45:00 PM

Copyright © 2012 by John Curl. All rights reserved.

This is the second in a series of excerpts from John Curl’s long article about Mayor Bates and his effects on the city. The article follows Bates and the progressive movement in city government from its beginnings to today, based on extensive quotes from Bates’ own oral history and interviews with other players in the political events. In this excerpt Bates talks about Rent Stabilization, low-income housing, the homeless, and his role in the change to district elections. You can also download a Full PDF. of the entire article.

Tom Bates’ relationship to the issue of rent stabilization was always reluctant, guarded, and iffy. Although publicly he supported Berkeley rent control, behind the scenes it was a different story. “But rent control is an issue that—it was like a no-win position for me… In retrospect, I came out of the base which supported rent control. The people voted for it, but it was never, particularly, any good issue for me because it was—I mean, I had to defend it in the state legislature. Albeit, my wife was mayor, and, I mean, I had ties with people who supported it, supported rent control. So I wasn’t about to break that. And so, I ended up having to fight fights that I didn’t really choose to fight. And from a political-aspiration point of view, when I looked at one time to running for other offices, it was like a death knell… so it was not a good issue for me politically. In fact, that was—well, we used to say that was our baggage; our luggage was that rent control that we had to carry around with us… It wasn’t like I would fall on my sword for this issue. It was something that sort of like came with the territory. And particularly with my affiliations and association; I mean, it was like, if I would have changed my view on rent control and done something like [State Senator Nicholas C.] Petris did—he switched; it was like, people were shocked that he would do this, that he would make this change, and he had sold out and all this other stuff. So it was very hard; people were just like a litmus test. Death penalty, abortions, rent control. You know what I mean? Dogs off leash. There are some issues you can’t win on, right? This was one of those.” 

* * * 

According to Bates, participation in BCA [Berkeley Citizens Action, the progressive coalition] declined because, “The BCA used to be an organization that when they have nominating conventions to various local office, they would have five to seven hundred people would show up and participate in the debate and selection of candidates to represent them. But the zealots and the rent fanatics would talk and bring up all these issues that they drove other people away… So it became more and more of a hard-core of people who were interested in very narrow issues, and rent was one of them. It was like the absolute litmus test. So it really hurt the organization...” 

* * * 

The city council led by Mayor “Gus” Newport got a federal grant to build low income housing. But for every proposed site, conservatives stirred up the neighborhood with fears of low income families… 

Bates was harshly critical of Newport’s attempt to increase low income housing. “They made some really stupid, in my judgment, decisions that haunted them, one of which was… the federal government said that they had all this low-income housing that was available, and if Berkeley wanted them, they could get like 172 units of low-income housing. And they said, ‘Sure. We want it.’ So then they’d try to figure out where to put the low-income housing… And guess what? Nobody wanted it anywhere…” 

* * * 

Bates’ views of some social issues were simplistic and not very compassionate. “[T]he homeless issue. That was really, a terrible, knotty problem because, you know, the question is if you provide services for people in Berkeley, if you provide homeless shelters and you provide food programs, I mean, people will come here from all over, because it’s an accepting community. And a lot of homeless people on the streets, and people are saying, ‘We don’t want them here… we don’t want them on our streets… They belong in mental hospitals. They need help. We don’t want to see them.’” 

* * * 

Anger of Berkeley conservatives at two consecutive electoral defeats at the hands of Mayor Newport and BCA which had left them with only one seat on the Council, led to an initiative charter amendment on the June, 1986 ballot. If the new system passed, the eight councilmembers would be elected by districts and only the mayor would be elected at large. The measure was criticized by BCA in that Berkeley is not very large—its population hovers around 100,000—and while district elections make sense in a large metropolitan area, in a city this size they could result in a focus on the competition of different neighborhoods over who gets their potholes filled first. It would also disarm BCA at its point of strength, the ability to mobilize the power of the flatlands majority behind unified, citywide slate campaigns... 

Newport was always outspoken about social justice issues, and never minced words toward people he considered phony or reactionary. There was no love lost between Bates and Newport, but for the most part they kept it out of the public eye. Newport saw Bates as “a hard nosed politico who’s just there for the political reality, … knows how to take advantage of it, to exploit it.” 

Bates in turn was highly critical of Newport, and put off by his politics and manner. … Bates publicly took a stand against the change to district elections. But privately he later took some of the credit. “[A] guy by the name of Gus Newport, who had been involved with BCA… had the reputation for being extremely rude to the public… I mean, we had to change the election to district elections a lot because of his style, the way he treated the public.” Bates did not further explain the statement “we had to change the election to district elections,” but “we” apparently played a role along with the conservatives. 


John Curl is the author of For All The People: Uncovering the Hidden History of Cooperation, Cooperative Movements, and Communalism in America, with a foreword by Ishmael Reed.