Page One


By John Curl
Friday July 06, 2012 - 12:47:00 PM

Copyright © 2012 by John Curl. All rights reserved.

This is the fourth 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. This excerpt discusses his campaign funding, lobbyists, and his own laziness. You can also download a Full PDF. of the entire article.

To fund his career in the Assembly, Bates cobbled together sources that coincided as much as possible with his areas of involvement and concern: “in the end it was primarily union money and some interest groups.” He favored areas where there were few political downsides. Environmental groups, consumer protection, civil liberties, and women’s rights were easy, particularly in Berkeley. Public employees unions brought large numbers of feet to his campaign mobilizations. His supporters included the trial lawyers and the highway patrol. “Some people give money just because they want to have access.” He worked out a somewhat mechanistic paper-rock-scissors hierarchy of issues. “If I run into a conflict between environment and, say, labor, I would choose the environment.” He generally supported whatever organized labor supported, particularly government unions, but apparently more because he needed them as backers than because he believed in the cause. “There was occasion when I thought that maybe I should vote with the employer. But it would have to be a pretty strong case for me to switch because it’s like, Why am I alienating my friends unnecessarily? I mean, if it’s real important, I would switch.” 

Bates thrived in that world. He assigned his staff to thread the intricacies of the agencies of the state bureaucracy “to establish relationships to figure out who the power players were.” He liked to be on the winning side, and figured out what positions to take to be on that side. 

He learned to play political games by the Sacramento rules. “The legislature isn’t, the assembly is not a great deliberative body… in my twenty years, I changed my mind on the floor maybe ten times.” He would confer privately with lobbyists and people in the industry involved, make real decisions behind closed doors, and relegate the public processes as just for show, window dressing: “the hearings become, and the various legislative debates become, secondary.” He would later bring this back room process home to Berkeley when he became mayor. 

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He continued to raise funds from small donors, but that did little more than pay for itself. “I tried to have some kind of a barbeque, some kind of small person’s fundraiser and maintained a list of small donors. You would raise some money, but it wasn’t a significant amount of money. And then they would have receptions of various kinds in Sacramento where they’d invite the special interests and lobbyists to come, you know, to breakfast or a cocktail party. So that you serve some, maybe five or ten dollars worth of drinks or something, and you would charge maybe $500 to get people to come. In order to get lobbyists to come, it’s a game that’s played, which is you send them an invitation. And this is a lobbyist who now comes before the committee, talks to you about various issues. They receive the invitation to the event, and then they send it to their client, whoever that might be. It might be anywhere from a car company to a chemical company. There are probably 500 lobbyists in Sacramento, and most of them have a number of clients… So they get the invitation, then they decide who they want to invite, if their client would participate. So what would then happen is that in order to leverage their clients’ interests, generally speaking, they’d wait for the legislator to call them. And when the legislator calls the lobbyist, in that phone call, the ethics are very clear. You cannot talk about any business that that lobbyist has before the legislature… In order to be effective, to get people to come, you have to do calls. And then, you know, you could hang up that call, and then call back on another phone that would be a state phone—the campaign phone had to be a private phone—and talk about business that they might have. I mean, it’s sort of like a game that’s played.” 

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Whenever possible, he took the easy way out. “Over the years I got lazy… I could still get overwhelmingly elected… I hired a staff person…who was a genius at getting press… I did less and I was in the press more… [A] lot of these stations didn’t have news broadcasters. They would actually pick up feeds from services. The state assembly… actually hired a person who did radio feeds… and then send them to like a hundred and sixty stations, or something. Because they didn’t have any staff of their own, they got this feed from this service that they basically ran, this unfettered news. So, it was very good… They didn’t have the news members on their staffs anymore at the various stations, radio stations and television. And they got it free.” 

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It has been said many times that in California the dominant force has always been real estate development. The California Democratic machine is largely funded by the deep pockets of real estate developers. While Republicans tend to be more the corporate party demanding “no regulations,” mainstream Democrats are pro-development but with regulations. Berkeley is not really any different. Cities need revenue and—due to Prop 13—one of the only ways they can get it is through development. Local politicians need revenue for their campaigns, and many of them get it the same way 

The big commercial property owners and developers are of course the major players. Locally they are organized primarily through the Downtown Berkeley Association (DBA), and the Chamber of Commerce. The university is actually one of the biggest funders of the Chamber. Apart from UC, the downtown property owners may be the most powerful force in town. Although some downtown stores and buildings are shuttered, to a certain extent that is due to the owners’ joint decision to not lower rents to market rates. The invisible hand appears to be handcuffed by the very forces which laud it as the foundation of our society. 

Back in the heyday of BCA and Mayor Gus Newport, the developers funded the opposition ABC-BDC. Then when Hancock was mayor, some of them began to come over to progressives. But in the 1980s and ‘90s progressives weren’t worried about satisfying them; with Bates there has been a quantitative change. Political campaigns are expensive, particularly contested campaigns, and it is not easy to fund them through $10 and $20 contributions. A mayoral campaign back in the 1990s cost around $120,000, and surely more today. But Bates does not have to worry, because his core constituency is developers and big property owners, and they fund his election campaigns. 


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.