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Excerpt 5

By John Curl
Thursday July 19, 2012 - 10:00:00 PM

Copyright © 2012 by John Curl. All rights reserved.

This is the fifth 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 discusses Congressman Ronald V. Dellums, his mentor; Assembly Speaker Willie Brown, his teacher; Assemblymember Dion Aroner, his aide and successor; his frustrated ambitions for higher office; his ouster from the Assembly by term limits; and his difficulties while out of office while his wife, Loni Hancock, was becoming increasingly successful. You can also download a Full PDF. of the entire article.


Bates milked his association with Ron Dellums for all it was worth. “He had this incredible reputation, and I was very fortunate to have a similar reputation by association. You know, everything was Dellums-Bates does this. I guess I was the token white.” In contrast to public appearances, the two always had a distant relationship. “[Dellums] was a person that was, I found, really hard to know… he was sort of ‘on’ all the time. He was always, like telling things and explaining things, and if you were there, it was difficult to have a two-way conversation. It was mostly you listening to him pontificate about various things.” Bates went on about Dellums, “[A] lot of people, when they’re in office… they become kinds of shells of people, in the sense of you don’t really get to know them, they don’t show who they are. It’s more of a persona.” 

“Dellums was really the leader,” and Bates was unquestionably the follower. “Dellums had an advisory committee, which advised him on local candidates, just who he should support… What I found myself was that I was also interested in, whenever possible, supporting the same candidates that he was supporting… Dellums was pretty much the lead… [I] also was, to a certain extent, deferential, deferential to Dellums’ choices. I didn’t really endorse people until I saw what he was doing in terms of his endorsements… Then, once Dellums endorsed, and then I would, representing sort of the liberal, white community, Caucasian community, would support, it added a lot of legitimacy to the efforts.”  

* * * 


One leader in the Assembly whom Bates highly respected, and from whom he learned a lot, was Willie Brown. “Willie Brown was somebody who was a remarkable leader. At one point, when he became the speaker, he became like a Mafia don in some ways. I mean, he had so much power and control over people. It was like the last Mafia. I felt like I got a PhD in leadership from Willie Brown.” Bates also claims that Brown “would show up two days a week, but because of the rules, he would get per diem for seven days a week… He was never there. He was like AWOL… So he was basically practicing law and building his law practice, and these were later years when he had income of, like $200,000 a year coming from outside income that he was making primarily representing developers in San Francisco and in the Bay Area.” 

* * * 


Bates had ambitions for higher office beyond the Assembly, but that was cut off from him. The next step up would have been the state senate. However, his ally Nicolas Petris, state senator from the district, wasn’t planning on leaving any time soon. But then Jimmy Carter got elected president, and rumors circulated that Congressman Dellums was going to be appointed ambassador to South Africa. Bates jumped at the idea that he might have a shot at the congressional seat. But his move was premature and backfired. Dellums did not want the ambassador job. He heard that Bates was eyeing his seat, and was galled. According to Bates, “It well, actually took us a long time to sort of build back relationships… ‘What am I doing running for his seat and he’s not vacating?’… It was like, all of a sudden you think, Whoa, you know this guy’s really ambitious. He’s already planning to run for my seat.” So instead, Bates floated the idea of running for statewide office, and went around the state politicking and campaigning. But after meeting with politicos from Southern California, he came to the sad conclusion that “I would have support from a number of groups, but it was not going to be anywhere near the kind of money and resources I’d have to raise… So I woke up to the fact that that’s not going to happen. I mean, I’m not going to be able to run for a higher office, per se.” 

He hand picked his aide Dion Aroner to be his successor. As Bates himself said, “I think some criticism is probably warranted… You notice that a lot of elected officials, their staff members become elected officials… I was a staff member for Ken Meade… Dion Aroner took my place… Barbara Lee, who’s the current congresswoman, worked for Ron Dellums. Keith Carson, who ended up being elected to the seat that I held on the board of supervisors, and John George held, worked for Ron Dellums for a number of years… [W]e don’t have patronage other than our staff.” The musical chairs would continue later when Hancock took over Aroner’s seat, then moved up to the State Senate when Don Perata was termed out, and former Berkeley City Councilmember Nancy Skinner took over the seat held by Hancock, Aroner and Bates. 

Bates handed the torch to Aroner reluctantly. Although BCA people always said that Dion was actually running the show in the Sacramento office, Bates claimed the contrary, that he helped her exaggerate her resumé to get her elected. “I told her to just kind of take credit for everything I’ve done. So she proceeded to do that… she would talk like she had done it all… Dion would take credit for all these things, all my legislation… And so it was hard for me sometimes to sit there and see this person, like what did I do? So when she got elected, she won the Democratic nomination, I told her it was a great privilege for me to jockey all of her legislation all these years.” 

* * * 


Meanwhile, Bates was being ousted from the legislature by the imposition of term limits. Since there was no opportunity for him to move to higher office, he filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the new term limits law, and fought tooth and nail to remain in office. However, his lawsuit lost, so he was out of a job. 

Bates professed to believe that “people who were in office for a long period of time became the most effective and the best representatives.” However, he conceded, “I think there’s an innate belief that people who stay in office, you know, power corrupts. So that if they’re there a long time, they’re going to become corrupted… And that you can’t get rid of them, and they stop listening. They stop being reflective of the views of the district because they become secure, and so they do what they want, and not necessarily reflect the voters.” 

* * * 

Bates had a tough time just adjusting to not being an elected official, “not being thought of as important; you know, going places and not being introduced, people not stepping aside or people not being interested in what you have to say. You know, people start looking past you. And so, that’s hard, I think, for some people to be suddenly treated differently, especially if they have a lot of ego and a lot of ego wrapped up in the job and the job becomes who they are… I think it’s particularly difficult being a spouse of an elected official, having been the spouse of a mayor of Berkeley… I still found myself being in funny situations with my wife, going places with her and being introduced as Mr. Hancock. This is when she was the mayor, you know: Mayor Hancock and Mr. Hancock… And so, it would be like, ‘Oh you’re the mayor’s husband,’ And to be seen as the mayor’s husband, it’s dehumanizing… And people feel like you’re not of any value, that you’re just like an appendage… Nobody, particularly, is interested in my comments… the spouse: they’re seen as nobodies.” 

* * * 

In 2002 Loni decided to run for Tom’s old seat in the Assembly, and everybody knew she would be a shoo-in. Bates’ fear of being left behind by her probably had a lot to do with his deciding to run for mayor in the same election. 


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.