Remembering Peter Ross Tannenbaum, a powerful force in Berkeley politics

Peter Ross Tannenbaum passed away peacefully on June 16, succumbing to a decade-long struggle against heart and related health problems. He was 63.

Usually working behind the scenes but always on the front-line, Peter was a powerful force in Berkeley and East Bay politics for four decades. He was a tireless and humble warrior of social progress, civil rights and economic protections, always rising in defense of union workers, tenants, the homeless, our most vulnerable neighbors, and anyone in need.

“Peter didn’t just live in Berkeley, he was Berkeley,” said friend and former Berkeley Councilmember Alan Goldfarb.

Earning respect from friend and foe alike, he was always generous with his time and talents, but never lightly suffered hypocrisy, unmerited authority or small-mindedness. He was relentless in his demand for transparency and accountability from those who served the public.

Always ready with a keen wit and clear insight into the heart of the matter, he usually told the best joke in the room and would offer the right idea for understanding a challenging situation and charting the best course of action.

The son of a printer and a homemaker, Peter was born on April 22, 1955, and grew up in the Long Island neighborhood of Lawrence, NY.

Suffering from a form of undiagnosed dyslexia, Peter had a difficult time reading. In the sixth grade, he was required to read a book every month and make a book report on it. Instead of reporting on an existing book that the teacher might have read, Peter fabricated titles and made reports on these non-existent books. Some of the plots were quite compelling. It worked for a while, but he was finally busted. Somewhere, for sure, this is on his permanent record.

Due to redistricting, the luxury of bus service to school from his home was suddenly revoked in the sixth grade. It seemed unfair, as the bus still stopped at the corner, but he didn’t have the pass to get on. A trip to dad’s printing plant remedied the lack of the pass, but soon that plan failed due to Peter’s poor paper color-matching skills. The permanent record grew.

Peter left high school and helped start a local free school in the early 1970’s. That led to a GED and entering, then leaving, some of the finest colleges.

He eventually headed west, stopping first in Illinois to work for Governor Dan Walker in the mid-1970’s.

His journey then brought him to the Bay Area, where he roomed with his older brother Ed in the early 1980’s in what was to become known as Berkeley’s Gourmet Ghetto and where he initiated a rent strike against their landlord – the first of his many battles for tenants’ rights. Ed hacked computers for his art, and the hacking bug soon hit Peter.

A dedicated advocate of alternative education, he served a term as student trustee on the Peralta Colleges Board of Trustees.

“Peter was a very smart and good-humored friend – both essential qualities to have in the complicated world of politics,” said Oakland Councilman Abel Guilllén. “He was instrumental in the success of my very first campaign, for the Peralta Board, ten years ago. He was a great believer in the transformative social power of educational opportunity and economic justice, and he always gave me wise advice about these issues and more.”

He would eventually run campaigns for dozens of local candidates and measures, succeeding with uncommon and unassuming mastery of fieldwork, campaign literature and all manner of sophisticated political operations, strategies and intrigue. He was always helpful with wise counsel about both big ideas and the smallest practical detail.

”Clever, insightful, brilliant and funny, Peter had a wonderful appreciation of the quirks of human nature. I really appreciated his intelligence, his humor and the sparkles of mischief in his eyes,” said Berkeley Councilwoman Susan Wengraf. “I enjoyed working with Peter. Despite the animosity that often comes with Berkeley politics, we rose above the pettiness, and formed a caring friendship.”

“Peter was the great general of Berkeley’s rent-control battles. He was inventive, incisive, stubborn, and always hilarious. Thanks to him, we had the last big movement for rent control and tenants’ rights in this town – the Ad Hoc Committee to Save Rent Control,” said Randy Silverman, former chair of the Berkeley Rent Stabilization Board. “He made politics and life fun.”

In more recent years, he also worked as a pioneering webmaster and graphic designer for Stopwaste, Alameda County’s recycling and waste-management agency. After 20 years of public service there, he retired in 2014.

“Peter’s skills as a guerrilla graphics artist, master forger and biting satirist were surpassed only by his kindness and caring,” said Tom Padia, the agency’s deputy director who worked beside Peter all of those years.

Peter wore out his first heart in May 2007 and received an upgrade at Stanford Hospital that added eleven years to his lease on life.

Peter is survived by his three siblings, Ed Tannenbaum (Crockett, CA), Bobbi Tannenbaum (Madison, WI) and Sue Margolies (Hewlett, NY); Sue’s two children, Nancy and Neil; and former wife Carla Woodworth. He will be sorely missed and fondly remembered by his countless friends and family.

Peter is leaving his body to the UCSF Willed Body Program, for the benefit of future medical practitioners. He is also making a substantial financial contribution to the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union, and his friends are encouraged to make donations to the work of these two organizations in his name, in lieu of flowers. There are as yet no plans for a memorial event.