Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates retires after 14 years: “I always felt I could do the right thing”

Retiring Mayor Tom Bates. Photo: Kelly Sullivan
Tom Bates: “I’ve been so blessed to have had this opportunity to represent Berkeley.” Photo: Kelly Sullivan

Think back to Berkeley in 2002. Home prices were less than half of today’s values. There were just over 100,000 people in the city, versus 120,000 today. About one in eight Berkeleyans were over 60-years-old, against nearly one in five today. The politically minded were wondering how to survive the presidency of George W. Bush and his “global war on terror.” And Tom Bates was the newly elected mayor of Berkeley.

Tonight’s City Council meeting marks Bates’ last time chairing a City Council meeting. After 14 years as mayor (and 20 years in the Assembly and four years on the Alameda County Board of Supervisors before that), the 78-year-old Bates is retiring. Jesse Arreguín, often a dissenter to the Bates majority on the Council, takes over the mayorship on Thursday.

“I’ve been so blessed to have had this opportunity to represent Berkeley,” Bates told Berkeleyside in an interview before Thanksgiving. “I’ve always felt like I could do what I thought was the right thing, and never really had to compromise.”

Mayor Tom Bates. March 5, 2013. Photo: Emilie Raguso
Mayor Tom Bates presiding over a City Council meeting on March 5, 2013. Photo: Emilie Raguso

Bates cites the example of opposing the death penalty when he was in the Assembly.


“Other people had to waffle,” he recalled. “I never felt constrained. I always felt that what I wanted to do, I had the opportunity to make it happen. And people were respectful.”

But there’s a downside to representing Berkeley, too.

“If you’re from Berkeley, you’re labeled,” Bates said. “You’re left. You’re ultra left. People either want to help you or they’ll never help you.”

Mayor-elect Arreguín had warm words for his predecessor.

“Mayor Bates has accomplished an enormous amount for the city of Berkeley,” Arreguín said. “Many of the things that are lasting parts of our city, the Brower Center, Ed Roberts Campus, are the result of his leadership. I certainly have big shoes to fill coming into the mayor’s office.

“I have tons of respect for all Mayor Bates has done for Berkeley for decades, on the Board of Supervisors, in the Assembly and as mayor,” Arreguín continued. “We have not always agreed, but I have enormous respect for him and I know he loves Berkeley and cares greatly about its future.”

A majority of Berkeleyans have elected Bates to the mayorship four times and to the state Assembly multiple times before that. When he last ran for mayor, in 2012, he garnered 54% of the vote with his nearest challenger, long-time City Councilman Kriss Worthington, a distant second with 22%. Many in Berkeley’s business and property development communities have supported Bates over the years.

But to his detractors, that business support is a black mark. An active, vocal minority often packs City Council meetings to rail against the mayor and his allies, and often to hiss, boo and catcall his interventions from the chair.

In an often-told story, Bates notes that he never wanted to be mayor. He decided to run in 2002 after his wife, Loni Hancock, was set to take over his former Assembly seat (Hancock had herself been mayor of Berkeley for two terms in the late ’80s and early ’90s). Bates told journalist Bob Gammon recently, “I’d been there for 20 years, and I didn’t want to go back as a spouse.”

“I never planned to run for mayor,” he said to Berkeleyside. “People asked me and I said I never wanted to do that.”

He changed his mind and handily defeated incumbent mayor Shirley Dean in 2002 (55% to 43%). However, that campaign was marred by Bates’ stealing 1,000 copies of the Daily Californian, which had endorsed Dean, the day before the election. Bates has apologized repeatedly for that error for the last 14 years. It’s one of the knocks his public opponents return to regularly.

Tom Bates. Photo: Kelly Sullivan
Retiring Mayor Tom Bates: “I never planned to run for mayor.” Photo: Kelly Sullivan

After 14 years as mayor, Bates points to a number of visible achievements as his principal legacy.

It’s hard to stop him talking about education. He said that when he first ran for mayor, the then-superintendent of Berkeley Unified School District was worried that he planned to take over the district because he talked so much about education, which is largely outside the purview of the mayor. Bates was instrumental in launching the 2020 Vision for Berkeley’s Children and Youth to help close the achievement gap.

He’s particularly proud of Berkeley City College. Bates worked from the ’80s with then-Councilwoman Maudelle Shirek and journalist Bob Burnett to transform the sleepy Vista College into Berkeley City College, with its own faculty and modern facilities.

“I became mayor and they built this building and blocked my view,” he joked. “But it’s a fantastic community college, one of the best in the United States.”

This year, Bates launched with BUSD, BCC and the Berkeley Community Fund the Berkeley Promise, loosely modeled on Oakland Mayor Libby Schaff’s Oakland Promise. The idea is to offer a BCC scholarship and mentoring support to every Berkeley high school graduate with at least a C+ average.

Bates also points to the David Brower Center and the Ed Roberts Campus as physical emblems of his tenure, representing the city’s commitment to respectively environmental concerns and disability rights. Berkeley’s Climate Action Plan, adopted in 2009, is another touchstone for Bates.

He’s also proud of what he sees as the city’s improving business climate.

“When I was first elected,” he said, “there were all kinds of vacancies on Shattuck. Now there are virtually none. Same thing is true on Telegraph. You have the vitality, you have the people.”

He points out that Berkeley Downtown Plan was passed by the voters in 2010 and reaffirmed with the defeat of Measure R in 2014 (backed by Mayor-elect Arreguín). Bates believes that the plan will be the foundation for a healthy future for Berkeley.

“The development is taking place and we’re going to start seeing huge increases in the property tax,” he said. He cites both 2211 Harold Way and the new hotel at Shattuck and Center. “It’s a couple of years away, but it’s a very healthy projection.”

But Bates also recognizes that there’s plenty of unfinished business on the agenda.

“By any stretch of the imagination dealing with the homeless problem is key,” he said. “I think it’s part of the reason people wanted change in the election. They were sick of seeing the homeless situation. It’s a horrendous problem.

“The problem with Berkeley is there’s no space, there’s no place to go,” he said. “If we had it, I’m sure we could do more.”

Bates said he has always believed that the homeless problem needs to be solved regionally.

“I tried to work with other cities,” he said. “But it’s very difficult for people to take part in that.”

On the related problem of housing, Bates said he believes some progress has been made.

“There was a period of time, when my wonderful wife was mayor, nothing was built,” he said. “They built one building on College and Channing Way and another on Shattuck and Rose. That was it. That was seven years. Nothing else was proposed.”

In contrast, during his tenure hundreds of units of housing at below-market rates have been built and an additional 372 low-income rental units are either under construction or in the pipeline. Bates’ belief in the value of building transit-oriented developments dates back to his Assembly days, when he passed legislation on what were then called “transit villages.”

“But the market has gone up so high that the middle gets left out,” Bates said. “If I was to be here, I would be working on trying to make sure that we had provisions for people like school teachers who can’t afford to live here.

“I’m shocked at the rents they’re asking in some of the new developments,” he said. “The problem is the economics. A lot of people have these dreams, but unless you have the opportunity to really make it happen, it’s just rhetoric.”

Bates said it’s unclear to him what the attitude of the new City Council will be to development, particularly with four new members.

“If people want to stop development, there are ways to do it, not just by voting against it,” he said. “You load it up and make it so expensive that nobody can afford to do it. Clearly the message is some people who won want to slow down development, but whether that will happen, we’ll have to see.”

Before his final City Council meeting, Bates also reflected on his style in the chair. His irritation at lengthy public comment line-ups is often evident, and he vigorously polices the strict time limits on speakers.

“One of the problems that I’ve had over time is losing patience,” he admitted. “It’s hard for me. I’ve tried to be better over the last six months. Loni says, ‘C’mon.’ Sometimes we’re arguing over a minor detail. Some people just refuse to compromise. They can get 98% of what they want and they’ll fight like hell for the last two percent. C’mon, you’ve got to be more reasonable.”

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