Berkeley Mayor’s Race Reflects a City in Twilight

by Randy Shaw on September 6, 2006

Berkeley, California has long been America’s leading municipal incubator of progressive social change. Berkeley was the home of the nation’s first alternative, listener sponsored radio show (Pacifica), and was the first city to ban Styrofoam and disinvest from South Africa. Berkeley was the first city west of New York to enact rent control (in 1973), it is the home of the visionary and politically powerful, had the first gourmet coffee house in Peets, and its Chez Panise invented what became known nationally as “California cuisine.” The Berkeley Free Speech movement in 1964 legitimized campus protests across America, and Berkeley’s congressmembers have been the leading opponents of America’s military industrial complex. Yet Berkeley has become so desirable that those who made it an activist stronghold can no longer afford to live there. There is no better evidence of Berkeley’s political decline than the current mayor’s race, where incumbent Tom Bates is assured of re-election despite maintaining a record that would have him on the political ropes elsewhere.

Berkeley politics has long been divided between conservative-moderates in the Berkeley Democratic Club (BDC) and progressive-leftists in Berkeley Citizens Action (BCA). Current Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates was strongly identified with BCA throughout his long Assembly career, and was the group’s choice in his successful 2002 mayoral race against longtime BDC favorite, incumbent Shirley Dean.

But in a signal of where Berkeley politics now stands, Bates overwhelmingly won the endorsement of the BDC, the city’s most anti-rent control and politically conservative club. Bates, the husband of Assemblymember and former Berkeley Mayor Loni Hancock, is also expected to get BCA’s endorsement.

If Bates had done a great job during his first term as mayor, such broad support would be understandable. But Berkeley’s downtown and Telegraph Avenue have greatly deteriorated in the past four years, and Bates is so out of touch that he recently stated that he “loved” the idea of a Walgreens opening on Telegraph.

A mayor that sees Walgreens as a great economic development opportunity fits the stereotype of Walnut Creek, not Berkeley. And since Bates took office the most recognizable name in the city is that of “Gordon”—the real estate company whose signs fill the vacant storefronts that dominate downtown Berkeley and much of the rest of the city.

Bates also failed to address the never-ending expansion plans of the University of California. Bates vowed to strongly protect the city’s interests against the school’s unceasing lust for land, but once elected became a pushover.

Early in his term the university unveiled its latest “Big Idea”: the construction of an upscale hotel in downtown Berkeley that would take up a block where the Bank of America plaza now sits at Center and Shattuck. The project had no educational purpose and clearly had to comply with the city’s planning code. It also would directly compete with existing hotels in the area. Nevertheless, Bates enthusiastically embraced the hotel, sending a clear signal that he would ensure its approval.

When the university refused to discuss how it would fairly compensate the city for massive development projects associated with its Long Range Development Plan, Bates and the City Council sued the University over this non-disclosure. Unfortunately, the former Cal football star turned mayor then punted rather than try to score a touchdown. He engineered a secret deal with the university that ended up putting the city in a worse position than if the suit had not been filed. This bizarre action led many to wonder which team Berkeley’s mayor is playing on.

Bates’ chief problem is that he is not a proactive mayor. Rather, any development scheme, no matter how ill conceived, attracts his attention. He gave initial support for a plan to build primarily market-rate housing on the Ashby Bart Station, and then had to pull back in response to community resistance. Nor does he try to galvanize public support for innovative land use or economic development plans, which would at least get people believing that Berkeley would not simply continue to be a victim of corporate economic decisions.

Bates is a “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” kind of mayor. When the Clif energy bar company announced it was leaving for Alameda, Bates said this was understandable, as Berkeley was a “ business incubator” city. So much for fighting to keep the tax revenue that Berkeley’s social service agencies so desperately need.

Despite the historic contentiousness of Berkeley politics, there were no protests in the streets over Bates’ lack of leadership. Few Berkeleans are politically involved in the city, and few of those active are under 40. Until recently, Berkeley had more City Council members over 80 than under 40, and had only one under 50 years of age among the Council’s nine members.

What happened to Berkeley’s young activists? Two things. First, they have been priced out of the Berkeley housing market. While San Francisco’s real estate boom for the past decade got most of the attention, Berkeley’s single-family home prices rose to the stratosphere.

Berkeley’s progressive policies created such a great quality of life that apolitical types who once feared the community are eager to move there for the great views, restaurants, book stores, and its classic brown shingle and Mediterranean-style homes. Once affordable homes in West Berkeley now sell for over $500,000, and there is almost no neighborhood remaining that is affordable to the working- class homeowners who once forged a critical part of the city’s activist base.

Second, as was commented upon when Cody’s on Telegraph closed in July after 50 years, Cal’s student population has changed dramatically since Prop 209 abolished affirmative action. UC Berkeley is no longer an activist campus, and it does not produce many students who stay involved politically in the city after graduation.

Bates has been helped by the lack of organized opposition. Because he is a strong housing advocate, some progressives are loath to criticize him for fear of empowering the city’s outspoken anti-housing constituency. Criticizing Bates also risks jeopardizing relations with his Assemblymember wife, and if you want something done locally or through the state legislature alienating both officials is not a good idea.

Bates’ chief opponent is former Planning Commission chair Zelda Bronstein, who has never held elected office. Bronstein has scored points against Bates’ record on land use and economic development issues, but is perceived by some as anti-business.

Bates has already locked up the endorsements of nearly all the council, and will also win the support of his longtime allies in labor and the environmental community. So there is really no space for Bronstein to break through to win an electoral majority.

This mayoral election is only for a two- year term, and many believe Bates will join Hancock in political retirement. Whether the prospect of an open mayor’s seat can revive Berkeley’s local political life is unclear, but if declining tax revenue leaves the city unable to maintain services, residents may again mobilize.

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