People’s Republic of Berkeley Now One-Party State

by Randy Shaw on July 9, 2012

Berkeley, California, a city whose local activism made headlines throughout the world, is now arguably the region’s least politically engaged city on local issues. Whereas activists in Oakland, Richmond and San Francisco run candidates and struggle for power, the onetime “People’s Republic of Berkeley” is now a one-party state. It has few contested elections, and incumbents serve until retirement. Despite persistent problem street behavior and declining retail activity along Telegraph, downtown Shattuck, and other core areas, 74-year old Mayor Tom Bates, in office since 2003, faces no serious challengers in November. Berkeley remains a city of great activism on state, national and international social justice issues, but the onetime leftist stronghold has the Bay Area’s most laissez-faire capitalist government, with developers and the University of California charting the city’s course.

Because Berkeley in the 1960’s is the subject of countless books, articles and even a film by that name, the public image of the city as a stronghold of local activism endures. And while Berkeley remains full of activists on non-local issues, the city’s once thriving local political scene has become the local political backwater in contrast to the energetic struggles in nearby cities.

How did Berkeley go from local activist hotbed to sleeping bedroom community? Two key factors.

The Decline in Student Local Activism

I got involved in Berkeley politics while attending UC in the 1970’s. Current Berkeley State Assembly member Nancy Skinner followed the same path, and many local Berkeley activists did as well. But this has since changed for both demographic reasons and due to the school’s transformation into a center not of activist-oriented students but for those with 4.0 plus high school grade point averages majoring in business, engineering, and the sciences.

Prop 209’s killing of affirmative action made UC Berkeley a campus where African-American students are disproportionately those on the basketball and football teams. Latino students are in numbers far less than their proportion to their presence at other UC schools. The small numbers of Latino and African-American students have made UC Berkeley a much less activist school, recent protests over tuition hikes notwithstanding.

Prop 209’s passage was then joined with UC Berkeley’s transformation into a school typically requiring 4.0 plus grade point averages to get acceptance. UCB has gone from being a farm system for future local political activists to an incubator for those seeking to work in the corporate and high-tech sectors.

Rising Single-Family Home Prices

Berkeley is a case study for a city’s ability to become more upscale without adding any luxury housing, or any new “market rate” condos. It disproves the view espoused by some San Francisco progressives that barring such housing limits or even slows such an upscale trend, which is instead driven by rising demand and a steadily appreciating existing housing stock.

I knew Berkeley was changing back in the 1990’s when one of my new neighbors was a registered Republican. He was the CFO of a large San Francisco law firm and his wife worked at UC Berkeley, which is why they relocated to the city from the South Bay. She told me at the time that her husband did not think he could “handle” living in Berkeley, but was pleasantly surprised. They didn’t live long in Berkeley, but made an enormous profit upon resale.

Increasingly a bedroom community for San Francisco and the South Bay, most Berkeley residents are completely disconnected from, and uninterested in, local politics.

The One-Party State

In the 1970’s and 1980’s, Berkeley politics was bitterly divided over rent control and development. Activists saw elections as having enormous consequences, as the progressive Berkeley Citizens Action (BCA) faced off against the more conservative Berkeley Democratic Club (BDC).

I recall the emotional 1979 campaign that elected Gus Newport as BCA’s first mayor, and the passion surrounding Tom Bates’ defeat of BDC’s two-term mayor Shirley Dean in 2002. Dean had backed every major development project proposed for Berkeley, battling progressives who supported innovative economic revitalization strategies and more responsible development.

Bates soon became the candidate of landlord and development interests. Yet he has faced no insurgent opposition from his left — which lacks an effective political base in local Berkeley politics — and is primarily opposed by anti-development forces lacking a unified political agenda.

The first casualty of a one-party state is the loss of innovative policies. Berkeley, the city that first banned styrofoam cups, pioneered recycling, diverted traffic from residential streets, led the national campaign for South African divestment, enacted the first Neighborhood Preservation Ordinance and the first California rent control law, has gone into government by auto-pilot.

The bold plans to open Strawberry Creek in downtown, the transformation of Center Street into a pedestrian mall, and other strategies to distinguish Berkeley from other cities have been abandoned. Instead, the Bates government offers yet another “sit lie” ordinance for the November ballot, and looks for ways to expand the tax base by encouraging whatever developers desire to build.

A one-party state also removes grassroots challenges to powerful interests. With few Berkeleyans paying attention to local government affairs, developers and the University now call all of the shots.

Bates’ government via auto-pilot and zealously pro-development stance could be justified if downtown Berkeley had improved during his decade as mayor; but it is remarkably little improved, and once thriving Telegraph Avenue has greatly regressed, a victim of city inaction.

Bates is a symptom of a deeper disengagement and local civic malaise. It would be great if he recognized that the city needed new energy and more innovative leadership and voluntarily stepped aside, but his identity is apparently too tied up with being a politician; it’s not his fault that Berkeleyans seeking a new direction are unable to mobilize to this end.

Few New Faces

Like other one-party states, Berkeley’s politicians and key activists are pretty much unchanged year after year. State Senator Loni Hancock was a two-term Berkeley mayor and former Assembly member from the city; her husband, Bates, represented Berkeley in the Assembly for two decades until forced out by term limits.

Most of those involved in local Berkeley politics are over sixty years of age, having gotten involved before the shifts of the 1990’s away from local engagement. They continue to fight with the one-party rulers over issues like Iceland or West Berkeley zoning, but few in Berkeley are actively engaged in such issues.

Is there another city with a rich activist tradition whose incumbent officials never face tough re-election challenges? Such challenges require a local body politic that cares about what’s happening in their city, a dynamic Berkeley has sadly lost.

To find what Berkeley once offered in the way of local activism one must go to Richmond. The Richmond Progressive Alliance is like the Berkeley Citizens Action of the 1960s, 1970’ and 1980’s, an “outsider” movement that innovates and challenges rather than simply surrenders to entrenched interests.

I wrote in September 2006 that Mayor Bates’ lack of a competitive challenger reflected a “city in twilight.” Twilight has turned to darkness, as the pressing national economic crisis has moved even more Berkeley activists to focus outside local affairs.

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