Tom Bates and the Secret Government of Berkeley

by John Curl on June 18, 2012

Ed. Note: John Curl is a long-time progressive activist in Berkeley, and the full 54-page version of this piace (which is well worth the read) can be read here. The following is a partial excerpt, which was first published in the Berkeley Daily Planet.

If you meet with mayor Tom Bates in his office at Berkeley city hall, you’ll see an old photo on the wall behind him of Emiliano Zapata, hero of the Mexican revolution, champion of the downtrodden. I have been in his office only two times in Bates’ decade in power, and on both occasions I was stopped short by the jaw-dropping contrast. What can Bates be thinking? Can he really be comparing himself with Zapata, can he really think of himself as a visionary champion of social justice? If Zapata were alive and saw this career politician using his image, I wonder what would he do.

If all you knew about Mr. Bates was his official resume, you might be bewildered by my saying that. Before his decade as mayor, he was a liberal standard bearer for twenty years in the California State Assembly for his East Bay district, and during that time was considered one of the legislature’s most progressive members. Yet despite being in the public eye for over forty years and currently running for yet another mayoral term, Tom Bates is a public figure hiding in plain sight, with a long shadowy history not widely known.

A lot of things are said about Bates. “Tom is not a listener.” “He’s in bed with the right kinds of developers.” “Never saw a developer he didn’t like.” “Motivated by ego.” “Got an Edifice complex.” “He wants to leave a giant downtown and a West Berkeley wall as his legacy.” “The Bates machine.” “A shill for the University.” “Godfather of the Democratic Party.” “Loves to be the power broker.” “Back-room dealer.” “Dangles Democratic Party endorsements to control locally.”

As Councilmember Jesse Arreguin put it, “We are being run by a political machine based on personal and political loyalty, not by certain core values. Decisions are being made behind closed doors, and there isn’t real public engagement. Corporations and special interests have great influence over decisions that the city makes … There is a growing disconnect between the public and city government. Our meetings are sometimes really just to rubber stamp things. They have the perception that the public are an obstacle, and public input just pro-forma.”

Has the People’s Republic of Berkeley really became a developers’ playground? If so, how did it happen, and why?

I set out to do some investigative reporting, to try to dig out the truth about Bates. In the process I did a series of oral history interviews with people who had been players in many of the incidents I will be describing. Some of these people agreed to speak under an agreement of confidentiality, so I will be providing information from some of these interviews, but unfortunately I cannot reveal all of the sources.

I hope what I have written here will not be taken as unduly critical of Loni Hancock, currently state senator, former mayor of Berkeley, and Tom’s wife. But it’s hard to say anything critical of Tom without people thinking you’re also criticizing Loni. In fact, I had to consider long and hard before I decided to write this, from worry of hurting her, a person I worked with politically and for whom I have high regard. But in the process of writing this, I will have to look back at the years that she was mayor of Berkeley, compare her administration with Tom’s, and touch on his influence over her.

In the process of this exploration, I discovered that in 2000 and 2001 Mr. Bates did an extensive oral history of his career for the California State Archives. Although in it he attempts to relate his accomplishments in a favorable light, as one might expect, interspersed in the 577 pages of transcript are numerous revealing statements and accounts. When he recorded the interviews, after he left the state assembly and before he became Berkeley’s mayor, he apparently thought his political career was over. Perhaps that is why he let down his guard and revealed much about himself that he previously kept under careful wraps. Unless otherwise stated, all the quotes from Bates in this article are from those transcripts. Much of what I will be revealing here is generally unknown about Bates. Here it is, in his own words, from an official state document that has been tucked away unnoticed in a musty archive in Sacramento for over a decade.

I wish to make clear at the outset that this evidence does not expose the level of corruption that, for example, could send him to prison for breach of public trust. However, I believe it will expose enough about his character so that others may think twice before boasting of his endorsement. Berkeley deserves a lot better.

Bates once said, “Usually, people who are appointed to the Regents were people who were heavy contributors to political campaigns. The grand payoff is to be appointed to the Regents.” As far as I can tell, Bates does not appear to be a wealthy man today, to have greatly enriched himself through his political career. He receives a generous pension from his years in the assembly, but that’s really not a big payoff by American standards. After many politicos leave office, they become lobbyists. That is one of the usual deferred payoffs for services rendered. However, Mr. Bates did not go into lobbying, as far as I can tell. He did dabble in real estate development somewhat while he was out of office, but that apparently did not result in any extraordinary payoffs, at least not at that time. Then why has Bates done all that he’s done? Is it all just ego and power? Or has he simply been a dedicated public servant pursuing the people’s interest and his vision? The buzz coming down the grapevine today is that Bates wants to be on the UC Board of Regents, and his wife, State Senator Loni Hancock, is currently lobbying Jerry Brown to appoint him. A UC Regent gets appointed for a twelve-year term to a post of enormous power, secret dealings with all the power players, and no outside control. Could that be Bates’ plan for dancing off into the sunset, the grand payoff for his years of service to the powers-that-be?

* * *

Bates has worked to move land use decisions into regional planning, removing power as much as possible away from local governance and any direct public oversight …

He has a lot in common with New York City’s Robert Moses, who in the mid 20th century situated himself in a powerful fortress of quasi-public “authorities,” from which he dictated city planning projects almost unchecked by any democratic processes. To fulfill his vision of a wonderful world dominated by cars, Moses leveled numerous neighborhoods to build freeways, and for many years the abused people seemed to have no recourse. Until he overstepped. The people rose up and brought him down.

* * *


Yes, a sort of political machine does exist in Berkeley, coming out of the deterioration of progressive politics of the past 30 to 40 years. Once it was a movement based on certain goals, ideas, and core values. Now it is a machine based primarily on loyalty to Tom Bates. If you’re not going to do what he wants, then you’re an enemy. In terms of progressive issues, Bates has always taken the easy way out, promoted a lite version of social justice that was primarily in the window for show. Underneath it all, he was always a career politician ego-identified with the university, whose greatest skill set was always the backroom deal. A gray eminence, the guy that nobody really took very seriously, Bates positioned himself little by little to become the local power broker, undermining progressive politics in Berkeley in the process. One particularly sad aspect to it is that many do not speak truth to him because of Loni.

In doing investigative research for this article, I asked many people who know him, What makes Bates tick? What’s his motivation? What gets him up in the morning? The portrait that emerges is a man driven by ego. His agenda seems to be to transform Berkeley so that he will leave his physical mark on it, an edifice to himself. Several people I spoke with thought it pathetic how he pushed to get the Gilman sports field renamed after himself. But that’s just an obscure footnote to his agenda, which appears to be on a very much grander scale. He apparently wants a new shining Berkeley to emerge, ever more dominated by the university, a town-gown grand alliance with himself at its center, symbolized by massive University-oriented high-rises dominating downtown and the West Berkeley skyline. From anywhere you look at the town, from the hills or from across the bay, you’ll see the mark of Bates.

In my mind I see that old photo of Emiliano Zapata on the wall behind Bates in his office, and in Zapata’s deep sorrowful eyes I see the pain of the suffering of the world and his unquenchable thirst for social justice. Then I look at Bates, then back at the picture. In place of Zapata I now see the withered face of Robert Moses, the New York Power Broker, in a 1940s Fedora hat, the corners of his mouth twisted down as if he has something very sour in his mouth, and in his glazed eyes I see nothing. Berkeley can do better.

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.

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