Faces of Berkeley: Tom Bates, city mayor

Bates places emphasis on a greener future

Edwin Cho/Staff
Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates

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Seventy-four-year-old Mayor Tom Bates walks to work every day.

Bates, whose hair has gone entirely gray and who recently went through knee surgery, says he would rather walk than drive a car that pollutes the environment.

The mayor’s reign has been characterized by a progressively moderate council representative of a wide spectrum of political attitudes in the city of Berkeley. The way he describes it, the mayor is a “switch hitter,” meaning he does not fall into either political category but collaborates and implements initiatives that work for everyone.

As a progressive moderate and a longtime Berkeley resident, it is not surprising Bates promotes green environmental policy.

He has lived and worked in the city for more than 30 years, serving as everything from a county supervisor to a state Assembly member. Bates has been mayor for more than 10 years and credits himself with uniting a historically divisive council.

“There has been a history of bad blood between the mayor and City Council members in the past,” Bates said. “I wanted to bring civility back to meetings and am very proud of the fact that we’ve had a wide variety of (representation) — progressive, moderate and conservative.”

Bates, in his third term as Berkeley’s mayor, filed paperwork for campaign fundraising in February and will announce whether he will run for a fourth mayoral term in the upcoming November election later this month.

Born and raised in Southern California, Bates came to UC Berkeley on an athlete’s scholarship in the late 1950s. As an undergraduate at the campus, Bates drank beer, joined a fraternity and played football.

But he also quit that fraternity after encountering racism and sexism and was eventually pushed into public service by his role with the U.S. military in Germany.

“All men had to be in the ROTC for two years during college,” he said. “As a commissioned officer in Germany, I had the opportunity to develop leadership skills, make decisions and direct 15 to 20 people.”

That is not to say Bates is all military. A few years back, the mayor sold his Volvo after becoming obsessed with the environment. Since then, he says, he has devoted his life to fighting global warming with projects in the city like the 2009 Berkeley Climate Action Plan.

Councilmember Linda Maio first met Bates in the late ’70s when Bates helped her preserve a piece of land in Fremont from commercial development by writing a bill to the state Legislature so that it could be turned into a city park.

“Rarely is there divisiveness on the Council under Tom,” Maio said in an email. “He moves ahead on so many ideas at once that it can be a bit of a pace to keep up with him.”

Councilmember Laurie Capitelli said Bates unifies the entire council with strong conflict resolution and perseverance in city initiatives.

“I respect the fact that he is willing to go outside the box,” Capitelli said. “He is a great problem solver and willing to work collaboratively with people.”

But for some, that “progressively moderate” attitude has been problematic.

Councilmember Kriss Worthington said Bates needs to try harder to represent city minority groups and UC Berkeley students.

“The mayor does not do progressive things of his own inclination,” Worthington said. “A pattern over many years are that different groups get left out — you shouldn’t have to protest in order to get a seat at the table.”

Regardless of his political stance, Bates says his ultimate goal has and will continue to be improving the standard of living in Berkeley, giving residents and UC Berkeley students the ability to appreciate the place he has called home for so many years.

“When I was at Cal, I had no connection with the community — that has since radically changed,” Bates said. “There has been a substantial increase in the number of people working and living in Berkeley. We want them to come for the culture and … stay here.”

Anjuli Sastry covers city government.