Mayor Tom Bates to retire from position after 14 years in office

Ethan Epstein/Senior Staff

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During Mayor Tom Bates’ regular bus rides around the city, fellow riders would ask, “Are you Tom Bates?” His response: “No, he’s much younger than me.”

After 14 years as mayor of Berkeley — the longest tenure in the city’s history — and 38 years in public office, Bates, 78, has decided to retire. This marks the end of a long career replete with significant accomplishments that benefited many, from people with disabilities to Berkeley youth to local breweries and sports fanatics.

“(I’m) very happy to serve for a long time, because it takes forever to get things accomplished,” Bates said.

Bates grew up in Southern California before coming to UC Berkeley to play football on an athletic scholarship, playing on the team during its last Rose Bowl appearance. Bates would jokingly say he would stay in office until Cal went back to the Rose Bowl.

After graduating, Bates joined the Army and worked in real estate before he was elected to the Alameda County Board of Supervisors in 1972, on which he served for four years. In 1976, he also was elected to represent parts of the East Bay in the state Assembly, serving for 20 years.

As an Assembly member, Bates drafted 220 pieces of legislation that became law and was known for his environmental work, having served on the Assembly’s environmental committee for 19 years. Bates also chaired the mental health committee and passed a bill establishing a community residential treatment system for people with mental illnesses.

Bates’ past informed some of his political work but in an unexpected way: Motivated by his taste for German beer acquired while serving in the Army, he passed legislation to allow breweries to sell beer, effectively creating brew pubs, according to his current chief of staff, Calvin Fong.

When he finally left the Assembly, he was content with being out of office — until his wife and former Berkeley mayor, Loni Hancock, decided to run for state Legislature in 2002. Not wanting to be stuck alone at home, Bates decided to return to public office and run for mayor.

“I looked at it as being a great opportunity,” Bates said, “to actually make (previous work) happen at the local areas.”

But at the time, many thought Berkeley was ungovernable because of its various factions, said Cisco DeVries, who served as Bates’ chief of staff from 2003 to 2008.

Gordon Wozniak, a former City Council member elected 2002, the year Bates won the mayoral seat, said that during the election, he and Bates endorsed the other’s opponents. Despite that, they worked well together and often collaborated.

“I really enjoyed working with Mayor Bates. He was a great colleague, he was respectful, he listened to your ideas, it was fun to work with him, because he would add to whatever you brought to the table,” Wozniak said.

For DeVries, Bates’ collegial and collaborative style marked a radically different approach to government not previously seen in Berkeley.

“It was remarkable how quickly the council began to work better together and decisions (got) made,” DeVries said.

One of the projects Bates is most proud of is establishing the Ed Roberts Campus, an essential center for organizations supporting and advocating for people with disabilities. As soon as Bates entered office, he knew that creating this space would be a priority.

DeVries had been skeptical regarding whether the project could be finished. The campus’s construction was contingent upon raising a substantial amount of money.

“As we raised money, the cost of construction went up,” said Dmitri Belser, current president of the Ed Roberts Campus. “(It) felt like we were always chasing our tail.”

But Bates insisted on getting the project done in honor of Ed Roberts — a leader of the disability movement, the first UC Berkeley student with severe disabilities and a good friend of his.

In 2008, when the project needed $8 million to come to fruition, Bates stepped in. Using past connections and reallocating funds from a variety of places, Bates was able to secure the sum needed for the campus to finally break ground.

“When I went to that building on its opening, I cried. I couldn’t believe he’d done that,” DeVries said.

Today, the Ed Roberts Campus gives a home to the disability community, housing 15 agencies that serve people with disabilities. According to Belser, it has also affected South Berkeley, reducing crime in the area by giving purpose to what had previously been an empty parking lot.

Bates’ work creating major spaces for members of the community did not stop at the Ed Roberts Campus. To create a new sports complex in the city, he negotiated a complicated deal between the East Bay Regional Park District, which owned the land, and other local cities that would help operate the facilities. He also brought together the rival interests of environmentalists and sports-field users. Named the Tom Bates Regional Sports Complex, the complex is home to many of the sports teams in the area.

“(People say it’s the) most heavily used sports field in the United States,” Bates said.

A continuous project Bates worked on as mayor is the revitalization of Downtown Berkeley, establishing an environmentally sensitive framework called the Downtown Area Plan that includes building new units as the city suffers from a housing crisis.

Ethan Epstein/Senior Staff

Ethan Epstein/Senior Staff

Bates called the ratification of the deal one of the highlights of his time in office. In addition, the Climate Action Plan that Bates helped put on the 2006 ballot has been influential — many consider it one of the best in America.

Improving education was also a major focus for Bates. He helped establish the new Berkeley City College campus and has made great progress in reducing the achievement gap for K-12 students through the 2020 Vision initiative.

Most recently, Bates initiated the city-funded Berkeley Promise program, which aims to give Berkeley High School students a pathway to higher education. Berkeley High graduates will be admitted to Berkeley City College with no fee for the first semester. If they perform well, students in the program will continue to receive scholarships and, should they choose to transfer, can be guaranteed a spot at a California State University campus or may have a good chance of being accepted to UC Berkeley.

A group of 25 students will enroll in this program next school year, and if successful, the program will continue with a goal of expanding to all students.

Despite his myriad achievements, Bates is keenly aware of the ambitions he was unable to fulfill despite his long tenure as mayor. The most difficult thing about his time in office, Bates said, was not being able to come up with enough housing for the homeless and those with a low income — a problem that had existed even during Hancock’s time as mayor.

“(It’s) very frustrating to be the mayor and see these people plain out on these streets,” Bates said, “to be in a position of leadership and not be able to (do something).”

Although Berkeley spends more than $17 million annually on homelessness services, Bates said it is not enough. To solve homelessness, he said, Berkeley needs help from federal, state and regional governments.

“When cities become known as generous places, other people who become homeless in other places do hear about that and do come, and that’s why San Francisco, Berkeley, Oakland are places that are really grappling with a big problem,” Hancock said.

At the same time, Bates said Berkeley needs to create more sustainable opportunities for housing, which requires a strong “housing-first” policy. As mayor, Bates has created more than 800 lower-income housing units and more than 4,000 housing units total. In contrast, before he came into office, very little housing was being created at all.

But for some, Bates represented a long-standing obstacle to the effort to create more affordable housing and instill compassionate policies toward homeless residents. Bates was a supporter of Measure S, a failed 2012 ballot measure that would have banned sitting on commercial sidewalks for most of the day, and a City Council-approved ordinance that limited the amount of property people could place on sidewalks.

“Repeated efforts to further criminalize homelessness have been very harmful to the community,” said Councilmember-elect Sophie Hahn. “I’m very sad that this is something he spent a lot of his political capital on. It clearly hasn’t led to any real solutions.”

With Bates retiring and the 2016 local election results shifting the council majority toward a sharply progressive direction, Hahn expects the dramatic change will give the four new faces on the council an opportunity to shape the community for the better.

Mayor-elect Jesse Arreguin, who ran a grassroots campaign calling for strong progressive values, calls the change in leadership a “major generational shift in Berkeley,” but he is thankful for all the work Bates has done.

“Lots of thing that now exist in Berkeley are a result of his leadership,” Arreguin said. “These are things that will last for generations.”

Bates expects the issue of homelessness to be a major topic for the new council but said he did not have specific advice for Arreguin.

“He knows the city. … He’s well-informed, and he won a larger victory. He has, I think, support on the council to do some of his ideas and put them into play,” Bates said. “I just wish the new mayor and the new City Council the best.”

As Bates’ public service comes to a close, so does his wife’s, as she has termed out of the state Senate. The two plan to organize their house, do some traveling and possibly visit their grandchildren, Bates said. Though he does not plan on running for public office again, he hopes to stay involved.

“We’re going to be involved in public policy some way in the future,” Bates said. “(We’re) not sure what that is, but we both love coming up with ideas that might be helpful for society.”

According to Hancock, a poll taken last spring showed that a majority of Berkeley residents thought Berkeley was on the right track for the future. For DeVries, Bates’ favorable review in the poll is emblematic of his dedication to the city — during both times of success and hardship.

“Nobody can serve as mayor for 14 years without a fair share of controversy and a fair share of very tough decisions,” DeVries said. “But in the years to follow, I have no doubt that the people of Berkeley will look at his legacy with the same awe and the same pride I feel today.”

Alex Fang covers city government. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @alexfang_DC.