The Original Power Couple
After serving for four-plus decades in public office, Tom Bates and Loni Hancock are retiring in December. What a long, strange trip it’s been.
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Hancock became the first-ever woman mayor of Berkeley in 1986.
A native New Yorker, Hancock had landed in the East Bay about a decade after Bates. And her experiences here quickly forged her lifelong political point of view. “I’m a child of Berkeley in the 1960s, of the Civil Rights Movement, the Peace Rights Movement,” she explained.
An activist, she joined Berkeley’s far-left political wing, known then as Berkeley Citizens Action, or BCA. And in 1971, she ran for city council on the progressive slate next to Ron Dellums.
Back in those early days, Hancock and Dellums had side-by-side offices on Channing Way, near Telegraph Avenue. As Hare Krishnas banged their tambourines and chanted loudly on the sidewalk outside, Hancock’s office often overflowed with hippies, flower children, and “people who had taken too much LSD,” recalled Anna Rabkin during a speech at the August send-off for Bates and Hancock. Rabkin served on the Berkeley council with Hancock in the 1970s as fellow member of BCA.
In the late ’60s and early ’70s, Bates began his migration toward the Left. In 1968, he caught the political bug for the first time while working on the Assembly campaign of his friend, Ken Meade. Four years later, Bates decided to run for office himself, winning a seat on the Alameda County Board of Supervisors.
Bates said that despite his conservative upbringing, he always tended to side with “the underdog.” So on the board of supervisors, he immediately focused on steering federal grant funds to social services programs for low-income residents and the disabled—with Aroner serving as one of his top aides. Conservative members of the board of supes wanted nothing to do with Bates and his liberal causes. In the county administration building, “they built a wall so they wouldn’t have to see us,” Aroner recalled.
Hancock, meanwhile, was making her mark on the Berkeley City Council at the vanguard of progressive politics. The city launched the nation’s first curbside recycling program, adopted rent control, and laid the groundwork for protecting the East Bay shoreline. It also was one of the first cities in the country to fund child care for public employees. “We were breaking all this ground,” Hancock said.
Berkeley also was first in the nation to carve curb cuts on street corners so that disabled people in wheelchairs could move independently around the city. Hancock credited disability rights activist Ed Roberts for persuading the Berkeley council to take the lead on disability issues.
In 1976, Bates, now solidly a liberal Democrat, mounted a successful campaign for the state Assembly. There, he would become a charter member of the Grizzly Dems, a small group of lefty legislators that included the late-Tom Hayden of Santa Monica and Bob Campbell of Richmond.
And though Bates had met Hancock at a Berkeley block party in 1974, the two wouldn’t start dating until years later. And once they did, they decided to keep their romance secret.
Over the years, Hancock and Bates earned a reputation for being tight with their money, especially Bates, according to several friends and former staffers. During the August send-off on the Cal campus, ex-Assemblymember Patty Berg perhaps summed it up best, eliciting laughs from the 200-plus attendees: “Loni is thrifty, but Tom is thriftier.”
Campbell recalled in an interview that, one evening, while he and Bates were seatmates in the Assembly, Bates surprised him by inviting to treat him to the movies at the Century Theater in Sacramento. Then once they arrived, Bates dug around in his pocket until his hand emerged clutching two ratty old movie coupons.
Then after they entered the theater, Bates asked, “ ‘Bob, you want something to drink?’ ” Campbell recalled. Still amazed, Campbell responded affirmatively. “So Tom brought us two cups of water. ... Only Tom Bates would do something like that.”
Bates may have been frugal with his own money, but he spent his Assembly career fighting to help fund programs for low-income residents and disabled people and protecting the environment. In his two decades in office, 220 of the bills he wrote became law. To this day, the Assembly Human Services Committee that he chaired is still known around the halls of the Capitol as the “Bates Committee.”
In the late 1970s, just after Californians approved Proposition 13, which radically reduced state funding for education and social services programs, Bates pushed through a landmark $10 million funding bill for independent living centers for disabled Californians. AB 204 was based on Berkeley’s successful Center for Independent Living. A reluctant Jerry Brown, during his first go-round as governor, signed the legislation—but only after busloads of disabled residents from Berkeley and elsewhere descended on the Capitol to pressure him. Bates cites that law as one of his proudest moments as a legislator.
Back in Berkeley, he and Hancock began seeing each other in 1982. Both had two kids from previous marriages, and they eventually moved in together in her home in South Berkeley—where they still live today.
But they decided to keep their relationship under wraps; only their closest friends and relatives knew about it. Hancock explained that she planned to run for mayor of Berkeley in 1986, and they feared a backlash if people discovered that she and Bates were now a couple—that Berkeleyans might be reluctant to vote for having that much political power under one roof. “Those were the days before Bill and Hillary,” she said.
On the first Tuesday after the first Monday in June 1986, Hancock was elected mayor. She and Bates wed that following Sunday.
Their secrecy, however, had long-lasting effects. Thirty years later, many East Bay residents still don’t realize that two of the area’s most famous politicians are married to each other.