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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To this day, many East Bay residents don't realize that two of the area's most famous politicians are married to each other.
In the late ’80s and early ’90s, Bates spent his weekdays in Sacramento, while Hancock remained in Berkeley. On weekends, they strategized. “Actually, it worked out very well,” she recalled.
“We helped each other,” he jumped in.
In the capital, Bates was honing his negotiating skills, becoming an expert at cobbling together enough votes to pass legislation. Hancock said that as mayor, she felt it was her job to “end the unnecessary warfare between liberal Democrats and very liberal Democrats.”
During one of their strategy sessions, Bates shared what he had learned in Sacramento—that finding common ground was the most effective way to achieve reform. The problem with Berkeley politics was that compromise was still a dirty word. “No one had suggested to me before that compromise might be a good thing,” she said.
Hancock served two four-year terms as mayor, before joining the U.S. Department of Education in 1995. Bates was termed out of the Assembly in 1996—six years after California voters had approved term limits.
But before he left office, Bates sponsored legislation that would later have long-term impacts on the East Bay. One—his personal favorite—led to the creation of brewpubs: bars that brew their own beer on site and serve food as well. They had previously been illegal under state laws dating back to the post-Prohibition era. “The beer and spirits industry worked very hard to defeat that bill,” but failed, Aroner said. Brewpubs have since exploded in popularity in the East Bay and throughout the nation.
Bates also was behind legislation that led to the creation of transit villages—dense housing and mixed-use commercial projects built around major transit hubs. Back then, Bates and Hancock realized that transit-oriented development was an effective tool for curbing air pollution. After all, if more commuters took mass transit or walked or biked to work, it would reduce smog.
That was before the days of global warming, before they learned that transit-oriented development, also known as smart growth, would become one of the most effective ways to fight climate change, too.
According to friends and former staffers, Hancock and Bates don’t just share an affinity for penny-pinching; they’re also both habitually tardy, particularly Hancock. “Loni would be late all the time,” recalled Jennifer Peck, a Hancock staffer during her years in the Clinton administration. “So we would tell her that her meetings and appointments were earlier than they actually were.”
Of the two, Hancock is the stickler for details. After Bates was elected mayor, she would often rewrite his press releases, fixing the grammar and awkward sentences, said Julie Sinai—Bates’ former chief of staff—during the August send-off. (During their recent two-hour interview with The Monthly, Hancock often jumped in when Bates was talking to correct his retelling of events from years ago.)
In 2002, after she was elected to the Assembly, Hancock was determined to focus on protecting the environment and services for the needy—much as her husband had done. But she arrived in Sacramento not long after the energy crisis and the first dotcom bust had crippled the state’s finances. She quickly discovered that California was broke, and the Legislature, gridlocked. Nothing was getting done, especially if it involved the budget.
She soon became convinced that she had figured out the problem: the requirement under Prop. 13 that passing a budget needed approval from two-thirds of the legislature. It meant that Democrats had to secure some Republican votes in order to keep the state government from shutting down. “It also meant we had to cut, cut, cut,” she said, in order to get Republicans to go along.
“People were just heartsick,” she added, noting that there were human consequences to all the budget slashing. “We felt we were essentially being held hostage.”
But when she told Democratic leadership that she believed the solution was to jettison the two-thirds requirement, she was met with derision. Prop. 13 was the electric third rail of California politics; how could she be so foolish as to want to touch it?
So the cutting and the gridlock continued. Some summers, the Legislature missed the June 30 budget deadline by months, forcing government shutdowns and the cut off of essential services. Newspaper headlines screamed, “Sacramento Deadlocked, Again” as the Legislature’s approval ratings plunged to all-time lows. Hancock said she resorted to reciting daily affirmations to keep from getting too depressed.
But she soldiered on for reform. Eventually, after she had been elected to the state Senate and after another economic downturn—the Great Recession—Democratic leadership acquiesced to her plan to place a measure on the ballot to eliminate the two-thirds requirement. A Democratic pollster told them that voters would go for it—but only if legislators promised that they wouldn’t get paid if they missed the budget deadline again. Polls showed that angry voters badly wanted to punish legislators for not doing their jobs.
In November 2010, Californians approved Proposition 25, which changed the budget-approval requirement to a simple majority. Ever since, legislators have routinely passed a balanced budget on time—usually with no Republican backing—and have kept their paychecks. Hancock calls it her proudest achievement in the Legislature. “It has absolutely made all the difference in the world,” she said.
A Field Poll in late September showed that the Legislature’s approval rating among California voters had climbed to 50 percent. It was just 10 percent before Hancock finally got her way in 2010.
Yet despite the budget battles, Hancock has worked closely with many Republicans over the years—and none more so than state Sen. Joel Anderson, R-San Diego. In the late ’00s, Hancock realized that her true legislative calling was to reform the state’s broken prison system. So she agreed to co-chair with Anderson the Senate Public Safety Policy Committee and the Public Safety Budget Committee.
On those committees, Hancock dedicated herself to prison and sentencing reform—to relieving intense overcrowding and re-establishing rehabilitation programs in a system that prized punishment above all else.