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 credited her legislative staff for her successful career in Sacramento.
Hancock argued prison reform from a fiscally conservative perspective. She converted some Republicans to her cause by explaining that reducing the inmate population, closing prisons, and focusing on rehabilitating inmates would be much cheaper in the long run than simply locking more people up. Anderson “came to believe that treating people in a humane way would be better for public safety,” she said.
“When you serve on a committee with Loni, her idea of a fun date is take you out to a prison and make you spend a day talking to convicts and make you learn something about prison reform,” Anderson said at Hancock’s farewell ceremony at the Capitol in early September, according to a video of it. “And, Loni, I’m grateful for that. You opened my eyes to a lot of reform that I didn’t think was possible.”
Hancock got a standing ovation that day, including from Republicans. Her husband’s farewell from Berkeley City Hall, however, might not be so chummy.
Bates and Hancock are night owls who love to stay up late, drink wine, and debate policy and politics—and then sleep in the next day, according to friends and ex-staffers. Sinai, Bates’ ex-chief of staff, said at the August sendoff that Bates has been willing to meet with just about anyone during his time as mayor, as long as the appointment “doesn’t happen before 11 a.m.”
Early-risers? Not so much. Workaholics? Definitely. Even while vacationing, Bates and Hancock were always figuring out their next steps. Sinai said the couple would arrive home with detailed lists of all the things they wanted to accomplish.
In the early ’00s, not long after he was elected mayor, Bates packed his to-do list with environmental causes. He installed solar panels on their home, he sold his car, and he famously became “the walking mayor.” Since then, Bates has walked thousands of miles through the East Bay (when he wasn’t riding the bus or BART). Often when reporters called him for a comment or an interview, the sounds of the East Bay streetscape drowned out the conversation.
In City Hall, Bates put climate change at the top of his priorities. In succeeding years, Berkeley developed a groundbreaking Climate Action Plan that won plaudits from around the globe. “The U.N. determined a few years ago that we have the best Climate Action Plan in North America,” he noted.
Bates also became an early advocate for using transit-oriented development, or smart growth, as a tool for reducing suburban sprawl and greenhouse gas emissions. He envisioned a sweeping transformation of Berkeley, with dense housing in downtown and along major transit lines in the city—his transit village plan writ large. He was also convinced that adding more housing and more people would reinvigorate the city’s sagging retail corridors.
But he endured fierce pushback from a small yet vocal group of antigrowth activists, whom he called “NIMBYs”—for not in my backyard. This group stubbornly opposed many of Bates’ growth plans and seemed bent on making sure that Berkeley never changed. One of the group’s leaders was ex-Mayor Shirley Dean, whom Bates had defeated in the 2002 mayoral race. Over the years, Dean had gone from being a pro-business, pro-growth moderate to a NIMBY firebrand.
Because the antigrowthers had failed to elect candidates to the Berkeley City Council, they began to back Councilmember Kriss Worthington, a progressive, because he often clashed with Bates. Although Worthington is not a NIMBY, antigrowthers rallied to his side because he sometimes found fault with Bates’ dense housing proposals and seemed to fight with the mayor over every major issue. Antigrowth activists later embraced Worthington’s friend and former aide, Jesse Arreguín, when he joined the council, for many of the same reasons.
But despite Bates’ conflicts with Worthington and Arreguín, the majority of the nine-member council stood by his side throughout his mayoral tenure. Berkeley voters strongly supported him and his plans, too. In 2006, Bates defeated antigrowther Zelda Bronstein in a landslide, by 32 percentage points, and in 2008, he overwhelmed Dean in a rematch, by 25. And then in 2012, he blew away Worthington by more than 33 points.
In 2010, a near supermajority of Berkeley voters—64 percent—approved a plan by Bates and the council majority, calling for a dense downtown with tall buildings. And then four years later, an even larger percentage of city voters rejected a measure from Arreguín and perennial council candidate Sophie Hahn—also a darling of the antigrowthers—that would have effectively overturned the dense downtown plan. It was pummeled 26 percent to 74 percent.
Indeed, Bates’ 14 years as mayor were marked by one victory after another as he enjoyed more admiration and support than any other mayor in the Bay Area. And during that time, Berkeley grew the most it had since the ’60s. By the beginning of this year, the city had built 5,294 new units of housing on Bates’ watch, of which 703, or 13 percent, were affordable units. “We actually made the transit village plan happen,” Bates said. “And look at the downtown now. It’s booming. People want to be there.”