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.


(page 5 of 5)

Ariel Nava

Hancock and Bates say they've been fortunate to represent the East Bay.

This year, he and Hancock got to team up together on another cause: stopping the proposal to ship massive amounts of coal through the Port of Oakland. Bates and the Berkeley council opposed the plan because open railcars full of coal would have rumbled through West Berkeley, spilling toxic coal dust along the way.

And Hancock went to work in the Legislature, authoring four bills designed to block coal shipments. “We had a huge threat,” she said, “the biggest coal depot in the Western United States, right here at the foot of the Bay Bridge.”

In June, the Oakland City Council voted to halt the coal proposal, and in September, Governor Brown signed Hancock’s legislation, banning the future use of state funds on coal shipping projects. For the East Bay’s original power couple, it was a crowning achievement to a career full of liberal victories.

“We both have been extremely fortunate,” Bates said, “to represent this area where people have wanted us to fight for all the things we care about.”


Looking back, Bates’ one true regret in public life undoubtedly was his boneheaded decision to steal 1,000 copies of the Daily Californian on the day before he won the November 2002 mayor’s race. The UC Berkeley student-run paper had endorsed his rival, Shirley Dean (who was also Hancock’s fiercest rival in Berkeley). Bates later apologized repeatedly for his serious error in judgment.

Hancock’s one regret was a job she wasn’t able to accomplish: ridding California political campaigns of big money. In 2010, she was the primary sponsor of Proposition 15, a statewide ballot measure that sought to levy a fee on lobbyists in order to publicly finance candidates running for secretary of state. The measure was designed to be a test case, in the hopes that one day, political candidates would no longer have to prostrate themselves to special interests that expected special favors in return. “I believe we have to fix that or we run the risk of losing our democracy,” she said. California voters, however, rejected Prop 15, 57 percent to 43 percent.

In the run-up to this year’s November election, Bates has been campaigning for his friend and chosen successor for the mayor’s job, Councilmember Laurie Capitelli, who is running against Arreguín and Worthington. Hancock also ardently supports Capitelli, who, like she and Bates, is a passionate backer of transit-oriented development. Housing has taken on added importance in recent years because the lack of it, especially in the East Bay, has sent rents and home prices soaring and displaced many longtime residents from the area. Bates and Hancock both think that if either Arreguín or Worthington wins, they will try to derail Bates’ plans for Berkeley’s future.

Hancock also feels drawn to keep working on prison and sentencing reform, perhaps as a consultant. But for the time being, they’re mostly thinking about their future travel plans. He’s 78, and she’s 76 now, and for Thanksgiving, they’re heading to New York City and Montreal. In February, they’re traveling to Canada, to Churchill, Manitoba, to see the Northern Lights for the first time. And next July, they plan to take their youngest of seven grandchildren to the Galapagos Islands.

Unlike 2001, they really do think that this time, they’re political careers are over. And they feel lucky. They said they were blessed with great staffs over the years. And they noted that during their time in office, especially in the Legislature, they met many politicians who sometimes agonized over the fact they had to vote against their consciences—because that’s what their constituents wanted.

Tom Bates and Loni Hancock never had to experience that kind of anguish, because for 40-plus years, their ideas and their politics, their hopes and their dreams, meshed seamlessly with those of the people who elected them.

“We got to represent the most forward-thinking people on Earth,” Hancock said.


This report was published in the November edition of our sister publication, The East Bay Monthly.

Published online on Nov. 1, 2016 at 8:00 a.m.

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