posters contact advertise cover archive subscribe

 

The Original Power Couple | After serving for four-plus decades in public office, Tom Bates and Loni Hancock are retiring next month. What a long, strange trip it's been. | By Robert Gammon

IN EARLY 2001, TOM BATES AND LONI HANCOCK figured their political careers were over. Hancock, the first-ever woman mayor of Berkeley, had served for a total of 23 years on the Berkeley City Council and in the mayor's office. And Bates, a liberal lion, had spent 20 years in the state Assembly, representing Berkeley and North Oakland, while doggedly working to protect the environment and California's social safety net.

Indeed, years before Bill and Hillary Clinton would dominate national politics, Tom Bates and Loni Hancock were the original power couple of the East Bay.

But as the new millennium was unfolding, Bates and Hancock thought they were ready to retire from public life and travel the world. Her job in Bill Clinton's education department had come to an end in January 2001 when George W. Bush was sworn in as president. So she and Bates arranged to rent out their Berkeley craftsman to a visiting professor at Cal and embarked on a sojourn to Europe. Both in their early 60s at the time, they dreamed of hopscotching the globe during a long retirement.

But after a few weeks away from home, Hancock grew restless. They were still relatively young, she thought to herself, and they had not yet reached the peak of their political knowledge and know-how. At cafes, in restaurants, and in their rental car, driving around the Continent, they debated: Were they really ready to call it quits? Could they go back to Berkeley and live a life of semiretirement, perhaps, each working part time as a political consultant while puttering around the house? They could still travel, and they wouldn't have to do what they hated the most: raise cash from big donors and special interests for an election campaign.

Before their European vacation, their close friend, Assemblymember Dion Aroner, D-Berkeley, had urged Hancock to run for her seat. Aroner, who had served as Bates' chief of staff when he was in the Assembly and then had succeeded him, was going to be termed out in 2002 under California's then-strict term-limit laws. "Dion had asked to me to run," Hancock recalled, during a recent interview with Bates on their back porch. "But I said, 'No way.' The business of raising the money needed to run . . . I wasn't interested in doing that."

In the late summer of 2001, Hancock and Bates met up with her father as they made their way through Hungary and Romania. She shared her misgivings with him. He responded with sage advice: "Never retire," he said. "Because if you do, people will never return your phone calls."

Hancock knew what she had to do: She would run, but they would have to move fast. At the time, the California primary was scheduled for early March rather than in its usual slot in June. That meant Hancock would only have about six months to launch a campaign, raise money, and secure endorsements.

So they cut their European trip short. It was early September 2001 when they arrived in Milan to catch a flight home. Then they heard the news no one could believe: Hijacked planes had crashed into the World Trade Centers and the Pentagon.

It was nearly a week before they could fly home to Berkeley. Once there, Hancock quickly registered to run for the Assembly. And in March, the popular former mayor easily won the Democratic primary. In November, she cruised to victory unopposed because Republicans and the Peace and Freedom Party had failed to field candidates.

After his wife's primary victory, Bates quickly realized that being home alone while she was in Sacramento was out of the question for him. But he wasn't excited about running for local office either. He remembered saying at the time: " 'I'd rather do a term in state prison' " than serve on the Berkeley City Council, with its notoriously long meetings and incessant infighting.

On the other hand, the prospect of going to the state capital and watching his wife work 60-hour weeks while he sat around their Sacramento condo didn't seem like a good option either. " 'I'd been there for 20 years, and I didn't want to go back as a spouse,' " he recalled thinking.

So Bates decided to run for mayor of Berkeley. Months later, he would become the first husband to follow in his wife's footsteps to the same political office.

And the next 14 years would turn out to be the most productive—and challenging—of their lives.

———

Long before San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick began kneeling during the national anthem to demonstrate against racism and police brutality, Tom Bates quietly held his own protests. At meetings of various public boards he served on over the years, Bates often left the room during the Pledge of Allegiance so he wouldn't have to recite words that he believed were hypocritical or untrue, said John Gioia, a member of the Contra Costa County Supervisors who has served on several regional boards with Bates in the past dozen years or so.

Gioia, who told this story in an interview during a goodbye party for Bates and Hancock at the UC Berkeley Faculty Club in late August, said on those occasions when Bates couldn't leave the room for the Pledge, he would ad lib his own ending—"some day"—in a voice loud enough for others to hear. As in, "liberty and justice for all . . . some day."

Bates, however, has not always been a liberal Democrat uncomfortable with public displays of patriotic obedience. He grew up in a Republican family in Fullerton, Orange County, California. And when he arrived at UC Berkeley in the 1950s, he immediately joined a fraternity and later played on the last Golden Bears' football team to appear in the Rose Bowl.

After college, Bates shipped off to Germany for a stint as a captain in the Army during the Vietnam War. And then in the mid '60s, after he returned to the East Bay, he traded his military uniform for a conservative suit and tie and a job in real estate development with Coldwell Banker.

"We came from very different backgrounds," Hancock laughed.

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 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?' " Camp-bell 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.

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.

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."

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.

 

 


From the Top: Loni Hancock and Tom Bates are dancing off the political stage after 40-plus years serving the East Bay. Hancock became the first-ever woman mayor of Berkeley in 1986. Hancock credited her legislative staff for her successful career in Sacramento. Bates (far right) said Jerry Brown's signing of AB 204 was a proud moment. Bates and Hancock say they've been fortunate to represent the East Bay. Photos by Ariel Nava.