In a lengthy political career that has included seats in city, county and state government, Tom Bates has never seen California in such desperate straits.
But Berkeley is still Berkeley – a community that will tax itself to provide the kinds of services that are being slashed elsewhere in the state – and Bates, who works without a salary, said being mayor of Berkeley remains a plum job.
"It is a wonderful privilege to be a mayor of Berkeley," he said.
Bates announced his re-election bid Thursday with a tweet, a Facebook page and a website touting his past accomplishments and future plans. No one has emerged to contest him, but that may not be much of an issue if the past is any indicator: He won his first mayoral race with 55 percent of the vote, and clobbered his challengers in the two subsequent elections. However, this will be the first mayoral election using ranked-choice voting. He has now served one two-year term and two four-year terms.
“When I first went the legislature they actually had money. It was pre-Proposition 13 and we could actually do things,” he said in a telephone interview with Patch.com. “This having to have a two-thirds vote ( to pass tax increases) has put a huge anchor on our ability to have a progressive state.”
It’s not the only initiative that has crippled the state: Three Strikes “has put more people in prison here than anywhere on the planet,” with prisons now consuming $10 billion a year.
Bates has made his blunders. After his election in 2002, he confessed that during the mayoral campaign he trashed some 1,000 copies of the Daily Californian since the student paper endorsed his opponent, the former Mayor Shirley Dean. He later outlawed the stealing of free newspapers and made the rounds of Berkeley public high schools to offer an in-person mea culpa.
Bates says he and his wife, Assemblywoman (and former Berkeley mayor) Loni Hancock, walk their talk. They use solar heating, employ an on-demand water heater, hang their laundry on a clothesline to dry, create compost with the help of worms and recycle rubber bands. Bates sold his car three years ago.
He said he wants to see balanced city budgets passed on time, and renegotiated labor agreements with public employee unions to include a larger contribution to health and retirement plans.
Patch.com asked the mayor to expand on some of the goals he outlines on his website.
Your priorities include doing more about climate change: Are you saying Berkeley should lead the world in research into climate change or in taking personal responsibility?
Personal responsibility. We have a climate action plan. The United Nations said our action plan was the best in North America. It’s really, really critical we set an example. A lot of people are still driving. They could go to driving only four days a week, and walk or take public transit more often. I also think people could make choices to wash their clothes in cold water. That reduces our use of natural gas. And I encourage people to do more than recycle, to pre-cycle. Do without packaging. We will soon have a ban on plastic bags.
We are having our development take place on transit corridors. You can walk or bike, take public transportation and if you need a car you can use the city car share or a zip car, reserve it online. If you don’t have a car you save about $400 a month – more in interest if you’re making payments.
Diversity. How realistic is it to provide for a mix of incomes in a city like Berkeley, a magnet for some of the most distinguished thinkers, scholars and leaders in the world?
We have required (developers to provide) 20 percent of new housing to working and low-income people. Also, there are 300 units for low-income seniors. The downtown plan includes “the green pathway.” For (developers who provide) bus passes, bike parking and other eco-friendly accommodations, we will expedite the process. They must also agree to set aside 20 percent for low-income, working people. We put out incentives for people to do the right thing. A lot of housing in Berkeley was built for families, but actually over 20 percent of Berkeley residents are single people, and they are not necessarily very wealthy.
Education. The school system is a state entity, administered by districts. What authority does a mayor have to effect change in education?
Actually, we’ve been doing a lot about that. Project Build we started in the summer and is now year-found. We get pre-school up to third graders to work on reading skills, and also nutrition, exercise to fight obesity. We serve 1,000 kids a year! UC students mentor the kids, so we often get a match in ethnic background.
Four years ago, began to work with high schools to close the education gap. We have a large gap in Berkeley, with some going to the best schools in the nation, while some aren’t doing so hot.
We also fund a lot of preschool programs. We’re looking at bringing kids to school ready to learn. We started working on attendance. The pattern doesn’t start in high school or middle school, it starts in elementary school, with parents not getting kids to school. We have public health nurses making home visits.
We’re looking at supporting math and science acquisition. There are kids who need mentoring. So, we’re putting city resources into the schools.
Downtown development. Why is it important to provide housing downtown?
To have businesses, you need customers. You’re not dependant on people coming in from the suburbs to go downtown. People who come from out of town sometimes complain there’s nowhere to park, there’s no street parking. Well, (with enough residents) you already have enough of a customer base.
Also young people, we have a great night life.
Yes, it is. We built all these apartments. We have plans for another 200 units. We have a thriving arts scene – Berkeley Rep, the Aurora Theater. Freight and Salvage is now downtown, and other music venues are also doing well. We talk about bringing people into the downtown area, but it’s important to have people already there. In the downtown development area, (businesses) are taxing themselves. They have ambassadors keeping the place clean … It probably hasn’t been this nice in 40 years.