It’s a Small Town After All

With one petulant move Mayor Tom Bates shows that Berkeley is not yet ready for mature politics.

To truly appreciate how low Tom Bates stooped with his petulant stunt involving The Daily Californian, you need to understand the hope he once represented. In a city worn down by the bitter vindictiveness of Shirley Dean and the often-embarrassing posturing of her progressive foil Kriss Worthington, Bates was the man who would lead Berkeley out of the darkness.

He was a progressive, but no fool — a flinty, Sacramento-schooled hardass who would save leftist politics from the mewling, process-obsessed therapy that people such as Dona Spring and Linda Maio have turned it into. He’d kick ass on crime and back the Police Review Commission. He’d stare down carping NIMBYs to build affordable housing and defy parasitic landlords to save rent control. Perhaps most importantly, Bates was going to deliver his city from the immature sniping that has degraded its council meetings into a spectacle of parliamentary paralysis. His decision to take the high road and leave the personal attacks to Dean undoubtedly contributed to his thirteen-point margin of victory over the incumbent.

Then last week, we all found out what kind of man Bates really is. He’s the first mayor of Berkeley to disgrace his office before attending even a single city council meeting. On the day before the election, Bates stole close to 1,000 copies of The Daily Californian, which had endorsed the moderate Dean. Four Republican students watched him systematically steal every copy of the Daily Cal off the racks in Sproul Plaza — in the middle of the day, no less, surrounded by thousands of students. The students promptly notified staffers at the campus newspaper, who filed a complaint with university police. It was just a matter of time before this remarkably stupid and illegal act was exposed.

The mayor’s supporters describe the incident as “unfortunate,” a euphemism that has come to mean, “Yes, our man got caught breaking the law and subverting an election, but we’re still holding onto the hope that people won’t take this seriously.” City Councilwoman Spring says Bates was working on maybe three hours of sleep, and the stress just got to him. “It wasn’t premeditated,” she says. “If it was, it wouldn’t have been in the middle of the day. It was probably an emotional reaction to the editorial. He probably just blew it.”

But that doesn’t explain why Bates subsequently lied about the theft to the Daily Cal, or why he apparently crafted a strategy to manage the news weeks before it went public. According to a source close to the Bates organization, the mayor contacted key campaign supporters three weeks ago and warned them that, sooner or later he would have to own up to what he did. His eventual apology displays a Clintonesque bad faith that seems the very essence of calculation. Note the passive language in his admission that “a number of Daily Cal newspapers were placed in recycling and trash bins during the day.” Or his obvious effort to spread the blame around when he says, “I apologize on behalf of myself and my supporters for our involvement in this activity.” These aren’t the tactics of an exhausted man losing control of his brain’s impulse center. Clearly, Bates is still playing the odds — undermining the very promises that got him elected.

Of course, Bates hardly introduced dirty politics to Berkeley. By universal consent, the birthplace of the Free Speech Movement has become a place where dirty campaigning is not just accepted, but considered evidence of a thriving democratic atmosphere. Take, for example, the practice of tearing down opponents’ campaign signs. Both sides in Berkeley do it, because both sides know the other side does it. Still, the moderates have had a lock on the sleaziest moments in Berkeley politics, from activist David Shiver’s 1986 counterfeit Ron Dellums doorhangers, to hired gun Dave Davis’ whisper campaign that Worthington was a child molester. And who can forget Dean’s own escapade, in which she flew out to Worthington’s Ohio alma mater in 1998, misrepresented herself as his relative to gain access to old college yearbooks, and spent a few hours snooping for dirt?

We expect marginalized student groups to steal newspapers or campaign signs — that’s what college is for. But when powerful men and women suppress criticism, they chip at the foundation of civil society. Yes, Bates just threw a temper tantrum, and no one doubts the sincerity of his remorse — if only because he knows the consequences of suppressing speech at the very spot where thousands of students went to jail to secure their right to the free exchange of ideas.

Partly because I once believed in them, I’ve long been disgusted with the state of Berkeley politics. Think what this city once demanded of itself: rent control and eviction protections; civil rights for the disabled; the abolition of housing discrimination; leadership in a global anti-apartheid movement that changed history. A coalition of student radicals and African-American flatlanders ushered in an era of neighborhood politics, in which leadership rested not with professional politicians and businessmen, but with anyone who demanded it.

But look what neighborhood politics have done to Berkeley. Now, this city tears itself apart over whether a Jewish congregation can build a bigger temple. It wages titanic struggles over the Sea Scouts’ free marina berth, or whether the Bayer corporation’s Nazi past should disqualify it from the chance to provide jobs and industry in West Berkeley. Bates had a chance to reprofessionalize politics, to remind people that just as political fixers can be corrupt and tyrannical, neighborhood activists can be petty, self-serving, and racist. Instead, he reminded people why they hate politicians. And he did it with an act that I find particularly repugnant, since I was there the last time a Bay Area politician tried to crush a small newspaper.

In 1992, an all-white Simi Valley jury decided that four Los Angeles cops had every right to kick the shit out of Rodney King. As they had in Los Angeles, protests and rioting soon broke out in San Francisco, and Police Chief Dick Hongisto contained the situation by arresting every single person within two blocks of any demonstration. The cops missed me in their initial sweep, when they surrounded hundreds of people near 24th and Mission streets. But when we tried to rally the survivors, riot cops chased us all the way to the Castro, where they blocked off the street and presented each of us with our very own pair of plastic cuffs.

To be fair, Hongisto was probably right to bust me. I was young and plenty pissed — if a riot had broken out that night, I had every intention of being in the middle of it. But hundreds of others were either peaceful protesters or innocent bystanders, and the cops made no distinctions. As they crammed us twenty to a van, one slight wisp of a girl started panicking and hyperventilating. We spent the rest of our ride saying anything we could to keep her from screaming. The cops had also popped a guy who had merely stepped outside to buy a six-pack before the curfew took effect. He spent the next two days in a state of bemused stoicism. When one of my cellmates called the Santa Rita prison guards “pigs” once too often, two guards picked him up by his shirt, hauled him into an empty cell, and shut the door behind them. After they tossed him back into our cell, he didn’t say a word for the rest of the night.

The weekly San Francisco Bay Times didn’t care for Hongisto’s tactics any more than I did, and it had a particularly colorful way of saying so. Next to an image of Hongisto stroking a twelve-inch baton hanging between his legs, the gay and lesbian paper printed a front-page headline: “Dick’s cool new tool: martial law.” Hongisto ordered two cops to steal thousands of copies. The city was already inflamed, and when residents learned that the top cop was using men with guns and badges to crack down on a tiny little newspaper, they laid siege to City Hall. Mayor Frank Jordan was forced to fire Hongisto, who has never been able to put this disgrace behind him.

Because Hongisto, the darling of the Bay Guardian left, showed how easily even self-identified progressives can turn into tinpot dictators, the public takes a very dim view of politicians using their power to stifle critics. So what should we do with Tom Bates?

It seems a little dramatic to call for his head over one moment of weakness. On the other hand, how many voters would like to rethink their votes for him now that they know what he’s like under stress?

The Daily Cal has called on Bates to resign, which one might expect. Dean, the defeated incumbent who wants her old job back, has joined the resignation bandwagon. Not even Bay Times publisher Kim Corsaro, who has long admired Bates’ politics, could bring herself to give him a pass. “God, you just can’t do that,” Corsaro said when she learned what the mayor had done. “I’d hate to make a snap judgment on this. I have to be honest; if he were some right-wing creep, I’d say off with his head. It totally fucks with the whole democratic process.”

Even if Bates stays in office, as seems likely, he’ll never be able to muster the public trust he needs to accomplish much unless he treats the electorate with the respect it deserves. He needs a new mandate to replace the one he just squandered, and it won’t come easily. No spinning or lawyering up when confronted with public outrage over this misdeed. Bates has to come clean — and give the voters a chance to forgive him. So repeat after me, Tom: “Yes, I personally stole hundreds of newspapers because I didn’t trust Berkeley voters to make up their own minds. I infantilized the electorate, and I knew what I was doing. I will compensate the Daily Cal for the cost of that day’s run and I will return every Daily Cal reporter’s call, no matter how trivial. I will plead guilty to whatever criminal charges may result from this incident. I will put meaning back in the phrase ‘public service.'”

When former Oakland Mayor Elihu Harris bought off primary voters with chicken dinners in 1999, he made the fatal mistake of assuming he didn’t have to be sorry for it. As a result, the voters decided that they’d rather have a lunatic like Audie Bock in the state Assembly. If Bates wants to do good work as mayor, rather than spending the next few years defending why he should be mayor in the first place, he’s got to give us more than the pallid sophistry he’s served up so far. Till then, Berkeley will get nothing done.

Not that anyone will notice.

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