Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates fought the liberal good fight for decades. Ex-Mayor Shirley Dean, by contrast, cut her teeth in Berkeley politics thirty years ago as a pro-business moderate. Both candidates say that they haven’t changed over the years, but there is little doubt that the two mayoral candidates have traded places in this election. Bates is now backed firmly by Berkeley’s business establishment and Dean has become the new darling of the city’s far left.
In fact, Dean now often stakes out positions to the left of Bates — or him to the right of her, depending on your perspective. “Isn’t that astonishing?” Dean remarked during a recent interview at her Berkeley hills home, which also serves as her campaign headquarters. Indeed, the two candidates adamantly disagree on a host of issues these days, and one need look no further than a couple of key endorsements to quickly gauge this remarkable political about-face. The Berkeley Daily Planet, which rivals the San Francisco Bay Guardian as the most liberal newspaper in the Bay Area, has endorsed Dean, while the Berkeley Chamber of Commerce backs Bates.
So what’s going on? Dean argues that her rival has lost touch with Berkeley’s grassroots since taking over as mayor six years ago. He is now tight with developers, and she said that both his administration and city government have become inaccessible for everyday citizens. “People across the city tell me that no one in City Hall is listening,” said the 73-year-old, who served as the city’s mayor from 1994 to 2002. “That’s not the Berkeley that I know.”
But Bates, 70, says it’s Dean who is no longer the same politician. “She’s changed a lot of positions over the years,” he said in an interview at his campaign headquarters on University Avenue in downtown Berkeley. He also takes exception to the notion that he’s become the political moderate and that she’s now a liberal-progressive, or that he’s pro-growth and she’s pro-environment. “She’s not taking the left position, it’s the NIMBY position,” he said. He also argued that Dean turned into a political opportunist who has purposely sought out his opponents and taken up their causes. “She’s trying to put together a coalition of the disaffected,” he said.
The truth is, both have changed. Bates is no longer the champion of the left who represented Berkeley for twenty years in the state Assembly, and Dean is no longer the leading moderate counterpoint to the city’s radical politics. For example, earlier this year Dean briefly joined the tree-sitters in their public protest against UC Berkeley’s plan to cut down an oak grove to build an athletic center next to Memorial Coliseum. She then criticized Bates and the council for dropping the city’s lawsuit against the university after the city lost in court.
Or, take a look at Measure LL, the most hotly contested Berkeley ballot measure of this election. Measure LL would make permanent the city council’s 2006 decision to modify the city’s controversial landmarks preservation law. For years, preservationists used the landmarks law to curtail development in the city. So a majority of the city council voted to modify it. Bates and other supporters of Measure LL argue that it would simply codify into law that 2006 vote. But opponents of the measure, including Dean, argue that it will open the floodgates to new development and the destruction of historic buildings — a charge Bates says is untrue. “I’m not a no-growther,” Dean said. “But Measure LL makes it easier for them to destroy older structures.”
The two mayoral candidates also are on opposite sides on Measure KK, which would give voters the last word on AC Transit’s plan for Bus Rapid Transit along Telegraph Avenue and part of Shattuck Avenue. As it currently stands, the city council gets to decide whether Bus Rapid Transit will come to Berkeley. Dean opposes BRT and backs Measure KK. BRT would turn the two center lanes of Telegraph and parts of Shattuck into bus-only lanes, limiting cars to one lane in each direction. “I think it would be terrible,” Dean said. “I think it’s going to destroy the city in terms of sending traffic through quiet neighborhoods.”
Bates, meanwhile, has yet to take a public position on BRT, though he opposes Measure KK. He argued that if the measure passes, the earliest BRT could be put on the ballot is June 2010, which likely would result in AC Transit losing $250 million in federal funding for the plan. “It kills the project if the money goes someplace else,” said Bates, who also serves on the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, a state agency that oversees and disperses Bay Area transportation funding. He said that although he has “problems” with BRT, he does not believe it should be snuffed out before the city has had a chance to shape it.
Bates has to be considered the front-runner in this race — if incumbency, endorsements, and money mean anything. He has picked up far more endorsements than Dean, including the Sierra Club, the John George Democratic Club, and six out of the seven current council members. Councilman Kriss Worthington has chosen not to endorse either candidate. Bates also has more than doubled Dean’s fund-raising haul, raking in $72,719 in donations through October 18 compared to her $35,369.