Public Comment

Progressive: Now It’s Just a Convenient Name Tag

By Dave Blake
Thursday May 15, 2008 - 10:06:00 AM

The battle for political control in Berkeley has been handily dominated by progressives for 20 years. But that victory was consolidated not in the body of a party but in the persons of Mayor Tom Bates and Assemblymember Loni Hancock. Many of those of us who have watched and participated in that consolidation are astounded at how few of the purposes that founded our progressive efforts survive today. When a progressive government hands out $7 million favors to a major businessman at the direct expense of the right of his workers to unionize, something has gone horribly awry. 

From the early ’70s through the end of the century, Berkeley council politics revolved around a struggle between self-designated progressives and moderates. For most of the last 30 years the progressives dominated that battle. We did it with hundreds of volunteers whose most notable achievement was rising at 4 a.m. on election morning (well before the mail-in era) to distribute our doorhanger endorsements to every corner of the city. We were young and intensely idealistic, and determined to turn our Vietnam War political awakening into a governing majority that would serve the actual people who lived here instead of the propertied interests that invariably dominate decision-making in American cities. Though an anti-war ethos has always characterized the progressives, the core of our legislative agenda was for at least the first 20 of those years based on support for rent control and defense of neighborhoods against the usual patron of small-town city councils: developers. 

The consistent figures in the progressive hegemony one way or another were Loni Hancock and Tom Bates. (They eventually sealed their familial role at the top of the progressive power structure by getting married.) When Bates was forced out of his Assembly seat by the passage of term limits, he handed the seat over to his aide Dion Aroner, and Aroner in turn when she was termed out handed it dutifully over to Bates’ by-then wife Hancock, who’d served as one of Berkeley’s first progressive councilmembers and then as mayor in the late ’80s and early ’90s. And when Bates came out of his long if early retirement six years ago to return to public service as Berkeley’s mayor, a sort of circle was completed as the two traded offices. 

The organization that housed the progressive movement, Berkeley Citizens Action (BCA), didn’t really figure out how to function as a full political machine, and was content to put people they considered progressive in office and let them do the governing. Never much involved legislatively, they are now irrelevant except as a nominal endorsing body to validate the progressiveness of the candidates who can pack their bi-yearly endorsement meetings. Their failure to keep their hand firmly on actual governance has led to our current circumstance, where the progressive hegemony is semantic, not principled. Everyone, especially now that Obama is running, is suddenly a progressive, and no one calls themselves a moderate any more, at least in public. 

There’s a lot of anti-Bush talk on the council, and they take the progressive side on many national and international issues from Marine recruitment to global warming, with the sole condition that the issue doesn’t impinge in any way on developers’ bottom lines in Berkeley itself. On all other issues, this council’s positions are determined by the desires of our very right-wing (and considerably Republican) Chamber of Commerce. 

The present council is now actively overturning the West Berkeley Plan that protects blue-collar jobs and our artist community. They’re involved in a huge struggle with the heritage community to weaken the Landmarks Preservation Ordinance. They just rejected the work of their Density Bonus committee that they proudly set up three years ago to redress the more obvious absurdities and inequities of their interpretation of state housing law. They’ve enacted measures of questionable constitutionality to govern how public space is used. They’re pressing ahead with a version of a sunshine ordinance that will protect them from having to reveal how they privately direct staff to only bring before them predigested proposals already to their liking, and at the same time are using exactly that methodology to redesign the condo conversion ordinance originally proposed to forestall constructive eviction of rent-controlled tenants to enable exactly the opposite outcome. And in the last election Bates was caught (by an Express reporter he didn’t recognize who had managed to slip into the private meeting) encouraging the Chamber of Commerce’s political arm to invest tens of thousands of dollars to oust the two progressive Councilmembers (Worthington and Spring) who stubbornly keep publicly pointing out the contradictions between his pronouncements and his actions. 

I enthusiastically backed Bates’ political return as mayor (I was one of the people privately urging him early on to run, and I helped frame the response to his difficulties over illegally throwing away Daily Cal newspapers—a defense I now regret). Four years later I nervously signed on as a Bates re-election endorser when I decided that he so thoroughly monopolized the image of progressivism that backing him was my only chance of promoting what was left of a progressive vision for Berkeley’s future, a vision thoroughly extinguished five months later when Bates was the lone progressive to vote to deny the Bowl workers their modest request to help them defend their union jobs, and Nancy Skinner, now poised to rotate into the Assembly seat, was the Bates/Hancock ally called upon to step forward and give him cover by publicly advocating for his astounding vote against the Bowl workers. 


Tune in next week: How the Bowl workers got screwed. 


Dave Blake is a former Zoning Adjustments Board chair and present member of the Rent Board and Arts Commission.