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.


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