Recycling is religion for Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates


Tom Bates stands in his pantry, grinning like a boy on Christmas morning with his loot spread out in front of him.

There’s a vase half full of used rubber bands destined for return to the newspaper carrier. A pile of hangers will go back to the cleaners. A bin of scraped and dried coffee filters awaits the artist down the street, who incorporates them into her work.

Used coffee grounds fill a plastic bag on the kitchen counter. Bates collects them for the compost-making worms in his garage. The sack slumps damply beside a wooden rack where rinsed-out baggies hang to dry. He opens the drawers of a cabinet like a happy shopping channel salesman, showing off newspapers and empty bottles ready for their next life.


Recycling, Bates says, is his religion, but on this day he’s forced to give the green gospel short shrift. If he doesn’t hurry, he’ll miss his BART train and be late to the first meeting in a long and busy day as mayor of this Left Coast city.

Four months ago, the silver-haired septuagenarian sold his beloved Volvo S80 T6 sedan -- his 26th car -- and set off on a new adventure: shrinking his already tiny carbon footprint.

Bates has been eco-minded as long as his two grown sons can remember, separating and recycling garbage before cities began curbside collection. These days, he feels an urgency to bring others along with him, although his style is less taskmaster than Tom Sawyer (“Say, Tom, let me whitewash a little”). “When you reach my age, you think about how you want to spend your time,” he says. “You only have so much left on the planet. I want to do what I can for climate change and global warming.”

Before the year is out, he wants to issue a friendly challenge to his fellow eco-minded mayors: Do a personal green inventory and go public with the results. His hope is to convince indifferent consumers that they really can help cut greenhouse gas emissions.

“Do one person’s actions make a difference? Probably not,” he says. “But if, out of the 6 billion people on the planet, 1 billion take action, that makes a difference. ‘Try to be the change you seek.’ Didn’t Gandhi say something like that?”

Bates picks up his canvas briefcase (there’s a reusable shopping sack inside) and hoofs it to the station. His khaki-clad stride is long and swift. A panama hat sits jauntily on his balding head. He is off on the first leg of a 13-hour workday that began with a brief shower -- never more than three minutes -- and will include a train ride, a bus trip, a short hop in a City CarShare rental and four or so miles on foot.



The BART train zips uneventfully from Berkeley to Oakland, where Bates is headed for a meeting of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission. The trip is fast and efficient, the meeting plodding and inconclusive. He ducks out early in search of the bus that will take him to his next appointment.

Bates considers bus travel “an adventure,” and on this day it is obvious why, as he wanders Oakland’s historic warehouse district for 15 minutes or so, increasingly late.

He pokes his head into a coffee shop to ask for directions and is sent across the street. No bus. He wanders more, then points at a white behemoth with teal and orange stripes. Success!

Bates flashes his transit pass and boards AC Transit’s 72 line for the 30-minute trip along a gritty stretch of the East Bay, sharing the bus with a changing cast of the homeless, old people with walkers, obese mothers with bright-eyed children in rickety strollers.

“The reason people don’t ride the bus is its lower socioeconomic level,” he says. “So when I see someone who knows me, they say, ‘What are you doing here?’ I say, ‘This is my limo.’ ”

During two decades in the California Assembly, he got a new Buick Park Avenue every other year and drove it back and forth to Sacramento -- with a carpool. “If I was driving and passed him on the highway, his car was always full of five people,” recalls former East Bay Assemblyman Johan Klehs. These days, Bates’ wife, state Sen. Loni Hancock, plies Interstate 80 in a Toyota Camry hybrid.


As the noisy bus rumbles along San Pablo Avenue, Bates says his newly car-less life has been an education -- once he got over the shock of seeing his empty driveway and thinking, “Damn! I made a mistake.”

Walking “opens up a whole new vista in seeing the city in a different way,” he enthuses. “The city is beautiful. I’ve fallen in love with spring again, and the flowers.”

A weary laborer hops on board, sits beside the mayor and promptly falls asleep.


The son of working-class parents who came to Southern California from Iowa, Bates traces his environmental awareness to his frugal upbringing. He wears his shirts for a dozen years, mending frayed cuffs and collars. Born in San Diego in 1938, he came north on a football scholarship to UC Berkeley.

A stint with the Army in Germany was followed by a brief career in East Bay commercial real estate. Bates began his political life by managing a football buddy’s campaign for the state Assembly. Four years on the Alameda County Board of Supervisors was followed by 20 in the Assembly.

Bill Cavala, who worked on Bates’ first two campaigns, remembers him as “a pretty straight or ordinary guy” who was “transformed” by public service. He championed social and environmental issues and conducted round tables on the feminization of poverty. He paid attention, Cavala says, “to the people who elected him.”

Bates also has a special place in the hearts of California beer drinkers. In 1978, he wrote legislation to legalize home brew; four years later, he wrote what is believed to be the first legislation in the country legalizing brew pubs.


“We all owe him a debt of gratitude,” says John Martin, co-founder of Berkeley’s Triple Rock Brewery, who brewed a special AB 3610 ale in honor of the law’s 25th anniversary. A picture of Bates -- younger and with more hair -- is on the label.

It is unclear whether the region shaped the man. Bruce Cain, who runs the UC Washington Center, was working for then-Assembly Speaker Willie L. Brown Jr. when he first met the affable Bates, whom he described as “way to the left” of the rest of the Democrats.

“He just marches to the beat of his own drum and doesn’t let friendship or loyalty or other kinds of things get in the way of what he regards as the right and true position,” Cain says. “It’s rare to find ‘conscience candidates’ who have power as frequently and as long as Tom Bates.”

Bates likes to boast that he and his wife, who are both on their second marriage, have 52 years in elected office between them. They’ve both been mayor of Berkeley and served in the Assembly. Today, said one admirer, they are “the First Couple of Berkeley.” Or as one critic poked, they are “a marriage made in Berkeley heaven.”

In 2006, Bates and Hancock installed solar panels on the roof of their brown shingled Craftsman house. They have a tank-less water heater that runs only when hot water is needed. They use a clothesline and a drying rack. Their June Pacific Gas & Electric bill was $8.58.

Two years ago, the couple exchanged three dual-flush toilets for Christmas. The devices have a button to dispose of solid waste, which uses more water, and another for liquid waste, which uses less.


“It wasn’t a surprise: ‘Dear, look what I got you!’ ” Bates laughs. Casey Bates, 45, says his father -- who calls his son when he needs computer assistance -- has become enamored of technology that can help save money and the environment at the same time.

“It’s a political statement, but it is also a function of the way he lives his life and always has,” Casey says. “In the late ‘60s, I remember we had a Volkswagen van. We had a green American flag sticker on it. He was always sensitive to these issues. He signed his signature in green felt tip. He stopped doing that when he found out archivally it fades.”

Bates doesn’t have the same pressures as other Americans or even other mayors. He doesn’t travel with a security detail or shepherd a household to soccer games. He lives in a flat neighborhood in a progressive, temperate, transit-rich city.

Still, Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope, who has known Bates for more than 35 years, says Bates “understands that, while individual example without collective action is inadequate, collective action without individual example is rudderless.”


Bates is only 20 minutes or so late for the midday meeting of the Berkeley Film Foundation. After that, an aide picks the mayor up in a vehicle from the City CarShare program to take him to a news conference.

He’s about to announce that Berkeley has cut its chronic homeless population by 48%, so he should be happy. Instead, Bates is a little miffed. Aide Nils Moe has driven up in a black Subaru wagon instead of the usual hybrid.


“Where did you get this?” Bates asks.

“There was a mix-up in scheduling,” Moe responds, a tad sheepish. “All the Priuses were gone.”

Afterward, Bates is on foot: To a coffeehouse for a latte, the office to prep for a speech, the YMCA for a workout and then a dinner meeting of the Alameda County Conference of Mayors.

About 16 months ago, Bates strapped on a pedometer and started walking at least 10,000 steps a day -- for his health and the planet’s. Round trip from home to office is 4,400 steps.

By the beginning of this year, he’d dropped 20 pounds and realized his car was sitting in the driveway. The device, he says, “changed my life.”

Bates does not expect everyone to do what he does, but says that if people drove one less day a week, it would make a difference.

“I try to walk the talk,” he says. “I feel really good about it. We’re setting a good example. We have a great life. We want for nothing. And we’re saving resources for the future.”


At 9 p.m., the Alameda County mayors scatter. The streets are quiet. Bates grabs his hat and briefcase and heads for home.

Eleven thousand steps down, 2,200 to go.