Loni Hancock talks pot clubs, gaming, campaign finance and more.
It’s a foregone conclusion that longtime Berkeley pol Loni Hancock will move from the State Assembly and take over the Senate seat held by kingmaker and FBI person-of-interest Don Perata. Hancock began her career in public service as a member of the Berkeley City Council before serving as the city’s first female mayor in the early 1970s. In the ’90s, she held an education post in the Clinton administration and has been Berkeley’s assemblywoman since 2002. She also happens to be married to Berkeley’s current bossman and former Assemblyman Tom Bates. Can you say “power couple”? Hancock was instrumental in the recent squashing of an attempt to turn the Indian casino in San Pablo into the country’s second largest loser’s paradise and is pushing hard to make the East Bay home to green academies to teach solar installation and other enviro-friendly trades. If she needed a slogan, it might be: “A chicken in every pot and a solar panel on every roof.” With the general election nearing, I tracked Hancock down to talk turkey.
Paul Kilduff: Being the Democratic nominee for the Berkeley State Senate seat after defeating Wilma Chan in the primary is pretty much a cakewalk, right?
Loni Hancock: A much easier election—no question about it.
PK: You can’t be too concerned—you’re going to win, right? Is there any inkling of doubt about that?
LH: Well, the registration is strongly Democratic, but there are always surprises so I take every election very seriously and I’m going to be working hard on this election, too.
PK: Wasn’t that your bud Hillary Clinton’s problem—that she thought it was going to be a coronation?
LH: I don’t think anybody would ever think of being President of the United States as a coronation, thank God.
PK: I didn’t mean her becoming President would be that way, just getting the Democratic nomination.
LH: I really don’t think so because to be any kind of a first in politics is to break a barrier, which means it’s going to be hard. And to have had a controversial presidency [her husband’s] and a controversial initial run for the Senate from New York, I don’t think she ever thought it was going to be easy. And of course it wasn’t and I don’t think Barack Obama thought it was going to be easy either.
PK: Let’s get back to you. The high drama of your campaign occurred when outgoing Senator Perata endorsed both you and your opponent Wilma Chan. Have you patched things up with him and Wilma? Is everything cool?
LH: I felt very supported by Senator Perata throughout. I don’t know what went on there but he certainly was very helpful to me in the campaign.
PK: Kind of a slippery guy, that Perata.
LH: Well, you know there was so much negative campaigning going on in the Chan campaign that it was just hard to know what to credit in that last bit—that last flurry of mail. The whole campaign from beginning to end was like one unexpected barrage of mail after another and so by the time that [the dual endorsement] happened, no surprise was a surprise anymore.
PK: What is always said about Republicans is that after the last shot is fired, they always manage to close ranks and support each other like good corporate citizens. You don’t really need anybody’s support at this point because you’re going to win, but why don’t Democrats seem to bury the hatchet as well?
LH: Well, what’s your data that they don’t?
PK: Look at Hillary and Obama now. I mean they kissed and made up, but she hardly seems like an important factor in his campaign.
LH: I was a Hillary Clinton supporter. I am an enthusiastic Obama supporter. We were so fortunate to have the array of candidates—John Edwards, Richardson, all of them. We had great Democratic candidates out there and Barack Obama’s our candidate and I’m going to work my heart out for him.
PK: It would seem though that in the past that Democrats have struggled with the unity thing—(the Hillary/Obama drama; Gore distancing himself from Clinton in 2000; Teddy Kennedy taking his run all the way to the convention against Carter in 1980; Eugene McCarthy sulking when he lost in 1968)—does this have to do with Democrats having to appeal to a broader group of people so it’s harder to find common ground once the fight’s over?
LH: Well, let’s say Democrats are much more individualistic which is interesting when you think about it. From my experience in the state legislature there is absolute discipline in the Republican Party. And they have all, except one, signed the [conservative anti-tax activist] Grover Norquist’s pledge, for instance, never to raise a dime of new revenue, to starve government. And that’s why we’re sitting in Sacramento now having an impasse on the state budget. Democrats are all over the place. Some want to draw a line in the sand and say we will not cut another dime. Other people are looking for ways to compromise here or compromise there. In the end, Democrats usually do close ranks and eventually, probably every Democrat or almost every Democrat will vote for a budget. You know that California is one of only four states in the country that requires a two-thirds vote to pass a state budget.
PK: That seems crazy.
LH: To me this is the elephant in the closet. And people keep saying, “Why don’t they get a budget?” Well, it’s easy. We have a Democratic budget. We passed it out of conference committee. But it takes two-thirds to pass a state budget and if you have a very disciplined minority party that wants to starve government all they have to do is sit there and not vote.
PK: Good point. You’ve been a career politician—which I’m not opposed to, but clearly the state’s voters would like to see a turnover of fresh blood in Sacramento and they continue to uphold term limits. But efforts continue to be made by politicians to eliminate term limits. What’s going on here? Are you guys not getting the message? Can’t John Burton run for mayor of Oakland or something?
LH: The voters are not paying attention to reality.
PK: They don’t know what the hell they’re doing?
LH: Voters tend, many of them, to hold politics in contempt. Cynicism is easy. So there’s a lot of cynicism out there and I personally believe that the way we finance political campaigns has a lot to do with it. And that’s why I am the sponsor of AB 583 which is the public financing of elections bill.
PK: This would ape the Arizona “clean money” campaign system.
LH: As Bill Moyers and other people who are 100 percent behind this have said: if the public doesn’t buy politicians, the special interests will.
PK: It’s interesting that you’re a big proponent of the clean money system because it puts you in the same camp as Arizona Senator John McCain.
LH: Does he like the Arizona law?
LH: If he does I’ll be in his camp on this one.
PK: Check out their website. His picture’s on it.
LH: It’s the answer. In Arizona it’s used equally by Republicans and Democrats.
PK: At the same time, now Obama has rejected his federal matching funds, calling the system broken—what does he mean by that?
LH: It’s a different system and it is broken because the amounts of money that you can raise don’t increase with inflation. That’s why even under contribution limits in California I can raise more money for the state Senate than I believe Barack Obama can raise for the presidency.
PK: He’s got so much money anyway what does he need matching funds for?
LH: There are two main reasons for public financing of elections. One is if the public pays a set amount for a campaign, people are beholden only to the people in the district they represent. Now if they have to go out and get money from corporations, PACs, all kinds of interest groups, good and bad, that may have legislation pending before the legislature, it can’t help to either be compromising or look compromising. And people used to joke, “Is it a bribe or a payoff?”
PK: You get what you pay for. Has that been a problem for you? If some person or group is a big contributor to your campaign what do you do? Ignore their phone calls?
LH: It isn’t anything as simple as, “I’m going to vote for this because you’ve contributed to my campaign.” But, in the bigger picture I would ask, “Why is it we can’t get universal health care?” Part of it is because insurance companies are such major campaign contributors that to write them out of the game appears “impossible” in Sacramento. See, it isn’t only that insurance companies give contributions, it’s that maybe they’ll give your opponent contributions. Maybe they’ll even do the biggest loophole of all which is an independent expenditure for your opponent. By now it’s common knowledge that Indian tribes that would like to get urban gambling casinos gave a small fortune to my opponent in the primary election. They call themselves education leaders for high standards but that wasn’t where the money came from. And that is a very intimidating thing for legislators. That if I make a certain kind of vote I can have something like that happen to me.
PK: You’re against urban Indian gaming but isn’t that kind of like out of sight, out of mind? It’s okay for people to throw their money away in the boonies near reservations, but not in San Pablo? What’s the difference?
LH: Actually, when we started doing a lot of research in my office about gambling and its impact on communities it turns out there’s what they call destination gambling—that’s Las Vegas. You say, “I’ve got $500 to lose. I’m going to fly to Las Vegas, get a couple of nights at a hotel and gamble.” And you know you’re going to leave your money there and you’re going to come home. Grocery store-gambling is when the casino is in your downtown or in a neighboring downtown and you say on your way home from work with your paycheck, “I’m just going to go in and pull the handle on the slot machine a few times.” And you leave without the rent money or the lunch money for the kids or whatever. And that is the really sinister kind of gambling and that’s what leads to the bankruptcies which go up in communities surrounding gambling casinos along with suicides, the crime rate, the other kinds of things. And to put that in the little city of San Pablo two blocks from a major congested freeway—it seemed like a bad idea. It would have been the second-largest gambling casino in the United States.
PK: I get tired of hearing that the only thing Native Americans can do to survive economically in this country is to open up casinos. Is that really the case or is it just easy and convenient? There’s also a lot of evidence that the casino profits don’t trickle down to the res.
LH: It is easy to do because there’s so much money involved and it is making a lot of money for the non-Indian developers who put up the money, who manage the casinos and really sell this as an economic development option. And we want the East Bay to be the new green economy. We don’t want it to be the gambling capital of California.
PK: Do you agree with me? Is there something that Native Americans could do other than this?
LH: All human beings have many, many options. And there’s no doubt that there were terrible injustices done to Native Americans. I don’t see urban gambling casinos as an economic development plus for the people of California, Native American and non-Native American.
PK: You’re good at this. I’m not getting you off message. Your green technology academies proposal—what specifically would they teach? How to make better batteries so we can all be driving 100-mpg plug-in hybrids?
LH: Absolutely. Hybrid cars are part of it. I chair the natural resources committee in the Assembly. One of the things we do in that committee is oversee the implementation of safe efforts to turn around global warming. We know we have a 10-year window to do this for the planet. Actually for us, because the planet will go on but will the human race? Because after that the ice caps melt, the methane comes out of the tundra, the oceans turn acid. So we need to turn it around now. We know that from everything from energy efficiency to solar panels, to hybrid cars and electric plug-in hybrid cars, there are things that need to be invented, installed, repaired, manufactured and shipped all around the world and since the whole world is looking to California to see if we’re serious about implementing the laws that we’ve passed that would do this we have an enormous opportunity. So we need to get ourselves to invent, manufacture, repair, install—the whole thing—and in the meantime we also have a 30 percent high-school dropout rate in California. And in parts of the district I represent, which includes Richmond and Oakland, it’s even higher. So, we need to get our young people engaged in this great, challenging mission and we need to get them educated to take these jobs which are there. We’re going to install a million solar roofs—we need certified solar installers.
PK: Another growing “green” business in California is pot clubs. I happen to live within a short walk of two of them near my house. The riffraff hanging out in front of these places and the robberies associated with them doesn’t exactly encourage investment on my main drag of more vital businesses like a supermarket or a bank—two things we don’t have. Nor do I feel like explaining their purpose to my 8-year-old daughter—a difficult task as not many folks coming in and out of them look like they’re suffering from excruciating pain—they look they want to get high. Do you have any idea about how pot clubs could be better regulated so that neighborhoods “in transition” don’t have to bear the full brunt of them? I mean, put one in Pacific Heights or on College Avenue and spread the joy of herbal pain relief.
LH: Well, that’s a very interesting point and I say this from the perspective of a person who supports medical marijuana. My mother died of cancer.
PK: For the record, I don’t care whether anybody wants to smoke marijuana for medicinal purposes or pleasure. I just don’t see why these half-baked pot clubs must exist only in downtrodden neighborhoods. Maybe the for-profit pot club owners don’t want to see full legalization (“Look for weed in the pain relief aisle at Longs Drugs”) because it would ruin their cozy little “gray area” quasi-legal business? It would become corporate. Oh, heavens no.
LH: That I haven’t heard. Just as we were talking I was thinking I’m carrying a bill right now on problem liquor stores. And maybe there needs to be local legislation—you have to regulate liquor at the state level because of the ABC—but state law now says that you can only have so many liquor stores per census tract. Now the problem was that it grandfathered in all the existing liquor stores which were predominantly located in challenged neighborhoods. And so we’ve been looking for ways to make it easier for cities to crack down on problem liquor stores. There probably ought to be ways to crack down on problem pot clubs. You should be able to regulate the impact on the community. It’s like secondhand smoke. You don’t have the right to harm somebody without their consent.
PK: Fire up a bong load—I’ll smoke to that.
Age: 68 | Astrological sign: Aries
First job: Being a chambermaid in a conference center for Unitarians on the East Coast
Favorite pizza topping: Whatever means everything. I want it all.
Mideast peace plan: It’s going to be a two-state solution based on mutual respect and reconciliation probably negotiated by women. Look at Northern Ireland. Look at a lot of places.
Website: http://democrats.assembly. ca.gov/