Dion Aroner

dion.jpgFive years ago, Dion Aroner created a lobbying and consulting firm with two former members of her legislative staff, Elisabeth Jewel and Barbara Ellis. Aroner wanted to do everything by the book.

New businesses need business permits so Aroner dutifully applied for one from the City of Berkeley, which she directly represented as Assemblywoman from 1996 to 2002 and indirectly represented for the previous 24 years as former Assemblyman Tom Bates’ chief of staff.

When she applied for her permit, Aroner’s old boss was in his first term as mayor of Berkeley.

Bates, who turned 70 on Feb. 9, claimed a key reason he ran for mayor was that it took several months to get city permits to fix a fallen section of his backyard fence and the permits cost more than the repair tab. One of his first acts as mayor was to appoint a committee to review the city’s permitting process.

Despite a friend in a high place, Aroner hit the wall trying to get her business permit. City factotums told her she needed a Fire Marshall inspection first. She countered that the two rooms she and her partners rent were part of a building already certified for fire safety. Nevertheless, she was told, a new review was necessary.

Time passed. Aroner finds herself in a meeting with Bates and pours out her tale of permit woe. In his first State of the City speech, Bates uses Aroner as a poster child for the city’s Kafkaesque permit process.

Aroner was elated. “I called Elisabeth that night and said, ‘We’re in business. The city will call tomorrow.’ ”

There was no call the next day, the next week or the next month.

Once more, Aroner finds herself in Bates’ office. This time, the meeting included the city manager. The discussion centered on the committee Aroner agreed to chair to explore new city revenue enhancements, as tax increases are euphemistically called.

She bought up the permit snafu. The city manager assured her the problem was solved. Aroner called Elisabeth, insisting the bureaucratic nightmare was finally over.

Anything but.

When a business permit finally graced the offices of AJR Partners at 1803 6th St., the better part of 11 months had gone by.

Among AJR Partners’ clients are those one would expect from someone who for nearly 30 years spent a fair chunk of time either writing or amending large swathes of California’s social programs.

There’s the California Welfare Directors Association, the California Alliance for Inclusive Communities and the Youth Law Center in San Francisco.

But Safeway is also on the list. The chain is revitalizing five stores in the community, Aroner says. Another client is Pacific Steel Casting Co., whose unionized West Berkeley facility employs more than 600 persons. And then there’s Duraflame, which wants local and state decision-makers to know that burning their logs throws far less emissions into the air than wood.

While Aroner’s path to becoming a lawmaker isn’t unique – staffers often succeed their bosses – she is perhaps unique in that the transition from nearly a quarter-of-a-century of staff work to elected official didn’t change her much.

Some critics sniffed that Aroner maintained a “staffer mentality,” after her 1996 election. A “staffer mentality,” to these critics, appears to be an overzealous love of mechanics, minutia and the need to work through solutions collaboratively rather than arbitrarily.

For those who think a “staffer mentality” isn’t pejorative, it means someone who works collaboratively, respects other people and doesn’t float around the Capitol’s ceilings due to their inflated ego. It’s also someone who brings knowledge of the subject matter and a healthy dose of institutional wisdom.

Asked straight-up the difference between a staffer and legislators, Aroner says:

“Staffers talk about ‘we’ or “the member.’ I forbid my staff from referring to me as a member. A member uses the word ‘I.’ The focus of attention is on the member because that’s who votes and runs for election.

“In regard to how one works and how one produces as a legislator, that was and is a team effort.”

As a staffer Aroner had a strong reputation as a good team player. Bates gave her a lot of freedom to act on his behalf. Barry Brokaw, chief of staff to Bates’ fellow East Bay Democrat Dan Boatwright, had the same sort of latitude.

“Both Dan and Tom had the same style of operation which is he trusted his staff a lot. That kind of style made it much easier for staff to accomplish things with having to check in every day,” Aroner said.

It’s not the easiest managerial model because the staff person has to know the limits of their boss and know where their own limits are as a staffer. For example, she said staff isn’t allowed to say they’re going to kill someone else’s bill. Only legislators kill bills.

In the years she worked with Bates, Aroner remembers only one time when he had to rein her in.

The two met in 1970 when Aroner was an Alameda County social worker and president of what became Service Employees International Union, Local 535.

Bates was the campaign manager for Ken Meade, an Alameda County lawyer and environmentalist.

Meade and Bates wanted the union’s support on the campaign in part because it had recently put together a lobbying operation in Sacramento to fight then Gov. Ronald Reagan’s “welfare reform.” Social workers saw the GOP governor’s proposal as an attack on their profession.

(Aroner recalls the union selling “job protection certificates” for $5 to create a political action committee. She remembers handing David Roberti, former Senate president pro tempore, a check for $5,000 in the 1971 special election campaign that first brought him to the state Senate.)

Meade won the Assembly race. Bates eyed a seat on the Alameda County Board of Supervisors. He asked for Aroner’s support.

Demoted by the county because of her union activism, Aroner said she was happy to support Bates but also would coming to work for him.

Key to her hiring was her ability to operate a mimeograph machine.

“You could conquer the world in those days if you could run a mimeograph machine,” Aroner recalls. The union gave the campaign free office space and reams of paper. Aroner cranked up the mimeograph.

In 1976, Bates was elected to the Assembly. His wife, Loni Hancock, became Berkeley’s mayor. Hancock may, in fact, be responsible for gumming up the permit process Bates claimed he was going to fix.

“Loni is much more methodical. She’s a student of policy. She studies things very carefully,” Aroner says in comparing the couple’s problem-solving styles.

“Tom is a more gut reaction. He sees something wrong that needs to be fixed, makes a judgment and then moves forward to do that.”

A quick look at the subject areas of some of the bills Aroner introduced as legislator more than justify her reputation for policy expertise in social programs: Child Welfare Services, emancipated foster youth, In-Home Support Services, employment of persons with disabilities, mental health.

As chair of the Human Services Committee she would sometimes politely shelve a bill by saying she liked the existing language in the code — particularly since she had written it.

But with Bates she also learned a lot about environmental law. Bates was part of cadre of green-minded lawmakers known as the Grizzlies, which included Tom Hayden and now Superior Court Judge Lloyd Connelly. Their environmental zeal routinely exceeded that of Speaker Willie Brown and they voted accordingly.

Aroner also learned a lot about public school financing. During Bates’ tenure most of the district’s larger school districts went bankrupt at least once. Berkeley. Oakland. Emeryville went down twice. Richmond, which changed its name to West Contra Costa.

After Bates won his final term in 1994, would-by successors started trooping through his office. Each would pass Aroner’s desk. Slowly, she began realizing she was the best candidate.

“Tom was really kind of angry with me that it took so long to decide. I was a happy staffer. If there were no term limits I would be the staffer and he would be Assemblyman today.”

Aroner said her biggest surprise as a lawmaker was discovering how much she liked her colleagues. As a staffer she said she wasn’t terribly fond of “members,” as a rule.

“Everyone has gone through the election process and for some reason that does bind you, no matter what your differences over policy. It’s such a small group of people who have had this common experience and the common experience of daily being bombarded by various issues and by hundreds if not thousands of people with different needs and then have to balance them. That binds people together.”

She authored the first Death with Dignity bill in 1999, allowing physician assisted suicide. The debate was loud, sometimes shrill, often tearful – just like the more recent go-round. The bill didn’t pass.

Debating then Gov. Pete Wilson over changes Wilson sought to make for welfare eligibility, Aroner nicely summed up her own policy priorities.

“I see the governor’s proposals as punitive. Instead of interesting people moving from welfare to work, putting carrots out, I think that the governor uses a stick. I think that’s a philosophical difference in how we see the world.”

Aroner’s legislative career ended in a primary defeat running for the senate seat currently held by Don Perata.

“I don’t work 70 hours a week and I did that for almost 30 years. I loved it but life doesn’t have to be that way. Have a grandson who is almost four years old who I get to spend a lot of time with. I don’t work weekends and most evenings anymore and I’m enjoying it.”

Aroner and her husband David also have adopted a family in the Philippines. David Aroner had gone to the Philippines for SIEU and befriended a young woman on a picket line. The woman is now married with three kids and a public health educator.

Like a lot of former lawmakers — sitting ones, for that matter – Aroner thinks the best thing that could be done to improve the Legislature is repeal term limits.

For Aroner, term limits reduces the context available in understanding how to solve a problem.

“ I don’t know how you govern without context. We’ve also had administrations for almost 16 years that have no context. I don’t know how you can govern that way.”

Catch up with Dion Arnoner at dion@ajepartners.com


Filed under: California History

1 Comment »

  1. So, getting things done in Berkley is tougher than in the Capitol?

    Who woulda thunk?

    Comment by NoOneInParticular — 3.04.2008 @ 9:06 am

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