Pride Month Special: Ken Bukowski – Emeryville’s First Gay Mayor
When all is said and done, Ken Bukowski will go down as one of the most colorful characters our city has ever seen. A six term, 24 year Council member and five-time Mayor, plaques with Bukowski’s name dot our town.
As the first known gay mayor and councilmember in Emeryville, The now 67-year-old Bukowski’s time in politics presided over the ‘boomtown’ era of Emeryville that currently defines our city.
Bukowski has a fascinating character arc worthy of a Hollywood screenplay. And while his time on Council didn’t necessarily end on his terms, it should not completely discount his achievements for our city. His story must be told.
Growing up in Brooklyn
Ken was born in 1951 and raised in Brooklyn, New York. His parents separated when he was young and his older brother passed away leaving his rearing up to his mother. Compounding the difficulties of growing up, Ken discovered at a young age he was gay. “All my friends started getting into girls and I just didn’t understand why. I could’t understand the attraction.”
The era wasn’t exactly accommodating to being open about one’s sexuality as a youth and Ken lived as a closeted homosexual. “When I grew up as a gay person, you kept quite about it. My mother was raised in a religious family. When I finally told her, she just didn’t want to hear it.”
BK > LV > SF
When Ken turned 20, he opted to leave Brooklyn and venture out on his own. Ken took all his money he had saved as a manager of a neighborhood dry cleaning business, and moved to Las Vegas. “I had a friend that lived there. I wasn’t into gambling, but I liked the environment.”
Ken got a job in Vegas working for the local telephone company and settled in. It was in Las Vegas that Ken had his first gay relationship. “I met somebody and fell in love. We smoked some weed, went to his place and that was that!”
In 1977, Ken was working for a bus service who were in the middle of a labor dispute that led to an employee strike. At the same time, his then partner opted to enter the military. He took a trip to San Francisco and was drawn to how accommodating it was toward gay people like himself. He decided to stay. “I didn’t have to deal with the wrath associated with being gay anymore.”
He got a job working for San Francisco Airporter who ran a service from downtown to SFO. Shortly after, he met notable interior-decorator and designer Robert Sarella. “I met Robert who was building a restaurant and bar in Emeryville. He was a top-notch designer. He designed the Cliff House, The Blue Fox … everything he touched turned to gold.”
The Silks Years
Sarella was designing ‘The Silks’ which originally opened as “Silks Restaurant and Ragtime Bar” at the site of the pre-renovated Public Market. When the restaurant didn’t take off, they pivoted into a night club. The timing was perfect as the dawn of the Disco era was just taking root.
About the same time, Tia Maria’s (located at the site which is now Hong Kong East Ocean) went under leaving their house band without a venue. They approached Ken about playing at The Silks and he obliged.
With live music and a DJ, The Silks was beginning to make waves in the East Bay nightclub scene. “It was hot! Disco was high energy and we also opened after hours.”
After Ken and his partners got The Silks off the ground, he settled in Emeryville by buying his first home on Doyle Street (The white complexes next to The Townhouse that are slated for demolition).
The Silks built its reputation as one of the East Bay’s hottest night clubs by hosting acts like disco legend Rick James and eventually early hip-hop acts like M.C. Hammer. “He (Hammer) was here all the time, working the lights, breakdancing … eventually he started performing.”
Because The Silks was predominately a black nightclub, Ken got involved with black causes and politics and joined the local chapter of the NAACP. “I became the first white president of a NAACP branch and went to two national conventions.”
This was also the dawn of the ‘Redevelopment Era’ in our city that was a threat to The Silks and Ken’s livelihood. The powerful John LaCoste and the local business chamber wanted to redevelop the Public Market Property and replace it with two thirty story office towers. Ken rallied the city to defeat the effort.
Ken didn’t have much leverage as a nightclub owner and was often at the mercy of the LaCoste controlled Police Department. He, like many businesses in town, willfully went along with LaCoste’s “recommendations” for who to make campaign donations to in return for the uninterrupted operation of The Silks. Ken also started the LaCoste-friendly “Emeryville Eagle” newspaper at LaCoste’s request.
Political forces were beginning to shift in Emeryville with the increase in population to roughly 5,000 from the development of Watergate. LaCoste ended up losing control of Council with the defeat of Esther Spriggs and victory of Laura Davenport in 1983. This political battle is told in the epic “Million Dollar Mudflats” KQED special and the KTVU 2 segment with legendary anchorman Dennis Richmond captured below.
Bukowski ran for council twice in losing efforts in 1985. The third time he was determined. “I did a transcript of every council meeting, every word, and mailed it to every house in the city for two years.” Ken quickly made a name for himself. “My involvement was sincere and real and people saw that.”
Bukowski Enters Politics
Bukowski ran again in 1987 as part of the “All Emeryville Alliance” slate with Artist Coop resident Greg Harper and Watergate resident Nora Davis. They had the endorsement of popular outgoing Councilmember Laura Davenport and won handily with Bukowski being the top vote-getter.
Their victory signified a shift in Emeryville politics captured in the below 1987 Chronicle story that noted “Emeryville is evolving into a gentrified center of high technology.”
A bitter Lacoste, who was running in a failed comeback attempt, is quoted saying “Emeryville will enter a regressive era, to an extreme anti-growth. environmental mentality. I’m disappointed for the people of Emeryville.”
In 1988, shortly after the election, The Silks lease ended and Disco was dead. Ken notes that despite this, The Silks was going strong and he suggested racism and NIMBYism were ultimately to blame for The Silks’ demise. “It was hard to get a black nightclub financed in those days and there was neighborhood resistance after Pacific Park Plaza was built.”
After The Silks closed and the marketplace was redeveloped, Ken opened the Emery Pub which later became The Christie Avenue Bar & Grill.
Emeryville’s Boomtown Era
Ken focused on his business interests and developing his political skills over the next decade. “I never went to college, I didn’t know anything about development and the environment so I joined Spur and learned a lot about city planning.”
All the while, Ken stayed mostly closeted. “I never thought my sexuality was a reason people should vote or not vote for me so I decided not to make it an issue.”
Throughout the 90’s, Ken was instrumental in establishing our free Emery Go-Round shuttle, presided over the construction of a new city hall, our Child Development Center and co-founded the now defunct Chamber of Commerce that helped perpetuate Emeryville’s pro-business climate.
Ken also notes that he, along with Emeryville’s first openly lesbian Councilmember Ruth Atkin, were the lead advocates for the domestic partners of LGBTQ Emeryville City Employees to receive their benefits.
In the 2000’s, Emeryville saw the construction of Bay Street, IKEA and sustained housing developed that pushed our population past 10,000.
Alliances Crumble amid Political Downfall
Over time, political divisions strained the relations between the former slate of Bukowski, Davis and Harper. According to Ken, he was the more moderate between the anti-growth Harper and the more pro-growth Davis. Harper went on to serve two more terms and Davis retired from politics after her seventh term in 2016.
“My problems really began when [City Manager] John Flores took control. I stood up to the city giving up 53rd street to Chiron (now Novartis) and I was ostracized after that by the other councilmembers.” Bukowski contends that he butted heads with Flores and other councilmembers when he wanted more community benefits from projects from developers.
Things began to unravel for Ken politically amid a slew of small scandals in his last term on council that included admitted drug use, misuse of finances, use of a rent-controlled SF apartment and the tragic death of a Chiron security guard that he struck with his car in 2007 (Ken was later absolved of any wrongdoing in the accident).
In 2009, Ken was “outed” online by a defunct blog edited by current Councilmember Scott Donahue’s wife Tracey Schroth.
Without political allies and a mound of bad-press including a story in The New York Times, Ken was soundly defeated in a 2011 reelection bid. “I told the truth to a reporter and paid a dear price for it,” he lamented.
Personal Loss and Reinventing Himself
After being defeated, Ken immediately turned his efforts toward advocacy for a property owners group in the city called the EPOA and videography of local government meetings. His efforts have earned the admiration of transparency advocates and pushed our city to embrace new technologies including posting city meetings on YouTube.
Ken’s most recent longterm partner passed away recently leaving an aging Ken single. “He was partially paralyzed from a stroke. I left for two days and he ended up overdosing on morphine. I actually think he might have taken his own life.”
Ken acknowledging the difficulty of being a gay senior. “It’s kinda lonely living by yourself after 13 years. I’m still not fully adjusted yet.”
Ken recently earned a seat on the board of the local League of Women Voters chapter and he continues to stay active in Emeryville politics and regional issues. Ken also drives for Lyft on the side to make ends meet now lives in the Park Avenue District.
Ken seems comfortable with who he is today with nobody to please but himself. He’s participated with fellow gay politicians in pride parades and is a member of the East Bay Stonewall Democratic Club. “It took a long while to get to where we’re out today where we can be completely open about it.”
There’s the caveat that Ken is not necessarily recognized by his peers because he did not campaign as an openly gay man (“Glass closet” is a LGBTQ term that refers to when a public figure being gay is considered a widely accepted fact even though they have not officially come “out”). The Bay Area Reporter, which has covered LGBTQ issues in the Bay Area since 1971, acknowledged John Bauters as the first openly gay mayor of Emeryville after being elected in 2016.
Being the “first” nor his place in history doesn’t seem to be that important to Ken at this juncture of his life. “I was never trying to make history. When you meet somebody and fall in love … that’s all that matters.”
Ken doesn’t seem to look back with any regrets and maintains an optimistic outlook despite life’s challenges. “I’m still healthy and active and I don’t live a boring life. I don’t think I’ll ever live a boring life.”