Gus Newport, a lifelong activist who pursued a bold progressive agenda over two terms as mayor of Berkeley, died Saturday. He was 88.
Over more than 60 years of organizing, Newport took up causes that spread across the country and around the world, including police brutality in his hometown of Rochester, New York, rent control laws in Berkeley, American military involvement in Central America and the Gulf Coast’s recovery from Hurricane Katrina, to name only a few.
Along the way, he forged relationships with a broad swath of famed political figures, including Malcolm X, Harvey Milk, Angela Davis and Bernie Sanders, as well as decades-long friendships with activists such as Danny Glover and Harry Belafonte.
Newport, who remained active in progressive advocacy until he unexpectedly fell ill last week, was remembered by colleagues and contemporaries as a strident voice for peace and justice, driven by an unwavering sense of right and wrong.
“Gus was an inspiration, standing alongside civil rights giants like Malcolm X in the fight for the human rights of all African Americans,” U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee wrote in a statement on Twitter. “He has spent his life fighting for justice and liberation, and the world is a better place because of him. He is a true friend and an inspiration to us all. May he rest in peace and power.”
The Middle East Children’s Alliance, the Berkeley-based humanitarian organization where Newport was board president, wrote in a statement, “From fighting for racial and economic justice to human rights for LGBT people and Palestinians, wherever progressive politics were going, Gus got there first.”
Born in 1935, Newport credited his grandmother, who migrated to Upstate New York after experiencing racism in rural Virginia, for helping spark his political activism.
In the early 1960s, he rose to prominence for his advocacy on behalf of a gas station worker who was beaten by Rochester police, as well as a group of Black Muslims arrested during a law enforcement raid on their mosque — which led to his work with Malcolm X. The two grew close, and Newport worked with Malcolm X to launch the Organization of Afro-American Unity in 1964.
“He came back and forth from Rochester,” Newport recalled about Malcolm X during a conversation at the Commonwealth Club earlier this year, “and often used to tell me … ‘Brother Eugene, don’t shout too hard, you know when your voice reaches out, it scares people to death.'”
Newport moved to Berkeley in 1974 and went to work in City Hall, taking jobs in the parks department and city manager’s office while also getting involved in local organizing. Five years after his arrival, Berkeley Citizens Action — a progressive coalition that was building its power on the City Council, taking on candidates from the more moderate Berkeley Democratic Club — recruited him to run for mayor against two-term incumbent Warren Widener.
Newport won the mayor’s race in an upset, while BCA candidates gained enough seats to control the council. It was a watershed moment for East Bay progressives, who over the decade went “from the streets to the ballot box,” said local historian Charles Wollenberg, with victories like Ron Dellums’ election to Congress and several agenda-setting initiatives in Berkeley.
On the local level, the seven years Newport spent as mayor — one of his terms was cut short by a change in the timing of city elections — were marked by his push to build affordable housing and strengthen rent control protections for residents and commercial tenants. Newport rode in a 1979 Gay Freedom Day Parade, making him one of the first mayors to do so, and led an effort to extend benefits to the partners of gay city employees, a cause he took up after Milk was assassinated.
“We are greatly thankful for Gus Newport’s service to the Berkeley community and beyond, and for his unyielding commitment to human rights that has inspired countless people throughout the world to continue his legacy,” Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín wrote in a statement.
Newport also used the platform provided by his office to advocate for causes far beyond Berkeley’s borders. He traveled to El Salvador during the country’s civil war, created sister-city relationships with three cities in Central America and worked to implement a first-of-its-kind initiative Berkeley voters passed the same year he was elected to divest the city’s funds from companies that supported apartheid-era South Africa.
His relationship with Sanders, who was then the mayor of Burlington, Vermont, took root at U.S. Conference of Mayors meetings, where they would gather a small circle of progressive leaders that included Chicago’s Harold Washington and Cleveland’s Dennis Kucinich, the future congressman and presidential candidate.
“We didn’t pay attention to the general meeting,” Newport said in a 2020 interview with the Center for Community Land Trust Innovation. “We’d compare notes on public policy, community planning and organizing.”
Newport’s advocacy on national and international issues drew complaints from his critics. But those who knew him said Newport saw a link between the problems of the city he governed and those on the global scale.
“Once he got in that seat, he just saw all the inadequacies — not only in Berkeley, but in the U.S. and the world,” said Kyle Newport, his son.
Damien Durr, the president of an archive of Newport’s papers and photos, as well as interviews with his contemporaries, called the Gus Newport Project, said he sought to use his time as mayor to demonstrate “what could be done if there was moral courage, and an intentionality to use government to help people.”
Newport left the mayor’s office in 1986, and Berkeley soon afterward. He would go on to lead a renowned community economic development nonprofit in the Roxbury area of Boston called the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative before returning to the East Bay in the early 1990s.
Newport spent most of the past three decades living in North Oakland, where he was immersed in local, national and global politics, and was known as a storyteller who could regale audiences with his tales from activism across seven decades. He remained close with many of the activists he worked with over the years, Kyle Newport recalled, particularly Glover and Belafonte, who died in April.
“All of those folks were actually good friends,” he said. “They just talked and talked, and met, and hashed out ways to attack problems and make a better world.”
In recent years, Newport issued endorsements for progressive candidates in local elections, campaigned for Sanders during his runs for president, joined groups in Berkeley and Oakland that worked to reimagine policing, and took part in demonstrations. He attended a Berkeley City Council meeting last year as part of a protest condemning Arreguín for attending a sponsored trip to Israel.
“I see him as a role model in so many ways, from being a political strategist to a humanitarian to a decent human being, who really cared about people in an honest and sincere way,” said Moni Law, a Berkeley advocate who joined Newport’s mayoral campaign as a student activist and decades later worked with him on a raft of local causes. “I could do a tenth of that and say it was a life well-lived.”
Newport is survived by his wife, Kathryn Kasch, two brothers, two children and one grandchild. Kyle Newport said the family is beginning to plan for a memorial service.