Lucky number four for Nat Bates?
Nat Bates, the self-appointed dean of the City Council, doesn't mind a scrap in the dirt. (Photo by Julia Chan)
By: David Ferry | October 19, 2010 – 6:00 am
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Nat Bates knows everybody’s name.
And that’s just for starters. Union affiliations, wives’ occupations, grandmothers’ life stories — no detail is too small.
“Once you been in politics as long as I have,” Bates says, taking a quick break from working the room at a fundraising dinner last month, “you have a lot friends.”
Dressed in a dark suit with a smart tie and pocket square, he’s the center of attention.
A few minutes later, Contra Costa County’s sheriff takes the stage to praise Richmond City Council’s longest serving member.
“I support good government, I support good people, and I support Nat Bates,” Sheriff Warren Rupf says.
Bates grins and the 300 some odd attendees dig into their $75 dinners.
At 79, Bates fancies himself dean of the City Council. He’s been in office for 30 years — longer than any other councilmember in the city’s history — and has served as mayor twice, back when it was a position appointed by the council. This is his fourth time running for the job, after three unsuccessful attempts.
A few weeks and one political bombshell after that late-September fundraiser, Bates sits in his office across from Nicholl Park on MacDonald Ave. He’s wearing blue jeans and a T-shirt and laces the conversation with friendly expletives. He’s got a Bluetooth in his right ear, and opts to ignore several calls over the course of an hour-long interview.
Nine days earlier, Bates alerted the media to Mayor Gayle McLaughlin’s 2001 bankruptcy and history of depression. Since then, opponents have denounced his tactics and tried to make his “dirty politics” a rallying cry.
Bates, 78, has been in office on and off since 1967. He's run for mayor unsuccessfully three times before.
But Bates, a former probation officer, isn’t apologetic and he’s not backing down.
“It was not me who tried to get out of paying the student loans back. I didn’t do that,” Bates says. “Everybody has to be accountable for their own behavior.”
Character is a valid thing for voters to judge, he says.
“When you’re in politics, your life is an open book: whatever you say, whatever you do, whatever people find out about you — negative or positive,” Bates says, shrugging off the accusations. “That’s politics.”
And politics is something Bates knows about. In his three decades on the council, he’s earned a reputation as a master operator.
“I’ll tell you this,” Councilmember Maria Viramontes said recently. “Nat’s one of the shrewder political people I’ve ever met. I have to wake up awful early to get ahead of Nat.”
But Bates is not beyond self-doubt. He doesn’t second-guess his actions, just his timing. Should he have waited closer to Election Day? Should he have sat on the information and let the police and fire unions — who hired a research firm to dig up dirt on McLaughlin in the first place — tip off the press?
“I probably should not have done it,” Bates said about releasing the documents before the unions. “It was coming out anyway. It was going happen.”
How will it impact the election? The master operator is without an answer.
“I have no idea,” Bates said.
This sort of calculation can’t be new to Bates. He’s been a political brawler for years, and he’s no stranger to the seamier side of politics.
Bates addresses the crowd during a speech at a community block party in North Richmond this September. (Photo by Robert Rogers)
In 2005, he was fined by the Fair Political Practices Commission for failing to properly disclose campaign contributions. And in 1999, he was questioned by the FBI about his relations with the firefighters union powerbroker Darrell Reese. In the end, Bates was not found guilty of any wrongdoing in the Reese case.
But no one is alleging that Bates is bending the rules this year. On the stump, he stresses his deep local roots, and misses few opportunities to note that McLaughlin is relatively new to town.
And in a city with more than 18 percent unemployment, Bates talks up the importance of jobs, jobs, jobs: He says that the mayor values the environment over businesses and that her opposition to a proposed casino development at Pt. Molate will cost Richmond jobs.
No one questions Bates’ pro-business bona fides.
He accepts large contributions from companies in and outside the area. He’d like to let developers build in parts of the city the mayor has tried to protect. Businesses — especially Chevron Corp. — are key to the city’s future, he says, and he vows to provide an accommodating atmosphere in which they’ll flourish.
Backing Chevron is anathema to the mayor’s progressive supporters and they are quick to label Bates the Chevron candidate. But he’s used to the abuse. He might even relish it.
“I been on both ends of the stick. I been accused, I been vilified, I been applauded,” Bates said. “People don’t understand politics. As Harry Truman said, ‘You can’t stand the heat, you better out of the kitchen.’”