The curious case of Nat Bates

Nat Bates during a BMW event for county candidates that he hosted earlier this month.

Nat Bates during a BMW event for county candidates that he hosted earlier this month.

Will he or won’t he?

Councilman Nat Bates is enjoying arguably more public attention by remaining coy about his political future than he would reap from an outright announcement.

While the uncertainty hangs over the city’s always intriguing political landscape, many observers seem casually confident that the city’s most seasoned politico – Bates has held various reins of local power since the 1960s – is positioning himself for another run at the top spot.

“Everybody is expecting Nat Bates to run for mayor,” Councilman Tom Butt said.

So, will the 78-year-old Bates challenge his political bete noire, incumbent Mayor Gayle McLaughlin – with whom he routinely clashes on development issues - in this year’s November election?

Maybe. Maybe not.

“Well, all that talk about me running for mayor, that is just speculating,” Bates said during a telephone interview Monday. “I haven’t ruled anything out. You see, you have to get close to the starting line before you make a decision about your candidacy.”

Bates has made three previous runs for mayor, all unsuccessful. His most recent attempt was in 2001, a year, like 2010, when he could run for mayor without jeopardizing his seat on the council. But despite the near-misses, he is still more political power-player than perpetual also-ran. Bates has outlasted all his contemporaries – friend and foe - with whom he shared power in the 1960s and 1970s, and has been at the forefront of countless milestones in city history.

But he is no relic. If he does run, the city’s ultimate political survivor – one longtime observer called Bates a “master operator” – could mount a formidable campaign. If he were to win, it would also open his council seat to a field of candidates, potentially triggering a political re-alignment of the council.

The most recent campaign finance documents – for the period ending Jan. 1, 2010, show Bates with more than $10,000 on hand.

McLAughlin, who has continued her pledge to accept no money from corporations, reported less than $1,000.

Bates doesn’t have that problem. Chevron Corp., the development corporations seeking to build a casino at Point Molate and several political action committees have all contributed to the councilman in the past.

While McLaughlin is America’s only Green Party mayor in a city of more than 100,000, Bates enjoys a decidedly pro-business reputation.

“I am able to help unify and advance the business community,” Bates said. “The mayor won’t even accept a check on behalf of the city from Chevron because she hates Chevron.”

McLaughlin disagrees. In an interview earlier this month, she touted her tough stance toward Chevron as good for the health of residents and for business in the city, as evidenced by a recent deal struck between the city and the global energy giant that guarantees the city $114 million over the next 15 years.

If Bates does run, he’ll have to formally file papers with the city clerk between July 12 and early August.

“You see that the cream comes to the top,” Bates said. “Come July, you are going to have a surfacing of candidates, whoever they may be, who will run. I wouldn’t be surprised if there is more than one (challenger).”

So who else could join the fray?

One prospect is John Ziesenhenne, a former councilman whose name has been bandied about by City Hall observers. He has downplayed the rumors, but stopped short of a definitive answer.

“I’ve been out of politics since 1993 and I have a pretty full agenda. So right now, today, no, I’m not running,” Zisenhenne said.

Then there’s the most enigmatic potential candidate of all: Rodney Alamo Brown. He has a Facebook page touting his run for mayor as a pro-business candidate who is very critical of McLaughlin.

Beyond that, he is something of a mystery – officials in the City Clerk’s Office said Monday that no candidate other than McLaughlin has filed papers.

“No one’s seen him, no one’s heard from him,” said Jovanka Beckles, a City Council candidate. “I’ve never seen him anywhere.”

Should Bates run, he’ll have a mix of strengths and liabilities. He enjoys strong name-recognition, good rapport with the city’s sizable community of working-class African Americans, and a campaign chest flush with the support of corporations and local businesses.

“Nat has excellent qualifications and name recognition, so he would be a strong candidate,” said Lloyd Madden, president of the Black American Political Action Committee, which has supported Bates in past elections. “Whether he could win would depend on whether he can rally a cross section of support.”

Corky Booze, City Council candidate and one-time ally of Bates who now supports McLaughlin, predicted that Bates’ last hurrah will be a bitter defeat.

“Nat Bates is going to run and raise more money than anybody, and then he’ll have money left over for his next (council) campaign,” Booze said. “But I don’t think anybody can beat (McLaughlin).”

McLaughlin’s national status as a Green Party mayor has already drawn national figures like former Obama Administration official Anthony “Van” Jones and immigration activist Nativo Lopez to Richmond to stump on her behalf. Her partnership with the local Richmond Progressive Alliance should help her secure hundreds of door-to-door volunteers, a strong ground game that some say was the nudge that got her over-the-top in 2006.

But there is also quiet unease among McLaughlin’s supporters. In a city where the unemployment rate still hovers near 20 percent and new jobs are few and far between, the mayor’s battles with Chevron and opposition to a casino development at Point Molate are political tightropes. In 2006, McLaughlin upset incumbent Mayor Irma Anderson by a razor-thin margin, thanks in part to local banker Gary Bell, a Democrat who siphoned off many votes that would have likely gone to Anderson.

If he runs, Bates will have to contend with opponents’ characterizations of him as a tool of big business and as an aging, unsavory and ethically-challenged member of the old guard.

Bates, who turns 79 in September, was fined by the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission in 2005 for receiving unlawful contributions from Black Men and Women of Richmond, a local political action committee.

Some observers think his long history will hinder him in a race for mayor.

“He will never be mayor of this town,” said Rev. Kenneth Davis, a longtime resident and activist from North Richmond. “He will run, but this community has seen for too many years that he is only a friend to himself and Chevron, not to our communities.”

Madden disagrees.

“Bates’ long record of being good to business could strengthen his chances,” Madden said.

Bates may not be ready to declare a run, but he has no qualms about declaring McLaughlin a failed mayor.

“She is a total failure from my perspective,” Bates said. “She has failed to lead, failed to solidify the community, failed to unify the business community. She doesn’t understand her role as mayor.”

Ian A. Stewart contributed to this report.

3 Comments

  1. Michael

    I’ve only seen Nat Bates in action for a few years. I’m certain my elders could contribute better anecdotes. But so far the following is my favorite Bates story. During the 2008 election, Bates, who was running again for council, hired teenagers to knock on doors in the African-American community and ask, “Do you want an Obama sign for your lawn?” Most people answered yes and said, “You can put it on for me.” They then discovered that the sign showed Nat Bates’ face in a matching oval next to Obama’s face with the slogan, “Vote for Change.” Nat followed up that ruse in his stump speeches arguing that people should vote for him because of his experience, thirty years on the council, etc. and also because he stood for change. Can one have it both ways? In a genuine burst of cowardice, Nat refused to take a position on Measure T that would bring millions of sorely needed money to the city’s general fund mostly from Chevron, who happened to be a major Bates funder. The article makes it clear that Bates is a Chevron-hugger. I went door to door in support of Measure T, Dr. Ritterman, and Jovanka Beckles and not a single African-American voter to whom I spoke said she or he liked or respected Nat. It’s a miracle that he was re-elected. Curious?

  2. Dave

    In this day and age it’s “jobs stupid,” as Bill Clinton would say . Nat bates is about jobs .yes the mayor did try and shut Chevron down , including trying to block Chevron ships , but once the coast guard said they would be arrested , those plans were dropped. If you had to bet who would bring back the thousands jobs lost by stopping the upgrade project for Chevron , who would you bet on ?

  3. Richmond Raised

    It appears that there is a new candidate for the Mayor of Richmond, Gary Bell. I just googled him, read his platform and it seems rather impressive. You have to admit that the fact that Nat Bates and Gayle McLaughlin are on the same council demonstrates how divided and dysfunctional this city is. I personally feel the mayor lacks leadership and has a narrow focus on her own agenda, which isolates the larger community. I may not agree with Nat Bates’ manner which tends to derail city council members, but he was #2 in terms of re-election votes, so he cannot be under-estimated. Personally I feel neither one of them should be mayor and the city needs someone fresh, possibility more moderate. I do not know enough about Gary Bell to determine if I would support him, but I hope that the mayor race does not come down to Bates and McLaughlin. If this happens, the city is doomed.

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