Nat Bates was elected for a record seventh time in 2008 and one of his campaign signs featured his face next to the face of another man looking to make history in the same election. This year, Bates’ reelection signs once again link him to the same man. A blue sign in the window of the West Contra Costa County United Democratic Campaign office shows Barack Obama, Nat Bates, and a message: “Let’s do it again.”
Jeff Ritterman was also elected in 2008, and while he is not running for reelection, he’s the sponsor and chief campaigner for Measure N (popularly know as the soda tax) – which has brought him into conflict with Bates. Ritterman has repeatedly encouraged voters to toss Bates off the council and he’s got his own idea about what the president might like. Just down the road from the Democratic campaign office, in the Richmond Progressive Alliance Headquarters, stacks of campaign literature in support of Measure N appeal to voters with the glossy photos of Michelle Obama.
While the infighting in the City Council has increased in recent months, the Obamas are still a popular unifier in the strong Democratic city. Whether it’s the First Lady’s image being used to promote the soda tax, or the president’s name with a City Council candidate’s, the strong national polarization around the Obamas is much different here.
“I think the overwhelming number of people will vote for Obama,” Councilmember Jeff Ritterman said. “I think that cuts through all the communities and social groups.”
The polarized national political scene doesn’t exist in Richmond. More than two-thirds of Richmond’s registered voters are Democrats and Mayor Gayle McLaughlin is one of only five Green Party mayors in the United States. Only 8.5 percent of Richmond voters are registered Republicans.
But the divisions here are just as sharp, name-calling and arguments just as tense – and the Obamas’ image can be recruited in support of both sides. On Sunday, former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown spoke at Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church about his opposition to Measure N – and his support for Obama.
Corky Booze’s council term doesn’t expire until 2014, but he’s been one of the most vocal opponents of Measure N and a supporter of Bates’ campaign – and he was happy to echo the words of the legendary former mayor.
“Willie Brown brought it home the other day when he said we have to take control of our own destiny,” Booze said. “President Barack Obama is trying to make (a change) and we in the community, not only the African American community, but people who are struggling, believe in Barack Obama.”
Ritterman volleyed right back with his own Obama connection. Ritterman said that Michelle Obama was featured in the campaign literature because, “First of all they have a young family,” he said. “We in Richmond need to focus on our children, and they have two young daughters who eat right and don’t have problems.”
In an interview with Men’s Health magazine, President Obama called a soda tax an “idea we should be exploring” and said “there’s no doubt that our kids drink way too much soda.”
But he also said he understood resistance to the idea on Capitol Hill and that “people’s attitude is that they don’t necessarily want Big Brother telling them what to eat or drink, and I understand that.”
Ritterman compared Obama’s first term in office and contentious relationship with Republicans to the Richmond Progressive Alliance’s battles with Bates and Booze. “Obama was being blocked by the party of no,” Ritterman said. “In Richmond we have our own party of no, who are Obama supporters, but they are on the local level.”
While Ritterman’s foes don’t control a majority of the council the way Obama’s do, the comparison nonetheless suggests that in Richmond, supporters and detractors of Measure N are just as fractured as Republicans and Democrats.