In the summer of 1975, Richmond Councilman Nat Bates received a call from Ben Brown, a Democratic campaign organizer in Atlanta. Brown needed Bates’ support rallying African American voters behind his candidate, Jimmy Carter, a little known peanut farmer from Plains, Georgia who had just finished his term as governor and was seeking the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination.
Bates was split. Back in California, incumbent governor Jerry Brown was also running for the Democratic presidential ticket, and Richmond councilmembers were trying to secure funding for the San Rafael bridge extension from Governor Brown’s office in Sacramento.
“I said ‘Ben, you can’t be real, this country isn’t going to vote for no peanut farmer from Plains, Georgia,’” Bates said, chuckling while reclining his massive frame into his chair at the Richmond Civic Center, as if to recant his prediction. “Ben said, ‘Well, we think he can win.’ So I said, ‘Well, my governor Jerry Brown is running for president too, and I don’t wanna alienate him because we’ve got to go to Sacramento to try and get funding for the city of Richmond.’”
Following Carter’s surprise victory in the Iowa caucuses in 1976, Bates joined the Carter campaign and helped mobilize voters behind the Democratic candidate. As soon as Carter won the presidential election, Bates joined a team led by former Assemblymember John T. Knox to the White House, where they explained the need for funding to extend the San Rafael Bridge.
“The road from San Rafael stopped cars for such a long time that people would get out of their cars, go and buy a drink from a nearby store and come back to find traffic still stalled,” Bates said. “We walked away with 95 percent of the funding we needed for the San Rafael bridge extension and Sacramento gave us the other five percent.”
Bates, 80, is the only one among the 11 candidates running for office in Richmond who can recall service going back to the late 1960s — at which time he had already served a longer term on the council than most of the current members have in their current terms. This has enabled him to cultivate support within the business community, primarily with Chevron, which has been in Richmond since 1910.
Growing up as a professional Canadian baseball player in post-war America, Bates says the art of negotiation and teamwork has always been a key component of his personality, allowing him to deal with the socioeconomic complexities many had to contend with in his time.
Just as his baseball career was beginning to peak with the Medicine Hat Mohawks in 1951 and the Indian Head Rockets in 1952, Bates was drafted into the United States Army to serve in the South Korean theater, where he was assigned to the United States Army’s 24th Infantry Group.
“The war was beginning to fade away by the time I got to Seoul, and I was assigned to the headquarters of the infantry group because I played basketball and baseball,” Bates said. By the time he returned home after he was discharged in 1955, Bates realized that baseball was no longer sustainable. On his return, Bates began working by day and studying by night and obtained his bachelor’s degree from San Francisco State University.
Bates’ job as a counselor at the Alameda Juvenile Hall gave him an early initiation to public service, and he believes that the current members of the City Council can go beyond their differences and work collaboratively for both residents and investors. Having served on council intermittently since 1967, Bates is running on the promise of bringing jobs to Richmond, promoting business and holding the oil giant Chevron accountable.
“Many of the councils I have served on were a lot more professional and we stayed focused on business,” Bates said. “Everyone was really professional and we did not waste city resources.”
Now Bates finds himself disgruntled by some of the issues that council spends hours discussing, sometimes into the early hours of the morning. “We spend hours fighting over Mickey Mouse issues,” he said. “Who cares what the Richmond town council thinks about the flotilla in Gaza? Why should we spend time deciding what each party in that conflict should do?”
Bates launched his campaign this summer with yard signs that showed him alongside president Barack Obama and reading “Obama for President, Bates for Council.” This technique worked for him in 2008, when he capitalized on the euphoria generated by the Obama campaign. Asked why he aligned himself with Obama in the 2012 campaign, Bates said campaigns needed to be creative and innovative.
“I never said president Obama endorsed me,” he said. “We’re just having some fun and creating some energy. People like the idea and they keep the Obama/Bates yard signs as souvenirs.”
Bates’ campaign has also benefited particularly from Chevron. Bates has received the bulk of his campaign contributions for the election from Moving Forward, a committee funded by Chevron. Chevron has also spent at least $90,000 in independent expenditures through Moving Forward on Bates’ behalf. “My relationship with Chevron goes back a long time,” Bates said. “They are not the largest employer but we cannot ignore that they exist.”
Bates has been on council for seven terms since 1967. He took a hiatus from public office in 1989, before coming back in 1996 and has been on council ever since.
Inside the council chambers, Bates typically attempts to set himself up as the voice of reason, speaking infrequently and often, speaking last. Since the fire at the Chevron refinery in August, Bates has spoken against efforts to demonize the oil giant, saying Richmond is more likely to benefit out of a positive relationship with business.
Bates’ opponents in that debate have been the Richmond Progressive Alliance, and Bates has been critical of the RPA over the Chevron fire and what he says are attempts to force ideology on a city that doesn’t want it.
“There is a need for an elected council whose members are not part of cliques and organizations that dictate what should or should not occur in the City Council,” Bates said. “Unfortunately, we’ve got the Richmond Progressive Alliance, which I call Richmond plantation alliance. The reason I use plantation is because they started out manipulating the African American community, and now they have expanded their plantation style politics to the community at large.”
Bates has taken a strong stance against attempts to impose tax on sugar-sweetened beverages, Measure N, and the city’s plans to build bike paths.
“They’re going to tell the African American community and the Latino community what to do,” he said. “Richmond as a community is fair, equitable and intelligent, they can see when they are being used by people and I will not be surprised if the RPA candidates get dumped heavily in this election.”
With three weeks to go before the election, Bates sounds confident, and he has the largest war chest of any of the candidates — $60,000. But he acknowledges that this will not be the easiest election.
“I have been in politics long enough to know that there are people who won’t vote for you under any circumstances and I have die-hard supporters who will vote for me no matter what others say,” Bates said. “When the time comes when people say, ‘Nat, you’ve done a good job,’ so be it, I will accept it and thank them for my tenure in office.
“Life has been very good to me,” he added, as he prepared for yet another council meeting in a city where he’s served for half a century. “I’ve had good health. I have taken care of myself the best I can. I have no complaints.”