In March 1970, Tom Butt, fresh out of serving in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Vietnam, chose to be discharged there. He mainly wanted to visit Angkor Wat, an architectural wonder in nearby Cambodia. Butt then continued a long “odyssey” back to the United States through Southeast Asia, across the Trans-Siberian Railway in the former Soviet Union, and through Europe.
“The people you meet and the people you travel with are some of the things you remember the best,” Butt said. “It was just one of those things you do when you are young.”
His trip to Angkor Wat, and subsequent trip home, were also emblematic of two of his passions: architecture and nature. It’s almost 8,000 miles from Richmond City Hall to Angkor, Cambodia, but Butt says there’s more connection than you’d think – and that his ability to merge an interest in the human-built world with an appreciation for the natural makes him the most qualified candidate in this year’s City Council field.
“I think I am really unique because my record shows that you don’t have to pit environmental issues and quality of life issues against issues involving business and industry,” Butt said. “They are not inherently at odds and there is nobody on the council and no candidate that really sits in the position I sit in.”
Butt was born in Albuquerque, New Mexico in 1944. When he was less than a year old, he and his family moved to Fayetteville, Arkansas, where his family put down roots. His father was an Arkansas Chancery and Probate judge for 50 years and his mother was a librarian in the Fayetteville Public Library.
Butt’s love of architecture and nature was evident at an early age; he worked part time in architectural offices when he was in high school. He stayed in Arkansas to complete his undergraduate degree, graduating from the University of Arkansas with a bachelor of arts degree and a bachelor of architecture in 1967.
While at the university, Butt spent a summer with the U.S. Forest Service, then four more working as a student trainee architect for the National Park Service.
For Butt, working in the National Park Service was “the best job I have ever had in my life,” he said. “I got to spend one summer in San Francisco, two summers in Yellowstone and one summer in Hawaii.”
In 1971, Butt was married to his current wife Shirley and by 1973 he completed a master’s degree in architecture and urban design at UCLA.
After graduating from UCLA, Tom and Shirley moved to Richmond for its San Francisco Bay shoreline access at a lower cost than other Bay Area cities. That same year he also founded Interactive Resources, an architectural and engineering firm located in Point Richmond that he still serves as the president of to this day.
Butt also became active in the community. He was inspired by a group of women called the “little old ladies in tennis shoes,” who were community activists exhibiting “hardcore volunteerism” in the city, specifically their work with expanding public access to the shoreline in the city.
One of those women in particular, Lucretia Edwards, led him to become active in the Richmond community. Over the next 20 years he served a variety of roles, such as president of the Richmond Rotary Club and the Point Richmond Neighborhood Council, and participated in many efforts to restore Richmond’s shoreline.
His two decades of unofficial service left Butt at a crossroads. He decided that to have a voice in the future of the city, he needed to have a vote in the City Council. Butt felt connected with people on the council, and he felt they respected him for his expertise. Butt he then had a “rude awakening.”
“One day I woke up and I realized that none of them gave a damn,” Butt said. “They weren’t listening to me. They were listening to the people who were buying them and the people who were providing big money for their campaigns.”
So Butt ran for his own seat, and after losing in 1993, was elected in 1995. He’s been a member of the council ever since.
In those first years, Butt described the dynamic with the other councilmembers as “me against the world.”
Now his feelings are much different. Seventeen years after he was first elected to office, the 68-year-old leans back comfortably in his black leather chair in the Interactive Solutions conference room.
“The last couple of years have been particularly good,” Butt said. “I have had a supportive majority on the City Council that has supported almost if not everything that is important to me.”
As a current member of the council, and one of two incumbents running for re-election on Nov. 6, Butt has the advantage of already being identified by Richmond voters. When he first campaigned for election, Butt was much more active in walking precincts and using phone banks to reach potential voters.
He still has campaign mailers that he sends out to Richmond voters, but now he also uses his e-forum as a way to interact with his constituents. Butt regularly sends out emails about issues, articles and events that are important to him and he feels will interest his readers, and is able to increase his exposure to more Richmond residents. “That communication mechanism puts me in touch with thousands of people,” Butt said.
In one of his most recent e-forums, Butt laid out his opinions on state and local measures, including his support of Measure N.
Although he is not a member of the Richmond Progressive Alliance — “I have never been asked,” he says – Butt said he also appreciates not being strictly identified with one organization.
“I like to be independent,” he said. “I don’t want to be labeled with a group.”
But Butt agreed that he is generally “on the same wavelength” on a lot of issues with the RPA.
If re-elected, Butt hopes to continue the meshing of business and environmental issues for the next four years. It’s what he’s been interested in for more than forty years, and whether it’s a 12th-century Cambodian temple in the jungle or a 21st century oil refinery on the edge of the Bay, Butt says he thinks he’s got an appreciation for the two that keeps his approach fresh.
“I am living proof that there is an in-between,” Butt said. “I am right here and I understand it and I live it.”