A crowd had formed at Nat Bates’ campaign headquarters by the time polls closed Tuesday, but the Richmond mayoral candidate was nowhere in sight.
It was 8 p.m. and Bates hadn’t been spotted all day. Neither had his friend and political ally, Councilman Corky Booze, also facing a hard-fought contest for re-election.
The supporters, assembled at the repurposed storefront on Macdonald Avenue, were still buoyant, but tired. Members of the extended Bates clan mingled with anxious attendees as they nibbled on ribs and lasagna. But the specter of the candidates’ absence hung in the air as stamina waned.
At 10:30 p.m., Booze swung the door open and entered the scrum of onlookers. A few minutes later, Bates followed, a navy blazer draped loosely over a campaign t-shirt bearing a screen-print of his face.
Amidst applause and cheers of “We want Nat!” he cut a path to a cadre of Port of Richmond employees huddled in a far corner of the room. Lucy Zhou, the port’s operations manager, patted him on the back.
“Did you take a nap?” Zhou asked.
“Yes, I took a good nap,” Bates said.
Then the 83-year-old candidate turned to face his base, many of whom had endorsed his political campaigns running back several decades.
“Where are the ballots?” he joked. “Somebody stole ‘em?”
Preliminary results had, in fact, begun to trickle in and the numbers didn’t look good. Bates’ son, Larry, was using a purple marker to circle unreported precincts on a Richmond wall map, quietly calculating the chances of an upset.
“This is halftime and we need some points,” the younger Bates said.
“A number of the black precincts are usually the last to report,” his father hedged.
Flanking the Bates men were Richmond Port Director Jim Matzorkis (“I’m here as a citizen”), Rosa Lara, President of the 23rd Street Merchants Association, Richmond Police Department Lt. Andre Hill and Sgt. Joey Schlemmer.
Asked if he had regrets about his campaign, Bates said, “I’m still in love with this city.” He said: “There was just too much mail, and people became resentful. They turned against Chevron.”
“I wanted people to understand that just because [Chevron] support[s] me, I was never their puppy,” he added.
After hours of waiting, the game’s second half came to an abrupt and decisive end at 12:30 a.m., when the results from the final 26 precincts lit the single computer monitor displaying the County Board of Election’s website.
The campaigners abandoned the scraps of cold food still on their plates. Boys clad in gear from football practice hours earlier, stopped wrestling. Someone shut off Letterman.
Bates rose to his feet as Larry finished his reading of the tally, the last of several delivered with poise throughout the evening. With all precincts in, Bates trailed with 3,818 votes to competitor Tom Butt’s 5,537.
“It looks like the campaign is over and Butt is your new mayor,” Bates conceded. “Everyone that Chevron supported was unsuccessful.”
Through its campaign committee Moving Forward, the oil giant had spent a total of $3.13 million on the election.
In a low but steady tone, Bates thanked the people in the room for their support at the polls and throughout the campaign. He pointed to poor voter turnout for the day’s disappointment, a result of the electorate’s fatigue. “Too much literature…turned a lot of people off,” he said, referencing Chevron’s barrage of campaign billboards and mailers.
At polling stations around the city, the trickle of voters had often been dwarfed by large showings of campaign activists on nearby street corners. Shields-Reid Community Center near the North Richmond border had just 17 ballots cast by 5:30 p.m.
“The African-American community doesn’t turn out unless it’s a national election,” Bates said. “There was no Obama this year.”
The Richmond Progressive Alliance’s slate had swept the local races, claiming three open city council seats for outgoing mayor Gayle McLaughlin, incumbent Jovanka Beckles, and Eduardo Martinez. And the coalition would have license to appoint a replacement for Tom Butt’s council seat when he vacated it in December. Booze had lost to up-and-comer Jael Myrick, 5,153 to 3,266.
“Nobody steps up but you and I,” Booze said, gesturing across the room to where Bates stood amidst a cluster of seated supporters, arms folded, eyes on the floor, stoic and unblinking.
“We cannot save the African-American community if they don’t want to save themselves,” Booze said. About 11,000 Richmond residents voted in the mayoral race, less than one-fourth of the city’s registered. “This is a situation where they should have stepped up to the plate.”
“I lost, [but] the community loses too, because there’s no voice. I’m the last of the voice for the community,” Booze said. “This place is turning into Berkeley, big time.”
Outside on Macdonald Avenue, where the fluorescent Bates office lit the otherwise dark thoroughfare, honking cars sped by and unleashed boisterous cheers for Tom Butt, the new mayor of Richmond.