“Nat Bates For Mayor:” A Richmond Pol’s Last Hurrah With Major Funding From Chevron

by on March 29, 2016

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The city of Richmond’s next municipal voting is less than eight months away.  But memories of our last election—one of the most expensive in history– remain fresh in the minds of many participants. For Refinery Town residents whose recollections are fading, we now have a fascinating 90-minute video history of that campaign. Entitled Nate Bates for Mayor, it provides a timely reminder of the stakes involved in a key local battle against big money in politics that resonated nationally.

To watch the trailer or the whole film, go to: www.natbatesformayormovie.com

Most political videography (like The War Room) is about winners, rather than losers. So how does the business-backed runner-up in Richmond’s 2014 mayoral race get top billing in this movie? Film-makers Eric Weiss and Bradley Berman were clearly drawn to 84-year old city councilor Nat Bates, because of his deep roots in the African-American community and their sense that his campaign represented a Richmond version of The Last Hurrah.

In Hollywood’s 1958 version of Edwin O’Connor’s novel, a rascally Irish-American pol (played by Spencer Tracy) tries to win a big city mayoral race by playing on old ethnic divisions. In that Last Hurrah, the local political landscape has changed making Tracy’s character, Frank Skeffington, a sad anachronism, and, ultimately, the election loser. Both the book and the film offer quite a tutorial in “retail politics,” as traditionally practiced, which Nate Bates for Mayor does too. But Weiss and Berman’s documentary also shows what a modern-day election campaign looks like, in our post-Citizens United era of unlimited political spending by major corporations and the wealthy.

Using extensive personal interviews and revealing local footage, Nat Bates for Mayor traces the rise and fall of a mayoral candidate backed by Richmond’s largest employer, Chevron, its local union allies, African-American ministers, and older black voters concerned about their loss of community clout, due to Richmond’s changing ethnic and racial demographics.

A Korean War veteran and former parole officer, Nat Bates’ mission, after 35 years on the city council, was to liberate his hometown from the anti-Chevron “socialists” in the Richmond Progressive Alliance. “I call them the Richmond Plantation Alliance, “ he explains in the film. “They operate from a framework and a philosophy pretty much like a slave-owner in the sense that they always know what’s best for you—and not just for the African-American community but for the total city.”

Bates’ actual opponent in Richmond’s three-way race for mayor in 2014 was Tom Butt, a local architect and liberal Democrat who does not belong to the RPA.  According to Bates, his longtime adversary on the city council—now our mayor– is just a “slime-ball,” whose “constituency is primarily elitist Caucasians in Point Richmond” (a neighborhood where Bates lives as well, although he fails to mention on the campaign trail or in the movie).

Nat Bates for Mayor captures the defining moment of a campaign old-fashioned in many ways but hyper-modern because of its indirect business financing.  Surrounded by friends, family, labor and business supporters at his kick-off rally at Salute, an upscale restaurant in Marina Bay, Bates declares that “any candidate running for public office who would refuse Chevron’s support is a damn fool!”

Not coincidentally, no one was asked to make a personal donation at this gala event. Yet Moving Forward—Chevron’s political action committee—was already working, at great cost, on Bates’ behalf.  Intent on winning both the mayor’s office and a council majority, Moving Forward found three council candidates who were not “damn fools” either. Chevron’s high-powered political consulting firm, Whitehurst/Mosher in San Francisco, got busy marketing the Bates slate as saviors of the city.

In the film, we see graphic evidence of what “independent spending” totaling more than $3 million can buy.  Paid advertising for Bates & Co. pops up all over Richmond. The city’s 43,000 registered voters are deluged with radio and TV messages and glossy direct mailings to their homes. In addition to extolling the virtues of Bates, Moving Forward propaganda demonizes RPA candidates, including incumbent mayor Gayle McLaughlin, who is termed out and running for city council. As the camera scans Richmond’s new urban forest of billboards–erected with “major funding from Chevron,” as their smaller print discloses–Bates explains in a voice-over how Big Oil kept its required election law distance from lucky folks like himself.

“I don’t have any contact with Chevron…I didn’t know what kind of billboards they were going to put up, when they were going up, the location…I didn’t know the amount of literature they’re putting out. I don’t know the content of the literature. That’s illegal.”

Even Bernie Sanders, now the nation’s foremost critic of big money in politics, seems taken aback by the scale of Chevron spending on Bates’ behalf. Bernie makes a cameo appearance in the film, shot during his October, 2014 visit to Richmond.  He endorses Butt for mayor, along with McLaughlin, Eduardo Martinez, and Jovanka Beckles for city council. Then he tells a crowd of their supporters: “You are at ground zero….You beat them here and people will say, ‘they did it in Richmond and we can do it all over America.’”

At Richmond events not far away, Bates assures his backers that “we’re running the strongest campaign I’ve run in my life” and there’s “no way in the world we can lose this election.” Thanks to Butt’s ability to mobilize his longtime base and the RPA’s unusual organizational capacities, Bates is singing a different tune on election night. In the film’s final scene, he addresses a dwindling crowd at his campaign headquarters.

The mood is glum, of course. In a weary post-mortem that mixes personal denial and some political insight, Bates acknowledges Butt’s victory and the RPA’s “complete sweep.” With a straight face, he says that “we ran a clean campaign.”

“We did not attack anyone. We kept to the issues…Unfortunately, there might have been some repercussions about too much literature. And that literature really turned off a lot of people and I think what they were saying is ‘We’re not going to vote for anybody that Chevron is supporting.’…Because everyone that Chevron supported wasn’t successful.”

For a forthcoming book about Richmond politics, I recently queried Chevron spokesperson Leah Casey about the company’s plans for this year’s city council races. (Three Richmond incumbents, including Nat Bates, face likely challenges from RPA candidates and other opponents.)  Given Chevron’s lack of success in 2014, and the backlash against its “independent” spending then, will Big Oil behave differently now? According to Casey, her employer has not yet “defined how or if we will participate in the local Richmond elections.” She assured me that the company’s electoral participation would be “fully transparent,” whatever form it takes.

Bates has yet to announce his own plans but is expected to seek re-election. He did not respond, by Beyond Chron deadline, to an email query about his willingness to risk further “repercussions” at the polls due to his Chevron sponsorship, which is decades old. If rent control in Richmond makes it onto the ballot in November, the California Apartment Association may be this year’s biggest non-Chevron spender, just as the American Beverage Association was four years ago (when a Richmond soda tax was defeated after total 2012 campaign expenditures of $3.7 million by Big Oil and Big Soda). So far, Bates and Butt have been on the same side on rent control—both are opposed to it.

One thing is certain. Without campaign finance reform of the sort advocated by Bernie Sanders in his current presidential campaign, there’ll be no last hurrah for big money in politics, in Richmond or anywhere else, anytime soon.

(Steve Early is a Richmond resident, Richmond Progressive Alliance member, and the author of Refinery Town: Big Oil, Big Money, and The Remaking of an American City, to be published next winter by Beacon Press. He can be reached at Lsupport@aol.com)

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Steve Early

Steve Early is a longtime labor journalist and author of Save Our Unions: Dispatches from a Movement in Distress (Monthly Review Press, 2013), The Civil Wars in U.S. Labor (Haymarket Books, 2011) and Embedded With Organized Labor (MRP, 2009)

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