Nat Bates, right, speaks to supporters during the opening of his campaign headquarters in Richmond on Saturday, Sept. 4, 2010 (Adithya Sambamurthy/The Bay Citizen)
Nathaniel Bates, a 78-year-old retired parole officer, has run unsuccessfully for mayor of Richmond three times. He kicked off his fourth campaign one recent afternoon by attacking the policies of the incumbent, the Green Party's Gayle McLaughlin.
"This mayor is for jobs, but only for green jobs," Bates, a Democrat who sits on Richmond's City Council, told supporters. "Well, my perspective is that I don't care if the job is green, purple, yellow or polka dot. A job is a job."
Richmond, with a population of 103,468, is the largest city in the country with a Green mayor. But with the city's unemployment rate near 20 percent, Bates is seen as a formidable candidate to unseat McLaughlin, whose environmental activism is suddenly viewed as a potential liability during hard economic times.
Bates's platform — jobs trump the environment — is playing out across California's political landscape, even in the Bay Area, a hub for the environmental movement. The November ballot contains Proposition 23, which would freeze the state's landmark global warming law, AB 32, barring a precipitous drop in the unemployment rate.
Carly Fiorina, the Republican candidate for Senate and a former chief executive of Hewlett Packard, came out in support of Proposition 23 this month, calling AB 32, a "jobs killer." Meg Whitman, the Republican candidate for governor and a former chief executive of eBay, has said that, if elected, she intends to suspend AB 32 for a year.
In Richmond, the debate revolves around a proposal to build a $1 billion, Las Vegas-style casino on San Francisco Bay. The developer, James D. Levine, contends the project will create 17,000 jobs. The casino's future rests on another November ballot measure before Richmond voters, and although the ballot measure is only advisory, its passage would greenlight the project.
McLaughlin strenuously opposes the casino, which would be built on a promontory known as Point Molate. "We most definitely need jobs and a good healthy development at Point Molate," she said in a telephone interview, "but a casino will not bring that. The evidence is overwhelming that casinos create more problems: crime, prostitution, theft, drug sales. We need the kind of development that will bring about a legacy for Richmond that we can be proud of."
Bates said in response that Richmond, which has the 12th-highest homicide rate in the state, already has those problems in abundance.
Bates, who is black and was first elected to the City Council in 1968, has tied his candidacy to the casino. He described the project as a class issue.
"A lot of the people who don't want this and don't want that, they're already secure in life," he said. "They're not concerned about jobs.
"We are the playground for the elitist people from the Berkeley Hills, from the Oakland Hills, from San Francisco. We want all these beautiful amenities that go with the elitist groups. But if I'm unemployed, I don't have a job, I don't have a way of even buying a McDonald's burger, then what the hell kind of life do I have?"
Regardless of its outcome, the casino debate has laid bare some awkward truths about Richmond. In 2008, the median income for white households here ($61,000) was roughly 50 percent higher than for blacks ($42,000). The city is essentially divided between outlying neighborhoods like Richmond Annex and Point Richmond — home to a mostly white population, including many recent transplants seeking relief from the Bay Area's dizzying real estate prices — and blacks and Hispanics spread across a gritty urban grid where most of the crime occurs.
McLaughlin, who is a white former schoolteacher and a native of Chicago, won a three-way race in 2006 by 242 votes against two black candidates: Irma Anderson, the incumbent mayor, and Gary Bell, a banker.
McLaughlin opposed a 2008 deal to import Japanese cars through the Port of Richmond, arguing that the increased traffic would pollute the bay. She also opposes a plan to retrofit the Point Richmond Chevron refinery to process heavy crude oil, arguing that it would damage the environment.
She has repeatedly clashed with Chevron, the city's largest employer, and spearheaded a campaign to extract more taxes out of it. In May, McLaughlin won a major victory when Chevron agreed to pay an additional $114 million to the city over the next 15 years. (Chevron has remained neutral on Proposition 23, which has received significant financing from out-of-state oil companies.)
At the same time, McLaughlin has transformed Richmond into the Bay Area's unlikely leader in solar power production, home to prominent start-ups like SunPrint and SunPower. Her efforts have drawn both praise and criticism — detractors have dubbed her Mayor Moonbeam, playing off the nickname once given to former Gov. Jerry Brown.
"We can't solve old problems with old solutions. We can't rely on these quick fixes," McLaughlin said about her opponents' vision for job growth. "Now we're poised to take advantage of the only growing sector in our economy. I have a new model for business."
A rendering of the proposed casino (Courtesy of Jim Levine)
McLaughlin and groups like Citizens for a Sustainable Point Molate are skeptical that the casino will produce thousands of jobs. They prefer a convention center for the site or a network of waterfront parks.
Bates said the most important consideration was that a casino would bring in new jobs — any new jobs — and generate approximately $20 million a year in taxes.
Bates's supporters point out that neither McLaughlin nor her staunchest ally on the Council, Jeff Ritterman, the chief of cardiology at Kaiser Richmond hospital, is a longtime resident of Richmond. In contrast, Bates came to Richmond with his mother in the 1940s when she worked as a coach cleaner on the Santa Fe Railroad.
In addition to McLaughlin and Bates, John Ziesenhenne — a former councilman and past president of the Richmond Chamber of Commerce — is running for mayor. Ziesenhenne is basing his campaign on job growth, too, but in an interview, he said he would not specify his position on the casino until after the election.
Several black political action committees are throwing their weight behind Bates. He also has the support of the local police, firefighter and trade unions. While the Chamber of Commerce endorsed Ziesenhenne last week, Bates has the support of many individual businesses.
Chevron is also rumored to back Bates, although the company has not given to any campaigns yet, according to the latest campaign filings. A company spokesman said Chevron would "put our support behind a candidate who supports Richmond's jobs."
Jason McDaniel, an assistant professor of political science at San Francisco State, said Bates's strong base among blacks and his longtime ties to labor might enable him to defeat McLaughlin. The mayor's Green Party status makes her more vulnerable, he said.
"If the mayor was a Democrat, I would expect her to be more formidable," he said. "I see her as being ripe to be defeated."
Compared to McLaughlin, Bates is a social conservative who grouses publicly about the mayor's refusal to cooperate with federal immigration authorities and the gay and lesbian street parades she has organized.
Bates, a former high school football star who looks younger than his 78 years, said he believed he often clashed with McLaughlin and other female officials because "a lot of them have never been participants in athletic programs."
He represents, perhaps, a throwback-style of politics that was on display during a recent drive through downtown to distribute campaign materials.
"The police are friendly with me. Who are they going to ticket?" Bates said as he drove briefly down the wrong direction of a one-way street. He parked his white pickup truck in front of a fire hydrant as he walked inside C.J.'s Barbeque & Fish shop to put up a campaign poster.
As he chatted in familiar tones with Charles Evans, the shop's long-time owner, Bates spoke of his disapproval of the mayor's emphasis on the environment.
"You can save this planet," Bates said. "But hell, if people don't have any work and jobs to sustain themselves, then what are you doing?"
This article also appears in the Bay Area edition of The New York Times.