28 Oct Q&A: In His ‘Last Rodeo, Win or Lose’ Nat Bates Considers His Legacy
Nat Bates, 91, has spent decades in Richmond city government, and he wants to keep going. He wants to be mayor again. (Jonathan Hale / Richmond Pulse)
Interview, Jonathan Hale
Editor’s note: Richmond City Council member Nat Bates is running to reclaim his seat as mayor, a position he last held in 1977. Bates, 91, spoke with the Pulse about why he wants to remain in city government and his plans to teach young people about politics. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Richmond Pulse: You’re among the oldest elected officials in the nation. Why run for mayor again, having already been mayor? Why not take the role of the elder statesman or advisor?
Nat Bates: Having been on the council for almost five decades, in my opinion, Richmond is in a crisis situation. There’s so much dysfunction. There is what I referred to as a socialist Richmond Progressive Alliance taking over this city, pitting individuals and landlords and tenants and a large segment of the business community against each other.
They put [forward] a Measure U tax that is devastating to the business community. We’ve got businesses looking to leave this city. We’ve got a rent control issue that could have been handled by the rent control board, but they put it on the ballot to galvanize their supporters to the polls. We have a serious police problem where the RPA reduced police staffing significantly. They use the defunding of the police to almost make our police totally ineffective. In every city, small or large, the No. 1 priority is public safety.
RP: If you were elected mayor, what would you do to ensure that you’re able to work with members of the RPA to pass policy that’s constructive for the city of Richmond?
NB: Once the election is over, you begin to make the adjustment and select those you can work with.
There are some issues we’re never going to agree on, but there are a lot of issues that we will agree upon. So you maneuver and you work with people who are in opposition to you, but you pick out areas of mutual respect and concern. First is the budget.
You can’t spend money you don’t have. It’s like a family, to some degree. Priorities are first — you got to pay the rent; you got to pay your car note; you got to put food on the table. You can’t go on a vacation if you don’t have that kind of revenue. Same with a city government.
You got to get the revenue, and that’s why it’s critical to stop attacking businesses and forcing them out. If you kick around your businesses … they’re going to leave.
This Measure U tax is putting the auto industry’s sales and Hilltop in a precarious position. Costco is probably the No. 1 or 2 strongest sales tax base in Richmond. That tax went from something like $15,000 to $400,000.
That’s a strong base of taxes. So you’ve got to work with the business community to try to make sure they are fairly paying their taxes, not just make a tax increase.
We got about five automobile dealerships up in Hilltop. That tax went from 5,000 to like 100-and-some thousand. Chevron pays a significant amount.
RP: How do you envision public safety in Richmond? And what would you do to address crime in the city?
NB: First, you’ve got to have personnel on the streets. Just the police driving around represent a deterrent. You see police, and someone maybe wants to get a converter from a car; they change their mind.
Second, when anyone is threatening your life or breaking into your home or putting you in jeopardy, you want a police officer. You want some someone to come and protect your life. If you don’t have that kind of manpower on the streets able to quickly respond, then your life and your family’s life is in jeopardy.
Same with the fire department. If you fall down the stairs or have a heart attack, you want that fireman there yesterday because it’s life threatening. When you reduce your personnel to the extent that you cannot adequately provide that coverage, you have serious problems.
Richmond is a huge city. When you don’t have patrolmen on the street in numbers, if something should happen, say in El Sobrante, it’d take them five, 10 minutes to get out there. You don’t want that. You want coverage as strong as you possibly can.
What I have become highly upset about is that the overwhelming majority of crime occurs in Black and Brown communities. We in our community are the most vulnerable. To ignore and deny the strong presence and protection of a community that is well deserving of protection is an insult.
I can’t put it any stronger. All the other services, they are important too. The library, the public works, the recreation centers, the swim centers, all are important.
RP: What would need to transpire in order for you to consider your term a success if you were elected mayor?
NB: I’ve accomplished a lot of things individually and also as a team. Much of it has been as a team, and that’s what politics and government is all about, working collectively as a team. I suspect this may be my last rodeo, win or lose.
If I’m successful, I hope to develop some kind of educational program for young people, if they’re interested in politics.
How would you go about doing it? Willie Brown has been probably the strongest mentor I’ve had. Willie used to hold a seminar, and he got foundations to put on his seminar. We would go to Chicago, usually, because it was centrally located and we would bring in maybe  or 400 African Americans.
They taught us how to fundraise, how to represent your constituency, how to get legislation passed, and more important, get involved in other state and local and national politics. That’s where the power’s at. A lot of time is not so much what you know; it’s who you know. I’ve been blessed to be associated with 11 presidents directly or indirectly, all sorts of governors, congressmen.
How you get things done is collaboration. We’ve got several individuals that now want to run for mayor. They’re not educated in terms of what the total responsibilities are. It’s more than sitting up there and chairing a meeting. You’ve got to know and understand, and you’ve got to have connections all over the state.
The idea is to educate young people. How do you do this? How do you campaign? How do you fundraise? How do you do phone banking? How do you do precinct work? Once they’re educated, then they’re in a position to give it a try.
You need to have kids and young people take the steps one by one. Then, eventually, you’ll have an opportunity to become mayor when you’re ready, when you’ve built up a constituency and so forth.
That’s what I would like to be able to do as mayor. The mayor’s position has a stature whereby people will listen to you. I can raise funds for a program like that. After four years, I think I’ve served this community as best as I could, and I will probably gladly step aside. But I want to step aside having someone capable, with some of the same integrity that I have, some of the same vision, to take my place if I’m elected mayor.