By Mike Kinney
Typically, former mayors who turn 90 years old are long retired from politics. That’s hardly the case for Nathanial Bates, who became a pioneer for African Americans in politics when the Civil Rights movement inspired his candidacy and election to Richmond City Council in 1967. Bates, who served two terms as the city’s mayor in the 1970s, is still quite busy serving in his ninth term on the Council. He is said to be the nation’s oldest elected public official currently holding office. And while he may be the oldest, attendees of one of two birthday parties held in his honor last month say he can still lead a Soul Train line.
Bates celebrated his 90th birthday on Sept. 9. His daughter Gale Bates Anderson, sons Larry and Steven Bates along with granddaughter Rolanda Anderson joined forces in hosting two parties in his honor in Oakland and Vallejo. The first gala brought 100 people to Scott’s Seafood Restaurant in Jack London Square, where the keynote speaker was former California Assembly Speaker and former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, a fellow legend in politics. Another party was held two days later at Vino Godfather Winery on Mare Island in Vallejo.
During his speech, Brown touted Bates as a trailblazer in politics. Brown recalled a moment when an African American student in San Francisco had “quizzed him” on how to make politics a career. “I said you need to talk to Nat Bates,” said Brown. “That is a great politician of the ultimate order. A hall of famer, frankly, in every way.”
Bates continues to deliver his distinctive grassroots advocacy for Richmond residents with a long-standing, unapologetic focus on fiscal responsibility in city government, improving quality of life issues and business attraction. While City Council tends toward broad city policy and issues, Bates does not forget to inform city staff about a tree needing care in front of the senior center on Nevin Avenue, or a pile of illegally dumped items he drove past on 23rd Street. He brought both matters up at Council this past Tuesday, Sept. 28.
“I don’t know if you are aware of it,” Bates said at the meeting, “We call ourselves [the City of] Pride and Purpose. [City employees] ought to be observant and report trash and debris that need to be cleaned up.”
Bates has been around the block when it comes to politics, but the blocks of Richmond are what matter to him most. Born in a rural farm town in Cason, Texas, Bates came to Richmond at age 11 on the Santa Fe train. His mother was an employee with Santa Fe. Bates has since lived and worked his entire life in Richmond. He attended Nystrom Elementary, Longfellow Junior High, Harry Ellis Junior High and El Cerrito High, where he graduated in 1950. After attending Contra Costa College for two years, he graduated from San Francisco State University and has a teaching credential from California State University-East Bay.
Bates also holds distinctions as a disabled veteran of the Korean War and as professional baseball player in Canada for two years. In 1958, he began working at the Alameda county Probation Department, rising up the ranks from Group Counselor to young offenders to Administrative Supervisor in 1989. He then served as Field Representative to California State Senator Dan Boatwright.
A wide variety of political appointments, especially in service to the National League of Cities Board of Directors, had Bates working “directly or indirectly with eleven [U.S.] presidents,” according to his city bio. Along with his work with President Jimmy Carter to provide significant funding for the John Knox Freeway, Bates helped bring to Richmond the Hilltop Shopping Center, Target and the Pacific East Mall and takes pride in bringing upscale housing to various parts of the city, adding tax revenue to city coffers.
A wide range of past and current elected officials wished Bates a happy birthday with congratulatory letters and resolutions. Notices and recognition came from President Carter, Congressmember Mark DeSaulnier, California State Assembly Sen. Nancy Skinner, Contra Costa Supervisor John Gioia, Richmond Mayor Tom Butt and Oakland NAACP president George Holland.
“Nat is an extraordinary person,” said Mayor Butt, also a longstanding City Council member who served with Bates for about 25 years. “I have noticed the longer he keeps serving on the Council the younger he looks!”
Bates expressed gratitude for the recognition and for his family for organizing the parties. He also thanked former lead singer with Tower of Power Lenny Williams and his wife Deborah for attending the party in Vallejo. And he gave all credit to God “for his longevity, excellent health, financial security” and loyal friends and voters who supported his four generations as an elected public servant.
“I feel I am the luckiest man on the face of this Earth,” Bates said, quoting baseball legend Lou Gehrig.