Former congressman Jim Bates is telling me the story about the first vote he cast as an elected official. "It made me an enemy for life," he says. The previous fall, in 1970, both Bates and Maureen O'Connor (he was 29 and she was 25) had won seats on the San Diego City Council, the first time in elected office for each of them. Pete Wilson, who already had served five years in the California State Assembly, joined them on the council as a first-term mayor.
The city council vote, remembers Bates, was on a proposal to dig into a hill and build a 20-story building at the corner of Friars Road and Ulric Street in Mission Valley. The proposal had come from John Mabee, owner of the 30-store Big Bear market chain and future owner of celebrated thoroughbred Best Pal.
"I thought the project would create a parking nightmare and terrible traffic congestion," Bates continues, "and it just didn't seem right. But it passed eight to one. I was the only one to vote against it, and I said [to the council], 'This is the first time I've been here, and I don't know how everything works. But during the campaign, all I heard was how money was influencing [politics]. I don't know if that's the case here, but I don't understand this vote; it doesn't make sense to me. So, just for the record, I'd like to disclose how much money I received from John Mabee. Will anyone else disclose how much they received?'
"I said, 'Two hundred dollars he gave me.' Maureen O'Connor, $5000 -- there were no contribution limits in those days -- everyone else in the thousands, Pete Wilson, $25,000, some enormous figure. And Wilson said, 'The money didn't influence the vote at all, but you know, you raise some interesting points about the traffic. I think we need to look at this a little closer.' So the council reconsidered and voted again. The motion failed eight to one. It was a front-page story, my first vote as a city councilman. And John Mabee always hated me." (Mabee died in 2002.)
Bates has a habit of straying from the subject, and my interest on this day is the 1990 work he did in the U.S. House of Representatives on finding the most suitable location for a new San Diego airport. Recently, in five boxes of congressional papers Bates donated in December 1990 to San Diego State's Special Collections and University Archives, I discovered now-familiar airport battle lines. At the time of the gift, Bates was little more than a month beyond a bitter defeat by Randy "Duke" Cunningham that ended Bates's four-term stint in the House. Bates, a Democrat, served San Diego's then 44th Congressional District.
That summer, Bates had been making a case that the long-sought new location for San Diego's airport should be the Naval Air Station at Miramar. He managed, on July 31, 1990, to get language in a Defense Department authorization bill that required the Navy to produce a feasibility study on Miramar's becoming both a civilian and military airport.
An August 2 press release from Bates's office that can be read in the SDSU collection recounted what happened next. "In a stunning defeat, Congressman Duncan Hunter lost an effort on August 1 to derail a study initiated by Congressman Jim Bates that would examine the merits of a shared-use, military/civilian airport at Miramar.... Mr. Hunter offered an amendment to the Bates language that would have allowed the Navy to escape the mandate for the airport study by requiring that the [San Diego] County planning commission originate the request for the study."
The press release then noted that the Hunter measure failed in the House Armed Services Committee by a 26-to-25 margin. It closed by quoting Bates: "I know the Navy is reluctant to cooperate with the county on this concept of shared use, but the requirement for a study is a must when Congress, not the county, asks for it."
The San Diego Evening Tribune must have bitten on the release, because it ran an August 3 story titled " 'Hunter Tried to Kill Miramar-Airport Study,' Bates says." The article, saved in the SDSU collection, reported that Bates was characterizing Hunter's amendment as a pro-Cunningham tactic (denied by Hunter) for the upcoming election.
In light of current airport developments, I had called Bates to get his perspective on the episode. While in the House, Bates sponsored, among other bills, a stratospheric ozone protection amendment to the Clean Air Act. It was signed into law in 1990. Al Gore was the bill's Senate sponsor. But Bates got into trouble in 1988, when several women who worked in his congressional office complained that he made unwanted sexual advances toward them. Today he lives in Ramona, after having spent time during the 1990s farming in Idaho. ("I didn't know what I was doing," he says, "and lost $45,000 on the bean crop.") Bates currently is involved with a partner in several real estate developments in San Diego County.
We are eating lunch at Lido's restaurant in Lemon Grove. Bates, whose hair is thinner and lighter than it appears in photos from the 1980s, looks relaxed and in good humor. "Doing the land development, I can finally make some money," he tells me. "I didn't make any in Congress, since I never took bribes."
I broach the subject of his 1990 role in planning for San Diego's future airport. "How," I ask, "could you have gotten language in a bill requiring the Navy to do a Miramar report when you weren't on the House Armed Services Committee?"
"The only reason I was able to get that language in at all," he tells me, "was because the Democrats were in control of the Congress. And the chairman of Armed Services then was Les Aspin [later to become President Clinton's first secretary of defense], and I was one of his critical lieutenants who helped him, in the seniority system, jump over a number of people. It was simply access and influence that I was able to do it.