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.
"But I left office before the report ever came out. Did the language even stay in the bill? I know Hunter would have liked to get it out. Maybe it did and [the military] just let it go and never said anything. They do that a lot. I don't know if you noticed in my papers, but earlier I did work on waste, fraud, and abuse of the military, particularly at Miramar. So I dealt with them a great deal on reports and other stuff, and they'd never answer anything straight."
By 1990, another proposal to move San Diego's airport was on the table. City councilmen Ron Roberts and Bob Filner, the previous year, had encouraged the city to study a "binational" airport on Otay Mesa. It was to involve Brown Field and Tijuana's Rodríguez Field. San Diego County congressmen Bill Lowery and Ron Packard supported the idea.
In late summer 1989, Bates held hearings in the South Bay to get community input on an Otay binational airport. A year later he was speaking against it. On August 17, 1990, he flew to Mexico City to meet with the Mexican secretary of communication and transportation. Upon his return, his office in Washington put out a press release announcing that the Mexican government had no interest in cooperating with the United States on a binational airport.
"You went to Mexico City," I say, "to see if there was any support in the Mexican government for the binational airport."
"To make sure there was no support," Bates replies with a laugh. "Sometimes whoever gets to someone first [prevails]."
"Did you think there might have been some support for it?"
"No, they didn't want it. There was some cheap talk, like, 'Well, let's discuss it.' But there was no serious effort, nor would there be, because it doesn't make sense. I think Rodríguez Field will grow, though.
"The binational airport would have been much more difficult than Miramar dual use. For one thing, you've got the Otay Mountain. For another, you have an international border. Something else that is often overlooked is the location. In real estate, they say 'location, location, location.' Well, the south doesn't serve [the rest of the county].
"It's almost as bad as Filner's folly -- I call it Filner's folly -- and that's the $800,000 that he earmarked in the dead of night. I think it's disgraceful to study a bullet train and an airport at Imperial County; it's just absurd. But that was part of his campaign strategy to win the vote in Imperial County against Vargas [in this spring's primaries]. And Vargas, to his discredit, supported it too, because the people over there wanted it. Of course, I don't subscribe to voting what people want. I think you're elected to use your judgment, and you vote your conscience. If everybody in the country is for slavery, that's too bad; it's wrong, and I'm going against it. And I think the same thing is true with the airport plan. Imperial County is a terrible location for San Diego's airport. You want to be in the center of where you're drawing from."
Along the same lines, Bates believes that if the airport is built too far south, many people in North County would fly out of Orange County's John Wayne Airport. And if it turns up much farther north than Miramar, people in South Bay would use Rodríguez Field.
"So I don't think the airport study, the consultants, did a particularly good job; they did an adequate job. But to study those far-removed locations is absurd.
"And here's a point I want to make. I requested that the Navy do a study. What's happened since then? The Navy isn't there. But the Navy said they could never give up Miramar. That's what they said, over and over and over. It would threaten national security. And that's the same mantra the Marines are reciting now. I was a Marine, and they're part of the Navy, but I think quite distinct from the Navy.
"But the [contention] is going to be [made] now by the Marines, of course, that Miramar is vital to national defense and the war on terror. And it's not. When you get these facts out -- that the Navy said they'd never give Miramar up, but they did -- that bursts that bubble a little."
I ask about the noise factor at Miramar.
"If the runways are aligned right -- we may tweak them a little from what they are now -- then there's not much noise impact," says Bates. "See, part of the noise impact by the Marines now is because they don't use the flight patterns and stick to the corridor. They go over the homes to save gas. But that creates noise and bad relations."
"Could they be making excessive noise now on purpose, to make a point?"
"I think they do. I contend -- can't prove it; they can't prove otherwise -- that they deliberately create noise in order to keep the residents riled that joint [civilian/military] use would be even worse.
"Everyone used to run scared of North Park because that was a big block of votes in the city, when the city was smaller. And now everyone runs scared of Scripps Ranch, because that's a block of wealthy contributors and influential people in the city.
"And here's the other thing. The airport could have been put at East Elliott, Camp Elliott. There's no noise impact. But [San Diego County Regional Airport Authority's] Thella Bowens had the consultants turn the runway so there would be noise. So that knocked it out. But all that stuff is so manipulated. Pardee [Homes, out of Los Angeles] wants to build homes at East Elliott. They've been buying up the land. And nobody ever brings that out. No reporters ever bring it out. I don't know why."
Bates thinks it is the Marines who should be removed from central San Diego, not the civilian airport. "In fact," he says, "Imperial County would be ideal for the Marines and the helicopters and the jet fighters, because they'd be close enough to the coast but far enough away that they wouldn't be impacting the urban area. Because the danger of a fighter flight-training crash is greater than a crash from a commercial airline. That's just statistically the case. But nobody ever brings those facts out. Now, if Filner had any savvy, he would work to move Miramar to Imperial County."
In the papers at SDSU, I found a 1990 Congressional Quarterly profile of Bates that characterized him, in part, as having soured on the military after the Vietnam War. Bates seems to dismiss the idea but then goes on to say that "we spend way too much money on the military. I know that's [controversial here], because San Diego is a military town. But see, in America, image is more important than substance. So you put a lot of money in the defense budget and you think you're defending the country, you're stronger. But you've got to be smarter. It's like going into Iraq. We created more terrorism, not less, by doing that. I think the whole Iraq War was another attempt to build up the defense budget, because after the Cold War, the budget started going down, down, down.
"I was attacked by the media relentlessly most of my career. Is that article you refer to," he asks me, "the one where they said I wasn't living up to my potential and was hard on staff?"
"Yes," I say, "but I read the article's main complaint to be that you were erratic and unpredictable."
"I'm a maverick, an independent," Bates replies. "I don't really go for the party stuff. You have these backbenchers, members that have been there for a long time, and you're not playing ball with them, so it's the same old story: kill the messenger if you don't like the message."
I ask Bates if he thinks the Congressional Quarterly reporter was writing from a particular bias.
"No, the writer talked to somebody like Vic Fazio," he says, "or one of the other old Democrats who couldn't get me to go along. See, the reporters don't know anything. They go to one of the older members and say, 'What do you think of Jim Bates?' 'Oh, he's unpredictable.' Because that's their experience. I was unpredictable in that I wouldn't go along with the party line. They couldn't count on me to go along, in lockstep, with what I thought were abuses of power. That's because they were wrong," says Bates, laughing. "I think I was ahead of my time. And I was glad the Democrats lost in '94."
I am anxious to hear Bates's current thoughts about the 1985 military procurement scandal he was instrumental in exposing. The SDSU collection of his papers shows that, following whistleblower reports, he sent dozens of letters seeking a full-scale investigation to high-level Pentagon officials, including then secretary of the Navy John Lehman and secretary of defense Caspar Weinberger. To Jack Brooks, chairman of the House Committee on Government Operations, Bates wrote on June 18, 1985, about "procurement problems originating from Naval Air Station Miramar." In the letter, he mentioned ashtray overpricing and other problems involving the Navy's purchase of trash cans and decorative trees. He attached a three-page typed statement written by whistleblower Verna Millard.
"In the late 1970s," wrote a retiring Millard, who says she began working at Miramar in 1972, "I noticed items furnished by the Grumman [Aerospace Corporation] began to escalate at a rapid rate. Items such as gaskets, connectors, small metal fasteners...were being purchased at prices far above their obvious value. When I saw the ashtrays at $659 each, I questioned the price as far as I was allowed to go through the civilian chain of command. I did this same thing with the socket wrenches and many, many other items. Apparently nothing was done. After you continually bring these matters to the attention of your supervisors, and nothing is done, you eventually cease to come forward."
Among the Bates papers, a folder labeled "Verna Millard" contains nothing but requisition forms itemizing various purchases. One form shows a purchase of two socket wrenches for $404.23 each. Two other forms show different ashtray prices, one for $659 and another for $900.
Either his memory is inaccurate or there was a third ashtray price, for Bates tells me he remembers "that $800 ashtray. But it was everything, really. Let's say the G6-32 washer. Oh, my gosh, what is that? Well, it's a little washer that goes on the G36 bolt, and they were getting $50 for one that you could get at the hardware store for ten cents. And there was a coffeemaker that was, like, $12,000. And the reason was that it was specially designed.
"Part of the problem was the specs. See, everybody's feeding off the [whole process]. The specs, they'd be written by someone [who would] make it a unique bolt. Instead of making it the standard size, they'd add one-nineteenth of an inch. So it had no appreciable [variation], but it was a little different. Because it was a little different, they had to do just a little different die and cast. They couldn't run it in with the billions they were doing for the dime stores. That kind of thing. But that was all by design.
"So once we got into it, it was never-ending. It was like quicksand. You'd say, 'Well, these bolts, what about the springs?' And what they were paying was 600 percent increases, in some instances. I said, 'Why?' And they wouldn't answer. So I'd go public with it.
"Machiavelli said when you're ahead, contain. When you're behind, which I was, expand. You have to expand the arena. Expand the balance of power by bringing in new participants, the public. And the media, they liked it, because it was something to write about.
"And you know why I got into the spare parts and the little stuff? I couldn't understand the big contracts. They were too big for me -- multimillion-dollar contracts -- so I just had a hunch, or a whistleblower would bring me something. And once I got started, I was relentless. I just kept going, and everybody else was saying, 'Hey, you're committing suicide. This is a military town.' But it was wrong. What they were paying for things like plastic plants was absurd. Something you could get at a dime store for five bucks.
"Grumman was at Miramar. It was like General Motors and planned obsolescence; it became a way of life. You want to make some money, get a government contract for spare parts, charge whatever you want, nobody says anything, nobody does anything. It became a little piggy trough. It was a culture of waste.
"And nobody would do what I did. But even though the public was listening, people were against me. 'Yeah, you did the right thing. Of course, we're not for waste, but why are you so antimilitary?' "
I ask Bates what caused him to lose the 1990 election that ended his political career. He did run once more in 1992, but in the primaries, he came in third behind Bob Filner, who has remained in office since his win that fall.
"When you're controversial," Bates tells me, "you get a race. And, among other things, I created a lot of controversy in 1986 when I was one of the early supporters of a Palestinian state. So they were gunning for me. And Hunter raised all the money for Cunningham and got Cunningham to beat me.
"You can't beat somebody with nobody, but they had a somebody, because Cunningham was a war hero [with Top Gun fame]. And then all these other factors came into the picture, an anti-incumbent year, sexual harassment, a bloody primary, being held in session for the budget till right before the election and not being able to campaign or be on top of things, my political consultant not using the right TV spot; there were just too many things for me to remain, plus I was burned out after 20 years of elective office."
Bates is sensitive about the 1988 sexual-harassment charges, which didn't affect him politically until the 1990 elections.
"Yes," he admits, "I notice a pretty woman and I'm naturally flirtatious. All I did was to say, 'I'd like to be with you on a desert island.' And the press ran cartoons of me grabbing a woman's butt. Of course, Cunningham used it to smear me, though I don't believe that was the decisive issue.
"A funny thing did happen three weeks before the election. There was a guy named Ed Rollins, a consultant for the Republicans that year, and he came to me with a poll that showed I was in trouble. He said, 'I'm coming to you before Hunter or the committee gets the poll -- or Cunningham -- and I'll give you a week to pull out of it.' He did that because he respected me. In the primary, Cunningham had made some slurs about Arab-Americans, and I didn't use that against him in the general election, and Rollins thought that was good. And he kind of liked me. I remember walking back with him from the House. I thought it was neat that the opposition would come and [give me a heads-up].
"So I did my own poll, and it showed I was facing an anti-incumbent year and that this anti-incumbent factor was the thing that was hurting me. So we made a TV spot to counter that and dropped a different one of me coming down the House steps, which is so 'incumbent.' But my political consultant didn't switch the spots. I'll never understand that."
I ask Bates how he took losing.
"I was a big baby," he says. "Everybody loses in life. It's not the end of the world, and it shouldn't take you ten years to get over it. But it did. I slunk away to Idaho, because I got a bad deal. Well, life isn't personal and it isn't fair. And you take it for what it is and go on."
"Did you go into a depression?"
"Well, close. It was more a physical thing. It was like someone took a razor blade and cut your back open, and that raw pain was there, always. But, come on, Juan Vargas lost to Filner. He took it like a man, and he's moving on and doing something else. And you know, other people don't see it the way you do, like you're the only one who ever ran and lost.
"Things are finally better. I took it way too hard." Nevertheless, says Bates, "The worst thing I ever did in my political career was losing to Duke Cunningham."