At 91, former sewer board director ousted over racist comments mounts a comeback – The Mercury News

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EL SOBRANTE — The Archie Bunker of Bay Area sewers is back.

Six years after voters kicked him out of office over racist remarks he made to this news organization, Leonard Battaglia wants to return to the Richmond-area wastewater board he sat on for 39 years. At 91, he may be the oldest candidate in the state on the Nov. 3 ballot.

A longtime El Sobrante resident and business owner, Battaglia represented the sewer district in obscurity until 2013, when he used a racial slur to describe Asian people and said his experience as an Air Force fighter pilot in the Korean War led him to believe that Black people “think slower.”

“I flew with Black pilots. I’d say ‘break’ (suddenly turn right or left) and they’d hesitate. They’d miss it because they think slower. They have an African-American mentality. They can’t help it. It’s the way God made them,” he said. “Like in Richmond. It’s a mess.”

Those comments — printed in a front-page story that detailed his pay and benefits as a sewer district member, which made him one of the highest-paid part-time elected officials in the region — created a firestorm. Residents of Richmond, one of the Bay Area’s most diverse cities, demanded he step down, comparing him to the “All In The Family” patriarch known for his racist rants. Local officials called for his resignation and passed a resolution demanding Battaglia to “rethink” the statements.

His own sewer board, powerless to remove him from office, unanimously voted to censure him.

Battaglia conceded at the time that his comments were “out of line and insensitive” and “showed a serious lack of judgment”  but refused to resign. Voters cast him out at the ballot box in 2014 and elected Black candidates to fill two of the West Contra Costa Wastewater District’s three open seats.

In an interview this week, Battaglia — who faces incumbent Harry Wiener in the newly-created District 4 — defended his 2013 remarks, and also insisted he is not “prejudiced.”

“I have nothing to do about being prejudiced,” he said. “I don’t believe that crap. I was born and raised in Reno and we didn’t have any minorities in my town. All we had was the Indians.”

His attempted comeback coincides with the sewer district’s shift from at large to district elections, to comply with the California Voting Rights Act. The move — part of a statewide push to add racial diversity to local elected bodies — could paradoxically work to Battaglia’s advantage, putting his well-known name in front of a narrower group of voters than those who ousted him six years ago.

In that race, which was decided by residents throughout the district serving Richmond, San Pablo and parts of unincorporated West Contra Costa, Battaglia finished sixth out of eight candidates. This year, with the sewer district divided into five sections, he is only running in East Richmond Heights and El Sobrante — Battaglia’s home turf.

Contra Costa Supervisor John Gioia, who represents West Contra Costa, said Battaglia’s “racist comments do not represent our community’s values.”

“That’s why voters rejected him in 2014,” Gioia said. “I’m confident voters will again reject those beliefs in this election.”

In District 4, Battaglia is something of a household name, where for years he ran Rancho Sports Bar, as well as a travel agency and other businesses in El Sobrante. His name has appeared on local ballots since the 1970s — which helps explain why, for better or worse, he is running mostly on name recognition in his 2020 bid, and has pledged to lower rates, which have reached $598 for single-family residents.

“I’m not campaigning that much. Everybody knows me,” he said. “I know the district by heart. I hope I can beat him by using my record of qualifications.”

West Contra Costa Wastewater District board director Harry Wiener 

By contrast, Wiener, his opponent, moved to District 4 about five years ago, just before he won his first term in the sewer district board in 2016. “I’m running in Mr. Battalgia’s home town and I’m a resident that has come from elsewhere,” Wiener, 72, said. “That’s my concern about this race.”

Wiener expressed frustration that the California Voting Rights Act, which was intended to ensure communities of color are better represented in local elections, could have the unintended consequence of reseating Battaglia, who he called “a man of the past.”

“He has completely old ideas regarding people,” Wiener said in an interview. “He should not be heading a community organization. The sewer district is critical to having a community, and benefits the community in so many ways, to have somebody whose view of people is so terrible is counter to what is going on in the world today.”

Wiener is running on a progressive platform to continue the agency’s goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and protect the district treatment plant and surrounding neighborhoods from sea-level rise. He defended the district’s current rates —  saying the district is using the money to replace outdated pipelines and upgrade infrastructure. “Rates were raised prior to the board that I sit on, but with good reason,” he said.

Battaglia — who in 2012 earned $50,332 in compensation for attending 85 hours of meetings, or about $592 an hour — says he also wants to slash salaries and benefits, and lower rates. Spending, he said, has gotten out of control.

“It makes me sick to my stomach,” he said.

But at 91 years old, he said he doesn’t have time to worry about election results: “If I get it, if I don’t, I’m still happy with my life.”



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