Racist Remarks Put Obscure Elected Official Under Spotlight

News Report,  Malcolm Marshall

Racist statements about African and Asian Americans made by West County Wastewater District director Leonard Battaglia, who was quoted in a news report, have led some Richmond city officials to call for his resignation.

Battaglia, 84, a former Korean War fighter pilot who has served as an elected official for three decades, made the statements to Bay Area News Group reporter Thomas Peele who published them in a recent article about the exorbitant salaries earned by some part-time elected officials.

According to Peele’s article, Battaglia said:

“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… Like in Richmond. It’s a mess.”

The article mentions that Battagglia made “racial slurs” against Asians, but did not go into detail.

Battaglia was also quoted by Peele as saying that he “is not a prejudiced person,” and that his constituents shouldn’t be offended because he is only saying “how things are.”

In response, Richmond councilmembers Jim Rogers, Jael Myrick and Jovanka Beckles issued a statement during Tuesday night’s council meeting to demand that Battaglia apologize for his remarks.

Rogers read the proclamation on behalf of the councilmembers, referring to Battaglia only as “the speaker.” “We call upon the speaker to rethink the assumptions that the remarks were based on,” said Rogers. “We’re not mentioning the name of the speaker because we wish to focus on the dangerous nature of the quoted remarks, not on attacking or name-calling against the speaker.”

Councilmember Beckles said the comments were reprehensible coming from an elected official who represents Richmond, a community that is largely comprised of people of color.

The West County Wastewater District constructs and maintains the sewer system for western Contra Costa County, and serves approximately 93,000 people.

“For him to make a statement like that scares me, quite frankly. It scares me because this is someone who’s supposed to be working on our behalf, and if he thinks that we are less than… I wonder, then, is he really working on our behalf.”

Battaglia had not returned phone calls made by The CC Pulse by the time this article was filed.

“My initial thought was [that] he should apologize, but on second thought I really believe he needs to be removed from office, however that (apology) looks,” said Beckles.  “I think the honorable thing for him to do would be to resign, but if he refuses to do that, then voters can… remember this and have him removed at the next opportunity.”

His term as board director expires December 2014, according to the agency’s website.

Councilmember Myrick said there is some urgency to resolving the matter, because the council still has to work with Battaglia and the West County Wastewater District.

“It is not acceptable for us to have somebody that we’re dealing with, representing this community, to blatantly and unapologetically be claiming that he believes that the majority of our community, and frankly the majority of our council, are less than, are biologically, predisposed to not being as intelligent as others,” said Myrick.

If he was misquoted, he needs to explain that.  If not, I agree with Council member Beckles that he needs to go. He needs to do it tomorrow.”

“It’s clearly out-and‑out racist,” said Richmond Mayor Gayle McLaughlin, “and I don’t think any elected official, regardless of the community they represent, should be holding that perspective.”

Many of those in the audience were hearing about Battaglia’s comments for the first time and some began to ask for the name of this public official, regarded to only as “speaker.” Someone eventually yelled out “Battaglia.”

After the three councilmembers spoke — councilmember Tom Butt said nothing on the matter, and councilmembers Boozé and Bates were absent from the meeting – audience members were given an opportunity to make public comments.

“He actually ran for the Board of Supervisors many years ago against Nancy Foden, but lost the race because his loose lips got him in trouble when he said that Nancy should not be running and she should go back into the kitchen where she belongs,” said Andres Soto, a Richmond resident. “So, he’s got a long record of this kind of… behavior.”

Vivien Feyer of the Richmond Human Rights Commission commended the council for acting quickly to address the issue.  “I think you made a powerful statement. Thank you for the effort to bring it as not so much an issue about one person, but about behavior that’s unacceptable.”

“He is what he is,” sad Richmond resident Jackie Thompson. “He’s a bigot, and he needs to be identified just as that. That’s Archie Bunker, that’s who that is. You have to put the cards on the table and call a spade a spade.”

“I know Leonard for over 25, 30 years,” said Mark Wassburg, a Richmond resident. “Leonard, he was an ex-pilot in Korea.  That’s why he’s kinda prejudiced against Asians.  He’s just a good ol’ boy.  He’s just like Archie Bunker.  I know Leonard and he’s just the type of guy… he’s just a hard headed white man.  That’s all he is, and he will say it again. It’s gonna be tough to get Leonard off of there (his elected seat), but you guys can do it.”

Others warned against rushing too quickly to judgment.

Pamela Hampton said it was important to not attack a person’s character without a full review of the facts. “I really was emotionally moved to hear [about the] racism. Those types of words are strong, but… I’m saying innocent until proven guilty, not guilty until proven innocent.”

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