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Nat Bates. (Robert Rogers/Staff)

RICHMOND -- Despite saying when he declared his run for mayor last week that he didn't want to push a "negative" political campaign, candidate Tom Butt has floated the notion that a victory for his longtime rival could prompt an exodus of top-level managers from the city.

In a story this week in the San Francisco Chronicle, Butt said he worried that "some of our world-class management team would bail out" if Nat Bates, his main opponent, were elected mayor.

Butt stood by those comments in a telephone interview this week.

"I do think that," Butt said. "I want to be clear that I have not heard anything from these managers directly; I just have a feeling that Bates as mayor would set a tone for the next four years that would incentivize our best managers to think about moving on."

When pressed on who would be most likely to flee the city if Bates won, Butt pointed to City Manager Bill Lindsay, police Chief Chris Magnus, Finance Director James Goins and City Attorney Bruce Goodmiller.

"They have all been insulted by Corky (Boozé, a fellow councilman and Bates' ally) and sometimes by Nat," Butt said.

But none of the four managers lent any credence to Butt's claims when contacted this week. Lindsay and Goodmiller both declined to comment, saying discussing the political process would violate their professional ethics. Magnus and Goins said they would continue to do their jobs regardless of who was voted into office.

"I get along with both Nat and Tom really well," Goins said. "Maybe I'm naive, but I don't think (the election) has any impact on me."


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Magnus, the openly gay police chief who has been credited with helping drive down the city's homicide rate in recent years, brushed aside suggestions that the election has a discernible impact on his future. Bates has been criticized for failing to support efforts to curb anti-gay hate speech from council meetings that is often directed at Councilwoman Jovanka Beckles, the city's first openly gay council member. Bates has maintained that hate speech is protected by the First Amendment.

"I would certainly not start with the assumption that either (Butt or Bates) would be bad people to work for," Magnus said. "I like them both."

The notion that a Bates victory would decimate the ranks of some of the city's top -- and most popular -- managers is among the first salvos in what promises to be a heated campaign pitting two longtime rivals for the city's highest office.

Bates, who turns 83 next month, and Butt, 70, have been on the council together for more than a decade and clashed over myriad issues. Bates, who is supported by Chevron, the city's largest private employer, and public employee unions, is seen as the big business candidate who wants to rein in the city's activist, progressive government and trim the city's budget.

Butt has positioned himself as a progressive candidate, favoring environmental issues and beautifying neighborhoods but has shown a greater willingness to negotiate with Chevron than current Mayor Gayle McLaughlin, who is termed out after eight years and will run for City Council.

And no love is lost between the two. Bates accused Butt -- a prolific writer and communicator who publishes a popular online forum -- of cultivating the media, using it as a tool to hamper his campaign with unsubstantiated rumors.

"Tom is cunning, sly and desperate," said Bates, who first joined the council in 1967 and twice served as mayor in the 1970s. "Our city charter clearly states that these department heads work for the city manager, not the mayor or the council, so it's ridiculous to claim that these department heads wouldn't want to work for me, because they wouldn't (be working for me) anyway."

Bates also lobbed the same charge back at Butt.

"If you did an anonymous survey of all the managers, they would probably say Tom is the most bullying and demanding council member in the city," Bates said.

The animus may be in part borne of the combative atmosphere that has dominated City Council meetings for the past four years. Boozé, often with Bates' tacit support, is known for lengthy harangues of residents, staff and colleagues, particularly Beckles, who went so far as to have her seat on the dais moved to be farther from Boozé.

Butt, who has been on the council since 1995, walked off the dais in a huff in the middle of a public meeting earlier this year.

"I lose my temper about once year; I admit to that," Butt said at a candidates forum Tuesday night.

If the mayoral campaign devolves into a continuation of the toxic exchanges in public meetings, a third candidate, Uche Uwahemu, a local business owner, could find some space to draw votes as a fresh option.

"(Butt and Bates) have had their chances to lead for the last 60 years combined," Uwahemu said at the Tuesday forum. "It's time to take a new direction."

Contact Robert Rogers at 510-262-2726. Follow him at Twitter.com/sfbaynewsrogers.