RICHMOND -- A councilman for nearly two decades and arguably the most powerful and popular man in the affluent Point Richmond neighborhood -- a local eatery has a sandwich named after him -- Tom Butt is not accustomed to playing the role of underdog.
But that's what he is, at least financially, as a candidate for the November mayoral election.
"Compared to the other side, I don't even have a pot to piss in," said Butt, a 70-year-old Vietnam vet who has lived in Point Richmond since the 1970s but retains his Arkansas drawl.
The other side is Nat Bates, 83 next month, a longtime councilman who is backed by Chevron Corp. and its seemingly unlimited checkbook.
Bates' most recent campaign disclosure forms show that he had $22,235 on hand as of June 30. But that is just loose change compared with the more than $1.7 million sitting in a campaign committee called Moving Forward, described in documents as "a coalition of labor unions, small businesses and public safety and firefighter associations, (with) major funding by Chevron."
All of the money came from Chevron, according to the campaign documents.
Bates noted that federal campaign laws forbid him from discussing campaign strategy with political action committees such as Moving Forward, but he acknowledged it was supporting him.
"Tom wants to make a big deal about a so-called Chevron slush fund," Bates said. "But them spending money on elections is nothing new; he needs to stop crying about it and worry about his own campaign."
Scores of billboards throughout the city have been quietly converted from advertising Chevron's "Richmond Proud" campaign, meant to build support for the refinery's recently approved $1 billion modernization project, to campaign signs touting Bates for mayor.
"When and where the billboards with me go up, I don't know anything about it," Bates said.
While candidates are prohibited by local campaign laws from receiving more than $2,500 in a single contribution, unlimited money can pour into campaign committees such as Moving Forward, which can in turn advocate for candidates. A mailer that surfaced this week announced Moving Forward would also back Donna Powers, Charles Ramsey and Al Martinez in City Council races.
Butt declared no contributions June 30, and the next filing deadline is Oct. 6, according to City Clerk Diane Holmes. Butt said he received an average of more than $2,000 per day from mostly individual donors -- he has no corporate or union support yet -- since he declared his candidacy Aug. 8. His largest single contribution came from former mayor Rosemary Corbin, who gave him $2,500, he said.
Butt said he is outgunned but undaunted.
"I'm going to run my campaign the best I can, probably with a budget of around $60,000," Butt said. "At the end of the day, what this comes down to is whether the people of Richmond want to vote for Chevron's candidate or an independent candidate." Butt has already revved up output on his popular online forum, a mix of free news and political missives that reaches thousands.
The city's campaign finance law provides candidates with a maximum of $25,000 in matching funds on the first $50,000 they raise. Bates said he won't accept the matching funds because of the city's budget deficit. His critics note that he doesn't need the money with his deep-pocketed backers.
In the last Richmond election, 2012, Moving Forward spent more than $1.4 million, much of it opposing Richmond Progressive Alliance candidates and supporting Chevron-friendly candidates such as Bates, Gary Bell and Bea Roberson.
Bates and Bell won council seats, but Bell fell ill with a severe sinus infection around Election Day and later died. Chevron first passed the $1 million level in local campaigns in 2010, when it supported Bates' losing mayoral campaign.
Councilman Jim Rogers, who has not endorsed Butt or Bates and is known on the council as a swing vote between opposing council factions, said money is helpful but that the higher the numbers get, the less bang candidates get for their bucks.
"Eight mailers is much better than two, but is 20 better than eight?" Rogers said. "I'm not so sure."
A key wild card in the race could be third candidate Uche Uwahemu, a Nigerian-born businessman who has impressed people with some of his early appearances at candidate forums.
Uwahemu has pulled in $26,800, almost all in small donations, much of which comes from friends and supporters who list addresses outside Richmond.
"Uche's campaign statements suggest that he is someone who can draw support and loyalty; he may surprise some people," Rogers said. "As he defines himself and we begin to see who he pulls votes from, Tom or Nat, the situation will become clearer."
In Richmond, third candidates have helped swing elections for years, including in 2010 and 2006, when divisions among candidates supported by Chevron and the Chamber of Commerce helped pave the way for Green Party Mayor Gayle McLaughlin to win twice, despite never receiving a majority of votes.
Bates said he was unconcerned about the a three-way race.
"Uche represents a new face, but I don't know whose votes he is going to take or not take," Bates said. "I'm concentrating on who is going to vote for Nat Bates."