RICHMOND -- A week ago, Leonard Battaglia was an obscure sewer district director, quietly serving more than three decades as an elected official whose part-time service added up last year to $592 an hour in pay and benefits.
But this week, the Korean War fighter pilot found himself in the middle of a firestorm of his own making: Leaders from one of the Bay Area's most diverse cities are calling for his ouster over caustic remarks he made about African-Americans and Asians in an interview with this newspaper.
In a resolution that mentioned the racial intolerance of Nazi Germany, the Richmond City Council on Tuesday called for the West County Wastewater District board member to "rethink" statements on race he made in a front-page story Sunday that revealed his generous pay and benefits. And even before the resolution was approved, Mayor Gayle McLaughlin and two others called for Battaglia to step down and two residents likened him to the iconic television bigot Archie Bunker.
"He should be removed, sooner rather than later," said McLaughlin, who is white. Council members Jovanka Beckles and Jael Myrick, who are African-American, also said Battaglia should resign. The council has no control over the district, whose members are independently elected.
Responding to the criticism, Battaglia on Wednesday apologized for his remarks but said he had no plans to resign. He said he was "very sorry it happened. I apologize. Life must go on. I don't think I'm a prejudiced person."
Battaglia, 85, made his derogatory remarks during an interview for a story that showed how elected officials who serve on little-known special districts can earn more than $50,000 in pay and benefits for very little work.
In the interview, Battaglia repeatedly used a common slur to describe people of Asian descent. African-Americans "think slower" than other races, he said. "They can't help it. It's the way God made them." The newspaper called Battaglia back before the story was published and he stood by his remarks.
Battaglia said he would now reconsider plans to seek another four-year term next year. "I don't know yet," he said. "I don't want to hurt the board in any way."
The wastewater board's president, Alfred Granzella, of Richmond, didn't return phone calls on Wednesday.
Battaglia said he accepted the council vote, but stopped short of saying that his thinking on race is wrong. He attributes it to his time as fighter pilot and seeing what he said were African-American pilots who could not master jet aircraft as well as whites. He declined to elaborate on how he might "rethink" his positions as the council urged.
His sewer district provides service in most of Richmond, in San Pablo and parts of unincorporated Contra Costa County. Last year it compensated Battaglia $50,332 in cash and benefits for attending 85 hours of district meetings.
Tuesday's vote came when Councilman Jim Rogers asked for an emergency resolution, without the prior notice generally required, because he and others believed the governing body shouldn't wait to respond to Battaglia's comments and were being asked by residents to take a stand against them.
In part, the measure stated, "Although such cancerous remarks are problematic anywhere, we think they are especially unfortunate when they are made in the City of Richmond, which is the site of a National Park honoring the efforts of the Rosies (female shipbuilders) who helped win the war against the racism and intolerance of Nazi Germany."
Several Richmond residents told the council they were deeply troubled to learn that someone elected to oversee basic services in their city thought of them as inferior.
"You can't represent us and speak about our people like that," Jackie Thompson said.
"He's just like Archie Bunker," Mark Wassburg, 57, told the council. "He's a hardheaded white man."