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Michael Bates loves Tulsa, but has his own way of proving it
by G.W. Schulz
Less than ten minutes before he�s to go on the air, Michael Bates enters the polished stone building containing the Journal Broadcast Group�s three Tulsa radio stations near 29th and Yale.
JBG owns two country stations--one contemporary and one classic--plus the unapologetically conservative KFAQ 1170 news-talk, which taps a Fox newsreel and offers staunch national and local right-wing commentators throughout the day.
(Secondary sweeper and tag line: �Liberal media! Hollywood whackos! 1170 KFAQ. Standing up for what�s RIGHT!�)
Each Monday at 6:40 am, Bates joins the outspoken local radio host Michael Delgiorno, a former KRMG personality and Clear Channel Tulsa operations manager. Delgiorno now airs his conservative prophecies on city and county politics for KFAQ from 5 to 8 am each weekday.
The 41-year-old Bates was invited to appear regularly after his now popular blog batesline.com became a clearinghouse for alternative news and local political analysis in Tulsa following its birth two years ago. Now nationally even, Batesline has become an attractive stop for social conservatives.
Bates enters Delgiorno�s booth during a break. A pair of anchors read short news and weather scripts. He prepares, opening a laptop and sipping from a large QuikTrip soda. He�s dressed simply in a blue-and-green flannel, dark slacks and casual dress shoes.
During the break, newscaster Mike Wedel explains to a caller the potential impact of a proposed south Tulsa bridge some critics have said will drain shoppers from the city into Jenks.
�If that thing goes through, then you can make a lot of money if you�re holding property over there,� he tells the listener.
Back on the air, DelGiorno runs audio of mayoral Chief of Staff Clay Bird defending LaFortune�s position not to support a council resolution opposing the bridge despite a wave of criticism from some councilors. LaFortune has since announced his opposition to the bridge.
�According to Mayor LaFortune, a good councilor is one who won�t out you in a bad light,� Delgiorno says of Bird�s annoyed responses to a pointed line of questioning from District 8 Councilor Bill Christiansen.
Bates says Bird is �like a kid trying to back out of a bad situation.�
But generally on the air, the soft-spoken Bates is a cool contrast to Delgiorno�s brazen style. Bates�s celebrity stems more from the informed commentary of Batesline and less from the steady, lecturing tone of his voice that sounds over Tulsa each Monday.
And since he can�t be denounced as a mere personality from America�s now-popular institution of brash Conservative Talk, he�s become even more dangerous as a respected political analyst and media watchdog.
On an erasure board hanging inside Delgiorno�s booth is a caricature of District 7 City Councilor Randy Sullivan with a beer in his hand and a dialogue box reading �I love recalls!�
Delgiorno has vilified City Council recall proponents for months fiercely defending District 2 and 6 Councilors Chris Medlock and Jim Mautino.
The rumor had circulated early this year that an official within the county Republican Party had witnessed Sullivan purchasing a case of beer. Later that evening, Sullivan allegedly called Medlock and, referring to the recall, told him, �You�re toast.�
Delgiorno has since taken to chastising Sullivan, once calling him a �filthy, rotten drunk� and a �big coward.�
But Bates practices healthier doses of skepticism on most fronts. That includes often avoiding an indulgence in rumor and speculation, though not always. He does more than simply sell an entertaining brand of conviction--he makes no money from Batesline, and thus doesn�t have to worry about his show getting cancelled.
His blog is insightful, articulate and honest, at least in terms of where he stands on issues. While the mainstream news outlets have hesitated at times to describe bloggers as journalists, blogs (Batesline in particular) have changed the way Tulsans seek and understand the news. In fact, Bates sometimes gets the best sources in town.
The Bates bias is clear, but that doesn�t mean he�s unwilling to confirm information before he publishes it. There�s no entrenched editorial staff holding sway and there appears to be less of a hidden agenda to consider. The blogosphere reminds media consumers that one source for news and information is simply not enough. In fact, it never was.
But while there are no exclamation points at Batesline, that doesn�t mean Michael Bates is above rhetoric.
Before the post-recall City Council meeting, he prepared two pieces of toast for Councilor Sullivan.
�Councilor Sullivan didn�t show up at tonight�s Council meeting, but that�s okay,� he posted July 14. �When you lose big, it�s hard to show your face in public . . . Since he wasn�t there, I ate his toast.�
Bates is formal and polite.
He says �motorbikes.� No one calls motorcycles, �motorbikes.�
He stands to shake your hand. He says �please� and �thank you� and seems to mean it. His manners are disarming and command reciprocity from anyone raised by even remotely proper folks.
I still can�t call him �Michael� instead of �Mr. Bates,� and we�ve spoken several times.
He�s like a professor you�d feel terribly guilty using a profanity in front of, but not simply because you fear an icy look of disapproval.
He�s youthfully handsome with close-cropped brown hair, a thin beard peppered with flecks of gray, and a set of wire-rimmed glasses. It�s difficult to imagine fury coming from his lips, or fingertips. He�s deeply spiritual, his blog entries often containing Bible passages and evangelical exposition.
�I admire Christian bloggers who are willing to open their hearts and let us readers watch as God works in their lives, especially when they write with expressive power,� he posted April 15.
He commits much of Batesline to providing links to other religious texts, sometimes pasting immense blocks from compositions he�s impressed by. He�s capable of condensing scores of Christian-oriented blogs and other works into conveniently placed links and summarizing them for curious seekers unsure where to begin in the vast electronic acreage of the World Wide Sermon.
�You get things from people in e-mail who say, �You really should read this article,�� Bates said during one of two recent interviews conducted at Shades of Brown Coffeehouse. �Blogs seemed to be a way to do that without invading people�s e-mails.�
But when asked in person what stories from the Bible influenced him at a young age, he seems at a loss--either because there�s so much to consider, or because, like many bloggers, he better excels at writing fluid, delicately crafted sentences, taking time to insure proper diction, tense and grammar. Speaking doesn�t give bloggers the same amount of time for consideration. But Bates took four years of Latin in high school and it shows at Batesline.
His grandparents are originally from Nowata and Dewey, but Bates himself was born in Lawrence, Kan. The family moved to Bartlesville before he was two, but later moved to Tulsa in 1969 when his father�s employer, an oil company called City Service, relocated to the area.
The Bates family lived just east of Tulsa near Catoosa, just outside the city limits in a neighborhood called Rolling Hills that was nearly annexed by Tulsa.
�We would have been happy to annex, because it was kind of a lawless area,� he said. �The sheriff was 30 miles away at Wagoner. You had wild dogs running around and people zooming around on motorbikes.�
His father was laid off during the �80s energy collapse and corporate raids, and after a few years of temporary jobs, made his way into computer programming retiring from Saint Francis Hospital in January.
His mother was a kindergarten teacher at Catoosa Elementary for nearly 30 years.
Bates started school there. But he apparently quickly showed flashes of brilliance and skipped first grade, because he already knew how to read.
By second grade, Catoosa suggested that he might benefit more from a private school. He was enrolled in Holland Hall by third grade and eventually graduated there in 1981.
�I loved to read and absorb things about science, history, geography,� he said. �Maps were fascinating to me early on. I was always wanting to learn something new, something different.�
He says he gleaned influence from scriptural texts. The Bible, he said, ahead of other books, was important to him at a young age. His parents were energetic Southern Baptists, his father an active deacon and his mother a volunteer, at First Baptist in Bartlesville and First Baptist Rolling Hills.
�We were there every time the doors were opened,� he said.
Political philosophy in high school intrigued him, too, including Machiavelli�s discourses, which helped introduce him to the notion of checks and balances.
In fact, Bates�s statement in our interview about Machiavelli�s underlying assumptions seems the most telling in terms of the fevered scrutiny Batesline often places on local officials: �everybody involved in government is going to be trying to gain some advantage or going to be using it for their own ends.�
More importantly, Bates would later be heavily influenced by �Cities Back From the Edge: New Life for Downtown� by Roberta Brandes Gratz and Jane Jacobs�s �The Death and Life of Great American Cities.�
Machiavelli�s cynicism aside, Bates is still capable of being a dreamer, and his pursuit of �New Urbanism� concepts proves as much.
A quiet celebrity
Bates attended college at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston, one of the world�s most well-respected institutions of higher learning--a school with a population that still hovers around 3,000 and hosts some of academia�s brightest celebrity thinkers.
He lived in the �very urban� town of Brookline, a �walkable environment� that has continued to impress the way he imagines cities should look like. Boston helped introduce to him New Urbanism, which still influences his thinking.
Boston is one of the nation�s oldest cities, and the progressive concepts of New Urbanism, ironically, look quite a bit like what many cities used to be.
If Bates wasn�t opposed to gay marriage, opposed to abortion, opposed the pulling of Terry Schiavo�s feeding tube, or a critic of the judicial interpretation of religion in the public domain, he might fit well in San Francisco�s gadfly community of opponents to corporate, big-box development.
The nuances make him less easy to define in the contemporary, convenient terms of red-and-blue mainstream punditry.
�In terms of partisan politics, I think we�re in different places,� said Jamie Jamieson, the innovative local developer of the New Urbanism-oriented Village at Central Park townhouses near Sixth and Peoria. �(But) I can�t recall ever disagreeing with him on issues of urban revitalization. He thinks strategically and he�s well-informed on issues of development.�
When he moved back to Tulsa in the �80s, he searched for a neighborhood that resembled what he had experienced in Boston, and Brookside appeared to be the best option.
�It was really one of the closest places you could come to an urban, walkable environment,� he said.
He lived in a small apartment initially and moved to a townhouse on 38th Place after he became married to his wife, Mikki. (They now have two children, Joseph and Katherine, ages 8 and 4.)
�We loved to be able to walk down Peoria, to window shop,� he said. �There weren�t as many restaurants then, but there were quite a few.�
But in 1992, a development project appeared that threatened to change the face of the otherwise quaint, urban shopping enclave. It was an issue that would first seriously engage Bates in how new development impacted a city�s urban core. And from it, he�d receive a crash course in zoning.
The Albertsons today at 38th and Peoria doesn�t look much different than the Albertsons at 15th and Lewis, or the Albertsons at 51st and Harvard, or the Albertsons near 81st Street South, or the Albertsons at 86th Street North. Only the neighborhoods surrounding the stores have their own character and identity.
The style is employed everywhere, regardless of whether it seems to fit. Bates realized a new Albertsons on Peoria would change the composition of Brookside.
�It would involve taking some of the little street-front shops and demolishing those, demolishing some housing, and building the very suburban-style supermarket with the huge parking lot in the front and with the supermarket set way back,� he said. �That really was the birth of the Brookside Neighborhood Association.�
The nearby residents lost their battle against Albertsons, obviously, but Bates says it energized homeowners, causing them to better consider the boundary between commercial and residential development.
�You want the mixture of commercial and residential; it�s part of what makes Brookside special,� he said. �But if it gets out of whack and you start to build in a way that�s more appropriate for 71st and Memorial on Peoria, you begin to lose that special quality and it jeopardizes the value of the homes and the value of the neighborhood.�
That was his first encounter with zoning, but it also served as his first encounter with the Tulsa Metropolitan Area Planning Commission and the City Council.
�I had been kind of vaguely aware of the City Council before that,� he said. �That�s what really got me engaged in the whole process.�
Shortly thereafter, Bates and his wife sought to buy a home, but their price range landed them near 31st and Yale. The move distanced him for a time from city politics.
But in 1997, the �Tulsa Project� surfaced, an earlier version of Vision 2025 that failed.
The Tulsa Project involved a $200 million package of sports venues that would have been scattered around downtown. Another similar project was proposed later called �It�s Tulsa Time� that also failed at the polls. Bates resisted them both for much of the same reason he resisted Vision 2025 � the projects focused on large-scale facilities.
�The end game was that it was supposed to generate retail sales downtown,� said James Hewgley III, the son of a former Tulsa mayor and a former streets commissioner who opposed Vision 2025 along with Bates. �(But) I�ve never bought into the theory that an arena brings retail.�
Bates argued similarly often stating on Batesline that he believed while an arena might attract patrons for major events, it was arguable whether they would stick around to spend money at nearby businesses. Since many arenas and convention centers operate at an annual loss, proving that they�ll bolster local businesses is integral to their support.
�The same pattern has played itself out in city after city,� Bates wrote to Urban Tulsa Weekly in 2000. �Some cities have learned from their mistakes and stepped off the big project treadmill, but Tulsa, under its unimaginative leadership, plods on. The convention-center-and-arena fad is now in its second or third reincarnation.�
Construction of a soccer stadium in the East Village would have required moving residents who had relocated to downtown, but Bates says revitalization partly begins with the availability of downtown residential space.
�I was appalled at what I thought was a really stupid way to go about revitalizing downtown--an ineffective way and a very expensive way,� he said in our interview. �It wasn�t actually going to produce the kind of downtown that we wanted to see.
�The things that make Brookside and Cherry Street attractive places now, and Bricktown in Oklahoma City, is mostly you have shops, you have restaurants, you have people around walking from place to place. Arenas, stadiums and convention centers are kind of dead in terms of the way they interact with the urban fabric. . .�
Jamieson said that at the time, Bates was a �lone voice� up against a concerted campaign for Vision 2025.
�Michael was harshly criticized, unfairly so in my opinion, during the second of the two bond issues put forward by Mayor Susan Savage,� Jamieson said, �and likewise criticized during the Vision 2025 bond issue, when his views seemed to me to be pretty rational.�
By 2002, nonetheless, Bates�s critiques had moved beyond letters to the editor.
He ran for the District 4 City Council seat in 1998 following the encouraging suggestions of a few friends, and finished second in a Republican primary of five candidates earning 28 percent of the vote.
But he admits he was then still virgin to politics.
�I had no idea,� he said. �I went door-to-door, even to people who weren�t voters, weren�t even likely voters. Wasted a lot of time, wasted a lot of flyers.�
The run did, however, connect him with the Midtown Coalition of Neighborhoods, of which he later became president. He would eventually also serve on the Convention and Tourism Task Force, the Infill Task Force, and TulsaNow�s Neighborhood Task Force.
By his second run for City Council in 2002, he was substantially better connected. He received the GOP nomination, but lost to the Tulsa World-endorsed Tom Baker.
His 2002 run nonetheless birthed the blog as a continuation of his campaign�s Web site.
By early May 2003, Batesline was alive.
Batesline v. The Whirled
Bates�s post-graduate career has largely involved working as a computer software engineer. The experience put him in a position to catch the influence of blogs early on.
Around the time of his second City Council race, he began reading blogs, first, The Corner, maintained by the conservative National Review, and later InstaPundit and a war-on-terror tracker, Little Green Footballs.
He and his wife later took �the DSL plunge� (he actually said �the DSL plunge,� as if it were a depraved lurch into unbridled madness). In the process, they obtained a domain name.
Shortly thereafter, city and county leaders returned with a major redevelopment deal for the city. Vision 2025 offered much of what earlier attempts had, but included ideas Bates considered acceptable. The problem was that voters couldn�t separate the proposed arena from the planned monies for higher education.
Batesline then became the unofficial opposition of Vision 2025.
�I believe Tulsa County voters are not stupid,� Bates posted in September of 2003. �I believe they will see right through this kind of manipulation. Vision 2025 puts the arena first by spending more on it than anything else on the ballot. . .and by tying the arena, like a boat anchor, to education.�
The measures passed, obviously, but not necessarily because voters are stupid. Virtually every higher-education institution in town received some Vision cash from voters who, coincidentally, tend to support education efforts pretty consistently. But they couldn�t do so in this case without accepting the arena.
At the time, Bates said, the local daily, Tulsa World, which had extensively covered and strongly endorsed Vision 2025, confusingly opined that separating the two on the ballot would make the whole thing useless.
And that brings us to another facet of Batesline that has made it an attractive stop for news junkies in town: Bates�s heavy-handed critiques of what he has come to call the Tulsa Whirled.
Since its inception, Batesline could be relied upon for a steady, acerbic look at the World�s local coverage and editorial positions, commonly targeting City Council reporter P.J. Lassek, World editorial page Editor Ken Neal and the newspaper�s owner and publisher, the Lorton family.
In the process, Bates would provide links to World PDF files, or would simply cut-and-paste sections of World stories into his blog. That�s when the paper reacted sending Bates a cease-and-desist letter arguing his blog was infringing on the paper�s copyrights. (Councilor Medlock received one as well for the same reason.)
�If you fail to comply with this demand, the Tulsa World will take whatever legal action is necessary to assure compliance,� World Vice President John Bair stated in the letter.
Bates responded that a fair use exemption permitted using the copyrighted material for the purpose of criticism. He added that the pro-recall Coalition for Responsible Government�s site contained full-length copies of World stories.
�If Michael Bates knows of any other Web site that uses our content, I want him to tell me about it,� then-World President Robert E. Lorton III told KTUL.
At press time, CRG�s Web site still contained the copyrighted World stories.
The exchange attracted the attention of a few major press outlets, including CNN and supportive bloggers nationwide. For a time, Batesline reached the top 200 most-read blogs nationally.
The World has since fortified its firewalls, Bates said, sealing off the otherwise exploitable access points. But some internet tricks have still enabled folks in town to critique the paper�s coverage without paying for a subscription.
Bates has regularly suggested the Lortons wield undue influence over reporters, on his blog and elsewhere, and argued the editorial page limits points-of-view.
When pressed to explain how that influence might be defined, he said the paper seemed to contain a �groupthink� that encouraged limiting the range and quality of its coverage. Stepping back, he specified that he believed its reporting tended to be skewed in more subtle ways than by actual conspiracies of influence.
But Bates�s soft voice and second thought don�t always make it through to Batesline.
�Why does reading a Whirled editorial always invoke the same reaction in me as getting a whiff of dirty diaper?� he posted in September. �It�s an annoying and disgusting task, but it�s gotta be dealt with.�
Bright lights, hopeful city
In May, Bates�s engineering career finally married his political activism.
He won�t tell us the name of the firm, but we know it�s a Washington, D.C.-based political marketing outfit, and we know he�s the vice president of data management.
He helps maintain databases that compile information about and from constituents. Republican Rep. John Sullivan used to work for the firm.
He said something during our interview that indicated just how far he�d come since that first council race.
�You get it--you understand what this game is all about,� the company told him when he was hired.
He understands now just how hard it is �to get people very fired up about local issues.� The logistics of a campaign�to whom its message is aimed--is more important than wide-eyed notions of soapbox speeches and the dream of a compelling platform that inspires voters to hold hands and walk together toward the ballot box.
�When you have a limited budget, you have to make absolute sure you�re going to reach those people,� he said.
But even with work centered in D.C., he still manages somehow to attend numerous Tulsa events and meetings, maintain a content-rich blog, watch two kids, keep a marriage together, go to church, and sidekick for a sometimes abrasive talk-show host.
Hewgley says he wonders if Bates�s days are actually 24 hours long.
Recently, he made a presentation at a TulsaNow event regarding zoning issues, complete with a PowerPoint presentation.
For years, Bates says, Tulsa�s zoning code has encouraged boxy, suburban-style development. He says Tulsa�s current �use-based,� low-density zoning encourages inefficiency and a heavy reliance on automobiles putting Tulsa at a competitive disadvantage when many cities have successfully pursued their own versions of New Urbanism.
�We have a zoning code that protects us against things that aren�t really problems, and doesn�t protect quality-of-life,� he said during our interview.
His solution is �form-based� codes, which are built on the belief that design is more important than use. How a building abuts the road, how it relates with the surrounding neighborhood, how it contributes to higher-density development and the building�s quality are all questions that arise from a form-based mentality.
Form-based codes discourage windowless monoliths that do little to attract pedestrians to an area.
He cites Jamieson�s Village at Central Park as a gleaming example of form-based thinking.
�I know he went though a lot to get done what he wanted to do,� Bates said. �To make that vision come about required going through a bureaucracy that really didn�t understand. They have a cookie cutter idea of how to develop land.�
But at the essential heart of Batesline--aside from the occasional diatribes, the spiritual overtures, the pictures of his children, the jokes about Councilor Sullivan and the pointed attacks aimed the World�s editorial board--is a man in love with the city he grew up in, a man who almost decided to stay in Boston.
�If we�re going to set ourselves apart, we have to stop trying to blend in as a modern city like every other, stop treating our quirky folkways as things to be suppressed and hidden, and celebrate them instead,� Bates wrote in a questionnaire during the mayor�s 2002 Vision Summit. �It�s nice to have the same cultural amenities as every other large city, but it�s the unique qualities that will win the affections of our own people and capture the imaginations of the rest of the world.�
Contact G.W Schulz at firstname.lastname@example.org