Richard Bates the first black man to lead Marengo sheriff’s office
By Robert DeWitt, Tuscaloosa News
“I’ve never been concerned about being the first black anything,” Bates said. “I just want to be the best at whatever I do.”
Bates, a 52-year-old over-the-road truck driver from the Miller community, will be Marengo County’s first black sheriff. He easily defeated Republican Bobby Duke in the general election Tuesday. Either candidate would have made history, since the county also hasn’t had a Republican sheriff.
While most of the surrounding Black Belt counties have black officials who were elected countywide, including sheriffs, Marengo County is different. Its population is about half black and half white, but it has more white registered voters than black.
In a region that is often racially polarized, many votes follow the color line. This one was different.
“He got a lot of white votes,” said Goodloe Sutton, publisher of The Democrat Reporter weekly newspaper in Linden. “There were people who said to me, ‘Richard Bates came to me and asked me for my vote and the other person didn’t even bother.’ ”
Bates said he used the same approach campaigning for white votes as did campaigning for black votes.
“White voters are just like black voters,” Bates said. “You give them your sales pitch and they decide who they want to vote for. Crime has no color barrier. The drug problem is not a black or white problem. They need a sheriff who will take care of that.
“It didn’t make any difference what color they were, I just wanted the most votes. I wanted all qualified voters to vote for me.”
Bates said that he would spend hours on the road, then park his truck and campaign before heading home. He focused on locations farther from home, like Demopolis, on weekends.
“Bates would go and talk to anybody, everybody, anytime, anywhere,” Sutton said. “Bates just out-campaigned (Duke).”
That’s particularly important in a rural county like Marengo County, Sutton said.
“You need to go and knock on every door in this county and ask everybody for their vote,” he said. “If you don’t do that, you won’t win. Bates did it and Duke didn’t.”
Bates also believes his law enforcement experience helped him. He served in a military police unit and was a deputy under former sheriffs Billy Smith, Bill Mason and Roger Davis in his 11 years with the Marengo County Sheriff’s Office. He was chief deputy under Davis.
Davis was eventually convicted of extorting money from bail bondsmen and some of his deputies also went to jail. Before that happened, Bates broke with Davis and ran for sheriff against him.
“I’ll just say that I didn’t like the direction the law enforcement agency was going and I wanted to see if I could do it differently,” Bates said. “I’ll just leave it at that.”
Sutton, who received national recognition for stories exposing corruption in Davis’ office, said there was more to it than Bates is saying.
“He was one of two that I know who were honest deputies during Roger Davis’ reign,” Sutton said. “He knew something was wrong but he didn’t know how deep it was. He ran for sheriff against Roger and Roger fired him. He knew Roger would fire him, but at least he had the guts to do what was right and it didn’t matter what the consequences were.”
Bates said he will focus on combating illegal drugs while in office. Many of the county’s property crimes are directly related to illegal drugs, he said.
“Everybody is concerned about illegal drugs,” Bates said. “When I was coming up about the worst thing we could get into was to go out behind our granddaddy’s corn crib and roll up and smoke some rabbit tobacco. Now, they’ve got all kinds of things.”
He wants people, especially the elderly, women whose husbands do shift work and children, to feel safe in their homes. He wants to start an education campaign to teach people tips that will make them safer at home. And he wants to conduct civilian firearms training to help people properly use firearms if they need to protect themselves during a home invasion.
“I’ll be the sheriff for all the people,” Bates said. “Whether they voted for me or not, I want them to feel free to call on me when they need help.”