Before there was Neimand Collaborative, there was a company called BatesNeimand, a long partnership I had with Ross Bates, a pioneering Democratic political consultant. Ross passed away in September, leaving friends and colleagues across the country with fond memories and richer lives. He had three memorial services on two coasts, the last of which was on October 13th in Washington, DC, where many took turns to talk about how Ross impacted their lives and the lives of others. I’m often asked how I got to do what I do today with my colleagues at Neimand Collaborative. It’s usually a long answer, but the short of it is Ross Bates. For those interested in how the past continues to inform the present, below is eulogy I had the honor to give at Ross’ funeral.
I have long feared this day as the end of a beautiful story. But I believe it is only the beginning. As Ross would say, “Let me explain.”
Nothing delighted Ross G Bates more than a good story. And Ross knew he was one heck of an epic story—a long-running narrative of quirky adventures, American history and best laid plans laid to waste by the craziness of people and the ironies of life. Ross carried this gospel of past experience and used it to inform his actions in the present.
Mix the Torah with the Talmud. Have it written by Mel Brooks, voiced by Mel Blanc and staged by Vince MacMahon. There you have Ross’ Odyssey. Part Homer, part Homer Simpson.
Like all epics, Ross’ story elevated the mundane aspects of life into something higher. Like all classic stories that build upon stories, it was organized by chapter and verse. Snippets were related whenever he thought a hysterical digression could illuminate a straight path. I was a part of this story for a short 35 years. It had so many episodes that Annie Sanner Rosello, our long-time writer and friend at BatesNeimand, had classified them by year and number. Every strategy or production meeting was interrupted with his inimitable up-thrust finger, mischievous giggle and spurting exclamation, “This reminds me of the time….” Annie would look at me and say, “1978, Episode 159, likely to transition to 1990, Episode 5, and conclude with 1988, Episode 55, possibly with Lucha Libre mask.”
“Annie, any possible mention of Roller Derby, Little Ralphie Valedarez and Psycho Ronnie Raines?”
“Rich, as Dick Lane would say, ‘Whoa Nelly, yes.’”
I met Ross in 1980, Episode 25. It was my first time producing artwork for political campaigns—for the now famous Berman vs. McCarthy Speakership fight in California. Ross came into my office exactly twelve hours later than the 3 p.m. time we agreed upon, threw 50 boards marked up with corrections, and said—just before he fell sideways into a couch and what looked to be a coma—“You have three hours to make new proofs. If you fail to have them done by 6 a.m. today, you’ll never work in politics again.”
I’m not stupid.
I seized the opportunity and went home. And that started a partnership in political consulting that lasted for 20 years. Ross became my mentor and friend, the most loyal friend anyone could ever have. Politics was never, ever his profession. It was his siren call, his spiritual quest. Through that wild journey he showed me and so many others how to snatch progress from the jaws of cynicism and hopelessness. A brilliant political strategist and math wiz, Ross could immediately grasp what was important, tease out the human story in the numbers and construct meaning from contradiction. That skill came from the fact that Ross was marvelously contradictory, deeply human and—despite all his claims to the contrary—steadfastly optimistic.
He could drive you absolutely crazy—and you had to love him for it.
He insisted that our offices be furnished like a fire sale during an actual fire. In the early days, he had a solid steel desk that looked like a rusted Holstein cow and a chair that placed his eyes level with the desktop. He wept when we moved to new offices and bought new, matching furniture. He called me a “fashionista.” But when we traveled he always rented a souped up Volvo coupe at a premium and proceeded to drive it no faster than 25 miles an hour on the freeway, all the time muttering, “Good golly, oh, oh dear.” I would say, “Ross, in 15 miles you’ll have to change lanes, you’d better start now.” He would scream, “Piffle!”
We’d miss the exit.
Ross hated hiring new employees, or as he would call them, “Young twerps and cash drains.” After two days, he loved every single one of them, mentored them, paid them generous bonuses with money he didn’t have and remained their friend even when they went on to their own careers in politics and competed against him. Ross claimed not to give a damn, but he would go above and beyond the call of duty for even the worst, most unappreciative client—even in the later years when the worst outnumbered the best by 10 to one.
Ross claimed to have no use for family, commitment, kids, dogs and cats.
But he was incredibly dedicated to his parents, Doris and Milt, and his sister, Julie, speaking about them all the time. He married Christy, became a father to Lisa, populated his house with dogs and cats that he served hand and foot, became Stella’s proud grandfather—and never waivered in his love and commitment, even as he built a new life and love with Jill and her family. He was tremendously accomplished and incredibly humble. Ross was directly responsible for empowering almost every social movement in the United States. He was a pioneer in electing African-Americans, Latinos, women and lesbian, gay and transgendered candidates. This master of targeting and specialized messaging did it by insisting on running these candidates not as types but as good neighbors and capable people.
I’m so happy that at the end of his career he moved back to work in his beloved California, where he was valued for his thinking and his mail, and got the appreciation, recognition and professional satisfaction he so deserved. Finally, Ross hated religion but was spiritual in all his actions.
Long ago I lost my faith that electoral politics could still create positive social change. It was our biggest and only disagreement. He insisted that the good fight was still good no matter how bad. All Ross needed was one righteous person among hundreds of the unworthy.
As usual, he was right and I was wrong.
This past Rosh Hashanah, I was sitting through services at my shul, which Ross called the “Temple Of Minimal Commitment,” when I came across this meditation in the prayer book and found the perfect encapsulation of Ross’ life, chapter and verse:
The time may be distant
And the outcome uncertain—
for how could suffering,
Endemic to the human condition,
Ever come to an end?
Cessation of desire,
all these might ease the pain of being alive.
Or decide instead that you’ll continue to dream,
Hope, remain fiercely attached to bringing a better day,
Even if the outcome’s uncertain
And the time is very distant.
Here is where Ross’ story becomes ours, where it doesn’t end, where it becomes 2015, Episode Infinity. Each of us is a part of Ross’ story, each of us carries it within us.
Carry it on.
Carry it on.
Do it the way Ross would do it. Do it with humor, do it with humility, do it with love, do it with loyalty, do it with passion. And by all means, do it as quirky as hell. Because Ross would have loved it that way.