By Darwin BondGraham @Darwinbondgraha
Standing outside of Richmond City Hall, Gayle McLaughlin held up one end of a banner that read “homelessness is not a crime” while listening to someone deliver an impassioned speech against an ordinance outlawing sleeping outdoors on public property. It was 2002, and McLaughlin — a Chicago native who moved to Richmond the previous year —wasn’t wasting any time getting involved in local politics.
“Sleep is a human need,” she told the Express during an interview last week. “Unfortunately, our society so often criminalizes homelessness.”
No stranger to activism, McLaughlin grew up in a Midwest union family and took part in the Central American solidarity movement and the Rainbow PUSH coalition in the 1980s. But like a lot of progressives, the Democratic Party in the 1990s — recast by the Clintons into a more Wall Street-friendly organization — repulsed her.
In Richmond, McLaughlin joined the local Green Party chapter. One of the Greens’ priorities was reversing the new anti-homeless law.
They sent thousands of postcards to councilmembers demanding its repeal and held rallies before meetings, all in hopes that a more compassionate approach would prevail. But in the end, the anti-camping ordinance stood.
It was a bad year all around for Richmond. That May, the police department violently arrested two dozen people, nearly all of them Latino, who were celebrating Cinco de Mayo. Officers clubbed people with flashlights and batons and paraded them before the rest of the community in handcuffs.
To make matters worse, the city’s finances were falling apart. People were talking about municipal bankruptcy.
For McLaughlin, it was all a wake-up call. Appeals to reason and compassion fell on deaf ears. Other interests — raw, powerful “corporate” interests — prevailed. It convinced her that it wasn’t enough to just protest. At some point, you had to take power.
“We realized we needed to be the leaders we were waiting for,” McLaughlin explained.
Other Richmond residents were coming to the same conclusion. In a nut shell, that’s how the Richmond Progressive Alliance was born.
It seemed like the most unlikely place for the emergence of a new kind of left politics. A mid-sized, blue collar city where the political system was monopolized by candidates supported by the region’s major employer, Chevron, Richmond struggled for decades with industrial pollution, unemployment, high crime, police brutality, dilapidated housing, segregation, bad schools, and other urban ills. It was a hardscrabble town with few resources in the shadows of better-known progressive burgs like Berkeley and San Francisco.
But over the past two decades, Richmond turned into what some believe is the most progressive city in California. McLaughlin was very much at the center of this local revolution.
She’s now running for lieutenant governor, in hopes that the idealistic brand of politics she championed in the East Bay can gain a foothold in Sacramento.
McLaughlin is definitely an underdog in a race that’s already crowded with multiple contenders with far more name recognition. The odds she can win are slim. But then again, so were the odds when she first ran for council back in 2004, and for mayor in 2006. Across her political career, she’s always been able to pull surprising wins from obscurity.
But even if she overcomes the odds and gets to Sacramento, her platform involves radically reforming multiple third-rail issues that, common opinion has it, are insurmountable without massive compromises. Her critics say McLaughlin has been too rigid in ideology and unwilling to engage in the deal-making that’s required in Sacramento.
Undaunted, she told the Express that she’s running “a different kind of campaign.” She called it an organizing project, but added: “I’m in it to win it.”
In fact, she says it’s the necessary next step to advance Richmond’s progressive agenda. Without changing things at the state level, says McLaughlin, cities will continue running up against their own limits — no matter how many progressives they elect.
At first glance, McLaughlin seems like the most unlikely person to have played a central role in Richmond’s progressive upheaval. She exudes an even-keeled, calm Midwestern energy. She doesn’t have deep roots in Bay Area liberalism. When she talks, it isn’t in the fiery tone of a left-wing activist.
Andrés Soto remembers the first time he met McLaughlin at a mutual friend’s house. “I had never seen her before, never heard of her, she had no track record, and had just moved to town,” he recalled of the 2003 gathering at the home of Argentinian-in-exile Juan Reardon in November 2003. McLaughlin told Soto that she intended to run for city council.
Soto, a well-known East Bay native with ties to many social and environmental justice groups, had also decided to run for office. He and his two sons were among the people brutalized by the Richmond police during 2002’s infamous Cinco de Mayo riot.
“It became clear to me that if we were going to change the direction of the city, that meant we had to clean house with the city council,” Soto explained. “But we needed an organization.”
That organization was the Richmond Progressive Alliance. Their main source of strength was their ground game. Both campaigns had deep benches of energized volunteers ready to knock on doors and make phone calls. By late 2004, they were gaining traction.
Soto was surprisingly defeated that November, partly because the police union was successful in running negative ads against him.
McLaughlin, however, won a seat. The remarkable victory coincided with the beginning of the end for the old Chevron-dominated municipal politics. And it marked the start of McLaughlin’s rise as a progressive star.
“She defied the odds,” Soto said. “People began to identify with her, and say that, if a person like Gayle could do it, maybe they could do it to. So, she inspired others to run, get involved in campaigns, and get involved in the RPA.”
One of the first things McLaughlin set about doing was working to reverse the anti-camping law, but advancing the progressive agenda proved slow going.
By 2006, McLaughlin decided to run for mayor, as a Green Party candidate. Once again, she defied the odds and defeated the incumbent, Irma Anderson. As mayor, she appointed members of the RPA to various city boards and commissions. For example, Soto took a seat on the planning commission in 2009. Latino activists and RPA organizer Roberto Reyes took a seat on the police commission. And Marilyn Langlois, another RPA activist, joined McLaughlin’s staff and the planning commission.
Slowly, the city’s political structure was changing.
By 2008, the RPA had grown into a formidable organization. With McLaughlin as its de facto leader in the Mayor’s office, alliance member Jeff Ritterman won a council seat, and a measure to increase taxes on Chevron’s refinery was approved by voters.
The following decade proved that the RPA’s electoral strategy wasn’t a fluke. McLaughlin won a second term as mayor in 2010, and then, after being termed out, went on to win a seat on the city council again in 2014. It was a big year for McLaughlin and the rest of the RPA. Progressive candidates Eduardo Martinez and Jovanka Beckles also won seats on the council, and longtime conservative city councilmember Nat Bates lost to Tom Butt, a moderate liberal.
“If money equals a win, Chevron should have won in 2014,” Beckles told the Express. “They inserted three million into a city council election, but they lost because of people power and information.”
When asked to name the really big policy wins in Richmond over her tenure — coinciding neatly with the rise of the progressives — McLaughlin pointed to rent control, a higher minimum wage, and a reduction in crime.
McLaughlin was key in recruiting Chris Magnus, an openly gay police chief who made waves — and enemies — in the Richmond Police Department when he busted up the old boys club and promoted new leaders committed to community policing.
McLaughlin said she’s proud of stopping a proposed casino from being built at Point Molate, suing Chevron over environmental and safety issues, taxing the oil giant, fighting foreclosures, and having the city join one of the state’s nascent clean-energy authorities. The city also took steps to limit its police department’s interactions with immigration officials.
“Richmond has made an amazing turnaround,” said Beckles, who like McLaughlin is now trying to jump from city to state office. In May, Beckles announced her candidacy for the Assembly’s 15th District seat. “We’ve become more progressive than Berkeley. We’re the most progressive city in California.”
Soto said McLaughlin, more than anyone, personifies Richmond’s pragmatic style of coalition-building and progressive reform.
“I think the story of Richmond is certainly out there in a lot of activist communities,” he said, “and it may serve as a hook to get people to look at her, and potentially trust in her.”
McLaughlin isn’t without her critics. And it’s not just Chevron and the landlord lobby that take issue with her political style and accomplishments.
Richmond Mayor Tom Butt believes that the fall of the conservative, business-dominated politics in Richmond was already well underway when McLaughlin and the RPA came on the scene in the mid-2000s.
“I think everybody who is not a part of the RPA is a little tired of hearing the story of how they rode into Richmond and single-handedly saved it,” Butt told the Express. “With or without RPA, Richmond has had a more progressive council over the past decade, and the majority of the council has been on the same page for most of the big issues.”
Butt said there’s been a revisionist trend in storytelling about Richmond, led by authors such as Richmond resident Steve Early, which portrays the RPA as a singular force of progress, when in fact many other people have been pushing a pro-environment and anti-corporate agenda locally as well.
Regardless of who gets credit for the greening of Richmond, Butt’s biggest critique of McLaughlin and her supporters has to do with what he characterized as their uncompromising commitment to principals — noble to a degree, but fatally flawed when it comes to seeking progress on vexing issues.
Butt said the RPA has been unwilling to listen to or negotiate with Chevron, landlord groups, the police union, and other opponents. Instead of holding any line, it’s actually stymied reforms, he argued.
“It’s better to get 50 percent of what you want rather than 100 percent of what you don’t want,” Butt said, paraphrasing a recent essay by Sen. Kamala Harris about the divide in the Democratic Party between the radical Bernie-crats and the more moderate bloc of voters who supported Clinton.
“I wish them the best of luck, but at the same time I worry that the movement she’s a part of will splinter the Democratic Party and peel off purist who won’t come back and support progressive candidates because they don’t meet their litmus test.”
Richmond Councilmember Jael Myrick is a lot like Butt: a progressive, but not a radical. He said he’s willing to negotiate with groups he sees as opponents, and to sign off on compromises if he thinks it’s ultimately in the best interest of his constituents. He also has been frustrated at times with McLaughlin and the RPA.
“Personally, she’s a warm and compassionate person, and she’s beyond reproach when it comes to her values,” Myrick said. But he added that McLaughlin has sometimes “put the need to take a stand above the actual people [she’s] supposed to be helping.”
The biggest example of this, according to Myrick, was the Richmond CARES program, which was supposed to use the city’s eminent-domain power to take over underwater mortgages on homes and then refinance them with private investors to prevent homeowners from being displaced. Myrick and Butt both said the program was created and approved by McLaughlin and the RPA to much fanfare, but that it never resulted in the restructuring of any loans. It was an idealistic stand that has had very little impact.
Meanwhile, Butt and Myrick say their negotiations with Chevron over its modernization project were opposed by McLaughlin and the rest of the RPA, but this resulted in a community benefits package worth $90 million.
“Politics and policy is so nuanced,” Myrick said. “There are times you have to plant your feet in the ground, but there are other times when you have to be willing to be flexible.” He said Richmond’s commitment to its sanctuary city status is one of those uncompromising stands he’s been perfectly willing to take alongside McLaughlin.
When asked if they agree with McLaughlin that it’s necessary for local progressives from Richmond and other cities to make the leap to Sacramento to change state laws and open up new possibilities for local legislators, both Myrick and Butt concurred.
As to whether McLaughlin stands a chance in the race for lieutenant governor, both of the Richmond politicians said “anything is possible.”
“We’ve seen so many predictions proven wrong,” said Myrick of McLaughlin’s underdog campaign. “In California, this might be a time when Gayle’s message connects more than ever.”
McLaughlin’s political philosophy is probably best defined by her oath to refuse corporate money for her campaigns. Instead, she and other RPA candidates only accept contributions from individuals. The position seems kind of gimmicky, but it was a result of the alliance’s stand against Chevron and the company’s favored candidates, which proved strategically powerful in Richmond. And as the nation lurched into the post-Citizens United era of dark money, this pledge has translated it into a more generalizable principal that resonates with wider audiences.
She and her supporters say that the pledge to go without corporate money builds trust and lets voters know that, after an election, their candidate won’t flip-flop on issues, or seek damaging compromises.
Her supporters also chalk her success up to strong social movements that work year-round to advance a progressive agenda. As RPA member Mike Parker wrote in a 2013 journal article: “RPA is not just about elections. We are year-round activists in the community and actively support other community organizations.”
This means that McLaughlin’s campaigns are different than the typical politician’s run for office. Rather than just delivering stump speeches at her own rallies, or schmoozing at exclusive events with donors, she goes out and marches with protesters or attends meetings of grassroots organizations. She says she wants to carry their work to Sacramento and translate it into policy.
Last Wednesday, McLaughlin was campaigning in Los Angeles, where she joined a march organized by health care advocates and that would end at Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon’s offices. The activists were calling for a revival of a state bill to establish universal, single-payer health care in California. On Thursday, she joined about 150 activists with groups such as the L.A. Tenants Union and the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment in a march to the offices of one of Los Angeles’ largest landlords in a low-slung building on Wilshire Boulevard.
“They have been evicting people,” McLaughlin said. “One woman was telling me that her rent is now is 70 percent of her income.” The protest, which included a mariachi band, then moved on to the home of Mayor Eric Garcetti.
“We need the mayors and legislators to hear us and enact rent freezes,” McLaughlin explained. “Housing is a human right, not a commodity.”
Although she’s run as Green Party candidate in the past, this time around McLaughlin isn’t hitching herself to any one organization.
“I think people should do what they think is best, work within or outside of a party,” she said, adding her “approach is to be a coalition builder,” and that she even supports “progressive Democrats who are fighting the good fight to reform the party.”
Her personal heroes remain radical outsiders, like Malcolm X and third party firebrands like Peter Camejo (Ralph Nader’s running mate in the 2004 presidential election and two-time candidate for California governor). But last year, McLaughlin switched her party affiliation from Green to no party preference, so that she could vote for Bernie Sanders in the state presidential primary. And Our Revolution, the political organization that sprung from the Sanders campaign and is continuing to support progressives in local and state races across the country, has been hosting meet-ups for McLaughlin as she tours the state.
It’s this interplay between outsider activists and politicians in seats of power that has characterized McLaughlin’s political career so far. But could she maintain ties to the grassroots left if elected to the statewide office of lieutenant governor?
The office itself has never been much of anything in California politics. It’s been mostly seen as a waystation to the governor’s office, not a place from which anyone can make much real change.
And if McLaughlin can manage, against huge odds, to gain recognition on the campaign trail and start polling as a real contender, it’s almost assured that Chevron, and perhaps even the California Apartment Association and other real-estate groups that fought rent control in Richmond, will pour money into a campaign against her.
Regardless of whether she can win, McLaughlin and other RPA activists say moving to state-level offices is the necessary next step for the progressive movement that emerged in Richmond more than a decade ago. Its leaders need to jump to the statehouse and create new possibilities for even more change.
“We’ve seen that a lot of state law supersedes what we’re trying to do in Richmond,” said Beckles, referring specifically to the limits of the city’s recently enacted rent-control law. “So, we need to get seats at the state level to change things.”
As one example, both Beckles and McLaughlin said they’ll work for a repeal of the Costa-Hawkins Rental Housing Act if they have a voice in Sacramento. Doing so would allow cities extend rent-control protections to thousands of more units.
McLaughlin pointed also to the recent cap-and-trade legislation signed by Gov. Jerry Brown as an example of how powerful interests in Sacramento are doing exactly the opposite. She said while the new law might reduce greenhouse-gas emissions at the state-level, it actually will make pollution in places like Richmond worse, because it cuts off the ability of local air quality boards to regulate refineries.
“I will raise this issue on the state level,” she promised. “We need better state policies for cities that have refineries so we aren’t left with these outrageous levels of asthma and other illnesses.”
But then, she added that, true to her Richmond progressive roots, she can’t do it alone, and she expects activists to keep up the pressure, especially if she wins office.
“Just electing the right people to office is enough. I don’t think that’s the best way to go about things.”
by Tim Wayne
On Tuesday, Gayle McLaughlin will step down from the Richmond City Council.
The next day, she and her husband, Paul Kilkenny, will leave for a 10-day road trip that will take them through Southern California and back. They’ll make stops in San Diego, Los Angeles and other cities, but it’ll be no summer vacation.
No, the work for McLaughlin, who is running for lieutenant governor of California, is just beginning.
by Keisa Reynolds
Richmond City Council has entered a new era without Councilwoman Gayle McLaughlin. The former mayor stepped down on July 18 to focus on her campaign for lieutenant governor of California.
McLaughlin, who says she wants to “take back the capitol for the people,” will be running against a batch of candidates including California State Sen. Ed Hernandez and Pakistani-born doctor Asif Mahmood in the 2018 election to replace Gavin Newsom.
A founding member of the Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA), McLaughlin is internationally known for her two consecutive terms as mayor of Richmond in 2006 and 2010 as a registered Green Party candidate.
She relocated from her hometown of Chicago to Richmond with her husband in the early 2000s. It didn’t take long before she became involved in local politics.
McLaughlin was first elected to the Richmond City Council in 2004, then as mayor of Richmond in 2006. With the new title, she took on one of the most pressing tasks: fixing Richmond’s reputation. Richmond is far from being crime-free, but its place on the list of Most Dangerous Cities in America dropped significantly during her terms. The city also became known for its grassroots organizing.
Steve Early, journalist and author of Refinery Town: Big Oil, Big Money, and the Remaking of an American City, considers McLaughlin a trailblazer—a term fitting for the grassroots-focused politician who helped bring on progressive city council members.
“Gayle’s role is absolutely essential to local movement building, public policy initiatives, and transforming the way that the mayor’s office operated, and encouraging other people to [pursue] city government in elected and appointed roles. That’s definitely part of her broader legacy,” explained Early.
“She shook up Richmond’s defeatism, the long-term prevalent fatalism that told us for decades we could not live better,” said Juan Reardon, McLaughlin’s campaign manager. “She led the progressive transformation of Richmond.”
McLaughlin and Reardon met in 2003 shortly after McLaughlin wrote a letter to the editor of West County Times about California gubernatorial candidate Peter Camejo, who was another Green Party politician. Together, they worked on social issues including decriminalization of homeless people and rights of day laborers. McLaughlin and Reardon, along with several other Richmond residents, went on to found the Richmond Progressive Alliance around the same time of McLaughlin’s first campaign.
In the 2016 election, RPA helped secured a supermajority, with five out of seven council members operating as corporate-free progressives.
Richmond Progressive Alliance and McLaughlin are nearly synonymous. However, the councilwoman is also lauded for her willingness to work with others in the interest of the people.
She gave up Green Party status to vote for Bernie Sanders in the presidential primary election as an independent voter—a move that signified her commitment to work for the people regardless of political differences.
Mayor Tom Butt speaks highly of McLaughlin but cautions giving credit to RPA for Richmond’s transformation in the last decade.
“One thing Gayle and the RPA are truly good at is getting elected. They are also good at taking credit, whether they earned it or not,” wrote Mayor Butt in an email to Richmond Pulse.
He noted that City Manager Bill Lindsay was the one who selected and hired former police chief Chris Magnus. Part of the city’s transformation was its reduction in homicide, an accomplishment attributed to the community-policing model implemented by Magnus.
Despite tensions between RPA and Mayor Butt, who succeeded McLaughlin in 2014, the two were able to find common ground and allies in each other during her tenure.
“At the end of the day,” he said, “McLaughlin and I have agreed on about 95 percent of public policy issues that have come before the City Council.”
Meanwhile, some residents wonder whether McLaughlin’s resignation from city council is really beneficial to the city or is simply a strategic move to keep RPA’s supermajority.
“I’ll miss Gayle personally, but right now on the City Council, I see her more as one more RPA vote, rather than an independent vote,” said Ellen Seskin, a Richmond resident.
“By leaving when she does, the council will have to choose her replacement before the election,” she said. “The RPA has a solid majority on the council, and they want that majority to first appoint Gayle’s replacement, certainly another RPA member, and still have a majority to choose Jovanka [Beckles]’ replacement, should she win.”
Beckles, another RPA council member, is running for California Assembly in District 15. She and McLaughlin are part of a growing trend of progressives seeking higher positions of office. Former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders is an inspiration, but RPA’s model of organizing has been a driving force for many.
Richmond resident David Schoenthal was appointed by McLaughlin to the Richmond Economic Development Committee. Schoenthal says that while he appreciated her focus on fighting for the less fortunate, he also saw her as someone whose ideological interests often superseded core issues of fixing services or jumpstarting economic development.
“I appreciated her willingness to step up and work on important human rights issues,” he said. “I would have liked her to focus more specifically on infrastructure and economic development for the long-term future.”
Progressive political circles around the country have touted McLaughlin’s work with RPA and the city council as the “Richmond Model.” The model emphasizes political campaigns run by grassroots organizers with the goal of creating a sustainable progressive presence in local government.
In the race for lieutenant governor, McLaughlin is once again a corporate-free candidate. Dubbed “Bernie Sanders of the East Bay,” she has said she will not accept corporate donations for her campaign for lieutenant governor.
Her campaign began with a 10-day road trip through Southern California, to spread the message of the “Richmond Model” and work with Californians to get corporations out of politics.
July 19, 2017 (San Diego)—Gayle McLaughlin, former mayor of Richmond, California, says she’s running a corporate-free progressive campaign for Lieutenant Governor of California. She will hold a town hall meeting to discuss her campaign on Thursday, July 20 at 7 p.m. at the IBEW 569 hall, 4545 Viewridge Avenue, Suite 100 in San Diego.
According to a press release issued by the campaign, as a two-term mayor of Richmond, Gayle led a successful grassroots movement to “liberate the city from corporate giants and wealthy special interests. Her progressive leadership returned political power to the city’s residents and local businesses, defeating Chevron’s attempts to buy democracy.”
McLaughlin states, “Corporations have all the advantages and too much influence in California government. That has serious consequences for our cities, communities, counties, schools and hospitals. Corporate perks starve regular working families of the resources they need. As Lieutenant Governor, I will support the people’s struggles, work to build progressive coalitions, promote new policies, and mobilize all Californians of good will, regardless of partyaffiliation, who are willing to transform our state.”
Her town hall discussion will include:
• Her experience as a progressive Mayor - how she passed progressive
legislation in spite of Chevron’s money and power;
• Her Richmond Progressive Alliance experience and her views on a need for local unity of all progressive forces;
• Why corporate money is “toxic and addictive” and “how CA can get clean and sober”; and
• Why she is running for Lt Governor.
For more information, you can visit her website: http://www.gayleforcalifornia.org/
From Our Revolution North County
Progressive activist Gayle McLaughlin, running for Lieutenant Governor of California as an independent, will be speaking in San Diego on Thursday, July 20 at the IBEW 569 Hall.
As a two-term mayor of Richmond, California, McLaughlin and her allies were responsible for the passage of progressive legislation, including:
The Richmond, CA story (Population 107,000) should serve as a primer for progressives nationwide on what is possible with coalition building and grassroots organizing. McLaughlin was a founder of the Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA), a nonpartisan progressive group in western Contra Costa County, composed of members of the Green Party, Democratic Party, and the Peace and Freedom Party, as well as independent voters.
During McLaughlin’s term, voters defeated initiatives sponsored by Chevron, which has a refinery in the city, to the tune of millions of dollars aimed at undermining her leadership. After a fire at the refinery sent 15,000 residents to the hospital, the city sued the company for damages.
The city’s murder rate fell by 75%, and she made headlines nationwide for promoting the threat of eminent domain to force banks to modify bad mortgages, keeping people in their homes in the wake of the last recession.
The McLaughlin administration’s rise and legacy is chronicled in ‘Refinery Town: Big Oil, Big Money, and the Remaking of an American City,’ published earlier this year with a foreword written by U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders.
Last year McLaughlin changed her political party registration from Green Party to NPP (“No Party Preference”) so she could vote for Bernie Sanders in the California presidential primary.
Now she is running as an independent candidate for Lieutenant Governor. Following her two terms as mayor and time as a Richmond city council member, McLaughlin tells supporters she realized there were problems facing Richmond and other California cities that were too big to solve at the city level.
She says her campaign goals continue to reflect her alignment with progressive ideals and aim to expand on her successes in Richmond. As a corporate-free candidate, she McLaughlin wants to get close to every voter “who has soured on the antics of our increasingly corporate-led political parties”, regardless of that voter’s party affiliation.
Her campaign is focusing on issues such as single-payer healthcare, the underfunding of schools due to Prop 13, repealing Costa-Hawkins to allow rent control expansion, and continuing to ignite the progressive movement within 100 California cities.
Our Revolution North County San Diego Meeting
With Speaker Gayle McLaughlin
Since 2004, members of the Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA) have won ten out of the sixteen city council and mayoral races they have contested in their majority minority city of 110,000.
Last November, progressives gained an unprecedented “super-majority” of five on Richmond’s seven-member council—despite more than a decade of heavy spending against them by Chevron Corp. and other big business interests. For 12 years, RPA candidates have distinguished themselves from local Democrats by their lonely, Bernie Sanders-like refusal to take corporate contributions.
As a Richmond mayor and councilmember Gayle McLaughlin railed against Chevron, one of the most powerful corporations in the world, for its environmental indecency, sought to protect residents from the cold grip of home foreclosures by Big Banks through eminent domain and backed working people and immigrants at every turn by raising the city's minimum wage and becoming a sanctuary city.
Now McLaughlin, currently serving on the Richmond City Council, is eyeing a possible run next year for state lieutenant governor. On Monday, she filed to form an exploratory campaign committee. The move allows her to begin fundraising.
By Kathy Kiely
A soon-to-be-published book by a longtime labor organizer chronicles how a grass-roots democracy movement overcame corporate money.
In Richmond, California, a refinery town near San Francisco, a vibrant community coalition is proving that democracy is powered by votes, not money. (Photo by Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
When longtime labor activist Steve Early moved to Richmond, California, he thought San Francisco’s gritty neighbor would be a good place to observe and participate in a vibrant local political community whose battles against corporate neighbor Chevron have been chronicled by Bill Moyers. What he didn’t know was that he’d find the topic for his latest book — one that is all the more timely following the results of last month’s elections. In his forward for Early’s Refinery Town: Big Oil, Big Money and the Making of An American City, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) writes: “Our country obviously need a a great deal of change at the state and federal levels. But laying a solid local foundation, like activists in Richmond have done, is an important first step.” Early’s book will be available next month; in an interview with Kathy Kiely of BillMoyers.com, he provides a sneak preview.
In November 2014, my city of Richmond, California, provided us with a beautiful and successful David vs. Goliath story in which ordinary people (the people of Richmond) triumphed over the Chevron Corporation and its $3 million attempt to stop Richmond’s progressive direction. We experienced a clean sweep in the elections with all the progressives winning and all of Chevron’s candidates losing.
Until recent years in Richmond, Chevron was not accustomed to having progressives inside and outside elected office working side by side for the interests of the people (rather than rolling over to corporate interests). A decade of hard-won successes, including initiatives for fair taxation; legal action requiring greater transparency; and public health, safety and environmental protections, as well as enormous local mobilizations for environmental justice and climate justice, made the corporate giant furious. Despite its rage, we persevered.
BillMoyers.com is proud to collaborate with EveryVoice on a series of op-eds featuring ideas from a variety of viewpoints for making our democracy one that is truly of, by and for the people. Discover more ways to fight back against our broken campaign finance system. It’s a fight we can win.
Protest against Chevron in Richmond, California in April 2012. (Photo: Daniel Arauz/flickr CC 2.0)/Edited from original)
Our progressive achievements and electoral victories in Richmond have garnered national attention and we hope our story provides inspiration, and instruction, to other cities and communities. Richmond’s success is a bright light in these dark times of corporate money obscenely dominating the electoral landscape nationwide, and I remain very grateful to the voters who would not let Richmond’s democracy be bought.
Yet we also see Chevron’s outsized attempt to influence Richmond’s elections as a warning. We are an example of how the ominous Citizens Unitedruling unfolds and impacts communities fighting on behalf of their own interests. We worked extremely hard to push Chevron back and succeeded. But we know our future remains in peril as long as corporations are given a free rein in political elections.
Citizens United opened wide the floodgates and by doing so allowed Chevron to deluge our local democracy with its money. For Chevron, and for corporate America in general, it is important to defeat those of us working for grassroots democracy. They become threatened when a community mobilizes, as we have done in Richmond; they become threatened when elected officials are serving in office who cannot be bought; and they become threatened when a city with a hardscrabble past, like Richmond, is doing so well and improving based on the efforts of its citizens pulling together.
Many of us took not a penny from any corporation in our campaigns. We live our values, work hard to inspire and explain our views to the community, and trust in the voters who clearly have seen through Chevron’s deceptions.
Yet we know we are surrounded by a corporate-dominated society, so we continue to warn about the dangers of corporate control even as we celebrate our victories. Just last week, I joined other local elected officials and environmental activists – including the Sierra Club, the Asian Pacific Environmental Network and Communities for a Better Environment — at a press conference in front of Chevron’s Richmond refinery in support of a recently filed shareholder resolution that asks Chevron’s board of directors to stop spending corporate funds in all political elections. Not only was shareholder money wasted in this past year’s election, but as the resolution states: “Chevron faces risks that include loss of goodwill, tensions with local communities, and reputational damage due to its spending intended to influence political elections.” Such shareholder efforts should take place at corporations around the country.
Make no mistake, we know we are in a very hard battle. Citizens United is a curse on our democracy and if it remains in place, our democracy nationwide will be destroyed. Locally, we stand strong in this battle for our nation’s future. Seventy-two percent of our Richmond voters called for a repeal of Citizens United through a local ballot measure. You can do it in your community, too. We stand with progressives everywhere calling for full disclosure by all corporate entities and political action committees, spending limits for all campaigns and public financing of public elections.
Imagine if elections were not allowed to be bought and public financing were the law of the land. Imagine if constitutional protection of our democracy was implemented and assured. Imagine if clean money and clean elections allowed people to mark their ballots knowing their individual votes count and feeling comfortable that the campaign season has not been manipulated by big money.
It can happen, but only if we keep demanding it. As abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass said: “Power concedes nothing without a demand.”
The oil giant Chevron is being accused of attempting to buy the city government of Richmond, California. The company has spent more than $3 million to back a slate of pro-Chevron candidates for mayor and city council ahead of Tuesday’s election. According to a report in the Los Angeles Times, Chevron has paid for TV attack ads, purchased space on virtually every billboard in town, funded a flood of mailers and financed a fake “news” website run by a Chevron employee. The move comes two years after a massive fire at Chevron’s oil refinery in Richmond sent 15,000 residents to the hospital. It was the third refinery fire since 1989 in the city. The city of Richmond responded to the latest fire by suing Chevron, accusing officials of placing profits and executive pay over public safety. We speak to one of the politicians being targeted, outgoing Mayor Gayle McLaughlin. She was elected mayor of Richmond in 2006, becoming the first Green Party official to represent a city of more than 100,000. Due to mayoral term limits, McLaughlin is now running for Richmond City Council.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We turn now to Richmond, California, where the oil giant Chevron is being accused of attempting to buy the city government. The company has spent more than $3 million to back a slate of pro-Chevron candidates for mayor and city council ahead of Tuesday’s election. According to a report in the Los Angeles Times, Chevron has paid for TV attack ads, purchased space on virtually every billboard in town, funded a flood of mailers, and financed a fake news website run by a Chevron employee.
The move comes two years after a massive fire at Chevron’s oil refinery in Richmond sent 15,000 residents to the hospital. It was the third refinery fire since 1989 in that city. The city of Richmond responded to the latest fire by suing Chevron, accusing officials of placing profits and executive pay over public safety. Now Chevron is attempting to defeat some of its critics in city government. Here is one recent political ad paid for by Chevron.
CHEVRON’S MOVING FORWARD AD: It seems like whenever Richmond faces a tough problem, Mayor Gayle McLaughlin packs her suitcase and flies away. When Richmond needed someone to fight crime, Gayle flew away to Ecuador. When Richmond needed someone to fix crumbling public housing, Gayle flew away to Cuba. When Richmond needed someone to attract new businesses and jobs, Gayle flew away to D.C. to try to free convicted foreign spies. Mayor Gayle McLaughlin ran away when we needed her the most. Why would we elect her to City Council?
AMY GOODMAN: An ad by Chevron’s campaign committee, Moving Forward, targeting Gayle McLaughlin. In 2006, she was elected mayor of Richmond, becoming the first Green Party official to represent a city of more than 100,000. She is now running for City Council. She was not allowed to run for a third term as mayor due to term limits. Richmond Mayor Gayle McLaughlin now joins us from San Francisco.
Welcome back to Democracy Now! Can you please explain this for a global audience that might not understand what is going on in Richmond right now, the extent to which Chevron is a player in your municipal elections?
MAYOR GAYLE McLAUGHLIN: Thank you, Amy. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Yes, what’s happening in Richmond now is that we have made remarkable—a remarkable transformation over the past 10 years since I’ve been in office, with other progressive electives and a progressive community. Previous to that, over the past hundred years, we were known as a company town, with Chevron having control of the City Council, having the City Council bought out, in their pockets. We had among the highest rates in the nation of violence. We were known for widespread corruption. You know, Richmond had the refinery, with a situation of allowing it to continue to pollute, without the refinery paying its fair share of taxes, without hiring locally, without upgrading the refinery in a responsible way in terms of having safety for our residents. In fact, they have thousands of clamps holding corroded pipes together. And that’s what led to the fire of 2012.
But at a certain point, in 2003—
AMY GOODMAN: And the fire and the extent of the damage caused by the fire?
MAYOR GAYLE McLAUGHLIN: —we formed a progressive alliance, and that RPA, Richmond Progressive Alliance, ran people for elected office. We won five local elections, including my mayoral seat. And we set about making the people’s priorities the focus of our work as elected officials.
And that has led to many, many gains. We won a $114 million tax settlement with Chevron. We’ve renovated our parks, many, many urban renewal projects. And we’ve reduced our crime dramatically, a 70 percent reduction in homicides. We are continuing to put forward sustainable projects—number one in the Bay Area for solar installed per capita. So, we’re spiraling up and reversing that downward spiral. And Chevron feels very threatened by that. They want to stop us as progressives. They want to continue and get and regain the City Council in their pockets. And so, we’re standing tall and making it clear that we’re a community that defines its own destiny and will continue to do so.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Mayor McLaughlin, I want to read from a statement Chevron made to MSNBC in response to reports of it spending $3 million in local elections this year. Quote, "The amount of money we spend to inform voters must be viewed in the context of the more than $500 million in local taxes, social investment and spending on local vendors from Chevron over the past five years, and our $90 million social and environmental commitment to the city that will follow once our $1 billion refinery modernization is allowed to proceed." Your response?
MAYOR GAYLE McLAUGHLIN: Yes, you know, yeah, sure, Chevron does some good things in the city of Richmond, but it comes at a price. First and foremost, they require all the money that they give to nonprofits to come with this requirement that these nonprofits utilize Chevron’s logo in their press releases, and they have press conferences where Chevron gets to do its PR campaign. So it comes at a price. Yes, we think those are good projects that they have contributed to, but it is no excuse for one domineering company to try and buy a city’s election.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And what about the fire that led to your council and your government seeking redress from Chevron? Could you talk about the impact on your community?
MAYOR GAYLE McLAUGHLIN: Yes, the 2012 horrific fire caused great damage to our community. It was a situation where 15,000 people went to local hospitals for respiratory ailments. We had damages to our local economy in terms of our property values were lowered, and there was a slowdown in attraction of new businesses to Richmond. So we feel that there was, you know, a huge trauma and a huge impact on the health and the economic future of Richmond.
So we are taking them to court. We have a lawsuit. It’s the first-ever lawsuit that the city of Richmond has waged against Chevron. And we think we deserve a City Council that will stand strong and not drop this lawsuit. If Chevron-friendly candidates get into the City Council, we fear that’s exactly what will happen, the lawsuit will be dropped, or a very weak settlement will come about. We want to stand strong and get the kind of compensation that the community deserves. And we want to make it clear that Chevron’s corporate culture must change, that they must put the health and well-being of our community before their corporate profits.
AMY GOODMAN: Mayor, can you talk about the Richmond Standard website, which describes itself as a home of, quote, "community-driven news," but it is actually funded entirely by Chevron?
MAYOR GAYLE McLAUGHLIN: Yes, the Richmond Standard website tries to promote itself as a news website, but in fact it’s a public relations—Chevron public relations website. All the articles in there are Chevron-friendly articles. They’re articles that promote Chevron’s agenda. It is not anywhere near even a mainstream news service that pretends to be somewhat neutral. It is clearly a Chevron PR website.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you very much for being with us. One of the tabs says "Chevron Speaks" on that website. Mayor Gayle McLaughlin, mayor of Richmond, the Green mayor of the—she is the mayor of the largest—it’s the largest city, Richmond, to have a Green mayor. Her term is ending. She’s term-limited out, and she’s now running for the Richmond City Council. We’re going to continue with Green Party politics in a moment here in New York. Stay with us.