By Darwin BondGraham
The former city of Richmond mayor and council member hopes that the idealistic brand of politics she championed in the Bay will attract statewide voters.
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.
Defying the Odds
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.”
Purity Over Results?
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.”
Progressives Take-On the Capitol
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.”
McLaughlin with progressive firebrand Sen. Bernie Sanders in 2014.
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.”