Richmond, CA vs. Chevron

— Mike Parker & Margaret Jordan

THERE WAS NO shortage of attention-getting politics in the fall of 2008. Yet even in the context of the history-making national election, the local city council campaign and vote on business license fees in Richmond, California should be of interest to readers of a national magazine.

These campaigns in this struggling post heavy-industrial suburb of San Francisco with 100,000 residents were in fact a reflection of all the larger pressing global issues — including the unmatched economic crisis, imperialist misadventures, massive investment banking fraud and California’s anti-gay Proposition 8.

They showed how a local community could stand up against the power of global corporations, the local Democratic Party, and an entrenched political machine made up of multinational corporations, local developers, business organizations, and even some unions.

Chevron’s Overwhelming Power

The Chevron refinery dominates Richmond. Its five square miles (about 13% of Richmond land) includes some of the best shoreline in the SF Bay Area. According to one study Chevron owns about one-third of the land-value in the city (see “Richmond’s Tax Revenue from Chevron,” Report by West County Indicators Project October 2008, www.pacinst.org}.

Despite this sprawling presence Chevron employs only about 1200 workers (plus perhaps an equal number of contract workers), and few of these live in Richmond.

One of the largest corporations in the world (third in the Fortune 500 listing), Chevron relentlessly promotes itself as a responsible company developing alternative energy, concerned about the environment, making contributions to charities. But Chevron is also the company that recruited and transported the Nigerian military who murdered protesters on its drilling rig in the Niger delta, and is responsible for enormous environmental damage to indigenous populations in the equatorial Amazon.

Chevron plays hardball in the Richmond community. Not only does the community surrounding the refinery suffer foul smells and elevated asthma rates, but Chevron through its political power continually finds ways to contribute less to the city. It has kept its taxes low while its profits soar; it refuses to pay utility taxes at the same rate as Richmond households and is currently taking legal action to reduce its county property taxes and eliminate its contribution for hazardous waste inspections.

Chevron carefully cultivates its political power. It makes large “voluntary” contributions to local non-profits to gain their support. Large contributions to business organizations, like the local Chamber of Commerce, serve to keep them in line.

Chevron mobilizes local suppliers and wannabe suppliers in its defense. Through its many front political committees it makes large contributions to the campaigns of local politicians, resulting in a city council that has historically supported the interests of the Chevron Corporation over the welfare of the citizens of Richmond.

Tension between Chevron and the community has mounted for decades and came to a head last year when Chevron sought a permit for a major renovation and expansion of its facility. Many in the community supported modernization, but they demanded that it result in significantly lower pollution. Conflict intensified when it became apparent that as a result of the “modernization” Chevron would have the ability to refine “heavier crude,” which would likely result in more pollution.

Despite the technical nature of the issue, a professional survey (David Binder Research) found that by 53% to 11% the community wanted to prohibit Chevron from being able to refine “heavier crude.” Ignoring the overwhelming community opposition, five city council members provided the majority to give Chevron what it wanted. They earned the name “Chevron 5.”

The Fall Election

In 2004, following a period of city deficit and corruption, voters approved reducing the size of the council from nine to seven members beginning with the Fall 2008 election. As a result, four incumbents were running for three open positions. Three of the incumbents were part of the “Chevron 5.” The fourth had consistently opposed Chevron and had the support of a number of progressives in the city.

In addition, progressive forces in the city backed two new candidates who had been part of the community effort to oppose Chevron in the “crude cap struggle” and who supported a citizens’ ballot initiative (Measure T) to change the business license fee schedule.

Measure T was designed to force Chevron to pay its “fair share” to the city. Its passage would calculate the business license fee for large manufacturing corporations based on the value of raw materials. Most businesses would be unaffected and a few would have slight increases. But under Measure T, Chevron’s business license fee would increase from around $70,000/yr to roughly $20 million/yr(varying with the cost of crude oil).

While $20 million is about 15% of the Richmond general fund, it is almost insignificant to Chevron which had $19 billion in profits in 2007 and $24 billion in 2008. Nonetheless, with its insatiable need to be in control Chevron put a great effort into defeating Measure T and re-electing its loyal city council members.

All told, we estimate that Chevron and related corporations put well over a million dollars into this local election. Chevron contributed close to $400,000 directly to the Committee to Oppose Measure T. In addition it poured funds into its front political action committees like the Committee for Industrial Safety and Committee for Quality Government.

Chevron’s vassals — supplier corporations, the Chamber of Commerce, and most of the building trades unions — gave large contributions to the “Chevron 3” candidates running for reelection. The Chevron 3 each spent near $100,000 directly and benefited by large spending by the Chevron front committees. In contrast, the committee supporting Measure T and the progressive candidates each spent about $30,000.

Chevron tried to spin Measure T as “bad for Richmond.” They painted dire scenarios in which jobs would not come to Richmond; small businesses would be driven out by increased taxes, new businesses would avoid Richmond. Chevron sponsored a wave of expensive, glossy mailings filled with total fabrications: small bakeries and a neighborhood green dry cleaner would be taxed and driven out of business; Tesla electric car company had decided not to locate in Richmond because of Measure T. None of these claims had the slightest basis in fact.

Many other powerful forces supported the pro-Chevron incumbents and opposed Measure T. The County Democratic Party endorsed the Chevron 3. Chevron plastered Richmond with campaign signs promoting the Democratic party candidates. The Democratic Party slate card featured Obama at the top, George Miller for Congress and the Chevron 3 for city council.

Another force against the progressives was an entrenched political network based on developers and the police and fire fighters unions which had long been involved in Richmond politics and historically had done the dirty work, issuing mudslinging literature late in the campaigns when it could not be answered. In this campaign a racist hit-piece backfired (see article "Stirring Up Racism," below).

A final obstacle for the campaign was a kind of defeatism in the face of corporate power. Chevron’s overwhelming resources combined with its willingness to donate to various community groups fed a notion that perhaps the way to deal with Chevron was not to criticize them but to “ask them nicely” to help out.

Chevron’s past paternalistic relationship to the city gave this approach some plausibility, but it was lessened some in this election because Chevron had gone hardball on almost every recent issue ranging from taxes to shoreline bicycle paths on its property.

Victory Against the Power

Despite all these forces and the overwhelming imbalance of funds, the progressive forces clearly carried the day. Measure T passed 51.5%. One of the progressive candidates, Dr. Jeff Ritterman, received the most votes for council. The one anti-Chevron incumbent we supported was re-elected. Only one of the Chevron 3 managed to maintain a seat, but the other progressive candidate Jovanka Beckles received the next highest votes easily beating the remaining two pro-Chevron incumbents.

How was it possible to win against the seemingly overwhelming money, organizational advantages and the Democratic Party endorsement in a community in which Obama was bringing thousands of new voters to the polls? In our view there was no single key to victory but rather a coming together of a number of critical elements.

1) There was a long history of struggle in Richmond against Chevron, against developers, and against racism. Multiple networks of people and a number of non-profit community organizations existed based on these. In addition there was an active neighborhood council system.

2) Voters had elected a Green party activist Gayle McLaughlin Mayor in a three-way race in 2006. As mayor and with a minority of the council she was able to bring to light many critical issues involving dealings with Chevron, and to play a key role in mobilizing community demands.

3) The campaign had a core of dedicated campaigners who began door-to-door canvassing every week well before election season, and systematically tried to reach all the networks and neighborhood councils. Phone-banking, in cooperation with the Sierra Club, began months before the election.

4) Although initially the campaigns for Measure T and the two progressive council candidates were conceived as separate, they generally came together as the campaign progressed. This not only made their money go a lot further, it gave the campaign new energy: It was not about electing a good person so much as about a transformation of the city. It was about putting the city on a stable financial base by forcing Chevron to pay “its fair share” and breaking the majority on the council that rolled over for Chevron. Both progressive candidates brought a different base to the campaign which carried over and helped the other.

5) The efforts relied on volunteer work and volunteer communication instead of paid campaigners. They got considerable political support because of their open and principled positions that corporate funding had no place in democratic politics, and they refused and turned back any contributions from large corporations.

6) The campaigns were positive and pointed to real solutions. While the campaign attacked Chevron’s role in the community, they focused on what would be possible with Measure T money. The progressive candidates put forward plans including diversifying economic development, creating a Richmond Youth Core, expanding programs to solarize Richmond, developing urban agriculture, and bringing in non-conventional ways of dealing with youth violence.

7) The campaigns aggressively sought labor support even though most of the building trades had long been in Chevron’s camp. The Central Labor Council endorsed Jeff Ritterman and both candidates got the endorsement of SEIU 1021, SEIU-UHW, AFSME district council 57, and CAN. SEIU 1021 in particularly turned out members and retirees every week for canvassing.

8) The campaign responded as a movement, mobilizing for city council meetings and using the public comment portion of council meetings as a forum for raising the issues critical in the campaign. One example was the response to a racist election hit-piece (see box).

The progressive movement in Richmond didn’t win it all but considering the odds, this election campaign succeeded in putting a dent in racism, was a step forward in building a local progressive movement, showed that it is possible to beat even the biggest corporation and develop a program which makes sense for urban America.

For more information: www.aFairShareForRichmond.org, www.JovankaBeckles.org, www.JeffRitterman.com. See also Robert Gammon, “This Election is About Big Oil,” East Bay Express, October 29 2008, Vol 31:3.

ATC 139, March-April 2009

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