Richmond: Company Town or People's Town?

— Dianne Feeley

ON NOVEMBER 4, 2014, voters in Richmond, California will face a momentous choice between a slate of City Council candidates along with mayoral candidate Mike Parker backed by the Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA) versus candidates heavily backed by the city’s dominant corporation, Chevron. In fact, the outcome may be determined by heavy early voting prior to election day.

Richmond’s outgoing mayor Gayle McLaughlin, a veteran Green Party activist who’s leaving office due to term limits, is part of the “Team Richmond” City Council slate of candidates along with her vice mayor Jovanka Beckles and retired teacher Eduardo Martinez. (see www.TeamRichmond.net) Five City Council spots are up for election, including that of the mayor, who serves on the council.

In the mayoral race, Parker, RPA organizer and longtime UAW skilled tradesman and union democracy activist, is running against a heavily Chevron-backed retired probation officer Nat Bates, and attorney Charles Ramsey, a local school board president who indicated he has already raised nearly $100,000 from contractors and building-trades unions who value his support.

Corporate Crime

Richmond is a longstanding site of struggle between an active community and a corporate giant. Dominating the East Bay city, the more than 100-year old Chevron oil refinery sprawls over five square miles of shoreline. As the country’s most productive refinery, processes around 250,000 barrels of crude a day. Its taxes and fees contribute one-third of Richmond, California’s general fund. It also regularly releases carcinogens and other pollutants into the air; East Bay residents have the highest asthma rates in the state, while in a typical year the Richmond refinery takes in $20-30 billion.

In August 2012 an explosion and fire ripped through the refinery, producing a plume of toxic smoke. The fire nearly killed a dozen workers and sent more than 15,000 residents to nearby hospitals and medical centers seeking help for respiratory problems.

While the refinery has been the scene of major fires, spills, leaks and explosions — and residents have sought to hold Chevron accountable over the years — this disaster has initiated a wide-ranging discussion about the hazards of transporting and refining oil in the city, and the Bay Area.

The immediate cause was a burst pipe, thinned by corrosion. Company records revealed that operators had targeted the pipe for replacement ten years before! Investigating the incident, Cal/OSHA found 25 violations and issued the largest fine ever imposed on a corporation — $1 million. Chevron pled no contest to six charges filed by state and local prosecutors, agreeing to pay an additional $2 million in fines. According to Chevron, hospitals and individuals have also been reimbursed to the tune of $10 million.

Richmond mayor Gayle McLaughlin and the City Council rejected the corporation’s $10 million settlement offer, filing suit for even greater compensation. They pointed out that not only did the fire cause a drop in property values that would have a severe impact on city finances, but that the refinery has created a “pattern of abuse” for residents.

To mark the one-year anniversary of the disaster, 2,500 demonstrators marched through the town to the gates of the refinery. Communities for a Better Environment (CBE), the Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN), West Contra Costa County Toxics Coalition (WCCTC) and RPA — local organizations that have been fighting to end toxic waste emissions — were joined by Idle No More and other environmental activists. Mayor McLaughlin addressed the rally along with Bill McKibben, 350.org organizer, who tied the local environmental dangers to the national campaign against global warming.

Since 2005 the refinery has sought to expand its facilities, claiming that it wants to upgrade the complex and comply with Clean Air Act standards. For their part, community organizations have mobilized residents to appear at Planning Board meetings to demand that Chevron repair its pipes and values, and shut down older parts of the complex.

Most recently Chevron, a Fortune 500 corporation, wants to “modernize” the refinery to handle high-sulfur crude oil. The coalition of community organizations has been campaigning against this plan, which would result in releasing even more carcinogens and other pollutants into the atmosphere.

Back in 2008 the City Council, then with its pro-Chevron majority, approved the corporation’s project. CBE, APEN and the WCCTC subsequently won a series of legal victories that invalidated the Environmental Impact Report. The courts found that the report failed to evaluate the impact of refining heavier, dirtier, more corrosive crude oil and had no plan for mitigating the increases in greenhouse gas emissions.

Instead of revising its plans, Chevron immediately stopped construction. Placing the blame on the coalition, it laid off 1300 workers. The Contra Costa Building Trades unions bought Chevron’s line and denounced those who had opposed the project. Many suspect Chevron used the court order as an excuse to stop building at a time when the economy was tanking, and would later revive it.

At the same time Richmond community activists circulated a petition and placed on the November ballot a measure to increase Chevron’s business tax. Chevron responded by falsely advertising that Measure T would harm small businesses, but it was specifically designed to raise business license fees on large corporations. Although the Chamber of Commerce lined up behind Chevron — its largest funder — the measure passed by 54%. The same election saw a change in the City Council, with two of the “Chevron Five” defeated.

Meanwhile Chevron appealed to the county for a property tax reduction. They easily won the first round, with the assessor’s appeals panel refunding the corporation $18 million. Chevron still sued for more. When Chevron appealed its taxes for the next three years the coalition organized demonstrations before the appeal hearing, arranged public testimony during the lengthy hearings, and spoke out to the media.

In the second round, the panel rejected Chevron’s claim that it had overpaid its property taxes. Instead, the panel found that it had underpaid them by $25 million. Chevron of course appealed that decision also. In 2013 the County Assessor worked out a settlement with Chevron that provided some gains for the county, but, according to Mike Parker, was still a sweet deal for Chevron.

The reality is that Chevron never gives up. Through its deep pockets Chevron contributes to churches and other community organizations in order to win their political support, spends more than a million directly to support its candidates in City Council elections, churns out glossy brochures and purchases billboards to spread its message of how committed it is to being a helpful neighbor.

In April 2014, after three years of preparation for its required Environmental Impact Report, Chevron management again appeared before the planning board seeking to restart a $1 billion expansion. It claimed that the modernization will insure a cleaner and safer facility. Building trades unions, anxious for the 1,000 construction jobs the plan promises, backed Chevron even before specifics were made available.

Grassroots organizations, including CBE and RPA, challenged Chevron to develop a modernization that would truly improve the health of the community and decrease the threat to the environment. Mike Parker pointed out that the report as presented would increase “both local toxic emissions that damage our health and greenhouse gas emissions that damage our planet.”

Richmond Progressive Alliance History

Whenever challenged, Chevron threatens to close its refinery and leave Richmond high and dry. Even when an agreement is worked out, such as the one made with the city in 2010 to install air quality monitors, the corporation seems to be “going through the paces,” installing monitors at the “fenceline” and in three community locations. The battle to stop the release of toxic pollutants has been a case of David vs. Goliath.

By the early 2000s it became clear that community organizing needed to challenge the city government. Industrial and commercial interests called the shots and were happy with a corrupt and inefficient city government. A corruption scandal, racial tensions, police brutality — particularly directed at the growing Latino population — financial chaos resulting from mismanagement and cronyism ($35 million in the red), and a rising awareness of environmental issues posed by the refinery gave rise to the formation of the RPA.

Richmond, a city of slightly over 100,000, is 40% Latino, 30% Black, 14% Asian, half a percent Native American and about 20% white. Nearly 20% of the city’s families live below the poverty line. In a 2004 national survey, Richmond was ranked as the most dangerous California city, the twelfth most dangerous in the country.

Although Richmond became a highly industrialized city during World War II, most of those facilities are now shut — but the toxic wastes were left behind. Vulnerable to earthquakes, Richmond was seriously affected by the 2007 San Francisco Bay oil spill when its beaches were temporarily closed and its wildlife compromised.

The major problems the city faces are similar to other urban areas: high unemployment, a lack of good jobs, industrial waste and institutionalized racism. In the context of globalization and cutbacks at the national and state levels, the city government is under pressure to provide tax breaks and other concessions to business.

Given this situation, the Richmond Progressive Alliance formed in 2003 from two distinct groups. First, the Richmond Green Party had successfully opposed the construction of a dirty power plant proposed by the city and Chevron, was working to decriminalize homelessness, launched a campaign to stop police mistreatment of mostly Latino day-laborers, and took on a number of environmental issues including the elimination of toxic dumps on the shoreline. Second, Latino progressive Democrats had come together to oppose a police beating at a Cinco de Mayo event in 2002.

The two groups were pulled together by Latino activist Juan Reardon to challenge the existing political power in a city where the vast majority of voters defined themselves as Democrats and only Democrats were elected to office. RPA supported two candidates in the 2004 elections: Gayle McLaughlin, a Green Party activist, and Andrés Soto, a Latino community activist in the Democratic Party.

Since Richmond City Council elections are non-partisan, this alliance wasn’t faced with structural obstacles. The two candidates were identified as community leaders who led struggles such as the March 4 Education, a 90-mile march from Richmond to Sacramento, to demand more financial resources for local schools.

In the final days of the campaign, the big guns targeted Soto, who came in runner-up, and ignored McLaughlin, whose little-funded grassroots campaign proved successful.

Over the course of the next two years, RPA worked on a variety of community issues including the clean-up of toxic sites, defending the shoreline from further development, opposing a regressive sales tax increase, and working with environmental groups and the Building Trades to end Chevron’s “self-inspection,” a tactic that made it easier for Chevron to hire union-busting contractors.

Activists addressed the city’s chronic violence by working with people associated with gun violence, supporting those who proposed hiring them as a feature of community policing. But it was probably RPA’s campaign to make Chevron pay its fair share of taxes that resonated with large segments of the population.

When Councilmember McLaughlin ran for mayor against the incumbent in the 2006 election, once again the professional politicians didn’t think she had a chance. But respect for her principled stands and the continued community work of the RPA resulted in her winning the majority in a three-way vote.

Actually under Richmond’s city manager system, the mayor has little direct power but functions as the public spokesperson. Gayle McLaughlin used this power effectively, maintaining a heavy schedule of expected appearances at business functions and non-profit events, as well as speaking at movement events. One of her first actions as Mayor was to speak at a mass meeting to support terminating the city’s cooperation with ICE raids. Her participation in community direct action struggles drew national attention.

Under her watch, Measure T passed and RPA candidate Dr. Jeff Ritterman was elected to City Council. Another RPA candidate, Jovanka Beckles, was runner up.
The issue that dominated Richmond in 2009-2010 was a plan to build a Vegas-style casino at Point Molate, a prized piece of property on the San Francisco Bay. The old City Council, which had taken control of the land from the Navy in 2003, made a deal with a developer to build an “Indian” casino.

The developer’s allies were the building trades and groups and churches in the poorer, mainly African-American areas that believed that the casino would provide desperately needed jobs. Progressives opposed the casino both on environmental grounds and because they believed that the promised jobs would not come through, while many social problems would. An advisory vote was placed on the ballot for the 2010 election.

Mayor McLaughlin ran for reelection strongly opposed to the casino and with a long list of positive developments that had taken place under her leadership. Again she faced two opponents, but unlike four years earlier when both were Black establishment candidates, this time one was a white candidate and former head of the Chamber of Commerce while the other was Nat Bates, a leader of the old-guard Black machine.

The opposition ran a vicious campaign, with the police and fire unions financing an investigation and then widely publicizing personal information from McLaughlin’s distant past, including that she had taken prescription drugs for depression, and taken forever to finish paying off her student loans.

With the highest number of votes, the Mayor won reelection. Two more of the “Chevron Five” were defeated, replaced by two RPA candidates, Jovanka Beckles, a Black Latina, and Corky Booze, an African-American who openly challenged machine politics. The advisory vote on the casino was overwhelmingly defeated.

With three RPA members and only one of the Chevron Five remaining, it looked like RPA could be a force to move Richmond forward. But almost immediately Booze made peace with the old Black machine and became a Chevron man.

Still, progressive issues were usually able to muster a majority vote. Under the leadership of RPA Councilmember Jeff Ritterman, the city mobilized to make the case for the University of California Field Station being the site for the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory’s second campus. Despite Richmond’s reputation as a dangerous and undesirable location in the Bay Area, in 2012 the laboratory announced that it had selected Richmond. The whole city celebrated.

The RPA Vision

RPA sees itself as allies of community organizations and non-profits willing to challenge the corporate establishment. It also strongly defends unions and pro-union policies, backing organizing drives, contract campaigns, and Project Labor Agreements. Core to their vision is the idea that democracy means people and not corporations and unity against racism and the politics of division. (See RPA website: http://www.RichmondProgressiveAlliance.net.)

Although RPA has occasionally been able to work together with the building trades unions, it is often on the opposing side when Chevron puts construction jobs in its expansion proposals. City workers’ and nurses’ unions see RPA as not just an electoral alternative but active around community issues they see as important.

Because city elections are technically nonpartisan, RPA can be a space where registered Democrats, Greens and independents can work. Some active members will have nothing to do with the Democratic Party, while some strongly support liberal Democrats at the state and national level. Clearly this model would fall apart if RPA were to enter partisan races.

RPA candidates cannot accept corporate contributions and therefore do not vote based on which business paid their campaign expenses. That means RPA must raise the money to print literature, get out mailings and have an office and phones. But its basic tool is door-to-door canvassing. This means that RPA and its campaigns are massively underfunded.

It also means that although Richmond’s Democratic Congressman George Miller has one of the most liberal voting records in the House — and even criticizes Chevron about the dangers it poses to the community — at election time Miller, along with the rest of the official Democratic organization, is seen as endorsing Chevron’s candidates.

RPA also joins with broader social movements at a state and national level. It campaigned for the California Millionaires Tax and endorses national campaigns against global warming.

Even knowing that many of the problems Richmond faces are ultimately unsolvable at a local level, the organization attempts to find partial solutions that ease the pressures of everyday life. It actively supported the new Police Chief Magnus’ changes in the police department to a community policing model, and defended him against the pushback interests and corrupt police who resisted the reforms.

RPA encourages residents with ideas about arts, planning, economic development, human rights, workforce training and police to serve on commissions. This, along with a reentry program for previously incarcerated people that includes helping with housing, training and employment, has contributed to decreasing violent incidents.

One area in which RPA organizers acknowledge a serious weakness is in its relationship to the African-American community. Although African Americans in Richmond are very much the victims of institutional racism, much of the organized leadership have made cozy arrangements with Chevron, the Chamber of Commerce, and corrupt power brokers.

The Black machine leadership works hard to isolate any African American who charts an independent course. When Jovanka Beckles ran for council, they spread the word that she was not a “real” African American because she was born in Panama. Beckles pointed out that where slavers initially dumped their slaves did not change the reality of African heritage or the fact of slavery.

The Fight against Foreclosures

The Richmond Progressive Alliance participates in electoral politics not as a substitute for a progressive movement but an essential component of the movement. One of the realities of social power that they have discovered is that even the most modest reforms cause corporate interests to launch an attack.

Take the most recent issue that has been getting Richmond in the news. The city, like many others, has seen a huge number of foreclosures resulting from the collapse of the financial industry bubble. In 2013 more than half of all mortgaged homes were “underwater” — the amount owed on the mortgage was significantly more than the value of the house.

With no equity in the home, defaulting on excessive payments and forfeiting the house often makes rational economic sense. (For more information, see, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/30/business/in-a-shift-eminent-domain-saves-homes.html?_r=0, http://richmondcares.com/, and http://www.richmondprogressicvealliance.net.)
In some cases banks recognized — or were forced to recognize by campaigns led by the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, known mainly by its initials, ACCE and supported by RPA — this reality and reduce the mortgage principle so that people could stay in their homes, paying reasonable amounts.

But the slicing and dicing of mortgages that produced the bubble also meant there was a large class of mortgages (called Private Label Securities) where no one had the authority to make such changes. The Richmond City Council proposed to buy these mortgages (not the houses themselves) at fair market value and restructure them to keep people in their homes. The city power of “eminent domain” could be used to force the rational policy in those cases where there was no one authorized or where negotiations failed.

It seemed like a reasonable solution. Underwater homeowners got to stay in their homes with equity and reduced mortgage payments. Thus the community would solve the problem of empty houses destabilizing the neighborhood. The owners of the mortgage packages — pension funds, etc. — would get fair market value for their holdings, converting “toxic” mortgages to “good” mortgages. The plan’s financial backers and ACCE introduced the idea to a number of cities. (http://www.calorganize.org/)

Eminent domain is nothing new; corporations and developers use it to force people out of their homes, putting together parcels needed for big projects. In fact, the only people who actually stand to lose from this program are speculators who like blight so they can buy up property on the cheap, hoping to sell it at a high price when an area is gentrifying.

But the grip of the right-wing corporate mentality on American politics is so strong that even this modest attempt to rationalize the market has met fierce resistance from Corporate America. No government agency should tamper with “their” market.

When a few city councils stated their interest in exploring the tactic of eminent domain, the major banks responded by threatening lawsuits. Federal agencies with close ties to the real estate industry suggested that such a decision would cut off future funding. Trade associations announced they would scare away investors of city bonds while the Realtor’s Association spent money on warning advertisements. Most of the interested cities did back off.

Although the Richmond City Council members had originally adopted this program unanimously, the pressure was enough so that the three council members backed down and became leading spokespeople in the realtor’s campaign against the city. Yet a majority of the council stood firm and are pushing the campaign forward. This is the same city leadership that stood firm against Chevron.

Other Campaigns

RPA has also been involved in a number of community issues where community campaigns raised demands on the City Council and knew the RPA City Councilors would be supportive. As a result, the city began a program of issuing municipal IDs for those who didn’t have photo identification, including undocumented immigrants, the homeless and seniors; it supported the move to eliminate drivers’ license checkpoints that target undocumented Latinos.

Richmond youth now have greater access to recreational fields. The city has also “banned the box,” so that applicants no longer have to state whether they have ever been arrested. (This is a mechanism by which people who have been arrested are eliminated from the possibility of finding work.)

One unsuccessful campaign was the 2012 referendum to impose a sugar tax that would fund public health and recreation programs. The beverage industry spent $2.5 million to convince voters to oppose the measure.

The RPA office, the Bobby Bowens Progressive Center, hosts the meetings for many local and even regional-based organizations. It also organizes a political film series. (Bowens, a longtime Richmond activist and community educator, died in 2012. He had been a soldier, committed Black Panther, and dedicated health care worker.)

New Election Cycle Begins

Heading into the 2014 election, the Richmond Progressive Alliance recognizes that corporate powers want to defeat its candidates and have immense financial resources at their disposal. Chevron’s candidates will rent every billboard in the city, hire a bevy of unemployed people to do their door knocking and flood mailboxes with campaign materials. Their campaign tactics will include generously contributing to churches and other community institutions.

Their visible presence can overwhelm all the positive work the RPA, City Council and progressive community organizations have accomplished. It is easy for those heavily involved in community organization to forget how little attention is paid to city politics.

It’s also important to remember that negative campaigning can often work, particularly when it can cast doubts on a candidate or demoralize activists. This is a particular problem if one group of people is played off against another. In Richmond, a city with a growing Latino population, it’s easy to paint Latinos as benefiting at the expense of the Black community.

At the same time, Chevron is still under a cloud from the evidence that has emerged since the August 6, 2012 fire. The U.S. Chemical Safety Board investigation found refinery has thousands of “temporary” bands over leaking pipes. In fact, the Board put out an animated film on the fire that shows how close the disaster came to having 20 worker deaths because of management’s role. (See https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=QiILbGbk8Qk)

Nonetheless Chevron is moving confidently ahead, heavily funding and staffing a new organization called “4Richmond” with a board made up mainly of prominent individuals from the Council of Industries, Chamber of Commerce, Black American Political Action Committee and building trades. Chevron has hired Barnes, Whitehurst, Mosher, Lauter, a slick lobbying and campaign firm, to manage its 2014 political campaign. With name recognition, plenty of money and a professional campaign firm, Chevron seems to be leaving nothing to chance.

What RPA and its candidates have is personal contacts with neighbors, door-to-door campaigning and presence at events and on the streets. Personal contact gives RPA the space to counter negative ads with the reality. People can tell the difference between a neighbor who is volunteering and feels passionately about the issue and someone knocking on doors as a temp job for a few bucks.

Part of that personal neighbor-to-neighbor contact is conveying the vision of more democratic, transparent and functioning community that doesn’t kowtow to corporate interests. This is what Chevron can’t easily match with its money. Supporters of Richmond’s independent politics can donate to RPA’s “Team Richmond” at: MikeParkerForRichmond.net or by sending a check made out to “Mike Parker for Mayor” to P.O. Box 5514, Richmond, CA 94805.

For further background. see Steve Early’s “Can Big Oil Retake Richmond?” The Nation, June 9-16, 2014, http://www.thenation.com/article/179949/can-big-oil-retake-richmond-california and Mike Parker’s “Richmond Progressive Alliance: Communities Fight for Community Control Over Corporate Power,” Social Policy, Summer 2013, http://richmondprogressivealliance.net/History.html.

July/August 2014, ATC 171

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